Start Early. Start well.

April 17, 2024

A Q&A With Walter Gilliam: His First Year Leading the Buffett Institute

By Erin Duffy 

In March 2023, Walter Gilliam became the new executive director of the Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska. It’s been a year of learning from and listening to state, local, and national early childhood partners. We talked with Gilliam as he reflected on his first year and potential next steps for the Buffett Institute.  

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.    

Q: Walter, it’s been one year since you took the helm at the Buffett Institute. What has the last year been like for you? 

A: It’s been incredibly exciting. It’s been amazing to get to know all the terrific people who work here at the Buffett Early Childhood Institute and to understand this university system even better and our place within those structures.  

Walter Gilliam, executive director of the Buffett Early Childhood InstituteWalter Gilliam

Trying to get a better handle on how communities and the state feel about children and our collective responsibility to our children has been important to understanding more about how the Institute fits within the university structure. What is it that we can add to the university structure—not just duplicate—and how can this university be an even better institution for young children and families in this state? 

It’s really unique and special that the Buffett Early Childhood Institute exists at all. There truly is nothing like this in the country.  

Q: You outlined three goals to work on as executive director (see here). What progress has been made toward reaching those objectives? 

A: I asked (the university president at the time, Ted Carter) after my first day here, I said, what kind of advice would you have for me as executive director? And he said, give yourself a year before you start making any major decisions, get to understand things.  

Which actually kind of matches the way I tend to think anyway. I don’t like to go into places and start making a bunch of changes immediately. I tend to not be a person who likes to pull on threads just to see which threads are attached to it. I like to spend a little bit of time looking at the tapestry.  

So, I spent the first year basically listening and observing, and trying to keep things moving. I was given the keys to a Lamborghini and the last thing I want to do is wreck it backing out of the garage.  

But at the same time, it’s not just about driving the machinery, it’s about understanding how it’s structured and the best way to structure it now.  

I spent a lot of time trying to meet people. We put together an amazing tour of the Nebraska Panhandle and central Nebraska (ask Walter about his visit to Carhenge in Alliance, Nebraska). I got a chance to go out and see some tribal lands with (Buffett Institute Director of Research and Evaluation) Kate Gallagher and a colleague of mine from another university.  

I met with state and local partners interested in early childhood. I met with people on each campus and talked to chancellors about how this work shows up within their space.  

And I’ve spent a significant amount of time with the Institute team, understanding what they're bringing to this work and how best to capitalize on their talents and passions.  

Q: What have you heard as you’ve traveled around the state and talked to parents, educators, and community leaders about their early childhood needs and challenges? What surprised you? 

A: I’ve been impressed with how forthright people are.   

It’s a state that cares about children. It’s a state that seems to feel a strong amount of responsibility to our children. Sometimes parents have to work, but their children should not pay the price through diminished experiences. Sometimes businesses need employees, but our children should not pay the price through diminished experiences.  

This kind of responsibility to our young seems to come very natural to Nebraskans. It’s also a state that works. It’s not uncommon for a young child to have all the adults in their home employed. And in circumstances like that, someone’s going to have to take care of those children.  

I think what kind of amazed me is not that Nebraskans would feel this way, but they would feel so strongly and that so many of them would be so vocal.  

We went out to Ogallala and a cattle rancher drove from Denver home to Ogallala for the meeting because he was concerned about child care in the state of Nebraska. It wasn’t just in Ogallala ... we found that all over the place. People just care very deeply.  

Q: Outside the work you’re doing to build relationships in Nebraska and across University of Nebraska campuses, how are you trying to broaden the Institute’s national impact? 

A: The national relationships are what I bring … and I would assume it might be a big reason why people thought I could help.  

I tend to be on many of the boards of national organizations in early childhood. Many of them I’ve led as a board president or have been deeply engaged as a senior advisor to them. (Gilliam is the new board president of ZERO TO THREE and a senior fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center.) And my interests and work in the past have mostly been around federal policy.  

In education and child care policy, the details might be ironed out at the local and state level, but it’s within the guardrails that have been established through federal funding … Those guardrails are in place to make sure public dollars are spent in the way in which they were designed to be spent.  

How do we expand our voice nationally? Because it affects children all over the nation and is important in how federal, state and local resources are used in Nebraska.  

Q: Can you give us some idea of future priorities for the Institute? 

A: I can see us getting much more engaged in research that has national, state, and local implications. How do we engage in policy development that impacts not only our young children and families but those who care for them?  

I care about human development and human potential. So, in my life’s work, I’ve decided to go to the headwaters—and that means babies and toddlers and young children and the very beginnings of school.  

But if we care also about early childhood policy, then we need to go to the headwaters of that, too. And in many cases, that begins with federal policy.  

Q: What are some things people might not know about you? 

A: I used to be a music teacher. (Gilliam plays the trumpet, French horn, and bass guitar). I went to college on a music scholarship. I was a K–12 music teacher for a while; that was my first job.  

When I was a kid and I was really young and people would ask me, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I would say ground control. Because I thought that astronauts were really cool, but I’m not sure I really wanted to do that. That seemed a little risky. So, I think I would just be in Houston and cheering.  

You know about the Hatfield-McCoy feud? I’m a descendant, on the McCoy side.  

I was a licensed psychologist for a while … I coordinated the premature baby follow-up clinic at Yale.  

My wife Anita is a beer brewer. She’s here for the beer; I’m here for the babies.  


Erin Duffy is the managing editor at the Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska and writes about early childhood issues that affect children, families, educators, and communities. Previously, she spent more than a decade covering education stories and more for daily newspapers.      
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