When Allyson Handley became president of the Johns Hopkins Alumni Association in October, she brought to her new role an unusual depth of knowledge. As a former president of three colleges and universities, Handley has had an unparalleled view of how higher education works.
Handley also is the first graduate of the Johns Hopkins School of Education to lead the alumni group. Both her educational background and her background in education administration shape her perspective on leadership, she says.
“Because I’ve spent so much time in university settings, I bring a different skill set to the alumni council and the board of trustees,” says Handley. “Higher ed works differently than other businesses and organizations. I can be an interpreter between the university leadership and the alumni association.”
This is not the first time that Handley has been a trailblazer for the School of Education. She was among the very first students to receive a doctorate in education from the university.
Handley received her master’s in education in 1975, during an era in which the university only offered education classes only in the evening. When the university decided to offer a doctorate in education, Handley was one of seven people to enroll, and, in 1978, she became the second to graduate.
As a doctoral student, Handley led a research project examining the problem-solving skills of 4- and 5-year-olds. She grew close to her adviser, School of Education Professor Paul Daniels, and his wife, Madelyn, who became like a second set of parents to her, she says.
“We were made to feel very, very special,” she says. “There was a lot riding on this program. We received a lot of terrific support from the university, which is why I became devoted to Hopkins and wanted to give back in some way.”
After completing her dissertation, Handley served as a principal of a school for children with disabilities in what is now the Kennedy Krieger Institute. She joined the faculty of McGill University in Montreal, and, a few years later, National University in La Jolla, California. It was there that Handley assumed her first administrative role in higher education. She served as dean of the School of Education and Human Services, and then later became the vice president of university advancement and vice president of development and alumni relations.
From there, Handley served as president of Midway University in Kentucky, and then Cogswell Polytechnical College in the Silicon Valley. She later returned to Kentucky, working as a policy adviser to the governor, before being named president of the University of Maine at Augusta.
She remained in Augusta for nearly seven years, overseeing an increase in enrollment, the addition of new signature programs and the university’s first-ever capital campaign.
In each of her leadership roles, she says, she has worked to strengthen the institution’s finances. “I didn’t set out to be a financial turnaround queen,” she says. “But it turns out that I’m really good at helping an institution figure out how to create a sustainable funding plan.”
After leaving Maine in 2014, Handley served as the inaugural executive director of National University’s Sanford Education Center, a nonprofit start-up with a dual mission: empowering teachers and shaping the future of philanthropy. She also created an educational consulting company.
Today, Handley, who lives north of San Diego, is semiretired, which enables her to devote more time to the alumni association. She previously served as the association’s first vice president and chaired an ad hoc committee on lifelong learning.
Among those Handley has grown close to through the alumni association is doctoral candidate Elizabeth Humberstone. The two met in 2014 while serving on the Alumni Council, where Humberstone was a student representative. Although Handley was going through a career transition of her own, she took the time to mentor Humberstone, and has kept in regular communication with her over the years.
“I’ve also learned a lot just watching her at Alumni Council meetings, seeing how easily she is able to build rapport and genuinely connect with people she meets. She is so very kind and caring,” says Humberstone. “Developing a mentor relationship and friendship with her has been one of the highlights of my Hopkins experience.”
Encouraging such connections is one of Handley’s goals in her new role. She plans to focus on increasing alumni engagement, spurring graduates of all of Johns Hopkins schools to deepen their involvement with the group. She also plans to bolster digital outreach to alumni, including graduates of the university’s online degree programs. “If you don’t have a strong digital strategy, you’re going to lose a lot of people,” she says.
When Handley talks with alums, she asks them two questions: How can they become more involved in the alumni association? And how can they inspire others to do the same? “It all comes down to engagement,” she says.