By Andy Metzger
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
BOSTON — After touting his fundraising capabilities and pledging to make diversity a priority, UMass Lowell Chancellor and former Congressman Martin Meehan was chosen by the University of Massachusetts Board Friday to serve as the system’s next president, a choice made about 24 hours after Meehan’s candidacy was publicly disclosed.
Surpassing a Harvard business professor also vying for the job and other undisclosed candidates, Meehan won the support of the board to lead all five campuses after the university’s search committee chairman said Meehan had agreed to serve in the new post for ten years. While a contract is still being developed, a UMass spokeswoman said Meehan had accepted the job.
Meehan will take over from Robert Caret, who will leave the president’s post on June 30 to become chancellor of the University of Maryland. Caret started at UMass in 2011 and surprised the public university system when he announced his plans to step down last year.
“You may view me as the Lowell chancellor, but I’m paying attention for eight years to everything that’s going on in this system,” Meehan told the board Friday. He said, “There’s no such thing as status quo and there’s no such thing as mediocrity. That’s not the way I’ve ever operated.”
Meehan, long rumored to be the candidate to beat for the job, said he would accept the job if offered. After winning the job, Meehan told reporters Suffolk University “wanted to talk” to him in connection to their search for a new leader, and he said he made it clear to Suffolk that the presidency of UMass would be “my first choice.”
Robert Manning, a UMass Lowell graduate and chairman of MFS Investment Management, headed up the search and said the two finalists both committed to spend a decade in the job if selected. Board Chairman Victor Woolridge will head up salary negotiations with the president-elect. Meehan told reporters he has never taken a job for the pay, and said he had been offered more lucrative jobs than chancellor of UMass Lowell when he left Congress in 2007.
Meehan beat out Harvard Business School professor John Quelch, who stressed the importance of an academic background to lead the faculty and said the university should partner with corporations. A marketing expert who led the Massachusetts Port Authority’s board for eight years following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Quelch served up some tough medicine about his view of the state of the public university.
“A lot more can be done than has been done. UMass is good, but UMass is not great,” Quelch told the board. He said as a taxpayer in Massachusetts for almost 40 years he is “disappointed” in the school’s ranking in U.S. News and World Report.
Quelch’s comment that he would be “willing to come from Harvard to the University of Massachusetts” rankled trustee Richard Campbell, who also took issue with the professor’s contention that “a university is not a gas station for capitalism.”
“I do think a state university should be in part a gas station for capitalism,” Campbell said. He said the London-born academic is “brilliant” and would give the board a chance to “live chapters of Downton Abbey,” the television drama centered on an English country estate.
A former top Middlesex County prosecutor, Meehan spoke passionately and at length about what he said was a career-long commitment to diversity and his knack for persuading wealthy benefactors.
“I will personally raise more money than any person that’s ever been the president of this university,” Meehan promised the board. That was a departure from Quelch’s answer to a similar question: “There are some prospective donors who need to be husbanded at the central level.”
The university and its campuses seek funding from a variety of sources, looking for dollars from state government, various grants, tuitions and fees paid by students, and donors.
Telling reporters his departure from the head of his alma mater UMass Lowell will be “very emotional,” Meehan touted the campus’s accomplishments in online education, partnering with Raytheon on a campus in Kuwait and breaking fundraising records year after year. He also highlighted fiscal challenges while stressing the goals of raising expectations and increasing diversity.
“I bristle when I hear university presidents say they can’t be diverse because their SAT scores are too high,” said Meehan.
Meehan described a charged conversation he had upon noticing at his first commencement in Lowell that “every single” student given a “subjective” award was white.
Meehan said he had invited his friend Congressman John Lewis, a black man who worked to de-segregate the South, to speak at the commencement and he told the person in charge of the awards, “I’m not going to be embarrassed at my university ever again.”
Meehan said he asked for a review of the school’s club system and established an office of multicultural affairs.
As president, Meehan said he would work to collaborate with business and with other private colleges. He said he would seek a study looking at improving the school’s reputation, building up research and commercialization, creating academic success, gaining external support and developing a financial plan.
Before the vote, board members took turns heaping praise on Meehan along with occasional kudos or barbs for Quelch.
James Buonomo sounded a note of caution about Meehan’s ascension to the presidency.
“I am a little bit concerned that it won’t be as easy as Chancellor Meehan thinks to now be the boss,” Buonomo said before the vote. He said, “I think that will be a transition for him.”
Caret, who was not present for the vote, told the News Service he thinks the board made an “excellent choice,” and he said, “Marty has the experience, the political skills, the energy, to keep that momentum going.”
Both candidates remained in holding rooms at the university’s offices towering above Boston’s Post Office Square until the vote, according to a university spokesman.
“Whatever the outcome, I wish the system every success,” Quelch told the News Service after his interview but before the vote – declining to comment further.
Meehan said when he was chancellor UMass Lowell developed a report card to measure itself, but Meehan said he hadn’t dictated that approach. Meehan joked that if he announced there would be a report card right after taking over the chancellorship, “The faculty Senate would have voted no confidence probably the second week I was there.”
Senate President Stan Rosenberg, whose hometown of Amherst hosts a UMass campus, congratulated Meehan. “I know he will bring the same passion, knowledge, and success to his new role that he demonstrated during his leadership of UMass Lowell,” he said in a statement.