Dr. Rhonda Phillips will become president of Chatham University on July 1. Photo courtesy of Chatham University.

As Rhonda Phillips prepares to assume the presidency of Chatham University on July 1, she’s committed to guiding the school’s 2,400 students toward a future based firmly on Chatham’s distinguished past.

“I am thrilled to lead the university that influenced Rachel Carson to shape new environmental standards,” says Phillips, “while leaving a legacy that influenced my own and countless others’ work in sustainable development.”

Carson was a 1929 magna cum laude graduate of Chatham (then called Pennsylvania College for Women) who went on to become the 20th century’s leading champion for environmental science and protection. Nearly 60 years after her death in 1964, her groundbreaking research continues to symbolize Chatham’s commitment to sustainability and environmental education. 

Phillips’ own sustainability research over the last three decades has been prodigious and, she notes, often inspired by Carson. In 29 books and more than 90 journal articles, Phillips has explored the critical role the environment plays in economic and social development, community quality of life, and even fundamental human happiness.

A native of Bassfield, Mississippi, Phillips comes to Chatham from Purdue University where she spent the last 10 years as dean of the John Martinson Honors College, an innovative residential honors college that under her leadership was named one of the Top 20 Honors Colleges in the U.S. by College Transitions in 2021. She has also held faculty and administrator positions at the University of Florida and University of Southern Mississippi.

At Arizona State University, Phillips has served as a senior sustainability scientist with the Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability and Innovation, associate dean for Barrett, The Honors College and director of the School of Community Resources and Development. 

Recently, Phillips spoke to NEXTpittsburgh from her Purdue office in West Lafayette, Indiana.

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Dr. Rhonda Phillips comes to Chatham University from Purdue, where she spent the last 10 years as dean of the John Martinson Honors College. Photo courtesy of Chatham University.

NEXTpittsburgh: For students who graduate from Chatham’s sustainability and environmental programs, what kind of impact do you see them having in the field when they get into the workforce? 

Phillips: One thing that strikes me so positively about Chatham is that it has a very high placement rate for its graduates. They tend to get jobs or create their own jobs at a very high level. That, to me, implies a couple of things. One, we’ve got really good students who are motivated to get out and do positive changes in the world and to work and create those opportunities. Two, a Chatham degree carries value and weight. Others recognize that you’re going to get someone who can adapt and be a flexible thinker for all these challenges that we’re facing in society. Those are good indicators we’re on the right track at Chatham. 

I’d also like to think that every one of our students is mindful of this idea that we have new, innovative ways we can think about being citizens of the world. And that we can make positive impacts in whatever industry and whatever type of work they choose in their careers.

NEXTpittsburgh: After you earned your Ph.D. in city and regional planning from Georgia Tech, your first positions were in the area of standard economic development. At what point did you see, so to speak, “the green light” and delve into a sustainability perspective?

Phillips: From my teens, I was a huge fan of the urban studies expert Jane Jacobs. I started just devouring whatever she had written. That set me down this path of thinking, “There are ways to do development that work and don’t put some groups at a disadvantage or lose our beautiful urban fabric and historical fabric that we have.” 

My father liked to travel a lot, and I remember as a kid during the era of urban renewal we would see these great swaths of cities being taken out and sometimes new stuff would come in — big high-rises and all this — but sometimes it didn’t. You would see these vacant parcels. And I would always ask, “Well, why isn’t there something there?” 

I guess I was an early adopter of the sustainability mindset in that I was mesmerized by the idea that we could do things in a way that would have good outcomes instead of knowing that there would be winners and losers with more traditional development methods. 

“Inequities are what break societies apart and break them down,” says Dr. Rhonda Phillips. Photo courtesy of Chatham University.

NEXTpittsburgh: You’ve written quite a lot on “community quality of life.” In fact, there’s an academic discipline called Quality-of-Life Studies that may be new to some readers. How did you get involved in the field? 

Phillips: I’ve been involved for about 20 years now in Quality-of-Life Studies. It’s an outgrowth of our way of thinking about how we’re doing as a people, as a species. Are we flourishing or not? Are we being well, either individually or collectively? I focus on the collective and community aspects more so than the individual aspect, where you find psychologists and medical professionals and others looking at individual health and well-being. My work is looking at the whole of it. 

You consider things like environmental health and how that influences how we thrive or not. You look at things like economic health and how that influences our quality of life. And you look at social health and its many indicators, which can be very diverse.

NEXTpittsburgh: What sort of indicators?

Phillips: It can be the number of women participating in political offices. That’s a huge indicator worldwide, and it says a lot about a society. Or your workforce characteristics — who’s participating, who’s not? You look at indicators like access to education and access to health and on and on, because all those things give you a picture of how well a place is doing or not.

There is so much good work coming out now around how to make things better for more people. We don’t want to have these huge gaps in our society where many people don’t have access to basic necessities. Inequities are what break societies apart and break them down. We’ve got to address this in a way that’s meaningful for people so they can feel like they are thriving and doing things they need to do for their own personal fulfillment.

NEXTpittsburgh: And also for society as a whole, I imagine.

Phillips: Also for the whole, the neighborhood, the society, any group you identify with. I grew up in an area that was transitioning fast economically and socially. There was a lot of poverty, and there were those for whom the future seemed almost hopeless. And then there were those who could see hope for the future. And that frames how you look at the world when you know that.

Chatham University’s Eden Hall Campus. Photo courtesy Chatham University.

NEXTpittsburgh: Your latest book, “Rebooting Local Economies: How to Build Prosperous Communities,” appeared last summer. Are there ways an urban university like Chatham might be able to enhance that process?

Phillips: Oh, absolutely. Pittsburgh has a wealth of higher education institutions … and those are assets for Pittsburgh and for its future and its community economic development. I’d like to think that Chatham could help lean forward with ideas around sustainable development, making sure we’re doing things in a way that will have very good long-term impacts and outcomes. 

Chatham has Eden Hall, 388 acres, which is an incredible asset right here in Pittsburgh. It was named one of the top sustainable campuses in the world by the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education

Pittsburgh also has strong leadership. I look across Pittsburgh, and I see some really strong forward-thinking leaders in industry and in higher ed across the whole spectrum. And having people like that who are interested in moving forward is sort of the magic combination. 

Chatham is uniquely positioned to help with that. Look at what we’ve done in entrepreneurial studies and women’s leadership and women’s entrepreneurship. All these things combine to help push forward a local economy, but also at the regional level. And Pittsburgh is the regional center for Western Pennsylvania. 

NEXTpittsburgh: It sounds like you’re very excited about coming to Chatham. And Pittsburgh.

Phillips: I cannot wait to get to Pittsburgh to learn more about it. And I’d love for Chatham to be further recognized as an innovator pushing for ideas and positive ways of thinking about ourselves and our role in the world through a sustainability lens. I’m so excited to be part of the community and see what some of those opportunities and challenges and wonderful aspects are and take it all in. 

L.E. McCullough is a Pittsburgh musician/writer/journalist with a lifelong curiosity about who, what, when, where, why and especially how.