What kind of person makes a good academic dean? 

Most academic deans rise through the ranks of the faculty, but occasionally you find one who has taken a more circuitous pathway. Willard Ashley Sr., the academic dean at New Brunswick Theological Seminary, is one of those.

Ashley is a pastor and a psychotherapist, but he’s also been an executive coach for lawyers and bankers on Wall Street. And early in his career, he was an assistant buyer for J.C. Penney.


Ashley brings all his varied experiences to his role as academic dean. In Trust recently asked him about how he came to his current position. 


Q. You have a different vocational experience coming into seminary than some other deans. Were you hired because of that experience?


I would like to think so. I came to New Brunswick in 2008. Before that, I ran a program called Care for the Caregivers Interfaith Project, which was created by the Council of Churches of the City of New York. I’m also still a pastor at a small congregation in Jersey City. I’ve been in Jersey City at two different congregations since 1986. Before that I was an executive coach on Wall Street, working with Fortune 500 companies and law firms, coaching their senior partners and executives. 


Early in my career I was also an assistant buyer in one of the largest subdivisions in J.C. Penney. Imagine being in your mid-20s and you’re responsible for 1,600 stores. When I became a dean, I said, “Only 10 programs? Only two locations? I can handle that!” 


From my business experience, I learned how to ask: What are your priorities? What are your intended outcomes? And I learned to be methodical but still flexible and open to new discoveries.


Q. How did you get into executive coaching?  


I had studied to be a psychoanalyst and marriage and family therapist at the Blanton-Peale Institute and Counseling Center, and I had my own private practice. 


A close friend got me an interview with a colleague who was engaged in executive coaching. So for a couple of years I did work with Citibank, Bloomberg News, and a couple of major law firms. 


It was comfortable because of my J.C. Penney experience. When you work at a big retailer like J.C. Penney as a buyer or assistant buyer, you’re working with the CEO, because only the person at the top can negotiate at the scale of a major department store. So when I became a coach, I wasn’t intimidated by CEOs. Regardless of how much money you make, how many press clippings, how many plaques on the wall, all of us have fears, anxieties, and challenges. And for the most part, we want to improve and be better at what we do. It was my task to help these executives become better.


As a coach, instead of buying for 1,600 stores, I was helping partners in major law firms, working with their personalities and temperaments to help them overcome challenges in a corporate setting.


Q. How did you make the transition from your other callings into theological education?


I originally came to New Brunswick as the director of field education. Field education today is much broader than simply finding congregations for would-be pastors. More and more people in seminary are not looking to be a pastor. So, with the rich resources of the New York City metro area, we asked, How do we get students into the United Nations? How do we get students into not-for-profit institutions and organizations? How do we help students become interested in pastoral counseling? We also began to introduce the concept of being an institutional chaplain. Some large companies actually hire people that have the title “chaplain,” and they serve in that capacity. 


Q. As director of field education, did you use some of the same skills you’d used as a coach — to assess people’s strengths and growth areas, in order to place them in the right kind of placement?




Q. How did you transition from director of field education to dean?


I went through my four-year tenure review, and it was recommended that I be given tenure. Then I received a call from Gregg Mast, the president, who invited me to lunch.


He said: “Congratulations, the committee recommended you for tenure.” At the time, I was the second African American in our 230-year history to be granted tenure. 


Then he said, “As you know, we’re looking for a dean.” I was thinking, “What does that have to do with tenure?” 


He said, “Will, we think you would be the perfect person to be dean.”  


I said, “Let me pray about it.” 


Now, I have a memory of an old pastor of mine. I once called him and said, “Dr. Mac, I got called to pastor this certain church, but I want to pray about it.” 


Dr. Mac said to me: “Do you have a church now?” Um, no, I don’t.


He said: “Do you think God called you to be a pastor?” Yes. 


He said: “These people voted on you and called you to be their pastor?” Yes. 


He said: “Prayer is over. Call them back.” 


So, I applied the same thinking. Did I want to be a dean? Had I been chosen through the proper means to be a dean? Prayer is over. Call them back.


Q. What did you bring to your new role?


Since I had been director of field education, I already knew all the students. I also knew many of the stakeholders, because in my role, I’d been listening to not only the educators in the field but to the denomination, to senior pastors, and to other people. 

Willard Ashley Sr.
Dean of the Seminary, Associate Professor of Practical Theology, New Brunswick Theological Seminary
Image Credit: Bob Gore Productions

What I love right now is that education is going through such a revolution. Creativity and innovation are the order of the day, which makes the job exciting. 

When I was a buyer, I had this mindset that is not generally found in academia. I often said to myself, “I’ll try it. If it doesn’t work, I’ll take a markdown and try again.” So at New Brunswick, we try something, we assess it, and we figure out if the data shows it’s working or not. We tweak programs that need to be tweaked. I’m fortunate that our faculty and administration trust me and are not paralyzed by the possibility of getting things wrong.

Q. Do you have an example of something you’ve dropped?

When I earned my doctorate at Andover Newton, my project was about leadership development. I embraced the idea of collaborative leadership, so when I was hired by a congregation, I jumped right into collaborative leadership. It was what I learned in school, and it was going to be great. 


The only problem was that the church had had the same pastor for 42 years, and the pastor before him had served for the previous 40 years. At some point I overheard someone who didn’t realize I was in the room. “We’re really in trouble,” this person said, “because the pastor is asking us what we think!” 


They were used to a leader who said, “This is what we’re doing; initial here.” And I recognized that changing this mindset would take longer than that time I felt God was calling me to be in that particular location.


Q. What are your biggest challenges now?


One of the biggest challenges for us right now is distance learning. What does it take to do comprehensive distance learning? 


The other large challenge, for every seminary, is to be relevant to our context. To be relevant to our context, we have to overhaul not just some programs but our thinking. We have to do some things differently — not for the sake of being different, but so that we can help our students to become leaders in this changing environment. 


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