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Elizabeth D. Capaldi Phillips, 72, former UB provost seen by some as "transformational"

When Elizabeth D. "Betty" Capaldi Phillips left the University at Buffalo in 2003, the medical campus was more vision than reality.

She championed the idea of translating faculty research into new medical and scientific innovations in her role as the No. 2 official at UB.

Her efforts helped build the bustling Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, initially accompanied with skepticism that it would ever succeed. On a return visit to the city in 2015, she described what developed downtown in the intervening years as "quite amazing."

Phillips, who became the highest-ranking woman in the history of UB when she was named provost in 2000, died from brain cancer on Sept. 23 in her Gainesville, Fla., home. She was 72.

"Betty didn't get the credit she deserved," said Norma Nowak, executive director of the New York State Center of Excellence in Bioinformatics & Life Sciences. "She was a transformational person."

A psychologist who studied motivation and learning, she arrived at UB from the University of Florida, where she served as provost from 1996 to 1999.

She was a driving force in the development of the New York State Center of Excellence in Bioinformatics & Life Sciences, a research center in Buffalo that involved more than $200 million in public and private investment.

Phillips saw the potential for a renaissance in the city, colleagues said, if it could build on its medical and research strengths, including those at UB, Roswell Park Cancer Institute and Hauptman-Woodward Medical Research Institute.

"She could build relationships and get different people to collaborate," Nowak said of Phillips. "She had the vision for creating a center downtown and trying to commercialize research."

Colleagues described her as a multifaceted person: decent, creative, even-tempered, cerebral, charming, private, at times aloof, and, most of all, operating at full speed.

"She was remarkable, someone with a very high energy level and very decisive," said Stephen Dunnett, UB's vice provost for international education.

Dunnett and others described how it wasn't unusual to start getting work emails from her at 4 a.m.

"She had incredible energy, and when she applied it, made things happen," he said.

Phillips served as vice chancellor and chief of staff for SUNY Chancellor Robert L. King after her career at UB concluded.

She then worked at Arizona State University, starting in 2006, again as provost, a job she held for seven years.

In 2012, she married Win Phillips, a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at the University of Florida.

She left the ASU provost’s office in 2013 and went back to teaching and research.

She served as director of UF Online at the University of Florida.

While she was the provost at UB, the university increased the number of tenure and tenure-track positions, increased federal research funding, and revived its Center for Teaching and Learning.

Phillips also performed research while at UB.

One memorable characteristic that colleagues recalled was that Phillips made a point to make decisions.

"She used to admit that she might not make the good decision every time, but it was important to make decisions," Nowak said.

"And she did. Betty moved. She was never paralyzed," she said.

Phillips, a native of New York City, earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of Rochester. She got her doctorate in experimental psychology from the University of Texas at Austin.

Her academic work included two books on the psychology of eating.

She was a fellow of the American Psychological Association, the American Psychological Society and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

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