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‘It’s all about the people’: Trinity College Dean Valerie Ashby reflects on her time at Duke

<p>Valerie Ashby is the dean of Trinity College of Arts and Sciences.</p>

Valerie Ashby is the dean of Trinity College of Arts and Sciences.

Valerie Ashby, dean of Duke's Trinity College of Arts and Sciences and the daughter of two high school teachers, was seemingly destined to be an educator. Now, after a seven-year tenure at Duke, Ashby has a wealth of memories, accomplishments and advice under her belt. 

In August, Ashby will begin a new role as president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. 

Growing up in Clayton, North Carolina, Ashby recounted, “My mother was an English teacher and a Shakespeare fanatic. My father was a math and science teacher. And that's where my love for math and science began.”

Surrounded by aspects of the liberal arts education that Duke places the same emphasis on, Ashby said she knew early on that she would be an educator. 

“​​Teaching is in my blood; it's what I love most,” she said. 

Ashby received her bachelor’s and doctorate degrees in chemistry from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and conducted postdoctoral research at Universität Mainz in Germany.

After completing her education, Ashby was a faculty member at Iowa State University from 1996 to 2003, then at UNC from 2003 to 2015, where she served as chair of the chemistry department from 2012 to 2015 before coming to Duke. 

Through her career, Ashby has worked to increase the visibility of underrepresented minorities in academia and STEM research. After receiving a grant from the National Science Foundation to increase doctorate degrees in STEM fields among minorities, Ashby’s work helped improve the doctoral completion rate for these students at UNC from 60% to 85%. 

“The only way to obtain excellence is through diversity,” Ashby said. 

Steve and Ann Potter, Trinity ’79 and former co-chairs of the Trinity Board of Visitors, wrote in an email to The Chronicle that Ashby helped expand pathways in STEM fields for women and people of color. 

“If everybody teaching or in leadership was the same race, gender, that would be unbelievable to us and hard for us to imagine. And so to that I say, ‘Imagine being a student who never ever saw anybody like you,’” Ashby said. “Role models are really important. I think it's just encouraging for people, it's inspiring for people, and it lets you know that Duke belongs to you.”

Ashby’s efforts were “guided by a vision for inclusive excellence that is a hallmark of Valerie’s leadership,” Michael Gorman, Trinity ’88 and TBOV member, wrote in an email. 

Assistant Professor of Biology Gustavo Silva wrote in an email to The Chronicle that Ashby’s leadership was one of the main reasons he joined Duke’s faculty. 

“Her life-long experience as a Black scientist gave me confidence that this would be the perfect place to launch my independent career,” Silva wrote.

Beyond efforts to increase diversity, Ashby will be remembered for her commitment to Trinity’s mission of delivering a world-class liberal arts education. In this effort, Ashby said that she sought to hire faculty equally committed to teaching and research, deliver a diverse curriculum and mentor faculty and students seeking leadership positions.

But beyond the Trinity policy reforms she oversaw or the faculty she hired, speaking to Ashby’s colleagues left a sense that she will be most missed for the relationships she carefully cultivated with the people around her. 

Ashby explained that her support system includes department chairs, directors of graduate and undergraduate studies, all 700 faculty members and countless staff. 

Gorman wrote of her “inherent optimism” and her ability to combine “the mind of a chemist” and the “heart of a humanist.”

“From day one, she made sure that we assistant professors knew that we had full access and support from her and her team; a promise that was made good every day in the five years I have been at Duke,” Silva wrote.

Kathryn Kennedy, executive director of communications for Trinity, added that after Ashby’s appointment as UMBC’s president, the hundreds of congratulatory texts and emails Ashby received were a “testament to how her authenticity, integrity and high-touch leadership style have been deeply appreciated by so many.”

Ashby holds her role as a mentor dear to her heart. 

“I have student office hours every week and have forever, and those have been some of the most fun conversations that I've had with students,” Ashby explained. “You just name it, they ask about careers or leadership or being a woman in leadership, I get all kinds of questions asked.”

Gorman wrote that Ashby loves to celebrate students’ accomplishments as “rock stars” and get to know mentees’ personal journeys leading to Duke.

Ashby said she’ll also dearly miss staff appreciation events, such as the annual staff gratitude luncheon. 

“We give away staff awards and just celebrate the staff who often are not as visible as visible or as talked about or celebrated. And we have amazing staff across Trinity and across Duke, really,” she said.

Ashby serves as faculty director for the Reginaldo Howard Scholars, a scholarship program offered to Black and African-American students and those of African descent who “excel academically and demonstrate a commitment to leadership and social justice.” 

Ashby described these scholars as “extraordinary”, and the feeling is mutual. Nigel Sapp, Trinity ’22 and former Reginaldo Howard Scholar, wrote that his experience with this program was career-making. 

“It is so utterly difficult to navigate white spaces as a Black person without feeling, at some point, that you must/should concede elements of your blackness to conform to white norms,” Sapp wrote. “When I watch Dean Ashby in ANY space, she is so true to herself in a way that is so admirable and remarkable.” 

He fondly recalled group dinners in Ashby’s home, gifts she gave the “Reggies” and most importantly “the unwavering compassion” Ashby showed his peers and himself. 

Ashby had two pieces of advice to give incoming first-years. 

First, to “try things you've never imagined,” she said. “Don't leave the diversity of offerings and people at Duke on the table; explore that.”

At the same time, her other instruction was for incoming students to not try to take on too many things. It’s impossible to experience all that the University has to offer, she said. 

“[Juniors and seniors] don't ever say, ‘I wish I'd done one more activity,’ right? They always say, ‘I wish I'd spent more time getting to know these people or with my friends.’ It's all about the people.”

As those who have gotten to know her can attest, it’s all about the people for Ashby as well.


Anisha Reddy | Senior Editor

Anisha Reddy is a Trinity junior and a senior editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.

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