Dr. Ashley will manage a budget of $24.7 million devoted toward improving Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at Texas A&M.
By Micaela Burrow
Bush School Associate Dean Dr. Frank Ashley reaches his office at 7 a.m. wearing his Bush School hat. He responds to his emails (within twenty-four hours) and works on his latest projects, including conducting a department head search and teaching a class. Then he takes a break and puts on what he referred to as his “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) hat.”
In June, Texas A&M University President M. Katherine Banks appointed Ashley to serve as Director of Diversity Initiatives. Ashley will oversee the University’s efforts to foster diversity and an inclusive environment, in class and out of it.
“It was an honor being asked to do this role,” said Ashley. “But it’s a daunting task. Here at the Bush School, we believe in public service, and that’s really what I’m doing. I’m serving the University.”
Ashley said his professional history in higher education and personal activism for diversity-related causes prepared him well for his new role. He has held eleven different positions in the Texas A&M University System.
“I know this place pretty much in and out. I have a totally different perspective on what to do,” said Ashley. “I like to think that’s why I was selected for this position.”
Ashley has held the position of Senior Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at the Bush School of Government and Public Service since 2016. He remains in charge of graduate education and research activities, along with strategic planning, faculty affairs, student affairs, and program development at the Bush School. Previously, Ashley served as Vice Chancellor for Recruitment and Diversity, Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs, and Director of Admissions at Texas A&M, as well as holding various offices at Texas A&M University-Commerce.
“With all of its warts and everything else, I love this university,” said Ashley. “If I didn’t love or believe in this university, I never would’ve been Director of Admissions. I believe that the University wants to do a better job, and I think it’s my role to call out things that we can do and can improve on.”
Improvement is defined in terms of proposals derived from the findings of Texas A&M’s January 2021 Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Commission report. Texas A&M has tasked Ashley with executing the following initiatives as outlined in the report:
- expand the Student Pipeline,
- increase the Regents’ Scholar Program to ninety-three recipients per year for four years,
- increase National Recognition Scholarships to eighty-nine students per year for four years,
- establish a Pathways-to-Doctorate Fellowship for ten students per year for four years,
- grow the ACES Faculty Program by nine faculty per year for four years,
- recognize outstanding Aggies, and
- establish a task force to study A&M’s history through displays and iconography.
Over his thirty-three-year career at Texas A&M University, he has witnessed moments that tested the University’s integrity.
“I was in the admissions office during the time that A&M decided we wouldn’t use race in admissions. I was in the admissions office when the University made the decision that we wouldn’t use legacy in admissions. I was here during those turbulent times,” said Ashley. “When Dr. Gates made that decision, he also said that we’d see one of the largest increases in minority enrollment. And we did.”
Texas A&M has had its share of “growing pains,” as Ashley puts it. Changes in University admissions became not only more inclusive of race but of all people by allowing women to enroll and making participation in the Corps optional. “On the other side, we came out even better,” he said.
Ashley believes Texas A&M is more emblematic of its core values than it was when he began his career.
“However, I do not think we do a good job at celebrating our successes,” said Ashley. He hopes to change that as Director of Diversity Initiatives.
“I think that we are doing good things. Can we do better? Yes. Is there room for improvement? Yes.”
Ashley’s new appointment involves a 50 percent stake with the Office of the President for selecting, implementing, budgeting, and assessing the recommended initiatives. The University has already begun to effect many of these changes, appropriating $24.7 million received from the A&M System for their completion. With Ashley’s guidance, some of the seven DEI Commission initiatives have seen progress.
For example, Ashely served under Dr. Annie McGowan, Interim Vice President for Diversity, to double the number of Accountability, Climate, Equity, and Scholarship (ACES) Fellowship recipients from the 2020-2021 cohort. ACES, a faculty pipeline program, awards scholars who show a commitment to campus diversity. Ashley has also attended several meetings focused on reevaluating the way the University distributes scholarships and financial aid to students of color.
Although Texas A&M admits large numbers of minority students, Ashley said convincing them to enroll represents a great challenge. In part, this is due to the competitive dynamics that influence a person’s decision on where to attend college. Texas A&M University competes with other top institutions for the most promising students.
But Ashley suspects that undercurrents of subtle discrimination may also play a role.
“Most students I talk to—they would say that’s the elephant in the room. And you don’t get students to talk about it that much. Little incidents happen here and there where students question, ‘Do the people really want me here?’” said Ashley.
According to Ashley, retention presents an additional hurdle to DEI at Texas A&M. “Even if we throw a ton of money at students and faculty to come to A&M, if they don’t feel welcome, they will not stay,” he said. “The biggest nut we all have to crack is taking a hard look at climate.”
As the only person of color in his undergraduate classes, Ashley endured ostracism and stereotyping throughout his university career. And he’s seen it happen to current and prospective students at Texas A&M.
But he recognizes that it’s not just persons of color who may struggle.
“There are a lot of other things that are important to diversity,” said Ashley. Regardless of a person’s color, religion, gender, ability, age, nationality, or generation of Texas A&M attendees, Ashley wants all students and faculty to feel part of the Aggie family.
“The Aggie family is just like any other family,” he said. “The question is: how do we welcome everyone?”
Ashley hopes to see more prospective students visit campus and experience the Aggie spirit. For Ashley, maintaining Texas A&M’s diverse and unified body of students, faculty, and staff depends on what he calls the “Platinum Rule”: treating others better than you want to be treated yourself.
“My faith teaches me that we should take care of each other and that we should love each other, and that’s what public service is,” said Ashley. “It’s hard to say bad things to someone if you really love them.”
That means everyone at the University has to contribute. “It can’t just be a taskforce or a committee doing these things. It’s going to take the whole Aggie community.”
It also means patience is required to see lasting change. When Ashley testified before the Texas Legislature as Director of Admissions, he likened Texas A&M to an aircraft carrier, a large and powerful warship made for carrying and deploying aircraft. “It can’t turn on a dime. I just hope that during my tenure I can turn the direction at least five, ten, fifteen degrees.”
Ashley says outside observers should be able to look at Texas A&M and say, “[Texas] A&M isn’t there, but they’re moving that way. They’re working really hard.”