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UMBC’s incoming leader: It’s all about ‘values and principles’

Incoming UMBC President Valerie Sheares Ashby. (Duke University/Shaun King)

When Freeman Hrabowski, the longtime leader of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, who led the once-little-known commuter school for three decades, announced his upcoming retirement, the central question on everyone’s mind was who could replace such a towering figure. 

Enter Valerie Sheares Ashby, a veteran university administrator, the current dean of Trinity College of Arts & Sciences at Duke University, a chemist by training, and, soon, the first woman to lead UMBC.  

Ashby’s appointment was announced early this month, and her first day will be Aug. 1. She spoke to The Daily Record about how her passion for inclusive excellence aligns with UMBC’s mission, what excites her about living and working in the Baltimore region and where she thinks the thriving research institution still has room to grow. 

The following interview has been edited and condensed for length. 

TDR: Were you familiar with UMBC prior to hearing about this position?  

Ashby: I was familiar with the school previously — their reputation absolutely precedes itself. I’ve known of UMBC for years now. Particularly, the work that they’ve done in inclusive excellence through the Meyerhoff program was my first awareness of UMBC. I have watched them over the years under President Hrabowski’s leadership.  

TDR: Tell me a little bit about how you decided that you wanted to apply for the position of president? Was there anything in particular that made you feel like it was an especially good fit? 

Values and principles, period. Their values are ones that are core to me. Their principles are ones that are core to me, and their vision is central to me. If you know anything about the vision of UMBC, if you read it, it is bold and it’s courageous and it is clear what matters and how they have decided to redefine excellence in higher education. And they’ve decided to do it through this inclusive culture, through innovative teaching and learning, through research across the disciplines — literally, that’s what the vision statement says. It goes on to say that they are going to advance knowledge and social prosperity and civic engagement. These are all values and principles that are core to me, and for an institution to adopt that, not just casually, but as a commitment every day is enough for me to be interested. 

TDR: Can you talk about some of the work that you do at your current institution, or have done at your previous institution, surrounding some of those core values? 

Ashby: At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, I was the director of the National Science Foundation’s Alliances for Graduate Education and the Professoriate. That is about increasing the number of underrepresented students getting Ph.D.s and then going on into academia. While I was chair of the Department of Chemistry, it was really important to us to think about diversity, excellence through diversity, and that started with trying to diversify further our faculty. 

Same at Duke. For Duke, we have a priority of excellence through diversity, excellence through leadership and mentoring and through teaching, research and service. That has shown up in multiple ways, including diversifying our faculty — not just the people, but what we actually teach, the breadth of what we offer to our students. It shows up in efforts at the university to ensure access to a very economically diverse student body. Those are some of the ways we’re always trying to deliver a world-class, liberal arts education and a research environment to every one of our students, and that is tied inextricably to diversity. It’s absolutely tied to diversity in every way. 

TDR: Moving on to your plans and your vision for UMBC: First of all, obviously, you’re following the legendary Dr. Hrabowski. Can you talk a little bit about what that feels like? 

Ashby: It feels like an honor. It feels like a privilege. It feels like a responsibility. It feels like a joy, to follow someone who has walked in those values day in and day out. Because that is who he is, and, therefore, that is who the institution has become. And it’s not just him. It’s the faculty, it’s the students, it’s the staff, it’s the way they are living and breathing because of it, through and with his leadership. So that’s a joy, to step into a culture that is clear on its values. That will be a pure joy for me. What a privilege to follow him. 

TDR: One of the main things that he’s known for around campus is sort of being out and about with the student population and knowing people. Is that similar to your leadership style? 

Ashby: Absolutely. For me, the beauty of having a career at an academic institution is the relationships that you build. That is with students, it’s with faculty, it’s with the staff. It is important for me to not only lead people, but I don’t actually know how to lead people that I don’t know. So, I spent quite a bit of time out and about and with students and faculty. I love that that is his style, because it won’t be surprising to them that it is mine.  

TDR: So, with how UMBC has grown so much in recent years and become such a strong research institution, what, coming in as president, are areas do you still want to focus on growing? 

Ashby: It has achieved so much in a relatively short period of time, so I’m really proud of what the faculty and staff and students have already accomplished, in teaching, and in research, and in service — they do all three. They are a relatively new R1 institution, and that’s a really big milestone for them.  

So now the question is, how is this institution going to continue? I do believe that, even as they come into this new Research 1 status, there is certainly room for building out and strengthening and making more visible some of the great work that’s happening in the humanities and the social sciences. Whenever I talk to people out in the world, they talk about, immediately, the STEM work that happens at UMBC, the work in the sciences and in engineering, and the students that are produced in those fields, and less so do I hear about the humanities and social sciences where I know they also have strengths. I would love for that to be more consistent across the disciplines. 

TDR: I know that you come from a STEM background, so it’s great that you care about amplifying the humanities. 

Ashby: One of the things that I love about the place from which I am coming is that I come from a college of arts and sciences. I have 38 units in the college. They range from dance and theater to philosophy and English and history to social sciences, sociology and political science and economics. Then, they go all the way to the natural sciences and physics and computer science.  

These last few years, I’ve really deepened my commitment to the breadth of a liberal arts education. I would not feel interested at all in an institution that only did science. Because I believe deeply that, as a scientist, I am better at what I do having had courses and been exposed to language and culture and ethics. How do you do science without ethics? How do you do any translational science without understanding people? And I think my humanists should also be digitally savvy. 

Ashby: Have you been to the UMBC campus yet and if so, what stuck out to you? 

I’ve been before, but I was there recently. On the day of the announcement, I was there for Monday and Tuesday. I love being on campus — oh my goodness, do I love being on campus. It was the first time I had the opportunity, recently, to spend time with people. I had a chance to meet students and have conversations with them and I had the chance to walk through the student center where people were eating and I got a chance to talk to the staff, and, oh my goodness, that is my heaven, to be immersed in a college campus. It was vibrant, and the students were so welcoming and so warm. 

TDR: Outside of your visits to UMBC, do you know Baltimore well, and, if not, what excites you about moving to the area? 

Ashby: I’ve been to Baltimore several times, but I’ve never spent significant time there. But I had the opportunity, while I was there Monday and Tuesday, to go to a United Way event with President Hrabowski in the city. That was fantastic, because I just had a chance to hear and meet folks from around the city who were not necessarily affiliated with UMBC.  

My impression of Baltimore is that there was a spirit of care, which was really beautiful. Maybe because I was sitting in the United Way space where, of course, there is care. But I get a real sense that people care about the people in the city and want to address issues that are challenging for the city. I am a civic engagement service person, so I care about the community in which I live, not just about the campus on which I work.  

It felt to me like a city that had, certainly, K-12 education needs, and a series of other needs. It’s an exciting place to be because, like all cities, there’s work to be done, and I think there’s work to be done that is really tied to the university and that the university could actually be a real asset in. But I want to be also clear that Baltimore’s an asset for the university — this is not a one-way thing.