The Interview USA
Duke University
Associate Vice President for Student Affairs & Dean of Students

John Blackshear

Higher Education (HE) professionals can come to their roles via a lot of different pathways, but what really matters is what they bring to the role and the impact that they want to have on the students they work with.

John Blackshear, Associate Vice President for Student Affairs & Dean of Students at Duke University spoke to GoodCourse Community Engagement Lead Kira Matthews about inspiring students to leave the world better than they found it, and the importance of having difficult conversations.

John's Journey

Kira: Let’s begin with an introduction to your current role and institution.

 I'm a clinical psychologist by training, and currently, I am the Associate Vice President for Student Affairs, Associate Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education, and Dean of Students at Duke University. I'm also a Faculty in Residence, and I’m among the faculty in Psychology and Neuroscience. I've been here for about 20 years and I've held various positions at the university from staff psychologist to clinical director of the Academic Resource Center.

I served as Senior Associate Dean for educational strategy in the College of Arts and Sciences and we wanted to make the introduction to the disciplines more interesting to our students and really work on enhancing teaching in the disciplines, rethinking many of our academic processes and refocusing to think about our students developmentally. We were thinking about a campus that has become the most diverse that it has ever been in its history — how do we move from a place that was proud of diversity, to becoming a place of inclusive excellence?

For me, once you get to the term inclusive, you are no longer talking about groups; you are actually speaking with groups and their perspectives and their power to create influence. That's how, in my opinion, institutions are then transformed by their diversity.

Kira: What brought you to student affairs?

I started at Duke in Student Affairs as a contract psychologist just after I graduated. The idea was that I would always move outside of that role — that was a way that Duke could onboard me early on in my career when they didn't actually have a position for me.

Once I moved over to the academic side, I had already established all of these connections and relationships with my colleagues in Student Affairs. My mentality has always been that there are no separate affairs; we are all engaged in the affairs of the student and the academy.

In terms of Dean of Students, I was hesitant to take it and wanted to make sure I was definitely the right candidate. However, I did end up taking the job, and it has been amazing. Throughout my career, I've worked very deeply at Duke.

Through our work, we really have the power to change the world — I want to help them believe it.

And then I moved into residential life which completely changed how I interacted with the students at Duke, having amazing conversations with them over donuts and coffee about life.  My goal has always been to help students see how they can leave the world better than they found it.  Through our work, we really have the power to change the world — I want to help them believe it. That’s about diversity too, but only if we are actually open to allowing that diversity to teach us, and then let us become excellent with that diversity built into the DNA of the academy.

Kira: What does that student care aspect look like at Duke?

We can’t just be proud that we've got a diverse range of students applying. Now they've come to the university, we actually have to support them and care for them and their different needs. 

When we bring in diversity, we need to support it.  We need to ensure our students are supported because 18 to 24-year-olds are going through an incredible time of identity formation, intellectual growth, and neurological and physical growth. We know that the brain undergoes an expansive amount of change in this age range. However, what I don't ever want to lump into that is that diversity somehow is a deficit that needs to be responded to. What I believe is that diversity, when it is allowed to be included, actually gives us a chance to be greater because that diversity brings a perspective that we don't have.

Kira: How do you support staff or those who aren't as open to having these realizations about expanding their view?

We have a lot in place to make those conversations smoother. We have a President, Executive Vice President, we have Vice Presidents, we have Deans, who are expressively committed to having an environment of inclusive excellence, and there have been great resources bringing in experts that teach us how to examine what we are doing in any given context.  This is related to our students, faculty and staff, because again, students are one population, but faculty and staff experience these things; students aren't experiencing them in a vacuum.

3 Quick-fire Questions

Kira: What advice would you give to anyone who's looking to begin a career in HE? 

Just go for it. There are many ways to enter into the HE space, but, as I have shown in my career, how you enter does not necessarily predict the impact you can have in your pathway. I started out as a staff psych, and here I am. It's the most vibrant, stimulating place, in my opinion, to spend a career. It is really amazing. 

Kira: Who would you say you admire the most in the HE space?

John Chambers, who was my professor at Florida University. He was the first person that made me believe that I had the capacity to be a research scientist.  Also, Dana Denard, who was also my professor at Florida.  He was the person who spent his time outside of school with me as a student.

Kira: What is the most important book you've read

Tony Morrison's Beloved.  I love the creative and supernatural parts of it.  Also, Of Water and the Spirit by Malidoma Some. 

Curious to see what the future of training looks like?
Kira Matthews
Community Engagement Lead
Kira leads our community outreach team working hand-in-hand with changemakers on both sides of the pond. If you want to join the next series of The Interview, or just learn more about GoodCourse, then get in touch at

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