When Dr. Roger Sublett first came to the Union Institute & University in Walnut Hills, the university wasn’t first on the lips of academic experts in town.

Sublett, who is celebrating his sixth anniversary as Union’s president, has helped change all that, growing the institute into a first-class option for local adults seeking an alternative campus.

The Union Institute is a private, accredited national university — anchored in Cincinnati — that has worked to redefine higher education by placing learners at the center of their course work. The Union offers individualized bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degree programs.

Sublett’s background is varied. In 1989, he joined the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, a nonprofit based in Battle Creek, Mich., that improves learning conditions for vulnerable children. Before that he worked as associate vice president for academic affairs at the University of Evansville in Indiana.

He is also the author of four books discussing the various lessons he has learned in his educational career; his latest volume is Leading from the Heart.

How did the Union Institute come about?

The university was founded in 1964 as part of a consortium, forged from conversations between presidents of 10 liberal arts colleges. They sought to broaden and expand options for adult learning and higher education. It was first known as the Union for Experimenting Colleges and Universities.

The Union has coined the phrase “university without walls.” What does that mean?

We were involved in distance learning before the technology existed (i.e., the internet) to do distance learning. In the 1970s, we were using telephones. Today, we have learners from all 50 states and eight countries around the world.

What are your roots?

I grew up on a farm. My father was a coal miner who died of black lung disease. My parents strongly believed in higher education, though neither had the opportunity to attend college. My father was concerned, though, about my majoring in liberal arts. He said, “You’re going to be so well-rounded, you’re not pointed in any direction!”

You spent a couple of decades at the Kellogg Foundation. How did that impact your educational perspective?

We selected fellows from all over the country. It’s a phenomenal resource for this country. So, when I came to the Union in 2001, it was a chance to talk (with educators from around the country) and come together. Leadership is the ability to get good things done with the help of others. That was the definition we used for many years to describe what we were trying to do with Kellogg National Fellowship Program. The Kellogg theory includes recognizing abilities, teamwork and having a positive impact on the lives of others. These are core values that we can each learn from.

You’ve produced a publication called Visions, Values, Voice & Virtue, which focuses on your view of the Union’s future. Could you detail that?

We talk about creating a culture of caring. For a lot of adult learners, their biggest fear is the first day, walking in that front door for the first time. We strive to create a culture where our learners can flourish and excel. Our 420 employees all work toward that goal.

What makes the Union and its adult students unique?

Our learners can access our online library and databases from their homes. In that respect, again, the Union Institute was truly one of the pioneers of distance learning, a forerunner to the University of Phoenix and other institutions. Adults are wonderful learners once they get over the technology. We like to say: If you try to live in the past, your future is gone.

Your building is also unique, correct?

Yes. Our national headquarters is located in an historic building on Time Hill, which has been listed on the National Register for Historic Places. The 440 E. McMillan St. building is one of Cincinnati’s most important early Tudor Revival landmarks, designed in 1921. The first owners were the Procter & Collier Co., the marketing firm famous for creating Procter & Gamble’s slogan: “Ivory Soap — It Floats.” The building changed hands in 1936, and, for the next 50 years, Beau Brummell ties and fashionable neckwear were manufactured there for a national market.

What is your next step for the Union Institute?

The next step is for us to internationalize our programs. We have more than 15,000 alumni across the world.