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Dr. Carolyn M. Callahan, PhD Michigan State University

Carolyn Callahan doesn’t shy away from the title of trailblazer.

The former University of Louisville College of Business Dean and Vice-Provost earned her doctoral degree from Michigan State University in E. Lansing and in her first academic position at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst supported the launch of her research career. This occurred at a time when underrepresented minority academics – particularly underrepresented minority women – were largely absent from U.S. business schools. “When I was pursuing my PhD, the academic community in the business college was so closed. They hadn’t seen many African American women, so there was a feeling that you need to prove it to us,” she says. “Well, give me a challenge and I’m on it.”

Dr. Callahan’s passion for education was sparked by her parents, who encouraged her to embrace learning. Their encouragement led her to earn a PhD with a dual emphasis in accounting and finance from Michigan State University.

Her career trajectory underscores the name she’s built for herself both in academia and in the accounting industry. After earning her doctoral degree, Dr. Callahan held positions at the University of Massachusetts (Amherst) and the University of Notre Dame, serving as a KPMG Faculty Research Fellow at both, before taking on leadership roles at the University of Memphis, the University of Arkansas, and eventually the University of Louisville. She’s also served as Vice President of the American Accounting Association, (AAA), Faculty Fellow at Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB), and as a member of the Financial Accounting Standards Board Advisory Council. 

In the early days of The PhD Project, Dr. Callahan was instrumental in growing the fledgling organization, applying the same determination and optimism that helped fuel her academic career. “I am a very optimistic person. I just see that it’s going to happen, and it’s just a matter of when and how, you know. I don’t really see a challenge as discouragement. I just think: There must be a solution. I will certainly find it.”

Blazing a Trail

When you look back on Dr. Callahan’s career and her decades-long commitment to The PhD Project, it’s not difficult to understand why she has more than earned trailblazer status.

She showed others a path to success at majority institutions.

When Dr. Callahan earned her doctorate from a research school, then secured a position at a majority school with the intent to establish a career in research, she was a rarity – breaking  barriers that few African American women had broken at that time. And her achievements didn’t go unnoticed by other attendees at an early PhD Project meeting.

“I met so many enthusiastic professors there and I heard their stories – African Americans who had never had the opportunity that I had. They had graduated from some of the best schools in the country. But they were not even interviewed at some of our majority mainstream institutions,” she says. “Many of them came up to me later and said, you’re like a hope for us.”

And she has continued to show fellow PhD Project members what they can achieve – from earning senior leadership roles to achieving tenure – through hard work, optimism, and an ongoing focus on learning and collaboration.

She helped forge critical relationships for The PhD Project.

In those early years of The PhD Project, Dr. Callahan devoted countless hours to making sure The Project established itself with the overall academic community – not just with the historical black colleges or the teaching colleges. Her work can be seen today in the more than 300 partner universities that are home to PhD Project doctoral students and faculty.

This importance of connection to the broader academic community has been a theme throughout Dr. Callahan’s career. “People after often asked if I felt isolated in the scholarly community – but I really didn’t because I’ve used the whole United States as my scholarly community,” she says, explaining that it wasn’t unusual for her to write professors at other institutions when she had questions. “These very famous people who were well established in their careers were very kind and they always answered my questions. They were just very supportive.”

She‘s dedicated to making a difference for students.

“Even in high school, I wanted to help other people learn,” Dr. Callahan says. “So, it was always in me to teach and help other people. But what really, really made me think I could make a difference as a professor was the encouragement I received from my parents, who told me when you are gifted with something, you should think about how you can give back to the world.”

Then in college, Dr. Callahan personally experienced what a big difference professors can make in the lives of their students. “They were probably the first people to recognize my talents, that I learned easily, so they challenged me with lofty goals. Their approach impressed upon me the important job professors have – to see their students not just how they are right now, but how with their help, those students can make a difference for others in the future.”

Today that dedication shines through in the time and effort Dr. Callahan puts into unlocking her students’ full potential and helping them see a future for themselves.

Closing Thoughts

Ultimately, Dr. Callahan’s career aspirations, decisions and success boil down to one core idea – one that we should all embrace. “You have to be the change you want to see in the world,” she says. “You have to show up and be that change.”

Be the change you want to see in the world.

Dr.   Headshot

Dr. Carolyn M. Callahan

Brown-Forman Endowed Chair and Professor, University of Louisville

PhD Michigan State University