Many people dream about getting a degree that will change their lives and career.

But the barriers and challenges often dissuade people from going more than a few steps down the path to such a goal. Courage and confidence are required, says Barbara Butts Williams, longtime dean of the School of Business at Capella University—particularly for women, people of color, and middle-income and working-class individuals.


Butts Williams knows what she’s talking about. An African-American woman who grew up in a working-class household in Harrisburg, Pa. in the late 50s and 60s, Butts Williams remembers being told by teachers that she shouldn’t waste her time developing her writing skills or considering a college education. But her father, who always held two jobs, either as a steel worker or with the city’s sanitation department and at the local hospital, urged her to ignore such naysayers. When she asked him why he didn’t pursue a job as a manager or find other kinds of work, he explained that he needed the job protection that came with union membership and the income that would allow him to provide for his family. “He wanted to ensure that his kids would have a different opportunity,” Butts Williams says. “My dad told me, ‘Listen—you become the doctor, lawyer, supervisor, or manager you want to be; I’ll support you 100 percent.’


“That conversation with my dad changed my life.”


Butts Williams went on to obtain four degrees: a bachelor’s, two master’s, and a doctorate. She climbed the ladder at the Pennsylvania Department of Health, University of Michigan’s Business School, Control Data Corporation (Ceridian), the St. Paul Companies (Travelers), and Wilson Learning Corporation before joining Capella more than a decade ago. Initially, she thought it would be an interesting but short-term job launching the MBA program; what Butts Williams didn’t realize was how well Capella’s mission aligned with her own values. Because of her upbringing, she believed passionately in helping people who had limited resources. She wanted to assist adult students juggling jobs, families, and finances to obtain the kind of education that would advance their careers.


“Throughout my career I’ve been fortunate to work for organizations with strong purpose-driven missions,” Butts Williams says. In addition, she has mentored and coached many women and men over the years and served on the boards of nonprofits that advance causes she believes in.


Barbara Butts Williams shares more about her work in civic organizations in a July 2015 Star Tribune article.


In spring 2015, after more than a dozen years in leadership roles in the Business School, as well as serving as Dean of Education and Director of Graduate Programs, Dr. Butts Williams announced that she has accepted a new role: Executive Dean, External Relations & Partnerships and Dean Emeritus of Business at Capella. In her newly created position, she will partner closely with University leadership and key departments to build partnerships with employers, community organizations, thought leaders, and other key stakeholders to support Capella. These ties are expected to benefit both students and faculty—similar to a recent agreement with the Wall Street Journal that gives Capella business students access to and other high-value information resources.


Butts Williams says she’s proud of the track record she leaves at the School of Business. In particular, the school’s initial business accreditation and the many accomplishments of her faculty and the students they serve. She enjoyed her interactions with students, whether during a residency, commencement, conference, or the occasional email or phone call; she welcomed the conversations and was always willing to listen. Butts Williams offered four pieces of advice that have helped guide her life:


  1. Be positive, be present, and look forward. Anticipate change.
  2. Don’t let others define your value. They’ll underestimate your worth.
  3. Stay focused on your purpose. Know where you’re headed and block the noise.
  4. Love yourself. Allow yourself to be loved. And believe in something greater than yourself.


Butts Williams says she has no plans to retire anytime soon. “I like being involved in things that make a difference in people’s lives,” she says. “I’ve had the opportunity and privilege of getting to work with students at several points throughout their educational journeys, so I’ve gotten to hear lots of stories: about challenges, rewards, moments when students managed to do something they didn’t think they could do. It’s fulfilling, and it reminds me why I do what I do.”


Learn more about Capella’s online MBA programs.

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