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UMBC’s next president will be an academic dean from Duke

Valerie Sheares Ashby will succeed Freeman A. Hrabowski III at the University of Maryland Baltimore County

Valerie Sheares Ashby. (Shaun King/Duke University)
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A chemist who is dean of arts and sciences at Duke University was named Monday to become the next president of the University of Maryland Baltimore County.

When she takes office on Aug. 1, Valerie Sheares Ashby will be the first woman to lead UMBC and its first new president since 1992. She will succeed Freeman A. Hrabowski III, a nationally known education leader, who is retiring after three decades at the helm of the public university.

Ashby, who counts Hrabowski as a mentor, said she is committed to continue the pursuit of “inclusive excellence” that has been a hallmark of his tenure.

“He is a legend,” Ashby said in a telephone interview. “I always refer to him as the presidents’ president.”

Ashby said UMBC also has a strong team of leaders and faculty members dedicated to promoting academic opportunity and achievement for students of all backgrounds. Hrabowski is often cited as an innovator in the teaching of science, technology, engineering and math. He espouses the view that disadvantaged students, with proper financial aid and other resources, can and must succeed in STEM fields.

He transformed a small university in Maryland. Now Freeman Hrabowski is ready for his next act.

“When I get nervous about following Freeman, I think, you know, they are already doing the work,” Ashby said. “It is well established what their principles and values are. And those are mine.” She said she is “excited and energized” to move to the 13,500-student university.

Ashby, 55, has been dean of the Trinity College of Arts and Sciences at Duke since 2015. It is the largest school for undergraduates at the private university in Durham, N.C. Previously she chaired the chemistry department at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She earned her bachelor’s degree and doctorate in that field from UNC.

The University System of Maryland’s Board of Regents chose Ashby following a national search after Hrabowski announced his retirement. Her annual starting salary will be $605,000, the system said.

“Dr. Ashby is clearly the impressive scholar and dynamic leader we need to build on the strong foundation of inclusive excellence at UMBC,” Linda R. Gooden, chair of the board, said in a statement. “UMBC is a jewel — nationally and internationally recognized for its innovative teaching and pathbreaking research. All of this success is due to the dedication and hard work of President Hrabowski and his outstanding team. The Board of Regents knows this legacy will be in good hands with Dr. Ashby.”

Jay A. Perman, the system chancellor, added in a statement, “Without question, she has the experience and the attributes needed to grow UMBC’s academic and research prominence, and she’s steeped in the culture of inclusive excellence that has made the university a national exemplar of access, equity, and achievement.”

UMBC has about 10,900 undergraduates, nearly 90 percent from Maryland. About 37 percent identify as White, according to federal data, while 22 percent identify as Asian American, 20 percent as Black or African American, 9 percent as Hispanic or Latino and 5 percent as multiracial. Others are international students or of unknown racial background.

Twenty-nine percent of undergraduates have enough financial need to qualify for Pell grants. UMBC’s six-year graduation rate is 70 percent.

At the outset of the coronavirus pandemic, UMBC was among many universities that shifted to remote teaching, and then to a hybrid of online and in-person instruction. Its campus in Catonsville, Md., is now back to nearly normal operations.

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This year, UMBC celebrated a milestone when the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education determined that UMBC had reached the highest level of research universities. That level, commonly known as R1, is reserved for 146 schools with “very high research activity.” Two other R1 schools in the state are the University of Maryland at College Park and Johns Hopkins University.

Ashby said she wants to build on that accomplishment and boost the stature of graduate education at UMBC. “Inclusive excellence in the research world is a bold, courageous statement,” Ashby said. “It does not happen as frequently as one might think.”

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