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Women to Watch at UA Little Rock 2022: Sarah Beth Estes

Sarah Beth Estes
Dr. Sarah Beth Estes

In celebration of Women’s History Month, UA Little Rock is profiling women in leadership positions who are making a difference at the university and in the community.

The next Woman to Watch at UA Little Rock of 2022 is Dr. Sarah Beth Estes, dean of the College of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences (CHASSE) and a professor of sociology.

Tell us about yourself and your background?

My parents are Conway natives and both were college educated, so I grew up with an expectation that I would go to college. I had a great public-school education in Monett, MO. The town really supported the educational institutions, and there were almost endless opportunities to learn inside and outside the classroom at that time. I did not understand the privileges my background afforded me until I began to really consider structural inequality in college and graduate school, where I studied sociology.

But no one grows up thinking they are going to be a sociologist. At Hendrix College I cycled through just about every major in the social sciences and humanities. At the end of my junior year, they said: you must choose a major! I had a sociology class I loved, and I ended up majoring in it. I went on to graduate school, thinking that I would learn how to organize social movements. My major professor who did social movements left, which resulted in the opportunity to  study race and gender and equality at work and in families.

My first faculty position was at the University of Cincinnati, a regional metropolitan university that reminds me a lot of UA Little Rock. I had my children on the tenure clock and pretty quickly decided I needed more childcare support to be able to be successful in my work. I came back to Arkansas for that support. It’s ironic because my dissertation was a study of how families handle work and family responsibilities after the birth of a child. Every time I left a research participant’s house after listening to them tell me how they managed children and working, I just thought it sounded like magic. And it really is in this country with such little structural support for working families.  So I came here to have family support. At the time, I never imagined I would go into administration. And I wouldn’t be able to do the job I’m in now without the assistance from my family in my caregiving responsibilities.

What is your current position and professional duties at UA Little Rock?

I am currently the dean of the College of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences. Deans are academic leaders of colleges—which are collections of disciplines and degrees.  Deans hold managerial, fiscal, and academic responsibilities for colleges.

We house many of the traditional liberal arts disciplines in CHASSE as well as more professional degrees such as education and the Master of Public Administration. We also have several non-academic units including Career Services, Extended Education, Study Abroad, Children International, and the Public Radio station KUAR/KLRE. Like the other colleges on campus, we were founded during COVID. That has presented extra challenges to everyone, faculty, students, and staff.

I am also a faculty member in the Department of Sociology. I am not currently teaching, though I am listed as an instructor of record for an ongoing internship course. Career Services was fortunate enough to receive Donaghey funding to underwrite paid internships and have been building out our capacity to do that.

What woman has inspired you the most and why?

This question is always very difficult for me, because it’s impossible to limit inspiration to just one woman. But foundationally I am inspired by bell hooks’ concept of the love ethic. She said that love is an act (rather, or not, just a feeling) in which we express responsibility and commitment to each other with care, affection, and knowledge, in an open, honest, and trusting way, that we nurture toward growth in all kinds of relationships, not just romantic ones. This conceptualization is foundational to the way that I do my work.

How have you adapted to working in a world with COVID-19?

Working during COVID-19 was extremely difficult for everybody. It was a real challenge for faculty and students to be able to move into a different world almost overnight. And that hardship has continued for two years now, which is just hard to fathom.

The Dean’s office worked very well in a remote environment. We had a weekly staff meeting to try to keep that human aspect where we are a community. We had a show and tell each week, and it was delightful to learn what we did about our colleagues, things we really wouldn’t have learned in our “normal”/”regular” work lives. At the same time, I was very glad to get back to work on campus. I appreciate being able to see and work with people in person.

What is your favorite moment and/or most significant accomplishment at UA Little Rock? 

I’ve had the opportunity to experience so many good things, and I don’t really have just one favorite moment or accomplishment. My favorite aspect of working at UA Little Rock is my colleagues and our students. I’ve been here for a long time and worked in so many different roles. I’ve worked with faculty across the university. And I’ve had the great good fortune to work with a large, very dedicated and talented, staff in the Dean’s Office. We’ve all come to know each other so well, and that is a real driving momentum to me. We share a dedication to our community and our students. To me, it’s the people that make UA Little Rock special.

What advice would you give to the next generation of female leaders?

One piece of very practical advice I would offer is to figure out how to get good sleep and when you are young. I didn’t prioritize that because even though my sleep was always terrible, I had great stamina for so long.

In terms of the “it’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon,” I would also say to believe in yourself even when you have doubts. Nobody is a better champion of yourself than you. And ask questions. Ask for help. People want to share what they’ve learned with you. So don’t be afraid to ask. You will quickly see that asking, that connecting, is a great power.