A life in academia as a full professor—including being elected president of the Association for the Study of Higher Education (ASHE)—wasn’t exactly the life that Dr. Joy Gaston Gayles had considered for herself when she arrived at Shaw University as a first-generation college student some three decades ago.
A product of a working-class family who hailed from Prince George’s County, Maryland, Gayles was recruited to play softball at the historically Black university in Raleigh, N.C.
“If it wasn’t for sports, I wouldn’t have went to college because my parents couldn’t afford to send me,” said Gayles, who credits her softball coach during her time at Shaw with encouraging her to go on to graduate school.
A hardworking student who majored in Adapted Physical Education and Kinesiotherapy, Gayles initially had her sights on a career in professional sports, with the goal of one day becoming an athletic trainer for the NFL or the NBA.
But when she was offered an NCAA scholarship, she used the scholarship to enroll in a master’s program in higher education at Auburn University, where she readied herself for a career in athletic administration.
“My goal was, ‘you go to school, you get your education and you go get a job.’” she said, adding that the research bug bit her hard during her time at Auburn and she had additional questions that needed answers.
She enrolled in a doctoral program at The Ohio State University, where she researched and wrote a dissertation on student athletes’ motivation toward sports and academics.
Initially reluctant to enter the professoriate, she eventually applied to faculty positions upon graduation, ultimately securing a tenure-track position at Florida State University. In 2007, she joined the faculty at North Carolina State University as an associate professor of adult & higher education.
An expert on intercollegiate sports, Gayles took the helm of ASHE this week—becoming only the second Black woman and the fifth Black person—to lead the 46-year-old organization that focuses on the study of higher education.
Her selection to lead the organization has received widespread praise across the field.
“Professor Gaston Gayles developed a success model as a student-athlete at Shaw University that fueled her career interests, work ethic and leadership style,” said Dr. Jerlando F. L Jackson, the Rupple-Bascom Professor of Education and Villas Professor of Higher Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Jackson, who is also department chair and director and chief research scientist of Wisconsin’s Equity and Inclusion Laboratory, first met Gayles during their graduate studies at Auburn. He said that the membership of ASHE was “wise to elect her and will soon realize how lucky they are for doing so.”
“She is well-suited to lead a large complex membership organization during a time when leaders must exhibit vision to guide us to a destination that is constantly changing,” Jackson added.
In her speech at this year's ASHE Conference in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Gayles revealed that the presidential theme for her one-year term will focus on “Humanizing Higher Education.”
“I see this theme as a challenge and call to action for our scholarly community to revisit what we’ve learned, and what we are learning from this period in history and the centuries of systemic oppression that precede it,” she said. “In my mind, there are many dimensions of what it means to humanize higher education through research, scholarship, and practice that involve moving away from dehumanization to humanization, moving away from the marginality and the politics of invisibility to mattering and visibility, moving away from individualism towards collectivism, and moving away from violence towards healing.”
Amid the urgency to return back to life before the pandemic, Gayles cautioned that “we must not forget that going back to life as it was is where many of the problems in education and society reside,” she said. “Therefore, a return to life as we knew it will not get us to a place of healing and transformative change necessary to eradicate systemic oppression and social injustice.”
Dr. James L. Moore III, Vice Provost for Diversity and Inclusion and Chief Diversity Officer at The Ohio State University, praised Gayles' leadership and said that her administration will rightly center important topics related to diversity, equity, and inclusion in higher education.
“ASHE occupies a significant space in higher education throughout the United States. It is the premiere professional association for higher education researchers, policymakers, and high-impact practitioners,” said Moore, who is also the executive director of the Todd Anthony Bell National Resource Center on the African American Male and a Distinguished Professor of Urban Education in the College of Education and Human Ecology at OSU. “Many of the individuals in the association are some of the most esteemed higher education scholars in the world. Under Dr. Gaston Gayles’ leadership, ASHE is likely to leverage the expertise of the membership to have even greater impact in higher education and beyond.”
Gayles, who previously served as an ASHE board member, said that she had to be convinced to run for president.
“I talked to my thought partners because I had to get clear about why, because if I couldn’t get clear about that, then I wasn’t going to do it because at this stage in my life, whatever I do has to feel authentic to me,” she said, adding that she came to the realization that as ASHE president, she could help shape the direction of the field for years to come.
“If I call myself a catalyst for change, then you can’t turn down opportunities to be a catalyst for change,” she said.
Gayles said that she is encouraged by the future of ASHE, particularly the involvement by early career faculty and graduate students who have found the association to be a welcoming intellectual home.
“I really do want to be in community with people. I want to listen to people. I want to hear your thoughts and perspectives,” she said. “Now, we can’t act on every single thing, but it is a chance for us to think and to make sure we’re taking care of the needs of our members.”