Lori Baker: A Visionary Leader Inspiring Excellence and Innovation in Higher Education

Top 5 Most Inspiring Leaders in Education, 2024

Lori Baker, Executive Vice President of Aspirational Excellence at Belmont University, embodies a remarkable journey of resilience, innovation, and leadership. Her story, from humble beginnings to an innovative role in higher education, reflects the transformative power of education and the unwavering spirit of a true trailblazer.

A Journey of Firsts: Building a Legacy of Transformative Leadership

Lori’s journey is a testament to the transformative power of education and the resilience of the human spirit. As a child,  Lori was inspired by her grandmother’s story of perseverance and determination and went on to be the person in her family to attend college. “I have a heart for first-generation college students because I was one myself,” Lori shares. “Once I started college, it opened a whole new world to me – and I never left.”

Her grandmother’s story is one of hardship and triumph. “I grew up hearing from my grandmother what it was like to pick cotton and other crops by hand,” Lori recalls. “She and her family worked their way east to west across the state of Texas.” Despite missing much of the school year, her grandmother graduated as valedictorian, a testament to her work ethic and determination. “She passed along that work ethic to our family and taught us how to find joy in all things,” Lori reflects gratefully.

For Lori, leadership is about advocacy and empowerment. “Each leadership position I have held was born of an opportunity to advocate for fellow faculty and staff colleagues,” she explains. “It is an opportunity to develop pathways and remove barriers for people to live into their career and personal aspirations.” She believes that true success lies in creating environments where innovation thrives and individuals feel valued. “Success comes when people feel empowered to dream and execute those dreams,” Lori asserts. “We see success when institutional cultures allow people to feel valued and to flourish.”

Lori’s story is a reminder that with hard work, determination, and a supportive community, anything is possible. Her family’s journey from cotton fields to college campuses is a testament to the power of education to change lives and the importance of leadership rooted in empathy and advocacy.

Embracing Challenges: A Journey of Perseverance and Impact

“Challenges make you stronger.” Lori believes wholeheartedly in this sentiment, especially as she reflects on her professional journey. She has encountered numerous roadblocks that have tested her resolve and brought valueable lessons.

“I deeply believe that one person can make a difference, and perseverance is essential to success. Failure only comes when we stop trying.” This belief was put to the test when Lori founded Reuniting Families, an initiative dedicated to recovering the remains of undocumented migrants who had died on the US/Mexico border.

“This tragic loss of life has been underway for decades,” Lori explains, highlighting the gravity of the situation. Hundreds of individuals die on the US southern border every year, often in remote and under-resourced areas. The identification of these international migrants falls on officials with little or no forensic science training.

“My goal was to recover the remains of the unidentified and perform DNA and skeletal analyses to identify and repatriate them to their families.” This was no easy task, as individuals could be from anywhere in the world. Even with their DNA, a family member was needed to provide a reference sample.

“Getting permission to do this work was not trivial.” Lori faced significant challenges in convincing the university administration of the project’s value. As a new tenure-track faculty member, proposing to recover migrant remains and start a database on campus was unconventional. She had to constantly justify the project’s worth to science, humanity, and student learning.

“One of the main reasons I went into administration was to help create opportunities for faculty members to bring solutions to complex problems within the academic setting,” Lori explains. She wanted to remove the barriers she had faced, value good work and ideas, and foster an environment of innovation.

“Overcoming each of these challenges required good communication, a clear articulation of purpose, and a significant ability to demonstrate shared value in doing what is good and right,” she recollects. Lori’s journey was filled with more opportunities for failure than success, surrounded by tragedy every day. Yet, this experience gave her a unique perspective on life’s challenges and the importance of her work.

“During particularly difficult times as an administrator, I remind myself that what we face is nothing compared to most people in the world,” Lori reflects. Her journey has taught her the value of perseverance, one person’s ability to make a difference, and the importance of facing challenges head-on.

Lori’s story serves as an inspiring example of how challenges can shape and strengthen us, and how perseverance can lead to meaningful impact. Her journey reminds us that while challenges may be daunting, they also present opportunities for growth and change.

Belmont University: A Legacy of Innovation and Integrity

Belmont University is renowned for its remarkable culture, characterized by a deep commitment to innovation and integrity. From its inception, the university has been at the forefront of innovation, creating programs that have become benchmarks in their respective fields.

Founded in 1890 by two visionary female schoolteachers who moved to Nashville from Philadelphia, Belmont’s founding is a testament to its pioneering spirit. “There are very few universities that were founded by women at this time and fewer still that were also run by women. What an incredible example for our students,” observes Lori, reflecting on the university’s rich history.

Belmont’s innovative spirit is evident in its creation of the first social entrepreneurship major for undergraduates in the country. This program equips students with the knowledge and skills to create social change through ventures grounded in faith and values. “The major provides educational and practical experience, drawing from diverse academic areas of study,” Lori explains. This approach not only empowers students to innovate but also instills in them a sense of responsibility to help communities thrive.

The university’s impact extends beyond the classroom, with initiatives like the Transformational Business Network Alliance and global health innovation projects. These efforts reflect Belmont’s commitment to bringing solutions to a world in need, contributing significantly to the local community and beyond. Another shining example of Belmont’s innovation is the creation of the Mike Curb College of Entertainment and Music Business. Recognizing the need for comprehensive education in both music and business, Belmont has produced countless industry leaders and professionals, shaping the future of the music industry.

As a leader at Belmont, Lori’s expertise has played a crucial role in facilitating the institution’s growth and success. Her commitment to integrity and innovation has helped foster a culture that encourages creativity, collaboration, and continuous improvement. Lori ensures that her team embraces these values by leading by example, encouraging open communication, and providing opportunities for professional growth and development. Through her leadership, Lori has helped Belmont maintain its position as a leader in higher education and a hub of innovation.

“The purpose of education is to discover, develop and nurture the talents and abilities of each individual so that every person will be able to live a meaningful life.” – St. Augustine

Inspiring the Next Generation: Leading with Purpose and Unity

Lori believes that making an influential impact on the next generation of leaders happens not through extraordinary acts, but through everyday actions and the decisions we make that shape our interactions with others. She reflects on the mentors who have influenced her leadership style, highlighting one in particular who taught her the importance of transparency. “Anytime she made an important decision, she would carefully describe her reasoning,” Lori recalls. This approach guided her team through the decision-making process, while preparing them for future leadership roles.

Lori strives to emulate this example in her own leadership, recognizing the lasting impact it can have on others. For her, the key to impacting the next generation of leaders lies in how we approach and overcome daily challenges, celebrate each other’s successes, and support one another. She emphasizes the importance of teamwork, noting that her life has always been made up of teams. “The importance of teams reminds us that we are working for the same common goal, and each person has an important role to play,” Lori explains.

Throughout her career, Lori has intentionally built teams across various settings, from her courses to fieldwork to the leadership roles she’s held. She believes that using the word “team” brings unity and clarity to shared purpose, fostering a collaborative environment where individuals work together. In the competitive landscape of higher education, Lori sees the value of teamwork in solving complex problems. “It’s not about competing with each other; it’s about working as a team to tackle the challenge we are trying to beat together,” she asserts.

“The true test of knowledge is not what you know, but how you use it.” – St. Augustine

Celebrating Impact: Reflecting on Meaningful Recognition in Education

Lori reflects on two significant recognitions that have deeply touched her as a leader in education. The first was being awarded Faculty Member of the Year by Student Government at Baylor University. She recalls her time with student leaders, hoping her guidance was useful and influential to their success. “Being recognized by students is the greatest honor a teacher and mentor can aspire to,” Lori says.

The second recognition that has humbled Lori is the Passion in Science Award for Humanitarian Duty she received from New England BioLabs. This award came as a surprise and was a result of someone being moved by Lori’s passion for human dignity and reconciliation, particularly after hearing an interview she did on NPR. “I had no idea that the work I was leading with my students would be seen in this way,” Lori reflects.

This awards hold special meaning as it acknowledges the collaborative effort of her students and the impact they made together. “It was an award I could share with all of the many students who toiled in the Texas heat with me and who spent countless hours in the laboratory caring for families who we will never meet,” Lori shares.

Charting a Bold Future and Vision for Belmont University

Lori’s vision for Belmont is ambitious and forward-thinking, aiming to secure a strong future for the institution for the next hundred years. “We are currently reimagining higher education to be what the world needs,” she explains, recognizing the challenges facing higher education today, including a decline in public trust and a questioning of its value.

Drawing from her own experience, Lori sees the transformative power of a college education. “It was my college education that opened doors to a new and better life for me and my children,” she reflects. Her education equipped her with the skills and knowledge to bravely engage in solving complex problems, such as the border crisis, and enlist others to join these efforts.

Lori envisions Belmont as a hub of support for entrepreneurial and innovative individuals across various fields, including science, social impact, justice, health, business, entertainment, performing arts, architecture, education, and more. Her work is guided by Belmont’s vision to be known as a place where diverse leaders of character are nurtured, who are adept at solving complex problems and helping people flourish. “There absolutely is something different and special about this place,” Lori acknowledges, emphasizing the unique culture and environment at Belmont that sets it apart.

With a committed team by her side, Lori is determined to amplify Belmont’s impact and establish a global presence. She believes Belmont’s continued success lies in creating a culture where bold ideas are supported and leaders are empowered to make a difference in the world.

Championing Transformation: A Day in the Life of a Visionary Leader

Lori serves as the Executive Vice President of Aspirational Excellence at Belmont, where she embraces the challenge of shaping the institution’s impact on individuals and society.

Operating within an ecosystem rather than a rigid organizational framework, Lori seeks to lead by influence and trust, eschewing authority as her primary tool. Her role involves guiding five Pathway Catalysts, each dedicated to one of Belmont’s Pathways, including Whole Person Formation, Data-Informed Social Innovation, Health and Wellness, Hope and Inclusivity, and Storytelling. By fostering collaboration across campus and throughout the community, she aims to champion flourishing for all.

While her daily routine varies, it often includes visioning with industry leaders, entreprenures, renowed songwriters and enjoying evenings on the Belmont campus listening to incredible music by famous alumni. Witnessing the impact that transformative education had for our incredible alumni inspires her to delve deeper into what sets a Belmont education apart and what qualities organizations to remain innovative and inspiring.

In another instance, Lori collaborated with a Dean preparing for a presentation to the Board of Trust, highlighting the importance of impactful storytelling. Her week also includes work on institutional goal setting and progress tracking, ensuring Belmont stays on course to achieve its vision.

As part of the Executive Team, Lori addresses pressing institutional issues and celebrates countless achievements. Lori’s days are filled with meetings ranging from global strategy discussions to ideation sessions for signature experiences like the Hope Summit. She also oversees the University Leadership Team, a platform for top leaders to align with Belmont’s vision and connect with each other’s work.

Lori shares, “I borrowed one of the best practices of another innovative organization and started our University Leadership Team where 100 of our top leaders meet virtually for one hour every other week. This gives us a chance to hear from our president Dr. Greg Jones, be inspired by his vision, and ensure our work aligns. We also hear updates from colleges and programs as well as new initiatives. It is a way for leadership to be knowledgeable of all that is underway and connect to the work and with one another.”

If Lori had to define herself in one word, it would be “justice.” This word resonates deeply with her, reflecting her intolerance for injustice and her relentless pursuit of fairness and equality.

“If you have knowledge, let others light their candles at it” – Margaret Fuller

Balancing Act: A Journey of Passion and Purpose

Maintaining equilibrium between personal and professional life remains an ever-elusive pursuit for Lori. She admits, “Balance is a myth that evades me. I am deeply passionate about my work and about my family. Depending upon time and associated demands, there is often one that outweighs the other.” Her commitment to both spheres is unwavering, yet the dynamic nature of her responsibilities means that one often takes precedence over the other.

Despite the challenges, Lori prioritizes family time as a cornerstone of her daily routine. She and her husband ensure they have dinner with their sons every day, using this time to engage and share moments of joy and laughter. These interactions keep Lori grounded, reminding her of the importance of love, purpose, and family amidst the demands of her professional life.

Recognizing the need for rejuvenation, Lori recently dedicated two days of vacation to a mountain retreat with her family. These brief respites offer a chance to unwind and provide clarity of thought and renewed energy for the tasks ahead. She extends this philosophy to her team, encouraging them to take time off and disconnect from work, emphasizing the importance of maintaining a healthy work-life balance.

In terms of personal goals, Lori is committed to learning something new every day and engaging in meaningful conversations with individuals she is less familiar with. These interactions, she believes, broaden her perspective and keep her intellectually stimulated. Since relocating to Nashville, she has set a goal to actively participate in the local community, viewing this as an opportunity to forge new connections beyond her professional circle.

Despite the excitement of new beginnings, Lori acknowledges the bittersweet nature of leaving behind friends and familiar surroundings. She hopes to cultivate new friendships in the coming months, recognizing the need to invest time and effort in building new relationships outside of her immediate social circle.

For aspiring leaders in the education industry, Lori’s message is one of optimism and adaptability. She believes that advancements in technology, particularly AI, have revolutionized the field, making knowledge more accessible and education more scalable. Her advice to future leaders is to embrace change, harness the power of technology, and seize the countless opportunities that lie ahead.

“The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles, but to irrigate desserts” – C.S. Lewis


Lori Baker’s story is not just about personal success; it is a testament to the enduring impact of visionary leadership rooted in empathy and advocacy. As she continues to champion excellence and innovation at Belmont University, her journey inspires us to embrace challenges, celebrate diversity, and create a future where everyone can flourish. Lori’s legacy reminds us that with hard work, determination, and a supportive community, anything is possible.