When Valerie Sheares Ashby first visited University of Maryland, Baltimore County in 2012, she had no idea, nor intention, to be the campus’s next president. But Freeman Hrabowski, a president who took the university to new heights, knew Sheares Ashby was destined to do the same thing.
After chairing a chemistry department, becoming a college dean and overcoming imposter syndrome, Sheares Ashby will be inaugurated Thursday — in front of the campus community and Gov. Wes Moore — as the sixth president of UMBC following Hrabowski’s 30-year leadership.
She started the job back in August after a stint as the dean of Duke University’s Trinity College of Arts & Sciences. Before then, she worked at her alma mater, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, in her home state. She joined the faculty in 2003 and chaired the chemistry department from 2012 to 2015.
UNC was the only college Sheares Ashby applied to as a high schooler. It’s not something she recommends to students today, but it worked out for her. The chemistry major joined her older sister who was there finishing her last year of medical school.
The science gene, she said, came from their father who taught math and science. Her mom, on the other hand, taught English.
She didn’t always know what she wanted to do. But she knew she didn’t want to be the type of student who changed their major multiple times. She chose chemistry because she liked it in high school. Later, she applied to medical school because that’s what her sister did, but it wasn’t the right fit.
“I actually faint at the sight of other people’s blood,” she said.
A college mentor told her she was better suited as a professor. He saw how much she loved tutoring her peers in chemistry. There was something about the process of taking confusion and turning it into clarity that felt incredible, Sheares Ashby said.
Fighting imposter syndrome
She followed her mentor’s advice and fell in love with teaching and research. But as she rose through the ranks, she became haunted by imposter syndrome, which she didn’t overcome until her early 40s. Being the one of the few women and women of color in the room could have been a factor, but it’s not exclusive to minorities, she said. High achievers, she’s noticed, are the common denominator.
“I have been in the room with some of the most successful white men you’ve ever seen who have it,” the 56-year-old said. “High achievers have this thing where we think we’re supposed to know how to do things we’ve never done.”
Sheares Ashby is the first woman to head UMBC and one of the few Black college presidents in the nation. Inside Higher Ed reported that between June 2020 through November 2021, a quarter of presidents and chancellors were Black. During that same period, women made up 35% of college presidents and they were more likely to be nonwhite compared to men.
The rarity for a Black woman to be in her position is something Sheares Ashby said she tries not to think about.
“So, I try not to walk around feeling the gravity of it because I just need to do my job,” she said. “But when I hear it, I’m like, ‘Oh yeah, it matters to people.’”
She hears how much it matters from her students, a stranger in the store and even from someone she was interviewed by.
“It gives people a sense that they can do whatever they want to do,” she said.
Throughout her career, she’s been one of the few, if not the only one, who looks like her. She started out as a professor at Iowa State University in 1996. A Black colleague told her “there were 12 Black people before you got here and now there are 13.”
She could spot herself and her friends in demographic data of graduates from the top 50 institutions in the nation. At one point, she was the only Black professor in her department at Chapel Hill. Diversifying the faculty is still an issue, she said, and a goal she wants to achieve at UMBC.
Hrabowski was a mentor
While a professor at Chapel Hill in 2012, Sheares Ashby visited UMBC for the first time to learn how to replicate the Meyerhoff Scholars Program. It was created under Hrabowski to prepare diverse students for careers in science, technology, engineering and math.
That was the first time she met her predecessor. Hrabowski became her mentor and she would regularly call him to ask him questions. She had no intention to do his job.
Hrabowski said he remembers her being the only woman in the group of chemists and was impressed with her leadership.
“I told her at that time, ‘You’ll become a college president.’ She laughed,” he recalled.
The former president notes that Sheares Ashby has experience running a major research university. He likes that she’s an independent thinker who listens, her love for the arts and humanities and that she has a strong moral compass.
“There’s no doubt that the university will have even better days in the future,” he said.
She received a call from a search firm who told her of Hrabowski’s retiring and asked if she’d be interested in taking over. Sheares Ashby thought that’d be crazy, and compared it to following Coach Mike Krzyzewski, Duke’s legendary men’s basketball coach.
“You don’t follow the GOAT,” she said, referring to Hrabowski as the greatest of all time.
Hrabowski is a star in the academic world. Under his leadership, the campus transformed from a local commuter school to one in the national spotlight, and produced the most Black students to obtain a Ph.D. in the natural sciences or engineering.
The firm was persistent and convinced Sheares Ashby to think about it. She hadn’t thought about UMBC for years, at that point. But she connected with the university’s vision statement, which was student-focused and highlighted inclusion.
Sheares Ashby went to multiple listening sessions that further validated she was the right person for the job.
‘A role model’
The new president wants UMBC to be a national model for inclusive excellence. She also created a new position, vice president for institutional equity and chief diversity officer, amid an ongoing U.S. Department of Justice investigation into the college’s response to sexual misconduct.
Farah Helal, a junior at UMBC, said the new president is a great listener. She wants a college president to both listen and act. They should see what the issue is and make progressive change, she said.
“Over the past couple months … she has really kind of embodied that,” Helal said.
She holds office hours for students, she’s attended a student government meeting and attends sports games. She goes out of her way to understand the campus culture, according to the junior, and said she’s someone to look up to.
“Being a woman, a Black woman at that, who’s so successful in the chemistry field … she, in her own way, is such a phenomenal role model for a lot of our campus community. Even those who aren’t in STEM,” she said.