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Inside Marty Meehan’s campaign to remake UMass Lowell

The former congressman is remaking UMass Lowell with a little marketing savvy (and a lot of multimillion-dollar gifts).

Meehan is omnipresent on campus.

Kevin Harkins

Meehan is omnipresent on campus.

MARTY MEEHAN MAKES A BEELINE toward a group of nervous-looking freshmen as if they’re a line of undecided voters coming off the day shift. Stickered with name tags and lugging bags of newly purchased textbooks, they seem startled to see the 55-year-old hurtling toward them, one hand running through his statesman-like copse of white hair. But the upperclassman serving as their orientation leader looks used to it.

This, he tells his jittery flock, is the man who left a seat in Congress to take the job of chancellor of his alma mater, the University of Massachusetts Lowell, where they will be part of the most select class ever. Meehan is omnipresent on campus, working out in the gym, glad-handing students and alumni at games, and teaching a class in political science.

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No one seemed to think that Meehan would stick around very long when he was appointed to head this hard-luck campus, where enrollment was stagnant and the newest academic building was more than three decades old. Yet this summer marked his fifth anniversary on the job, and the surprisingly speedy culmination of major building projects, record fund-raising, faculty hiring, and a surge in the number and credentials of students — all against the backdrop of an economic downturn, cuts in state funding, and the reality that, even in the Internet age, change at many other universities slogs along at medieval speed.

Although there’s still speculation Meehan will return to politics — he has, after all, hung onto a nearly $5 million war chest — today he’s not campaigning with anyone except these incoming freshmen. Some of them ask Meehan about their problems getting housing, which is suddenly tighter at this onetime commuter school, given its enrollment growth. Meehan has already bought a downtown hotel and transformed it into, among other things, living space for 400 students. He’s building two dorms, a student center and a new food court, and a couple of parking garages. Then there’s the $80 million technology and innovation center, which opens this fall, a new $40 million health and social sciences building, and plans for a new home for the business school.

Few outside Lowell may have noticed all of this activity. But students have. UMass Lowell is suddenly hot. Its ambitious upgrades, along with an aggressive recruiting push, have helped triple the number of applications in the past five years, from 3,439 to nearly 10,000. Enrollment has increased 37 percent while Meehan has been chancellor, to more than 15,000, while the number of students at flagship UMass Amherst edged up only a third as much. The average SAT score among incoming freshmen has jumped by 44 points. So has the university’s place in the all-important US News & World Report rankings, rising 11 spots to 177th among national universities.

The boldest of the freshmen whose orientation visit Meehan interrupted says he plans to major in political science, and he has a question that leaves the congressman-turned-chancellor at an uncharacteristic loss for words: Would having a tattoo hurt his own aspirations, the young man asks, of someday running for office?

Meehan runs his hand through his hair again and thinks about it. “It may have mattered once,” he finally says. But in politics, as in life, the passage of time makes a difference. “Sometimes,” he says, “things can change.”

 

***

STRADDLING A SHARP TURN in the Merrimack River, UMass Lowell started not as one university, but two: the Lowell Normal School, a teaching college founded in 1894 on one side of the river, and the Lowell Textile School, which opened the year after, on the other. Its history has been dominated by a series of hopeful mergers, name changes, and reorganizations. The two schools became Lowell State and Lowell Tech, then were combined in 1975 to form the University of Lowell, which was appended to the University of Massachusetts system in 1991.

In addition to its schizophrenic origins, the university suffered from the long decline of its surrounding city, which the school did its best to dispossess. Meehan, who graduated in 1978 with a degree in education and political science, remembers highway signs that directed visitors through Chelmsford or Andover to avoid them passing abandoned mill buildings and boarded-up homes. “There used to be a strategy here to pretend we weren’t in Lowell,” he says.

Meehan working out in the gym.

Kevin Harkins

Meehan working out in the gym.

Meehan’s predecessor, William Hogan, served for 25 years — 3½ times the average tenure of a university chief executive today. Universities build to compete, especially in engineering and the sciences, yet not one new academic building went up during that time. (Hogan did oversee some additions, including dorms and a recreation center.) “There was just a sort of budgetary conservatism,” says Michael Carter, president of the faculty senate and chairman of the economics department. Hogan “was just so focused on running that little surplus every year, he missed a lot of potential opportunities for the campus to grow.” He also, Carter says, lacked the kind of charm that separated donors from their money. 

Fairly or not, in a state whose private universities eclipse its public ones and whose other public universities are overshadowed by the Amherst campus, UMass Lowell seemed an also-ran among also-rans. “It didn’t get the respect that it deserved,” says alumnus Jack Clancy, CEO of Lowell’s Enterprise Bank. “We were making do with what we had,” says Brian Dano, a senior from Merrimack, New Hampshire, and president of the Student Government Association.

When Hogan retired in 2006, Meehan quickly surfaced as a candidate for chancellor. He was a Lowell native, after all — one of seven children of a compositor at the Lowell Sun — and an alumnus in his seventh term in Congress after having promised not to run for more than four. In excess of 100 people were considered for the job, nine of whom were interviewed in what UMass officials called “a thorough and comprehensive search.” But critics saw Meehan’s selection as a foregone conclusion. Today, even one of the members of the panel jokingly remembers it as the “Marty Meehan Search Committee.”

To hear Meehan tell it, he was not so confident. And his wife, Ellen, was incredulous. “You’re not serious,” he recalls her asking. “You don’t want to leave Congress for this.” He also thought his political career would be a liability — that everyone who disagreed with any vote he’d ever taken would oppose him.

Meehan discussed those fears over lunch at the Parker House with Richard Freeland, who had just stepped down as president of Northeastern University and would later become state commissioner of higher education. Rather than a liability, Freeland told him, his political experience would be an asset. “It’s not a competitive disadvantage for you,” he said. “It’s a competitive advantage.”

That would prove an understatement.

 

***

IN A TIME OF MOUNTING PUBLIC CRITICISM and growing demands on their declining resources, universities and colleges are increasingly choosing presidents from outside academia. The number of presidents with nontraditional backgrounds is up from 13 percent in 2006 to 20 percent in 2011, according to a new survey by the American Council on Education. After all, university CEOs these days have far less to do with academics than with fund-raising, networking, and managing the prickly interest groups that populate their campuses.

One of these unconventional presidents is Bentley’s Gloria Larson, former state secretary of economic affairs, who oversaw the building of the $800 million Boston Convention & Exhibition Center. “When you see this unorthodox route to the presidency, if you look at the kinds of things people like Marty and I did previously, they fall into those buckets: building partnerships, raising money,” she says. “Having some independent thinking that reflects better marketplace realities is helpful.”

Still, there was skepticism about Meehan taking over the UMass Lowell chancellor position, which pays about $300,000 a year, plus $60,000 annually in deferred compensation. “People thought, oh, another politician just looking to step into a cushy higher-ed job with a good salary,” says Carter, the faculty senate president.

Then, soon after his lunch with Freeland, Meehan met with faculty on campus. He recalled for them his time as a student and picked out a professor in the crowd whose economics course he’d taken. Freeland had been right: Meehan won them over.

Mostly. Many still suspected he was using UMass Lowell as a stop on the way to something else. Officials even put a clause in his contract that would make him forfeit the 7 percent annuity due on his base salary if he quit within less than three years. “Most people thought, when he came in, he’s a short-timer,” says Charlie Hoff, an alumnus, major donor, and chairman of the chancellor’s external advisory committee. “He’s surprised us. He’s surprised us a lot.”

 

***

ALMOST AS SOON AS MEEHAN assumed the job, on July 1, 2007, the unconventional candidate started acting like an unconventional chancellor. He says he felt he had something to prove. Meehan had never run a university before, though he points out that he had never prosecuted a criminal case, either, when he was appointed first assistant district attorney in Middlesex County earlier in his career and that he had never run for office when he won his first bid for Congress. Besides, says Meehan: “In many ways, being in Congress is like operating a business. It’s marketing. It’s branding.”

Meehan has applied this unapologetically business-like approach to buffing UMass Lowell’s reputation. The 84,000-square-foot Emerging Technologies and Innovation Center, for example, had already been approved by the time he arrived, but a committee had decided to stick it on the far end of the campus, hidden behind a gym. “We’re not putting a brand-new $80 million research building back there,” Meehan recalls exclaiming when he learned of the plan. He persuaded the committee to move it to the corner of University Avenue and VFW Parkway on the Merrimack. “It’s [now] the most visible building on the campus,” Meehan says. “The message is important.”

He had other messages to send. After Scott Brown turned down an invitation to debate his Senate challenger Elizabeth Warren at UMass Boston, the candidates agreed to come to UMass Lowell. The televised debate is scheduled for October 1. Meehan also reached a deal to do political polling in collaboration with the Boston Herald, ensuring that the UMass Lowell name is ever-present during this election season. And he used $1.1 million in stimulus money for new signage. “People couldn’t find the admissions office,” he says. “If you can’t find the admissions office, you’re not going to come here.”

Meehan’s outreach to prospective donors is equally forthright. He gestures impatiently at buildings named for long-forgotten politicians. From now on, he says, he’ll do what private colleges and universities do: name things for people who pony up. The Robert J. Manning School of Business, for example, is named for the head of MFS Investment Management, who made a $5 million commitment. It will be housed in the Pulichino Tong Business Building, named after alumnus John Pulichino and his wife, Joy Tong, who contributed $4 million. Meehan has extracted more than $60 million from private donors, an 84 percent increase over previous levels of giving.

The Tsongas Center at UMass Lowell, with its Enterprise Bank East Entrance and Lowell Bank Pavilion for big spenders, is a Meehan work in progress, too. The city sold the money-losing venue to the university for $1, and it’s now projected to turn a profit. The former DoubleTree Hotel downtown, which Meehan bought for $15 million instead of spending what he says would have come to $60 million, houses 400 students and is also a money-making inn and conference center open to the public. Meehan bought the six-building St. Joseph’s Hospital complex for $6.3 million (he says he overpaid) to convert into a student and administrative center called University Crossing. Now he has his eye on Lowell District Court. The city manager once sarcastically asked whether Meehan also wanted City Hall. (No, Meehan says; he doesn’t like the building.)

There’s a Starbucks on the campus now, and the new food court will include several franchise restaurants. One of the dorms being built will have high-end suites designed to lure New Englanders considering much more expensive private colleges. “This will raise our SAT scores,” Meehan says, gesturing at the building’s steel superstructure. “The truth is, public universities in Massachusetts get most of their funding from the students, not the state. We need to be able to attract students.”

Overall, the reviews are good. “We’re all standing a little taller,” says Enterprise Bank’s Clancy. And Carter says, “We still feel we haven’t gotten the full story out, but we’ve come a long way in the last five years.” Meehan “has taken all his life experiences and put them into this job,” says Hoff, who worked as a venture capitalist before his retirement. “I wish there was a way, politically, that the governor and the Legislature could take what Marty’s doing and expand it to the whole system. If I’m an investor and I see what’s going on there, I want to invest.”

Due diligence, however, turns up a few lingering questions. Much of Meehan’s building, for example, has relied on borrowed money. The university owes $263.7 million — not much less than its yearly operating budget of about $300 million — and its annual debt service has crept up to $15.2 million. State budget cuts to higher education continue. And speculation about Meehan’s future persists. The newest theory holds that if Barack Obama is reelected president and names John Kerry to be his next secretary of state, Meehan will run for Kerry’s Senate seat. As of June, his campaign account still had about $4.8 million in it, according to public documents.

 “I’m not running for anything,” Meehan says, more unequivocally than he’s ever said it. “I would never walk away from this place now. There’s too much left to be done, and I’m going to finish.” He expects he’ll need at least another five years to really have an impact.

In the meantime, little has escaped his crusade. Meehan even replaced the coach of the men’s hockey team, which trustees had considered phasing out. This year, it qualified for the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1996 and ended the season ranked ninth nationally. It’s now 16th in the nation in attendance at home games — which, of course, is helping Meehan fill his Tsongas Center. When it upset national champion Boston College in December, 6,000 people were on hand.

In the empty arena, remembering that game, Meehan laughs. He confides that he’s really more of a football fan.

“I don’t know a lot about hockey,” he says. “But I do know how to turn a program around.”

Jon Marcus is a Boston-based writer and US correspondent for the Times Higher Education magazine in the United Kingdom. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.
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