ACTA is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities.

ACTA is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities.

ACTA is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities.

In Memoriam: Betty Capaldi Phillips

September 27, 2017 by Michael Poliakoff

It is with great sadness that ACTA mourns the loss of Elizabeth Capaldi Phillips. Her career as a professor, scholar, and university administrator was one of brilliant achievement. It took only moments in her company to sense the energy and focus, the calm and steady confidence that characterized her approach to her life and work.

It was ACTA’s privilege to have her as our scholar-in-residence, and we were regularly in her debt for the good counsel she gave us, unstinting with her time, on effective college governance and the way to repurpose resources to provide a better education to more students.

Among other high-level administrative posts, Dr. Capaldi Phillips served as provost of the University of Florida from 1996 to 1999. She was appointed by Arizona State University President Michael Crow to be the chief academic officer of the university as it underwent major transformation, becoming the “New American University” and the national model for cost effectiveness and student-focused innovations in higher education. Her commitment to student success helped ASU improve student retention through eAdvisor, an online application designed to help students chart pathways to degree completion. She also embraced adaptive learning to help tailor the learning experience of students in such a way as to focus on areas of difficulty. Her pragmatism in university leadership had the overriding purpose of better serving the needs of students.

Dr. Capaldi Phillips was a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Psychological Association, the Association for Psychological Science (serving as its president in 1999–2000), and the Midwestern Psychological Association (serving as its president in 1991–92). Just as she worked as an administrator to improve teaching and learning and to increase dramatically student success, she knew how to make her scholarly work accessible and fun. A renowned expert on the psychology of eating, she turned this knowledge to hosting a TV cooking show called “Eating Psychology with Betty.” 

ACTA benefited immensely from her tireless work ethic and deep well of knowledge. It was an honor for me to co-author The Cost of Chaos in the Curriculum with her, which demonstrated how the expansive list of course options so often seen in college and university catalogs is antithetical to student learning and a vast drain on funding. Betty also assisted in ACTA’s efforts to overhaul accreditation and sat on the Donor Advisory Board of the Fund for Academic Renewal. She was an engaging and erudite speaker at ACTA events; we admired her leadership and cherished Betty as a friend.

One of Betty’s passions was raising a remarkable type of dog called a kuvasz. In fact, her dogs regularly accompanied her around ASU. These are large, powerful, intelligent, and strong-willed animals. Prospective owners are warned that this is a breed only suitable for those who take the time to train the dog meticulously. As I contemplate her life and career, the kuvasz seems like a metaphor: Indomitable Betty Capaldi Phillips made order out of the chaos that is so often the state of higher education. She was extraordinary.

She is survived by her husband, Win Phillips, Executive Chief of Staff to the President and Don and Ruth Eckis Professor of Biomedical Engineering at the University of Florida.

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