Dear Commons Community,
It has been a tumultuous year at the University of Massachusetts at Boston capped by a canceled search for a new chancellor. As reported by The Chronicle of Higher Education:
“In April 2017, the sitting chancellor, J. Keith Motley, announced he was stepping down after a decade in the position. Motley had deep connections to the city, where he had lived since he studied at Northeastern University, in the 1970s.
He was widely credited with building the university’s reputation both in the city and nationally. During his tenure, money for research increased by 50 percent, the university earned a higher Carnegie Classification, and it drew 25 percent more students. Motley also led the university to develop an ambitious, $700-million construction plan that included a new science building and, for the first time, dormitories.
Sharon Lamb, a professor of counseling and school psychology, said Motley was trying to change the narrative about the university, from one that served only disadvantaged urban students into one with broader appeal and greater emphasis on research.
But by the time he stepped down, he was being blamed for a $30-million deficit in the university’s operating budget. An audit in November found that under Motley’s leadership, the university had provided sloppy oversight of spending and had treated its budget “as a ‘guideline’ and not an ‘operational reality.’”
A report by a group of unionized staff and faculty members, however, blamed the deficit primarily on faulty accounting by the system and on administrative bloat.
To replace Motley, Martin T. Meehan, the U. Mass system president chose Barry Mills as interim chancellor. Mills was a former corporate lawyer in Manhattan and, from 2001 to 2015, was president of Bowdoin College, a small, selective, liberal-arts institution in rural Maine.
Faculty members were skeptical, at first, that Mills would fit in and understand the culture at a university so different from Bowdoin, said C. Heike Schotten, an associate professor of political science and the incoming chair of the Faculty Council’s executive committee. But his leadership style was more transparent than that of his predecessor, Schotten said, and he seemed to develop a real affection and respect for the college.
Not that all his decisions were popular. In Mills’s efforts to close the university’s budget deficit, he made unpopular cuts even as the costly campus face-lift continued. More than three dozen staff members were laid off, and dozens more faculty members took early retirement. In addition, Mills closed a day-care center that served the children of some staff members and students. The university also cut spending for 17 academic centers, such as the William Joiner Institute for the Study of War and Social Consequences.
Mills’s tenure has also been unexpectedly brief: Appointed in an interim capacity in July 2017, he announced in October that he would step down at the end of the spring semester to make way for a new permanent chancellor.
On top of everything else, in March the system’s flagship, in Amherst, announced that it was buying the 70-acre campus of Mount Ida College, just 10 miles from the Boston campus. To some faculty members on the Boston campus, the message was that the wealthy, majority-white flagship could spend money that wasn’t available to the urban campus that serves low-income students of color.
The announcement of the Mount Ida sale was the final straw for faculty members. On May 15 the faculty at Boston voted no confidence in Meehan and in the system’s Board of Trustees. Less than a week later, with the announcement of a new chancellor just days away, the faculty lashed out again, with a collective letter declaring that none of the finalists were up to the job.
“You have to view that action as part of the much larger context,” said Richard M. Freeland, who served for more than 20 years in various posts on the Boston campus. “The faculty were feeling neglected, ignored, and to some degree abused,” said Freeland, the state’s commissioner of higher education from 2008 to 2015.
While faculty dissatisfaction focused on the qualifications of the candidates for chancellor, an underlying concern was that the search process had excluded the concerns of faculty members, said Lamb, the counseling professor. Only two of the search committee’s 15 members were professors.
And the cuts in the staff and in programs made many people question whether the university was abandoning its mission to serve the community at the expense of meeting its bottom line, she said.
Lamb, who also serves on the Faculty Council’s executive committee, said she and others are now ready to put the chancellor-search backlash behind them, and look for ways to work with the new interim chancellor, Katherine S. Newman, who had been serving as the system’s senior vice president for academic affairs.
Meehan, too, is emphasizing cooperation, as he seeks to help the Boston campus pay for its building expenses. “We need to better coordinate our ask for more state money,” Meehan said in an interview.
Last week Meehan met with the executive committee of the Faculty Council, and sent a letter to state legislators detailing the construction costs that the state could pay. Those include $80 million to shore up the underground garage, which sits below three other buildings; $260 million to safeguard utilities; and $70 million for a new parking garage.
Schotten, who will be the committee’s chair in September, also says it’s time to move forward, But she sees the upheaval as a win.
“We dared to take our place at the table for shared governance and provide feedback,” said Schotten “That threw a wrench into the works. I think the faculty did all the right things, and we have gotten President Meehan to have the right priorities for our campus.”
The faculty were right to take the actions they did. We hope that one of our great public urban univeristies can now move forward.