Valerie Sheares Ashby on leadership and succeeding a legend
It might seem an unenviable position to succeed a long-standing, widely admired college president who is credited with practically building the institution. But you wouldn’t know it from listening to Valerie Sheares Ashby, who last year took over the presidency of the University of Maryland Baltimore County from Freeman A. Hrabowski III, who over 30 years helped transform the public university from a sleepy commuter institution into a research powerhouse known especially for producing Black scientists.
In a recent interview on Weekly Wisdom, a joint podcast of the University Innovation Alliance and Inside Higher Ed, Sheares Ashby spoke with UIA’s Bridget Burns and Inside Higher Ed’s Doug Lederman about her leadership style, the importance of self-care and knowing how to leave a job in a way that benefits the institution and your successor. And she describes how Hrabowski was what she calls a “good leaver.”
An edited transcript of the interview with Sheares Ashby, former dean of Trinity College of Arts & Sciences at Duke University, follows.
Burns: Have you learned more from good examples of leadership or bad?
Sheares Ashby: Everything you need to know about me, you can find out from the two people who raised me. Both of my parents were leaders in their own right. I learned more from them than I’ve learned at any other point. But I have many other great mentors who are role models and examples. I certainly have learned some things from what you see and you say, “OK, don’t do that.” Or, “That may not work for me.” But I learned from my parents about leadership, their values, their courage—they were relationship people, they had a sense of humor, they didn’t take themselves too seriously. They were always authentic, never avoided problems. And by the way, both were great fundraisers—I should throw that in.
Inside Higher Ed: I can’t think of anybody who has answered that question about leadership with as much of a focus on parents. Were they purposely teaching you, do you think, or were they just being parents?
Sheares Ashby: They were just being themselves. My dad was a minister and a math and science teacher. That tells you a lot about how I lead. My mother was an English teacher and a leader everywhere she was, and if she saw something that was a need, she’d create it. She started a homeless shelter for men in the city of Raleigh and ran it for 30 years after she retired from teaching, and she did community college higher education. They just were who they were. Were they preparing us? They were preparing us for whatever we were going to do. It wasn’t necessarily with an eye toward leadership.
Burns: Is there any one particular lesson you find yourself drawing upon in the presidency at this moment?
Sheares Ashby: My central value around leadership is: I always draw a triangle and I say, turn it upside down, where the point is at the bottom, and the base is the wide basis at the top. If you’re the leader, you’re at the bottom. And you are in service to everybody else who’s in that organization. Never forgetting that is what I learned from my parents. But I’ve learned it from all of the leaders that I have watched that I admire. It is a privilege to be in leadership, and we are indeed in service to people. When I was a department chair, I was in service to 50 people. When I was a dean, I was in service to 700 people and many more students. And here I’m in service to thousands of students and all the faculty and staff. And the day that it doesn’t feel like a privilege is the day I should quit. That’s the core value.
Burns: You are not the first or last leader who will come in after a long-serving and beloved president. People look at long-serving leaders and wonder what kind of leadership style is best to come in next, because a whole institution has gotten so familiar and used to one type of leader. What advice might you offer to someone who’s looking at one of those positions?
Sheares Ashby: Whenever you’re looking at these jobs, you have to look for your fit. I’d set aside just for a second how long the previous leader had been there; the more important thing is to find the job that you are supposed to be in. Is it the right role? Is it the right institution? Do they have the right values? And are they ready to move forward in those values? If that is the case, the long-serving-leadership piece becomes less important. It was incredibly helpful that my predecessor, Freeman Hrabowski, really prepared the institution for the change so that people have been incredibly welcoming and kind and ready to think about new ideas.
If I was talking to someone I mentor, I would say to make sure that you’re comfortable in your own skin. I don’t care what job you have. You need to know who you are, and then you look for a place that wants who you are. Then you go and do the best you can, being who you are authentically. And I think that’ll work.
Inside Higher Ed: Are there are steps an outgoing leader can take to open the door and ready an institution for a new leader (or not)?
Sheares Ashby: Having left various roles and come into different roles, I pride myself on being a good leaver. I just left Duke University, which I loved and still love, and I don’t allow anybody to talk to me about anything there. Every day I was working to leave the place better than I found it so that it wasn’t a rush at the end to try to clean it. Being a good leaver is a gift to the person who comes behind you. I have followed people who weren’t good lead leavers.
That is not the case in Freeman’s case. He was so kind and really introduced me to people and welcomed me into this city and has helped make connections and then has left. He hasn’t been back on campus. I so appreciate his willingness to do that. It’s hard for people, because as much as they think they want change, when the change actually comes, it’s a big deal. I keep telling people, when I show up in a meeting, and I have my voice instead of his, my presence instead of his personality, my way of thinking instead of his, it’s a big deal after 30 years. For him to actually give me that moment and time and distance is a tremendous gift.
Burns: Are there any habits or practices that really ground you as a leader? Are there specific things that optimize you to lead during difficult times, or to really set your kind of game face on?
Sheares Ashby: I have a leadership coach that I’ve had for years now, John Baird. He’s extraordinary. He knows me like the back of his hand. He was with me at Duke, and he’s with me now. There’s nothing that I do that’s important that we don’t talk about it. It can be the smallest of things, but we talk through almost everything. And he knows my values, and he helps me to stay in those values as we lead. I also have four mentors who have been with me for years. There’s probably not a month that I don’t pick up the phone and talk to one of them about something. That’s been incredibly helpful in that sense of being prepared for whatever might arise.
And then just personally, I’m a huge person on self-care. Every meeting that I am in, that individual expects me to be at my very best. They don’t care if they’re the 15th meeting that I’ve had in that day. And they don’t care if it’s Thursday afternoon or Monday morning. They want my full and undivided attention. And for me to be at my best, I must take care of myself. I do that weekly. I don’t wait for a break. I don’t wait for spring break. That’s too late.
Monday is my favorite day of the week, because I have gotten my rest and done my routine over the weekend. It’s exercise for me, it’s church, it’s seeing my friends. I listen to music every morning when I get up. I’m listening to music until I walk into the office. That is inspirational to me. Every week, I must keep that commitment to myself, or I can’t give my best to people, and you never know what’s going to happen in these jobs. You have to stay prepared and as healthy as possible—physically, mentally, spiritually, emotionally, you name it.
Inside Higher Ed: A lot of presidents don’t necessarily feel in control of their time. How do you balance it?
Sheares Ashby: It sounds selfish, but I tell people I mentor all the time, it’s not selfish—the biggest gift I can give to every human is to take care of myself. I have a routine of a set of things, it’s not a long list that I need to do every week for my own wellness. Being now in this job, I have to move it around. I can’t keep a regular schedule in the gym, but I’m going to get in the gym, that’s for sure. And I have to say no. On my desk, I have “20 ways to say no.” All gracious ways, because I want to say yes, but the fact is that I need a Sunday nap every Sunday. And I do it.
The other thing I would say is make sure the job is joy to you. Because the work is just joy to me. I just went to a basketball game, and it was joy to me to watch my students. It’s not rest, but it was joy. Every now and then I have to correct because I’ll feel myself getting a little bit off my routine. When that starts to slip, I have to go back and correct it. But everybody is happy when I am not irritable and tired and hungry. These jobs will take every ounce of your life. That’s the other part: make sure you have a whole life. As much as I love it, this job is not my life. I have a whole life.
Burns: What has been most surprising to you about your career?
Sheares Ashby: My entire career is a surprise to me. This is why I love what I do. When students come into my office, and they think they should have their entire lives mapped from A to Z, I tell them my story—that a year ago, I had no idea I was going to want this job or have this job. I was happy in my previous job.
My mentors have seen in me what I could not see in myself; they have seen opportunities and helped me take risk. Any time I get comfortable, they say, “OK, it’s time to go.” Every job I’ve ever had has been my favorite job at the time. I didn’t know I was going to chair the chemistry department at UNC. That’s crazy to me; I was a student there. And then to be the dean at Duke is just ridiculous. And then to be here—in a presidency, period, but here at this particular institution following this leader at this moment in time, when inclusive excellence means so much to me and to the world.
Inside Higher Ed: What kind of change do you think is most needed from higher education right now? How do you as a leader see yourself trying to help lead in that direction?
Sheares Ashby: There’s a hint in the institution that I’ve chosen and its values. Trying to help define and move forward inclusive excellence is everything. And it’s not just because I am a person of color, or a woman or a chemist. I check every box of things, right? It is because we have so many challenges in this world that are going to need a diverse group of thinkers. And fundamentally, we know that the best solutions come from diverse perspectives. How in the world are we going to deal with climate change and energy and privacy and democracy and truth and health and health disparities, if there isn’t a diverse group of thinkers and experiences at the table?
I don’t see how we solve some of these big human problems without having a representative of the humanity that we’re trying to address at the table. And so inclusive excellence means everything. We fundamentally believe that if you’re excellent, and you’re not diverse, you’re not as good as you think you are. Imagine the excellence that we are leaving on the table by not being inclusive.
We cannot have 10 percent of the people participating in a process of creation of knowledge if 90 percent of the people are not those people. The solutions they’re creating are probably not relevant. It’s not a moral imperative. I do what I want to do morally for myself on the weekends. Monday through Friday, I’m at work. It just so happens that my values match this particular institution, but it’s not a moral imperative. This is an excellence impairment. This is, “How are we going to solve some of the hardest problems facing our society in the world? And who are we leaving out of that process?”
It’s also who are we leaving out of economic prosperity and social mobility. These are big deals to me. It’s why I chose this institution that is grounded in this. There’s a lot of work to do. Not just in the world, but at my institution. I want my leadership team to reflect that diversity. I want my faculty to reflect that diversity; I want my staff to reflect that diversity. I want different research areas where you don’t anticipate there being a lot of diversity. Like in computer science, for example, or in economics, fields that are lucrative and game changing for the world, and they are also the least diverse fields. That’s our work. It’s an exciting moment to me, and I’m grateful to be at this institution that has already decided that these are its values.