Valerie Sheares Ashby, PhD, has a tough act to follow.
The new president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) succeeded Freeman Hrabowski III, PhD, MA, who served in the role for 30 years and helped transform UMBC into a leading research institution.
But does Ashby think about living up to Hrabowski’s legacy as she leads a university with more than 13,000 students and 2,000-plus faculty and staff members?
Not at all.
“People ask me all the time, ‘Was it a risk to follow Freeman?’ ” said Ashby, who counts the former UMBC president as one of her mentors. “I understand the question, but when you are doing the job, you don’t think about that. I have to get up and go to work every day, and I don’t have time to think about following Freeman.
“When I do think about Freeman, I think, ‘Oh, what a gift he left me — to build upon,’ ” Ashby said, adding that her rule of thumb is to stay in one position for no longer than 10 years. “I’m a strong believer in rotation of leadership. Yes, it’s great that we get to come down and lead this institution, but there’s going to be a moment when we’re going to level out and know that it’s time to go.”
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This was just one of the insights that Ashby and Salisbury University President Carolyn Ringer Lepre, PhD, MS, shared with a University of Maryland, Baltimore (UMB) audience Dec. 6 at the SMC Campus Center in the UMBrella Speaker Series event “A Presidents’ Panel Discussion.” The talk was moderated by Renée McDonald Hutchins, JD, dean of the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law, who asked questions on topics such as gender differences, leadership, mentoring, authenticity, and innovation.
Ashby’s thoughts about succeeding Hrabowski were in response to the question, “What’s the biggest risk you’ve ever taken?” Lepre said her biggest risk was agreeing to take the helm at Salisbury after serving as interim president, provost, and vice president for academic affairs at Radford University in Virginia, adding that making difficult decisions or proposing change carries risk through all endeavors.
“I can think of moments throughout my career where I’ve had to stick myself out there and people may not like what I’m about to propose or what I’m going to be doing,” she said. “When I was a faculty member, it might have been a proposal I was putting forward. When I was the director of an honors program, I proposed an entirely new curriculum to a campus that I wasn’t sure would appreciate why we needed to change.”
Both presidents began their terms this past summer and are among five women leading University System of Maryland (USM) institutions. One of them, Towson University’s Kim Schatzel, PhD, had been scheduled to take part in the panel but was named president of the University of Louisville on Nov. 30 and did not attend. The other two female USM presidents are Aminta Breaux, PhD, MS, of Bowie State University, and Heidi Anderson, PhD, MS, of the University of Maryland Eastern Shore.
The presentation was livestreamed, and it was the first UMBrella event since 2019 to feature an in-person component, noted Jennifer Litchman, MA, senior vice president for external relations and founder and chair of UMBrella (UMB Roundtable on Empowerment in Leadership and Leveraging Aspirations), which works to support the success of women and those who identify as women at the University.
On the subject of authenticity, Hutchins asked Lepre and Ashby if they thought that women, once expected to assimilate to a male-dominated workplace and adapt to a masculine vision of leadership, can now present their authentic selves and be successful.
“I would say yes, but with an asterisk,” Lepre said. “I think trying to be someone who you are not is exhausting. The biggest piece of advice I would give to somebody who’s thinking about moving into any leadership role is this: If you go in and try to be someone else, you are setting yourself up for failure. If you’ve built all the skills that are important to being a leader, they really just want you for you.
“Parts of our job as leaders is showing up and being as much as our whole selves as we can, not because it’s about us, but because it gives permission to other people to show up as themselves, too.”
Ashby, who previously served as dean of Duke University’s Trinity College of Arts & Sciences, agreed with Lepre, adding that her mentors, all men, have insisted that she always just be herself.
“When I was interviewing for the Duke job, I thought the first interview went pretty well but was so nervous about the next one, thinking, ‘I’m not sure I’m really what they want.’ But one of my mentors said, ‘They invited you back for a second interview!’ And then he started to joke with me, ‘Oh, yeah, next time go as somebody else.’
“So that is my authenticity, and the comfort that I feel in this job is not because I’m arrogant, it’s because I’m always going to be me, and I know how to be me, and then we’re going to see what happens.”
Both presidents said they are enjoying their new roles despite the added responsibilities, day-to-day challenges, and email inboxes that “mushroom overnight,” Lepre joked. And both agreed that staying connected to students is critical.
“When we say we’re going on a listening tour, we need to really, really listen,” Lepre said. “Don’t just talk to the people and the students who are recommended by others, go to the dining hall and just sit down and talk to them. And if someone comes up to you on campus and wants to talk, then you stop, and you listen.”
Ashby said she enjoys talking with students while walking around campus but also has office hours for one-on-one meetings on Thursdays, and “the students come in droves.”
“That’s not the only time I see students, but I see a lot of them on Thursdays,” she said. “They say, ‘I heard you have office hours, and I’ve brought six of my friends.’ This is where I get to see who they are, where they are, and then I can reconcile what I think we’re doing with what they are actually experiencing.”