Prior to her formal investiture of the role of president, when Valerie Sheares Ashby reflected on her first year at UMBC, she said, “Every day, I am surprised in a good way by how much people love this place, how committed they are, and what lengths they are willing to go to for each other. For students, for colleagues, for our vision, for our mission, for our community—people will go to great lengths.”
And at the presidential installation ceremony on April 27, 2023, Sheares Ashby, other speakers, and the UMBC community as a whole celebrated that shared commitment to a common vision—one that promises to redefine excellence in higher education through an inclusive culture.
President Valerie Sheares Ashby takes in the view from the 7th floor of the Albin O. Kuhn Library. The floor-to-ceiling windows frame campus, a wall-to-wall mural of manicured paths and greenery surrounding the academic buildings and residential halls. Most important to the scene are the students, walking in pairs, whizzing along on scooters, resting in the shade in a collective of hammocks.
“I love it when I walk across this campus and I see our students engaging with each other,” says Sheares Ashby. “I have been at institutions where we had a certain percentage of this population, of that population… but I have never seen this much true engagement where people didn’t get here and stay in their siloed group. That is a beautiful thing.”
It’s clear that Sheares Ashby finds her energy by tapping into the university’s vision statement—which aligns so closely with her own values, she says—and seeing and speaking with “her children, her students,” as she calls them. She becomes animated and eager to share their accomplishments. “I don’t need a big ta-dah for it to feel great to me. It is every single real, honest engagement with my people—my students, faculty and staff—that’s special to me,” says Sheares Ashby.
While she took up the mantle of the presidency on August 1 of last year, on April 27, 2023, Sheares Ashby was officially conferred with the charge of the Office of the President (and given a medallion symbolic of the office and heavy in its weight, as a reminder of the responsibility of the role).
Surrounded by lush displays of Maryland’s black and gold flower, black-eyed Susans, and state and campus leaders at her investiture ceremony, Sheares Ashby made a promise to the campus community and beyond.
“We look at our students as if we are looking at our own children. And so, I say to you, students: By our words and through our actions, we want you to feel that you belong and know that you are welcomed.”
A theme of thankfulness
The installation ceremony was the culmination of a week-long celebration of Sheares Ashby’s ongoing leadership of UMBC. If you want to know what mantra she’s been channeling through the build up and completion of this historic moment in the university’s timeline—not to mention her own life—it’s “gratitude.”
“How is it that I get to be here with these people whose values are right in the middle of my own?” she asks incredulously. “And they call it work.”
On the platform at Sheares Asbhy’s investiture—along with Maryland Governor Wes Moore, other elected officials, and leadership of the University System of Maryland and UMBC—were mentors from her own academic journey who have been guiding her for 40 and 30 years apiece.
“They thought I could do this when I was 18, when I did not have a clue. But I have so much gratitude for how people have invested in me, and for what my predecessor did. If [President Emeritus Freeman Hrabowski] had not been here, this would not be the place that I wanted to be. He actually did something here that gave the place the soul that it has.”
At an inauguration event celebrating faculty and staff, Sheares Ashby also stood up to acknowledge the efforts of the many different teams that make all of the fanfare possible. “I love thanking people,” she laughed. “I could do this all day.”
The gratitude goes both ways.
“It feels good,” said Janerra Allen, M.S. ’22, a fourth-year electrical engineering Ph.D. student selected by President Sheares Ashby to be a student marshal. “I feel encouraged and empowered to see a female in the role, and especially a woman of color.” Allen, who is the current president of the Black Graduate Student Organization, says she’s been cheered by Sheares Ashby’s commitment to graduate students and is looking forward to this next chapter of campus leadership. “I think that’s one unique characteristic of President Sheares Ashby, she can level with you and have a conversation with you, which just feels good.”
Thankfulness was a theme repeated by those close to President Sheares Ashby, including her older sister Beverly Sheares, associate professor of pediatrics at Yale University School of Medicine. “I’m immensely proud and grateful and happy for her and UMBC and for our family,” says Sheares. “She has worked very hard. She’s been committed to her work over a long period of time. And her commitment has been really focused. She has made sacrifices to get here. I’m so grateful that the work and the sacrifices have led to something so fantastic. This is the space she belongs in.”
A family legacy of generosity
Amid the solemnity of the investiture ceremony, a notable energy bubbled to the surface. With her hand to her heart, Sheares Ashby took in the words of welcome and responsibility and received them with a smile visible from the back risers of the Chesapeake Employers Insurance Arena. Acknowledging her family in the front row, Sheares Ashby honored the home created by her late parents, James and Shirley Sheares, who nurtured curious children and gave them a sense of humor and joy, and continually modeled a life of service to others.
She then paused her remarks to surprise her family by announcing her establishing an endowed scholarship in her parents’ names—a need-based scholarship, for undergraduate and graduate students across the disciplines. As the audience stood to applaud, Sheares Ashby followed the moment with a quip—one of many moments of laughter throughout the event.
“And I can hear my mother’s voice saying, ‘Now don’t be skimpy…make sure you put enough in there so that the children have what they need.’ Yes ma’am.”
A continuity of leadership
Throughout the week of events celebrating Sheares Ashby’s presidency, organizers often remarked that UMBC had no playbook for this. In April 2023, the Chronicle of Higher Education reported that the average tenure of a college president has shrunk yet again, now to below six years. Yet prior to this semester, UMBC had not installed a president in 30 years.
Mary Ann Richmond ’93, history, UMBC’s government and community relations manager, who served as an event staff lead on the week’s events, remembers serving as an usher at Hrabowski’s installation just a few months after she graduated. She didn’t know, she said, that they were ushering in the next three decades of campus leadership.
“When I think back about things that were starting when I was a student—I came in the same year as the first cohort of Meyerhoff Scholars, and the Shriver Center was just getting started. And now, seeing the university 30 years later and what it’s become, is just amazing.”
Now she can’t help but wonder, “Could this be the next 30 years? President Sheares Ashby is going to do such a fantastic job, and no matter how long it lasts, I know we’re in really good hands.”
Also present throughout the inauguration events representing continuity through UMBC’s different chapters of leadership were members of the first four graduating classes at UMBC, known as the Founding Four. Sheares Ashby, who was just 13 days old when UMBC first opened its doors on September 19, 1966, praised the commitment of the founding graduates who took a chance on a burgeoning institution and have never looked back. (She even took a moment to hold up their recently completed book This Belongs to Us.)
In the intervening decades, UMBC has grown from a new institution on which students had to take a chance to a Carnegie Classified Research 1 university, consistently ranked as one of the nation’s most innovative campuses, and the number one producer of Black undergraduates who go on to earn doctorates in the life sciences, math, and computer sciences combined, as well as of Black undergraduates who go on to earn the combined M.D./Ph.D.
“And we are not done,” said Sheares Ashby from the platform. “UMBC possesses a willingness to continue to question the status quo, to consider the world’s ever-changing challenges and circumstances—and to innovate to serve our students.”
A new champion for the university
In that spirit, this spring, the Retriever community came together in a series of conversations called UMBC BOLD—sessions that laid the groundwork for the university’s next phase of strategic planning. These were deeply engaging discussions—with more than 1,000 attendees—about the community’s bold aspirations for the undergraduate and graduate student experience, the research enterprise, economic development, community engagement, and more.
Sheares Ashby attended each of the 22 listening sessions. “I heard so many things that were exciting to me, and I heard a lot of room for opportunity. There are a lot of opportunities,” she said. She came away brimming with ideas to carry forward with her in following years of her leadership.
“My bold aspiration for UMBC? I want us to be nationally and internationally known as a model of inclusive excellence in higher education.” She stops for a beat and leans back in her seat on the 7th floor of the AOK Library (named after the university’s first leader, Albin Owings Kuhn), framed by the moving mural of campus behind her.
“Anyone could say this, but nobody else is doing it—and I say this without hesitation as a scientist who knows that the word ‘nobody’ is like ‘a hundred percent.’ There’s no other institution that has figured out how to do inclusive excellence in research.”
Sheares Ashby is working to continue the UMBC legacy and story, and she has the support of the campus community and beyond. Those library windows that look out across campus include Arbutus and Catonsville, too. Perfectly outlined on a clear day is the Baltimore City skyline and the Francis Scott Key Bridge, connecting other parts of Maryland together. Maryland Governor Wes Moore highlighted Sheares Ashby’s “unbridled excellence,” making her “absolutely right for this moment.” Her mentor since her undergraduate years, Henry Frierson, told the audience at the installation, “You have truly gained a new champion for the university.” Joseph DeSimone, Sheares Ashby’s Ph.D. advisor and long term mentor, called the president, “a servant leader.”
And she is ready to get to work. She wants to help realize the university’s potential as seen through the Bold conversation series and driven by the university vision.
“I think we can simultaneously be that institution [a model of inclusive excellence] and not lose our core values—the way we care for people, the way we love our people, the way we are committed to this institution, the way we do teaching,” she says. “We can do that. And we can do it better than anybody else because I don’t think anybody else is as serious about it as we are. That’s my bold aspiration.”