Remembering Chancellor Sherry H. Penney

Office of Communications | Sun May 12, 2019

The University of Massachusetts Boston and its extended community mourn the loss of former Chancellor Sherry H. Penney, who passed away in Florida last week. Dr. Penney was known for her exceptional leadership, both as chancellor and as founder of the highly successful Center for Collaborative Leadership.

The longest-serving chancellor of UMass Boston, Dr. Penney led the campus for 11 years, from 1988-1995 and 1996-2000. She also served as interim president of the UMass System in 1995-1996. Upon her retirement in 2000, she founded the Center for Collaborative Leadership and served as its director until 2012.

Dr. Penney’s vision and determination were evident early on. When she entered the University of Michigan’s doctoral program in ancient history, an advisor warned her that—since she was female—a university would never hire her as a faculty member. Penney noted that her advisor wasn’t ill-intentioned, just realistic. But it was that moment, she later said, when she decided “to become a university president so this would never happen to anybody else.”  

Sherry Penney at commencement

When she became chancellor of UMass Boston, Dr. Penney was faced with one of the most severe funding crises in university history, brought on by the state’s economic difficulties in the late 1980s. Nevertheless, she worked successfully to grow UMass Boston’s research enterprise and graduate program offerings. She also significantly deepened the university’s relationships with the surrounding, diverse communities of Boston, including her support for the founding of the Mauricio Gastón Institute for Latino Community Development and Public Policy and the Institute for Asian American Studies.

Sherry Penney meets Al Gore

Dr. Penney understood the critical role of diversity as a source of the university’s strength. In 1988, less than a third of the faculty were female; by 2000, more than 41 percent were women. Faculty of color rose from under 13 percent in 1988 to 20 percent in 2000.

When Dr. Penney retired in 2000 as chancellor, an endowed chair enabled her both to teach in the College of Management and to develop the Center for Collaborative Leadership. The center’s signature offering, the Emerging Leaders Program, cultivated a diverse cadre of nearly 800 people over the years who, she said, “are changing the face of leadership in our region.” Dr. Penney worked tirelessly to advocate for leadership diversity in Boston’s corporate, nonprofit and government sectors. That vision is doubtless one of her most important legacies. 

Sherry Penney and emerging leaders

Dr. Penney’s achievements earned her numerous honors. In 2013 UMass Boston conferred professor emerita status upon her. In conveying the award, the Chancellor and Provost characterized her contributions as “transformative,” citing her “invaluable contributions to making our campus a compelling force in the sphere of public higher education.”

“Chancellor Penney was an extraordinary leader at UMass Boston and a good friend to the institution even though in retirement she lived far away,” said Interim Chancellor Katherine Newman. “She was one of the first people to step forward and ask how she could help me in my new role and never failed to congratulate the campus when good news about its achievements surfaced in the press. Her activities in connection with the Center for Collaborative Leadership brought her to Columbia Point on many occasions during my short time here, and it was a pleasure to learn from her. Sherry Penney will be missed greatly. We send our condolences to her relatives and to the family of her devoted husband, Jim Livingston.”  

“The UMass family is saddened to learn of the passing of former UMass Boston Chancellor Sherry Penney and her husband and collaborator, James Livingston,” said UMass Boston President Marty Meehan. “Sherry, who also served as interim university president, was an expert in leadership who both studied and demonstrated the benefit of women in leadership roles. Our thoughts are with Sherry and James’ loved ones.”

Dean Arindam Bandopadhyaya added that “Dr. Sherry Penney left an indelible mark on countless colleagues and adoring beneficiaries in the College of Management. Indeed, with her indefatigable grit and determination to inform all the importance of diversity in leadership she has revolutionized the way in which leadership education is viewed in various programs of study in the college. We are ever so grateful to have had Dr. Penney as a part of us – her effervescent presence will be greatly missed by all.”

“When someone reaches the age of 81 and your first thought is that they were taken far too soon, that is a life well-lived,” said Lisa DeAngelis, director of the Center for Collaborative Leadership. “Sherry was a visionary with the tenacity to enact that vision. Sherry believed that each of us had an obligation to step into our leadership and pushed us to do just that. She will be sorely missed, but the impact of her legacy will be felt for generations to come.”