Alumni Profiles

Karen Halbersleben

College president has love affair with history and the natural world

Karen Halbersleben

Halbersleben close-up
Degrees: PhD ’87, MA ’83 & BA ’78 in History; Hobbies: reading, travel and outdoor activities; Favorite UB memory: pinball at Ridge Lea campus and meeting grad school friends for breakfast in the “new” Norton cafe (Photo by David Kennedy)

In her first semester at UB, Karen Halbersleben, PhD ’87, MA ’83 & BA ’78, was planning to graduate in political science, become a diplomat and live happily ever after in France. Everything changed, however, when Norman Baker, now associate professor emeritus, suggested that she consider a history major.

“I ended up majoring in history as an undergraduate and then stayed at UB for my master’s and PhD,” Halbersleben recalls. “Dr. Baker changed my life at 18. If he hadn’t encouraged me to major in history, the course of my life would have been totally different. It’s a reminder that although a school is large it can be personal and change your life.”

Instead of France, Halbersleben is living in Ashland, Wisconsin, where she became president of Northland College in 2002. “Nobody starts out to be a college president,” she says, “but being a historian is good preparation.” Historians are interested in cause and effect, she observes, synthesizing and analyzing large amounts of information, and pulling out conclusions and trends that are most significant—very helpful for planning and problem solving.

After UB, Halbersleben was a faculty member at SUNY Oswego and worked her way into administration after serving an American Council on Education (ACE) fellowship year at the University of Richmond. She moved on to Buena Vista University in Iowa as vice president for academic affairs and dean of the faculty before accepting the presidency at Northland. An environmental liberal arts college, Northland has been recognized as one of the top colleges in the nation for science, math and as a model environmental campus, receiving kudos from U.S. News & World Report’s Best Colleges, USA Weekend, Princeton Review and Time magazine.

Moving to Ashland has changed Halbersleben’s life, not only because she’s totally invested in the college’s environmental mission, but also because she and her husband, Jack Miller, fell in love with the area.

In the summer of 2006, Halbersleben took a one-month sabbatical as a lighthouse keeper and historian on Michigan Island, one of the 21 picturesque Apostle Islands clustered in Lake Superior, north of Ashland. The island has no electricity, no telephone, no TV. “I immersed myself in the natural beauty,” she says. “It was the best thing I have ever done.”

Story by Pat Pollock

To read about two other history alumni who are college presidents, go to