UMass Boston Community Gathers to Remember Former Chancellor Sherry Penney

Colleen Locke | Wed Nov 6, 2019

Sherry Penney Was UMass Boston’s Longest Serving Chancellor and System’s First Woman President

A packed room of former colleagues, community collaborators, and alumni gathered on Monday, November 4, to celebrate the life and accomplishments of UMass Boston’s longest serving chancellor, Sherry H. Penney, remembering her as a pioneer, a leader, and a collaborator.

Penney passed away in May at the age of 81.

“She was a true visionary,” Interim Chancellor Katherine S. Newman said. “She worked tirelessly to advocate for diversity and leadership both here at UMass Boston, in the greater Boston business community, and in the state as a whole.”

Penney led the UMass Boston campus for 11 years, from 1988 to 1995 and again from 1996 to 2000, serving as the only woman president in the history of the UMass system between 1995 and 1996.

Former Interim Chancellor Jean MacCormack speaking at Sherry Penney's Celebration of Life to a full house

During Penney’s Celebration of Life, Newman and former Vice Chancellor for Administration and Finance Jean MacCormack talked about how Penney led UMass Boston during a time when the campus was faced with one of the most severe funding crises in university history. Yet she still worked successfully to grow UMass Boston’s research enterprise and graduate program offerings.

During her 11-year tenure as chancellor, Penney initiated major fundraising efforts, oversaw the reorganization of the colleges, and increased enrollment to more than 12,000. That said, it was the changes in the campus makeup that Newman considers to be Penney’s greatest legacy. In 1988, less than a third of the faculty were female. By 2000, that figure increased to 41 percent. Faculty of color rose from under 13 percent in 1988 to 20 percent by the year 2000, and the university went from 1 in 12 students who were women or minorities to 1 in 3.

“This I think will really stand as Chancellor Penney’s most enduring accomplishment – the opening of our doors to the most deserving of the commonwealth’s students,” Newman said.

Guest book next to photo of Sherry Penney

MacCormack, who was serving as assistant chancellor when Penney arrived and later served as interim chancellor when Penney went to the president’s office, said Penney came “with a unique vision for an urban research university which could be inclusive and innovative and could become a model for others.”

“She encouraged leadership training activities and supported us in taking on new roles,” MacCormack said. “She never wanted us to be chasing the curve – she always wanted us to be ahead of the curve.”

It was no surprise that after her retirement as chancellor in 2000, Penney founded the Center for Collaborative Leadership, serving as its director until 2012. Hubie Jones, former special assistant to the chancellor for urban affairs, spoke about the 757 alumni of the center’s signature Emerging Leaders Program.

“Now just think about the impact that they have had on transforming the opportunity systems in Boston, and helping to make a more collaborative culture here, not to mention helping to shape greater social integration of leaders across the divides of race, ethnicity, gender, and social class,” Jones said. “This has been an immense gift to all of us in the city and in this region.”

Former UMass Board of Trustees Chair Grace Fey and Former Associate Chancellor Ed Toomey also spoke about the leader who possessed a mental toughness and pioneering spirit, and a warm and gracious manner. Watch their comments and the whole speaking program.

Michael Penney

The event concluded with remarks from Penney’s son, Michael Penney, who shared some reflections on his mother’s life and talked about her death, which he said was easily preventable. Sherry Penney and her husband, James Livingston, died when their 2017 Toyota Avalon, which had a keyless ignition system, was accidentally left running in the garage, filling their condo with carbon monoxide.

“Since that day, we found many other stories of people who have been killed by their keyless cars,” Michael Penney said. “We found more than 37 people have died this way since 2005, and just for some context, more than twice the number of people have been killed than from the exploding [Takata] airbags.”

Michael Penney urged the UMass Boston audience to tell their lawmakers to support the Protecting Americans from the Risks of Keyless Ignition Technology (PARK IT) Act that Congresswoman Janice Schakowsky of Illinois introduced in the House in June and Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut introduced in the Senate before Penney and Livingston’s deaths—in February. The PARK IT Act requires the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to finalize a rule that vehicles automatically shut off after a period of time to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning, and a rule that sets a performance standard to prevent rollaway.

“At heart, Mom was an activist and I’m going to encourage all of you to take some action today,” Michael Penney said. “With all the things going on in government today, an act like this that would have saved my mother might seem like a small thing, but as a technologist, I see how rapidly our technology has outstripped the rules we live by. As we move into dealing with self-driving, connected vehicles, and other innovations, we need to have increased focus on the impacts that technology has.”

Established by the Center for Collaborative Leadership, the Sherry Penney Legacy Fund will allow the center to continue to flourish by supporting the operation of the center, enabling scholarships to small nonprofit and governmental agency fellows, and funding research and conferences that advance UMass Boston’s position as a thought leader in the collaborative leadership arena.

About UMass Boston
The University of Massachusetts Boston is deeply rooted in the city’s history, yet poised to address the challenges of the future. Recognized for innovative research, metropolitan Boston’s public university offers its diverse student population both an intimate learning environment and the rich experience of a great American city. UMass Boston’s 10 colleges and graduate schools serve more than 16,000 students while engaging local and global constituents through academic programs, research centers, and public service. To learn more, visit www.umb.edu