Leaders on Leadership podcast featuring Gary Crosby

Leaders on Leadership featuring Dr. Gary Crosby, President of Saint Elizabeth University

Interview recorded September 2022

Episode Transcript

Jay Lemons:

Hello and thank you for listening. I’m Jay Lemons. Welcome to Leaders on Leadership, brought to you by Academic Search and the American Academic Leadership Institute. The purpose of our podcast is to share the stories of the people and forces that have shaped leaders in higher education and to learn more about their thoughts on leadership in the Academy.

Today, I’m delighted to be joined by Dr. Gary Crosby. Gary Crosby is the President of Saint Elizabeth University in New Jersey, where he recently celebrated his one-year anniversary. His previous administrative leadership roles include positions at Alabama A&M and Jackson State. Gary holds a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from the University of Southern Mississippi and a master’s degree in political science and a doctorate in urban and regional planning from Jackson State University. He was an ACE Fellow at Rutgers University in Newark, and holds a certificate in educational management from Harvard University. He’s also a proud protege of the 2016 Millennium Leadership Initiative of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.

I had the pleasure of getting to know Gary through the search that brought him to Saint Elizabeth, and I’m really thrilled that he is our guest today. Welcome to you, Gary.

Gary Crosby:

Thank you, Jay, so very much for having me and for such a generous introduction. Very delighted to spend time with you on this podcast and certainly appreciate the great support offered to leaders through Academic Search and through your personal commitment to developing and supporting leaders across the country. So thank you for having me, Jay.

Jay Lemons:

Thank you. And I thank you on behalf of our listeners because I know that yours is a wonderful story. And I will tell you that I find myself oft quoting a line that I first heard from you applied to the notion of presidential search.

But I want to begin by really asking you to talk a little bit about the people who shaped your own pathways to leadership and tell us your story, Gary Crosby, and talk with us about the people, the events, the opportunities that have really forged the person and the leader that you have become and are becoming as your journey in higher education has unfolded thus far.

Gary Crosby:

Wow, Jay, that’s a powerful request in that my journey, as I reflect back on it, to the presidency really began when I was in the fourth grade in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. I grew up in the shadows of the university’s football stadium there in Hattiesburg and was truly a latchkey kid. My grandmother, a single-parent household, if you will, raised me. She gave me her absolute best, but she also had to work to provide for the family, and so that often required her to work from 4:00 PM until 1:00 AM. And even with that schedule, I never missed a meal. My homework was questionable and that I was in the fourth grade and attempting to do fourth-grade homework to the best of my abilities, but she would always check my homework once she returned home from work.

Unfortunately, given the fact that she had to provide for the family, it was not until my senior year in high school that I was able to connect my performance K-12 to my acceptance and success in college. And I had a reality check and that reality check came in the form of my high school guidance counselor. She called home and told my grandmother, “If Gary is going to college, he must get his act together.” And so my grandmother in her true fashion said, “It’s not if. He is going to college and I’ll underscore him getting his act together.” And so therein launched my journey to the presidency and that, looking back on it now, understanding the importance of introducing college and college preparedness to children at a very early age will in fact set them up for future success.

I’ve always been a leader and that was instilled in me again by my grandmother. She often forced me to read things to find the answer. And it’s so funny that I now do the same with my oldest daughter, Julia. If there’s a question and I think it’s somewhere in the literature, I tell her to read the literature and come back to me with the answer. But she also instilled in me a deep commitment of standing in service to others as well as being committed to whatever job that you’re doing, but not to the point where it’s self-gratifying, but that you’re in fact helping others.

So above everything else, the most influential person in my life up to this point is my grandmother, Lois Harper-Seals. I’ve been very fortunate to also have outstanding mentors, President Emeritus of Alabama A&M University, Andrew Hugine Jr.; Nancy Cantor at Rutgers University, Newark; Chuck Middleton, President Emeritus of Roosevelt University; and so many others poured into me across my journey that I’m able to do this high-impact work in a very thoughtful, humane manner.

If I had to identify one experience that prepared me for the presidency, for this opportunity, I’ll go back to 2020 and that was when COVID hit to be able to pivot the university. At that time, I was at Alabama A&M University serving as Vice President of Student Affairs. And the president charged me with not only preparing the university for COVID-19, but he also charged me with steering the university in a very healthy and safe manner for our students, faculty, and staff.

And so with that, Jay, as you can imagine, I had my hands in everything: academics; community engagement; the students, of course, given my capacity working with alumni and parents. And doing that high-impact work during a time when we had absolutely no idea where the world was going opened my eyes to what the presidency really is. No two days are the same. And so I look at this work in that manner. One must be flexible and agile enough to pivot when necessary to continue to deliver on the mission of the institution. And that singular experience, being the leader of the COVID-19 Preparedness and Response Task Force, really opened my eyes to what true leadership is and how you lead from the heart most of the time, but certainly from the head as well.

Jay Lemons:

Well, thank you so much, Gary. There’s no doubt there might be a whole sub-genre of leadership books written about leading in COVID and leading in crisis.

I’m particularly proud of the search that led to your appointment at Saint Elizabeth, and a part of that is really bound up in the trust, the confidence, and the spirit of your board who saw in you qualities that led them to have, I think, in so many ways, great conviction and courage. You’re a pioneer at Saint Elizabeth, as I have said to you before. You’re a triple pioneer. You’re the first male, you’re the first person of color, and the first person that wasn’t cradled as a member of the world of Catholicism to hold the presidency.

And I know because I was privileged to be along on that journey, how that all unfolded, but I’d love for you to reflect because we have many people who are, like you, breaking new ground and providing new models of leadership within their institution to talk a little bit about that and advice that you might have for others who might be first of any number of different dimensions of identity.

Gary Crosby:

The first piece of advice I’ll give is to understand fit: fit with the institution and the institution’s fit with what you value as an individual. I’ve worked across my career in higher education, only in higher education, at mission-driven organizations committed to first generation, in many cases, low-income, high Pell recipient student population. And so when the opportunity at Saint Elizabeth University presented itself, the first thing I looked at, of course, I went to IPEDS and looked at the data to glean from the data regarding the student body. I immediately saw myself in that data in that I’m a first-generation college student in my immediate family, first-generation college graduate, I should say, in my immediate family, Pell recipient from a single-parent household. And so that spoke to me.

The second thing that I looked at was of course the mission of the institution to understand how the mission might align with what I value as an individual. As I shared with you in my previous response, my grandmother always instilled in me to be of service to others. And so imagine my surprise when I read the mission and “service” jumped off the page at me. I knew immediately that it was a great fit.

That feeling was supported by my very first conversation with the Search Committee, and it was in fact a conversation. It was not an interrogation. It was us talking about my experiences and how my experiences might align with the needs of the university. And I walked away from that first engagement feeling really, really good about Saint Elizabeth University and how I might be a great fit for leading the institution into its destiny. And I’m so very glad that I applied for this opportunity because that application forced me to better understand the organization, and again, how I might fit within the institution. That’s coming in the door.

Now that I’m here, Jay, to be very candid, and I’ve been absolutely clear about this, it’s not about me being the first person of color, non-Catholic, first male. The work that we do at this institution is all about preparing our students for the now, their next, and beyond. And with that level of preparedness, I can’t and I refuse to get bogged down in being the first or the thought of being the first. And that, to be candid, I get out of bed every morning because I’m so interested in what we can do as a team, not Gary as the President, but the leadership as a team to drive the results, to give students the absolute best education that they can receive from any other institution in the country, but there’s something special about Saint Elizabeth University that only we can deliver. And that’s what I’m focused on and that’s what I’m committed to.

Jay Lemons:

Thank you. I really appreciate that. And amen. Leadership is not an individual sport. It’s a team sport.

Gary, I’m going to deviate just a little bit because I know there’s a certain chunk of our listenership who have backgrounds like you, and I will say, also myself. The most common route to the presidency is through the Chief Academic Officer’s role, and yet, yours is one that led you through the Student Affairs ranks. And maybe if you have any thoughts about what it is… I’m going to mix this together. Any special advice for leaders who might be in Student Affairs and aspire to the presidency, and then maybe more generally, ask you your thoughts and advice about anyone who aspires to leadership?

Gary Crosby:

Sure. I believe my response is applicable to both, and that’s to step outside of your comfort zone. If you’re a Student Affairs professional, if you’ve grown up or if you’ve cut your teeth, I should say, in student affairs, don’t be afraid of the Academic Affairs side of the house. Find new ways to get involved and to understand what’s occurring in Academic Affairs, so that way, you are able to connect the co-curricular experience with the curricular experience, things that students, they’re learning about in the classroom.

That is in fact the mission of every institution of higher learning is to educate students. And you might be surprised to hear this coming from a Student Affairs professional, but it’s not about what we do outside of the classroom. What we do outside of the classroom is in support of what students learn from fabulous faculty all across institutions of higher learning.

So step outside of your comfort zone, not just with Academic Affairs, but also talk with your colleagues in Institutional Advancement to understand ways in which you might get involved in fundraising for the mission of the university. That’s a very critical part of the work that we do now as presidents is we are responsible for bringing resources to the institution that’s going to support the mission, not just one particular part of the mission, but the mission, the full mission of the institution.

And so I’ve always been mindful of those things. Early in my career, I would volunteer for committees. I would volunteer, when I first started in Student Affairs, to go and sit at the front desk in one of our residential facilities because I needed to understand the basics of how to run such a facility and the turnaround time for something as simple as a maintenance repair. So then as I moved up the chain of command, I could speak from firsthand knowledge of things that we should in fact do in order to move the needle.

The other piece of advice I’ll give, Jay, is for individuals interested in advancing into leadership roles, not just the presidency, but perhaps a vice presidency at a larger institution, is to understand what you value, values, what you value as an individual, and how your values might influence the mission in a positive way. But first, you must understand yourself, and by understanding yourself, you’re then able to do this high-impact work. No matter if it’s a presidency or a vice presidency, again, at a large institution or even a smaller institution, understanding self is very important to being successful in this role.

Now, just generally speaking, it’s important to have a spirit of hungriness, humbleness, and there’s a third piece to the formula, which I’m sure I’ll have an opportunity to address at a later time during our conversation, but to always be a student, to always be open to new ways of doing things served me well, and I’ve seen it serve others well across their journey into leadership. You can’t get bogged down in the ways of business from yesterday because the world is changing so much, and with the world changing, you must remain relevant, and in order to remain relevant, one I think must always be a student of the Academy and the world in which we live and work.

Jay Lemons:

Thank you. Thank you very much. And I do think you’re right; the general and the specific blend together very nicely in that advice.

Gary, I’m mindful that President Jim Ryan at the University of Virginia just issued sort of an interim report on what they’re calling “The Great and Good Plan” for the University of Virginia. And I love it because I like to ask our guests, what in your mind makes a good leader? And by good, I really don’t mean a Grade B leader. I mean, virtuous, effective, successful.

Gary Crosby:

In my mind, a good leader is one at the front. It’s not, and let me dial this back a minute, not at the front in the sense of I’m the leader, but at the front doing the work, doing the high-impact work, leading by example, which is something that we all heard, I think, early on, maybe in the second or third grade, at least I know I did. Leading by example, showing up to things when you say that you’re going to show up is very, very important to me because it shows that you’re committed to this work that you’re doing. And in order to be successful, one must be committed.

To be an effective leader, it’s important to add diversity of voice around the leadership table and to understand that through the diversity of voices is when you truly have effective strategies that’s going to drive the success of the organization. When those voices bubble to the top, to be open to those voices, what they’re saying.

And then as I’ve said before, to just lead from the heart, but be sure to strike balance with the mind as well because you need to think through these very challenging days that we have in leadership and you can’t allow your heart to drive all of your decisions. You need to be able to use your head in order to move the university forward when you’re dealing with finances or perhaps accreditation issues and other things that might pop up, or in my case, I like to call turning over a rock and seeing something that you need to address immediately. Your heart may not have time to react, and so you need to lead with your head.

Above everything else, Jay, I think being a good leader is about being committed to the organization, growing where you’re planted. If you’re always looking for your next opportunity, then you’re not focused on the now. You’re thinking about what’s next and beyond and so now it’s suffering. And so a good leader is focused on the organization that they occupy at that given point in time. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t have aspirations, but again, focus on the work of the now. Everything else will take care of itself in the future.

Jay Lemons:

Wonderful. It’s already been acknowledged earlier that leadership is not always about just an individual, but about the team. And when you’re creating a team, what are you looking for in those leaders that you surround yourself with? And you acknowledged some of that already.

Gary Crosby:

Certainly, those around the table must be hungry, humble, and smart. We can’t rest on our laurels of the past. We must think of innovative ways to drive results. The market, Jay, is so competitive today. I was reading earlier this week where an Ivy League institution here in the state of New Jersey is offering a free education, of course to students from families with an income of $100,000 or less. That’s no surprise in that universities, they’ve been doing this for a few years now. And so for lack of a better phrase, we’re all fishing in the same pond. And so it’s competitive, but leaders, I think, must have discussions around the value of a degree and an experience at your institution. And so if you’re hungry, humble, and smart, then of course you’re able to have those conversations because you understand that yes, you need to grow in the now, but also prepare for what’s next and beyond as I said before.

I’m very mindful of my gaps. And so when I’m looking for leadership to support the mission of the university to work with me as a vice president or chief administrative officer on the campus, I look for the fit with the mission, but also the fit with respect to where I may lack in an area. And going back to your previous question, a good leader must always know his or her gaps. So that way as you recruit or retain your talent, you know what you need in order to be successful, not as an individual, but as the president of the university.

And so I look for all of those things in leadership around the cabinet table.

Jay Lemons:

Thank you, thank you. I want to take you up a little bit, pull back. When you think about, and you mentioned this, the incredible competitive context that we live in, but what are the most pressing challenges facing leaders in higher ed today?

Gary Crosby:

Enrollment is at the top of the list for me, given the type of institution where I serve. We’re enrollment-driven and it’s a competitive market. And so how do we separate ourselves from the others, not just within the state, but across the country? So enrollment is at the top of the list for me in terms of critical challenges that we face as higher education.

Also, finding innovative ways to deliver on our mission is going to be very important moving forward. Students today that are coming into institutions of higher learning today, if you think back, most if not all of their high school career was remote, their high school experiences delivered in a remote format. And so where institutions in the past, and even today, perhaps underscored and valued in-person lectures, we’re now teaching a generation of students with a deep appreciation and affinity for things such as Netflix and Hulu and this on-demand culture. And so how do we compete with this on-demand desire that we’re seeing our students ask for? We need to think innovatively about that and continue to push the needle and to have the type of leaders around the table that can understand, in fact, what our students need in order to be successful.

I’ll also say that a challenge that I found in my opportunity is that we need to do a lot more in the sense of telling our story. How do you tell a compelling story when you have so many other similar institutions, that students understand what’s special about Saint Elizabeth University versus another institution in the state of New Jersey? And so finding a compelling way to tell the history and the future of Saint Elizabeth University will in fact serve us well. But it is a challenge because institutions across the country, we’re really saying the same thing.

Small classes. In our case, 45 minutes from New York City. Well, there are several other institutions between here and New York City, so how do we separate ourselves from the competition and do so in a very thoughtful, innovative, and engaging manner is a challenge, but we’re certainly up to it, which is why in the most recent US News and World Report Rankings, we rose 13 spots from last year. It’s because we’re focused on those things, Jay, and meeting the needs of our students. But it’s very challenging and that’s why you need the support of your leadership team, of your family, of mentors, not just one mentor, but a team of mentors that you can call when you’re facing various challenges and receive very, very strong, sage advice as to how you might consider moving forward.

Jay Lemons:

Well, thank you for those thoughts. You do have a distinctive history and that legacy of Saint Elizabeth Seton and the Sisters of Charity do distinguish you from some of the institutions, although I recognize there are other places close by that also were born of the same traditions, but you have that remarkable heritage and history of the boldness and the adaptability of the Sisters of Charity that are an important part of that story, aren’t they?

Gary Crosby:

Absolutely, and that’s the story that we’re telling. The fact that Saint Elizabeth University was founded in 1899 by the Sisters of Charity of Saint Elizabeth with one clear mission, and that mission remains unchanged today, and that’s to find those with the greatest need and to deliver, to the best of our abilities, all that we can to fill the gaps that might exist.

And so the mission today, and I’m so very proud of it, remains the same. And the fact that I’m able to walk out of my office and across the street and talk with the General Superior and other Sisters of Charity of Saint Elizabeth, it’s very special to me. And the support that we have from the Sisters is one that we underscore in what separates Saint Elizabeth University from other institutions with perhaps a similar background.

Also, the fact that we have Sisters on the board, and I think, Jay, that I have the absolute best board of trustees at any institution in the country, not because they selected me, but cause of what they’re able to do in support of Saint Elizabeth University. And I’m not talking about financially; I’m talking about the mission of the university, which is so important.

Jay Lemons:

Wonderful. Gary, I’m going to move us into what I sometimes call a lightning round where I’m going to ask shorter questions. You can expand and go as long as you want, but the questions will be a little shorter.

Gary Crosby:

This is fun, a lightning round.

Jay Lemons:

Yeah. Think of PTI a little bit. I think we can anticipate the answer to the first of these based on something you’ve already said, and I invite repetition and I invite any sort of last thought thoughts you might want, but who most influenced you in your life?

Gary Crosby:

Oh, certainly my grandmother. Lois Harper-Seals most influenced me in her commitment to work, her values, the way that she sacrificed so that others could have a quality of life that we enjoy today. The fact that she would give her last to someone in need, and she always stood in service to others. And I’ve learned so much, so very much from my grandmother, even up until death, her death. She continued to teach me how to live a life worth meaning. So, she’s the most influential person in my life.

Jay Lemons:

Thank you. And I will share that you’ve just very recently lost her, and so honoring her memory and dedicating this program to her is truly beautiful, Gary.

What’s your fondest memory of your undergraduate experience?

Gary Crosby:

Meeting my wife in political science class, both undergraduates at the University of Southern Mississippi, located there in Hattiesburg, Mississippi.

Jay Lemons:


Gary Crosby:

Go Eagles, that’s right. And so I was in political science class and saw this very beautiful young lady, and as we like to say in the South, the rest is history.

Jay Lemons:

We’ll let it remain at that.

Is there a favorite tradition, a campus tradition at a place that you’ve attended or served that you would raise up?

Gary Crosby:

Oh, that’s a loaded question, Jay. Let’s see.

During my first two years as an undergraduate student at Jackson State University, before transferring to the University of Southern Mississippi, I attended Jackson State on a marching band scholarship. And Jackson State’s marching band is perhaps the best college marching band, I think, that exists in the country. And there’s a tradition of marching into the stadium with 55 to 60,000 fans screaming as you enter the stadium as a member of this 250-marching band unit playing The Temptations’ “Get Ready.” And at one part of the stadium, there is a ramp, which the marching band is expected to march up this ramp and then onto to the section in which, well, where we sat, I should say. And that feeling, that tradition of marching into the stadium, playing what I think is perhaps one of the most recognized songs by perhaps one of the best groups that exist, The Temptations, with 50 to 60,000 fans screaming, and it’s a tradition that you can’t let go of.

And so even now, I find myself going back to homecoming at Jackson State, still in awe many years later of this tradition. In many cases, it remains the same as it was when I was in the band, and certainly for the years that predated my time as a member of the marching band.

Most recently, I will say a tradition that I hold near and dear to my heart, there’s a few at Saint Elizabeth University. The opening mass is one that it really hit me in the heart to see students come, Catholics and non-Catholics alike, to attend mass and to pray for a successful year and to leave gifts at the altar is one that I really love because I am a man of faith, I’m driven by my faith. And so to see students also embrace their faith is refreshing to me as a person of faith, again, but certainly as president of a Catholic university.

Another tradition that I really enjoy here at Saint Elizabeth University is Fall Fest, which is a festival where we celebrate our students as well as the community, and we bring everyone to campus. And it’s like a family reunion. You get to see alumni and current students and community supporters all in one central location in support of Saint Elizabeth University. Again, it makes you feel good. I know me as the president, I really like to see that type of interaction with our current students, alums, and the community that stand in support of the university.

So I know you asked for one, but I just had to give you a few traditions that I really, really like.

Jay Lemons:

Well, I love it. And the demands of leadership are great, but so often, I believe, that tradition is that place in which our wells are renewed, they are refreshed, and they bring us back to first principles, just as you said. Saint Elizabeth University was born at the intersections of the commitments of the Sisters of Saint Charity and meeting the need through educational opportunities, and that mass is a wonderful example of exactly that in a way that brings your community together.

So Gary, I’ve enjoyed every minute of this. One of our traditions is that we like to close by inviting you to share with our listeners the distinctive qualities, or if you will, the organizational DNA that makes Saint Elizabeth so very special to you and to those you share the journey with and serve.

Gary Crosby:

Well, Jay, again, thank you so very much for your time and giving me this platform to discuss leadership, and above everything else, Saint Elizabeth University, a remarkable institution of higher learning, again, founded in 1899 by the Sisters of Charity of Saint Elizabeth with a very compelling mission, and that’s to meet the needs of those with the greatest needs. And that mission remains unchanged today and I’m so very fortunate that it’s woven into the fabric of Saint Elizabeth University and it’s evident in our academic programs and our commitment to healthcare. It’s also evident in our co-curricular experience. The mission is at the forefront of the school year, the opening to the school year where we send hundreds of students out in the community to be of service to those in need.

The fact that we’re still standing 124 years later when so many organizations, so many institutions with a very similar background, they’ve closed their doors. But for the support that we’ve received from the Sisters, from our alumni association, from our parents, the community, our students, Saint Elizabeth University, could have been one of those institutions. The Sisters had a saying back when the university was a family business and that saying was simply, “God will provide.” And the fact that God continues to provide for Saint Elizabeth University is certainly moving the university forward.

The university is very different today than it was, say, back in 2015. In fact, we’re now co-ed, which Saint Es transitioned to co-ed in 2016 and the demographics shifted almost overnight. We’re now a Hispanic-serving, minority-serving institution. 93 to 96% of our students come from the state of New Jersey, and they often return back to their communities to stand up to be of service to those in need there. 70% of our students are Pell recipients, and about 90% of our students receive some sort of financial aid.

So there’s a great need here for the students of Saint E, but our students are the best, and with that need, they’re still focused on graduating from Saint Elizabeth University, securing a wonderful opportunity so that they’re able to support their families, but also to give back to the organization that gave so much to them over these past three, four, maybe five years.

And I also want to underscore, Jay, that for us, and this is a part of the fabric, we’re not focused on making the six-year graduation rate the norm. Instead, we turned our efforts to the four-year graduation rate because that’s what our students deserve. That’s what they need. And we understand that as quickly as we can get them out of that undergraduate experience, they’re able to go out and secure an opportunity and pour back into the lives of those that poured into them.

And so all of that’s woven into the fabric of Saint Elizabeth University, and I’m so very fortunate to serve as the university’s eighth president at this time in its history.

Jay Lemons:

Well, Gary, thank you for joining us on Leaders on Leadership, and we’re really happy and proud to have had you and appreciate you sharing your thoughts, your insight, your wisdom about leadership with us.

Gary Crosby:

Thank you so very much, again, for having me, Jay. And as always, I appreciate the support received from Academic Search and certainly from you and others at Academic Search as well. And thank you again for what you do for institutional learning across the country, and I speak for my colleagues when I say that.

Jay Lemons:

Thank you. On behalf of my colleagues, it’s truly an honor and a trust to do the work that we are called to do by our mission. And Gary, thank you for those kind words.

To our listeners, we welcome your thoughts and suggestions about leaders we might feature in future segments of the podcast. You can send those to leadershippodcast@academicsearch.org. You can find this podcast on the Academic Search website or wherever you find your podcasts.

Leaders on Leadership is brought to you by Academic Search and the American Academic Leadership Institute. Together, our mission is to support colleges and universities during times of transition and through leadership development activities that serve current and future generations of leaders in the Academy.

Again, what a joy it is to see you again, Gary, and to have you be a part of our show, so thank you again, and to all, have a great day.

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