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Julie Chen makes history as next chancellor of UMass Lowell

Julie Chen. (Courtesy UMass)
Julie Chen. (Courtesy UMass)
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LOWELL — Julie Chen, vice chancellor for research and economic development at UMass Lowell, was selected Monday by the UMass board of trustees to serve as the university’s next chancellor.

Chen makes history as the first Asian American, second woman and first LGBTQ+ person to become chancellor of the school. She will succeed outgoing Chancellor Jacquie Moloney, who will go into semi-retirement at the end of the current school year.

After the trustees announced her nomination and unanimous approval, Chen expressed her enthusiasm and appreciation for the role.

“Who would have known back when I was one of just a few women undergraduates in my mechanical engineering classes at MIT that I would be here with you today to accept this position. It’s a great honor,” Chen said. “Thousands of River Hawks, both here and across the world, the impact they’ve made and collectively the impact we can continue to make just gets me so excited.”

Chen received three degrees — her doctorate, Master of Science and Bachelor of Science — from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she studied mechanical engineering. Before joining the UMass Lowell faculty in 1997, Chen taught at Boston University for six years. In 2009, she was appointed to vice provost for research and in 2016 became vice chancellor, where she directs the university’s $95 million research enterprise.

During her tenure, Chen has worked and overseen a number of university projects, including the Fabric Discovery Center, a research facility for small and big businesses alike to create and test new types of textiles and the first in the U.S. to combine three Manufacturing USA Institutes.

Chen also co-leads the university’s Council on Social Justice and Inclusion and is a co-principal investigator on a $3.5 million project that seeks ways to motivate and strengthen female faculty in STEM roles at UMass Lowell.

Looking ahead, Chen said she hopes to attract national recognition for the university’s research, support Lowell’s economic development and “provide the best education and opportunities” for an increasingly diverse population.

“I recognize that being visible in that way helps our young people really see themselves and to see that they too can strive towards leadership roles where they can have an impact,” Chen said in an interview. “I’m also very excited about helping to lead a really outstanding team of people here on the campus and a lot of great partners externally to the campus, too.”

Moloney, UMass Lowell’s third and current chancellor, said she was “elated” to hear of Chen’s appointment. Moloney was the first female chancellor of the university and said she is pleased to see the university continue making historic strides — 50% of the university’s senior cabinet positions are women and people of color, so she said she feels diversity is important in moving the university forward.

Having worked with Chen on numerous projects during her time in the university’s executive cabinet, Moloney said she has witnessed firsthand Chen’s talent and extensive achievements. Now, Moloney said she’s ready to pass the baton to the best person for the job.

“It’s really been a privilege to work with somebody who’s so brilliant, and I was thrilled when she threw her hat in the ring,” Moloney said. “I think Julie will be a fantastic role model for those coming up through the university and around the community.”

The university formed a 10-person search committee in January to find potential candidates for the position, interviewing more than 30 people. Besides Chen, the committee announced last week two other finalists: Alan Dorsey, dean of the University of Georgia’s Franklin College of Arts and Sciences, and Paul Tikalsky, dean of Oklahoma State University’s College of Engineering, Architecture and Technology.

UMass President Marty Meehan said the university kept the process “open and fair,” but that he is proud to see Chen selected. Given Chen’s work at UMass Lowell and her strong performance during the interview process, Meehan said she is already prepared to jump in and do great work.

“She’s an outstanding scientist, but in particular, she’s able to work very well with business and industry and government,” Meehan said. “Greater Lowell relies on the university to not only educate the population here but also to create opportunities with business and industry, and Julie has been masterful at that.”

Meehan said electing a diverse candidate to chancellor is important — he himself helped appoint Moloney, as well as Robert Johnson, the first African American chancellor at UMass Dartmouth, and Marcelo Suarez-Orozco, the first Hispanic chancellor at UMass Boston.

While the pandemic has proved difficult for many institutions, UMass included, Meehan said Chen will be able to guide the university over the next few years.

“All universities are going to face challenges over the next few years, demographic challenges in particular,” Meehan said. “I have confidence in her ability to make sure that the unique education that students get at UMass Lowell will be highlighted and the job will continue to attract the best students.”

Chen said Moloney has had “an empathetic influence” over the university during the pandemic and said she hopes to build upon the foundation she and previous chancellors have established.

“It’s such a great institution,” Chen said. “The trust and confidence in me to lead it into the next chapter is something that I’m really excited about.”

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