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Opinion | Marsh Carter and Deanna L. Yameen

Dr. Sherry Penney’s visionary leadership reshaped Boston

Sherry Penney, then-new Chancellor of UMass, talked with Peter Cressy,  the Chancellor or UMass Dartmouth in 1995.
Sherry Penney, then-new Chancellor of UMass, talked with Peter Cressy, the Chancellor or UMass Dartmouth in 1995. (Globe file 1995)

“A good hockey player plays where the puck is. A great hockey player plays where the puck is going to be.” — Wayne Gretsky

By the late 1990’s, even Boston’s business establishment was stymied. They needed a more diverse workforce and more representative leaders but did not know how to get there. Dr. Sherry Penney knew.

It was not about going to other places to recruit diverse leaders. She knew that the residents of Greater Boston had the potential; they simply did not have the opportunity. The systems and structures that produced white male leaders was not equipped to start raising and supporting a more diverse group of individuals.

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As Boston moved toward becoming a majority-minority city, Sherry was the first to not only see it, but she recognized it for the opportunity it could be. Then she acted. Sherry worked with her industry partners State Street Corp., the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, Eversource (then NSTAR), Blue Cross Blue Shield, and others.

She garnered their support and promised to build them a highly diverse pool of candidates for their leadership positions. After retiring in 2000 from leading the University of Massachusetts Boston, Sherry went to work. She founded the Center for Collaborative Leadership at UMass Boston and created the Emerging Leaders Program.

Both of us have been involved with this work since the early days. Both of us began by accepting Sherry’s invitation.

To State Street, Sherry presented her idea as a strategic imperative to the company. She did not ask for philanthropy. She requested and received $250,000 because she knew where the puck was going to be — for State Street and other corporations.

The center and program lives on today, bringing together rising leaders from businesses, nonprofits, and government offices.

Sherry was only 4 feet 10 inches, but she was a towering figure for so many women in Boston during the ’80s and ’90s. Many of us had never seen a woman lead a university — until Sherry became the first female chancellor in the UMass system. But she was more than a role model. She walked the walk on diversity. Under her leadership at UMass Boston, the faculty went from less than a third to more than 41 percent female. Faculty of color rose from under 13 percent to 20 percent. Moving these needles is no easy thing in the tradition-bound world of academia.

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Some people donate money to create change. Some people reach out to others and help them. Sherry worked with her colleagues across multiple sectors and understood the need to change the actual structures that created inequality and held it in place. She did not hesitate to challenge the centuries old Boston status quo. Sherry’s wisdom helped her see beyond what was to what could be created together.

Sherry used her connections and privilege to break the mold of individualistic leadership development. She paved the way for rising leaders to access her network and have a voice at the table.

As we mourn her untimely and tragic passing last week at the age of 81, we will carry on Sherry’s legacy through the Center for Collaborative Leadership, which has raised 698 diverse leaders. The center’s focus remains collaborative leadership of teamwork, trust, and diversity of thought. This sounds like what Boston needed then and is absolutely what Greater Boston and our country need right now.

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In honor of Sherry, we’d like to extend the invitation to you. Please join us.


Marsh Carter is the former chair and CEO of State Street Corp. and Deanna L. Yameen is chair of the Center for Collaborative Leadership board and vice provost at Massasoit Community College.