By Colton Faull
It’s been more than 11 years since Dr. Hemphill’s last lecture on the UA Little Rock campus, where he spent his time in the 70s earning an undergrad degree in communication and later returning to work at the University as a professor, Chair of the Speech Department, and even Interim Dean for a year over the College of Professional Studies. “I’m really looking forward to being back and connected with the Speech (now Applied Communication) Department, doing something for them,” Dr. Hemphill told me over the phone. He is currently with the Clinton Foundation, serving as their Director of Academic Programming.
Dr. Mike Hemphill will kick off our second annual Leadership Lecture Series on September 28th at the Donaghey Student Center. His lecture will focus “on the connection between personal experience and the core values that drive authentic leadership. More specifically, how the narratives we structure from those experiences influence our core values and ultimately our actions.”
Understanding other people’s stories and how they influence the individual is something Hemphill strongly believes in. Earlier this year he wrote an op-ed for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette called, “A Higher Purpose,” where he talks about coming together despite differences between people to do good work. “At a time in our country where it seems like memes are more important than action, it’s reassuring to remind ourselves that there are those out there who are willing to roll up their sleeves — every day — and fight the good fight.”
Ahead of his lecture, we called up Dr. Hemphill to discuss his career at UA Little Rock as both a student and faculty member, how he got his start in the communication field, and what he hopes this lecture will accomplish.
How did you get into the communication field?
Dr. Hemphill: Well, I was a 1977 graduate at UALR, and so in the spring of 1974, I took basic speech from Jerry Butler, who was a faculty member in the speech department there. He remembered me as a high school debater and offered me a scholarship to be on the debate team. The whole tuition scholarship was $200/semester. I was on the debate team, and because of that, I started taking some classes in the speech department, and it eventually became a major. My intention was to go to law school, but towards the end of my junior year, I found myself in the library a lot just reading up on different communication research.
So I went to grad school after I graduated in 1977 at the University of Iowa, did my masters and Ph.D. there. So that’s kind of what started me on the road to studying communication.
After studying at the University of Iowa you came back to teach at UA Little Rock?
Dr. Hemphill: After I did my master’s and doctorate work at Iowa, just as chance would have it, they had a faculty opening that year. My wife was born and raised in North Little Rock, and I loved the Speech Department and loved UALR and its mission. In 1981, we moved back, and I started in the department as a faculty member. I was the chair of the department for 10 years, dean of the college of professional studies, and interim dean of the college for a year.
How have you seen the program grow while you were at UALR?
Dr. Hemphill: When I first started as a freshman, the department was still what you might call a performance department. The department’s history goes back and is connected with the theater department at UALR. Back when it was Little Rock University, the speech class was taught out of the theater department, and when Dr. Gray came, he kind of created the new speech department. But it was very performance based, so we had courses in oral interpretation, debate, and public speaking, just a real traditional kind of performance based emphasis.
While I was there, the department transitioned into more of an applied approach. So we started having classes in interpersonal communication and small group. We had to be one of the first departments in the country to offer a course in organizational communication. So the department really made a shift away from a heavy performance orientation to an applied communication. When I was a faculty member, we kind of moved that even further down the line, where the faculty thought of themselves as scholar practitioners. So we studied communication, but from the perspective of how we use communication to get things done in our relationships at work or whatever.
Right now you work for the Clinton Foundation?
Dr. Hemphill: Yes, I think I was the first faculty member hired at the Clinton School of Public Service, and I was there for four years. Then I went down to Centenary College in Shreveport as their Provost for four years. But we came back to Little Rock in 2014, and I came back to work with the Clinton Foundation on a national leadership program, the Presidential Leadership Scholar’s Program.
What is your role at the Clinton Foundation?
Dr. Hemphill: My main responsibility is the leadership program that I helped develop. It’s been up and running for three years. I have additional responsibilities of teaching in the program. I’ve been involved in shaping some of the educational programs they offer at the Clinton Presidential Center. We have this outstanding educational staff and have about 30,000+ school kids that come to the center every year. The staff creates an unbelievable curriculum for those kids and so they’ve asked me to develop a couple of leadership programs for high school kids primarily.
Are those Little Rock High Schools you’re working with?
Dr. Hemphill: It’s actually state wide. I do one session for the state FBLA when they come to town for their annual meeting. They generally invite schools from all over the state to attend those.
How would you describe your upcoming lecture for those who don’t have a communication background?
Dr. Hemphill: There’s a perspective in communication that we live the stories we create about our lives. So the way I use that in leadership is in authentic leadership we always look for the connection between someone’s core values and their behavior. As leaders, we’re guided by those ideas we think are most important, that matter the most – whether that’s equity, faith, family, or whatever it might be. Those core values are galvanized by the experiences we have.
So if I were to go up to someone and say “hey what’s something you really believe in?” and they say, for example, “freedom.” And if I were to ask them, “Can you share one story with me that galvanized that experience for you?” They can almost always do that. So as leaders we can’t share experiences but we can always share the stories of those experiences.
I see leadership as really being composed of two things: understanding better your own stories, the stories influencing you. But the other part is you really have to work hard on understanding other people’s stories and how they are influencing them.
We’re so quick to label other people as conservative, liberal, democrat, republican, religious, or non-religious. Instead of labeling people, if we took time to listen to their stories, we’d find we have a lot more in common with folks than we realize.
What do you hope a student gets out of your lecture?
Dr. Hemphill: Hopefully, they’ll be exposed to some additional sources about communication. I’ll mention a couple of different books – there’s a couple of different resources that deal with this whole notion of narrative and stories told/lived. The thing I’m really aiming for is to help everyone become more intentional or mindful about how they interact with others, particularly in situations where their leadership is called upon.
In my talk, I’m going to explain that idea in a couple of different fun ways – just to drive home that point that leadership isn’t something you to do to somebody else, it really is something that emerges from our relationships with other people.