Outstanding Women of UA Little Rock: Deborah Baldwin

Deborah Baldwin with archive of Vic Snyder's 700 boxes of papers at the Center for Arkansas History and Culture in downtown Little Rock.

In honor of Women’s History Month, UA Little Rock is featuring stories about the “Outstanding Women of UA Little Rock,” faculty, staff, students, and alumni who are serving as leaders and making a difference for the university and their communities.  

Dr. Deborah Baldwin, UA Little Rock associate provost of collections and archives and director of the Center for Arkansas History and Culture, has always had a passion for history. 

Growing up in Indianapolis, Baldwin learned the value of discipline at a young age. She was a competitive swimmer who practiced three times a day from age 8 until she entered college at Ball State University and earned a bachelor’s degree in history.

She also completed teaching certificates in biology and chemistry to make herself more employable after college, but she is thankful she never had to teach either subject since neither surpasses her first love, history.

While earning a Ph.D. in history from the University of Chicago, she discovered she had to specialize as well as pass a language.

“I like to tell people that I entered the study of Mexican history because I thought this through very carefully and it was logical … when in fact, it wasn’t,” she said.

Over the years, she developed a great interest in Mexican history and culture as well as in Latin American, Chicano, and women’s history. Throughout her career at UA Little Rock, she has traveled to Mexico for research many times, started an exchange program in Guadalajara, and previously served as the state coordinator for the Open Door Student Exchange Program.

“One of the most interesting studies I explored was on widowhood along the U.S.-Mexican border,” Baldwin said. “This was funded by the National Institutes of Health. The intent of the grant was to understand how widows survived in frontier areas in the late 19th century — what economic, social, and cultural factors contributed to better quality of life.”

After some time at the University of Chicago, Baldwin took a break from college and spent a year working various jobs in New Haven, Connecticut, including teaching at a mental health hospital, at a center for unwed mothers, and in a program for at-risk teenagers.

Baldwin joined UA Little Rock in 1980 as an assistant professor to teach Mexican and Latin American history in the Department of History. She has served the university in a number of positions, including interim provost and vice chancellor of academic affairs, six years as the chair of the Department of History, and nearly 20 years as the dean of the College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences, where she put her focus on introducing technology in core classes.

“There were other professors who urged me to consider becoming chair of the department,” she said. “T. Harri Baker, historian and former administrator at UA Little Rock, helped me steer my way into and through administrative positions. I was the only woman who was chair at the time, and the school newspaper did a front page article. That tells you how unusual and long ago it was.”

Throughout her years of administrative service, Baldwin has continued to teach in the public history program and has overseen graduate student work with community organizations.

Baldwin has played an important role in preserving history for the state of Arkansas. She heads the Center for Arkansas History and Culture, a unique resource that explores and promotes Arkansas’s rich history through identifying, collecting, and preserving records that are of enduring value.

“Preserving history is important for many reasons,” Baldwin said. “Nothing in the present or the future happens in a void. We make decisions based on our experiences and relationships in the past. We need to understand the past to make a better future.”

The collection houses local gubernatorial papers s, including those of Winthrop P. Rockefeller and Jim Guy Tucker, and it holds information about various groups and organizations from the past, including historic city plans and buildings. It serves as a key location for researchers and educators, housing virtual exhibits on the Elaine Massacre of 1919, Arkansas women’s suffrage movement, and the Little Rock Central High School Crisis of 1957.

“New historical collections and new technology have allowed us to study the past differently and with more precise interpretations,” she said.

In her spare time, Baldwin volunteers as an Odyssey of the Mind team coach for Mount St. Mary Academy and has taken 15 teams to an international competition. Team members apply their creativity to solve problems that range from building mechanical devices to presenting their own interpretation of literary classics. She has also served on the MacArthur Museum of Arkansas Military History Commission, the Arkansas Humanities Council Board, and the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute board of directors.

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