Former UNCA Chancellor Dr. Anne Ponder Reflects on Leadership and Asheville Life


By Frances Figart


With the announcement in late July that the University of North Carolina at Asheville has chosen its seventh Chancellor, Mary K. Grant, we wanted to take a moment to reflect on the remarkable administration of the former Chancellor of nine years, Dr. Anne Ponder, who recently retired.


Dr. Anne Ponder. Photo: Matt Rose.

Dr. Anne Ponder. Photo: Matt Rose.

Dr. Ponder became the sixth Chancellor of UNC Asheville in October 2005. A native of Asheville, she is the daughter of the late Eleanor and Herschel Ponder, both of whom traced their Asheville family roots to the 1780s. She is married to award-winning writer and publisher Christopher Brookhouse. Her background prior to returning to Asheville to take her UNCA post includes teaching English, communications, drama and interdisciplinary studies as well as serving as an academic dean and as a vice president for information technology.


A nationally known expert on strategic planning, Ponder began her UNCA tenure by leading a campus-wide collaboration to create a new strategic plan and revised mission statement emphasizing quality and sustainability. Under her leadership, UNC Asheville made major strides in the liberal arts and became one of the top choices for students seeking a multi-faceted educational experience. During Chancellor Ponder’s administration, the university was chosen as the first national headquarters for the Council of Public Liberal Arts Colleges.


Strengthening the university’s outreach and partnerships with Western North Carolina communities and businesses, as well as with sister UNC institutions, Ponder oversaw an expansion of campus boundaries and the largest building program in UNC Asheville’s history, including a new green residence hall with cutting-edge sustainability features.


The university is a founding member of the Asheville-Buncombe Regional Sports Commission, a major contributor to the region’s economic development, as a result of Ponder’s direction. In 2013, she received the inaugural Van Ummersen Presidential Leadership Award from the National Association of Collegiate Women Athletics Administrators in recognition of her demonstrated leadership and promotion of women’s opportunities in athletics administration and coaching.


My interview attempts to peer between the lines of press releases and publicity bios, behind the awards and accolades of Dr. Ponder, with the hopes of providing a glimpse into some of the salient values, processes and insights of this remarkable leader.


FF: As a child, did you have a sense of which career direction you wanted to pursue?


AP: Somehow, as the oldest of three daughters in a wonderful middle class family, when I was a child, my parents, both of them, convinced me that I could do anything. So the potential, the prospect… I didn’t need to put a label on. Would I be a physician? Would I be a chancellor? Would I run a company? I didn’t need to put a label on it because the condition of possibility and the role that education would play in that for me was as available as air! In my teenage and early college years I learned that not everyone had that advantage. I have been very fortunate that exciting, interesting opportunities to serve have always sought me out and I suspect that my history is the prologue, at least on that theme, as I move into this next year.


FF: What three aspects of your job as chancellor have been the most rewarding?


AP: One of them is that, from the perspective of a chancellor, I am fundamentally an educator. So whether it’s in a classroom or a convocation or an informal setting like the dining hall or throwing Frisbee, when I see a student grasp, realize, hone and discern something they never knew before, but it’s theirs now, that particular moment is a great joy – and I now have decades of experience recognizing it when it happens.


The second is I have found real joy and gratification in helping UNCA articulate its strategy to align our energies to move us forward, especially given the economic downturn that we’ve been through. The capacity that that dedication and precision have given us has been a real asset, so it has been a real joy to preside over the university and to enable that as one of the things that we hadn’t done before and that we always do now.


The third was when Forbes Travel Guide was the first to recognize Asheville as a cool college town, and when people all around Asheville started claiming us as an anchor institution and really thinking about the university as one of the pinnacles of the community assets, and worth supporting. To have our national reputation for quality recognized and celebrated as an asset for Asheville right here at home, every time it happens, as my sweet nephew would say, how cool is that!


FF: What has been your process and philosophy with respect to hiring other strong leaders?


AP: In relation to how I make selections for staff appointments and for increased work assignments, historically, the way to do that… is not my way. Historically the way to do that is to work really hard to develop a precise silhouette of the experience that you want, and then you look high and low and everywhere for the best fit for that silhouette. That’s at one end of the extreme. On the other end – and I’m pretty close to the other end – what you do is you hire great talent, and then you get them in the right jobs.


FF: A central focus of your strategic plan has been sustainability. What does sustainability mean to you in terms of that plan and what has been accomplished through it?


AP: Sustainability is not just an action item or a goal, but one of the major themes of UNCA. We are doing pretty well in all aspects of the triple bottom line: economic, social and environmental sustainability.


On economic sustainability we have doubled the endowment despite the recession. Under social sustainability, we now have a robust employee celebration; our regular recognition of employees is fun and looked forward to and a part of the fabric of the university’s life at this point.


In the realm of environmental sustainability, we use fewer BTUs than any other university in the system, well below the state average, and have gotten prizes for that. And if you look at any of the buildings, whether its our newest building, Overlook, which has many aspects of sustainability, claimed and celebrated by its occupants, now in its second year, or if you look out over our beautiful historic quad, all of us know that there are geothermal wells underneath half that quad that heat and cool a bank of buildings on this side of the campus. That’s a secret energy farm that looks like a lawn.


FF: As a native of this area who chose to return after years living and working in other places, why do you love Asheville?


AP: We have not only the beauty of our mountains, but the energy and acumen and intellectual depth of those of you who’ve chosen to come to this area. It’s the art, the technology, the culture, the healthy economy, the beer, the great University, Thomas Wolfe… that draw the “Live Anywheres,” those people who can live anywhere they want to and choose Asheville.


We have a program on creative retirement here at UNCA called the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. It is under a new name, but we have had that program for more than a quarter of a century. A recent economic impact study explained that at least 100 households move to Asheville per year just because we have that program, where there is a group of like-minded people who are interested in intellectual topics and in belonging to a community where there is a great university.


Also, there is something very special – and subtle but important – about the culture here in Asheville and in the mountains. There is a great celebration of eccentricity, a conviction about inclusion, and the bedrock of egalitarianism. If you see a gentleman in a flannel shirt in the grocery store, he might be a farmer and he might be the retired CEO of a Fortune 500 company; the secret to Asheville is that you would treat them both the same.


A piece of advice I give to writers or visiting lecturers or speakers or dignitaries who come to campus is that you never underestimate your audience in Asheville because you never know how rich and deep their knowledge and appreciation and experience can be.


FF: Who have been your influences, whom have you emulated, and who has inspired you?


AP: Part of this is that I am educator, but I find there is something inspiring about everyone – every student I encounter, every staff member I meet, every community leader I work with. And so I don’t map my admiration in relation to one hero or warrior or other, because those are people too. What I’ve tried to do is to discover what I might choose to emulate or be inspired by, facet-by-facet, in the people I meet and what I learn from them.


I’m an English major, so I read about people, and I read about characters. It doesn’t really matter to me whether those folks are people sitting in the room with me or whether I’ve never met them but only read their speeches. I think everybody’s heroic in some aspect or admirable in some aspect.


FF: You are a self-admitted voracious reader. What are your favorite recent reads?


AP: I just finished Benjamin Black’s The Black-Eyed Blonde: A Philip Marlowe Novel, which is a book written as Raymond Chandler wrote Philip Marlowe. It is quite eloquently done and, I think, interesting to find an Irishman who has the voice of mid-century L.A. And, more locally, one of our own alums, Wiley Cash’s first novel is A Land More Kind Than Home, which is set in Madison County.


FF: What plans for the future can you share?


AP: I am purposefully not making professional commitments, at least for a while, so that I can really explore the future and make space and time for that. I have already gotten in touch with some of my bicycling buddies and planned a bicycling trip for this fall.


I do plan to have Asheville as a home base in the future. My husband and I are becoming “Live Anywheres.” After all, if you could live anywhere, Asheville is one of the places that you could choose.



A couple of years ago, Frances Figart decided that if she could “live anywhere,” it would be Asheville. She writes about local topics related to sustainability, hosts a blog at, and is Web Content Manager for The Laurel of Asheville.



The fabulously fun and informative Lunch & Learn event with Saralyn Collins, sponsored by WNC Woman, takes place this month on October 16th. This month's lesson: CLOSING THE SALE: A PROCESS...NOT a Problem
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