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Marcelo Suárez-Orozco
Marcelo Suárez-Orozco

An Argentine immigrant who worked as a janitor and rose to become dean of a California university is the sole finalist to be the next leader of the University of Massachusetts Boston, a search committee announced Tuesday.

Marcelo Suárez-Orozco, dean of the University of California Los Angeles’s Graduate School of Education & Information Studies, was unanimously selected from among nearly 400 candidates by a search committee made up of faculty, students, local business leaders, and political appointees.

Suárez-Orozco was chosen after three of the other leading candidates, including Katherine Newman, the current interim chancellor of the Boston campus, dropped out of the running in recent days. But search committee members said Suárez-Orozco, 63, was always a top contender.

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“This candidate reflects a new day for UMass Boston,” said Jeffrey Sanchez, a former state representative from Boston who was on the search committee. He said Suárez-Orozco would be a “transformational leader” whose experience mirrors that of the growing immigrant populations of the area and of the students who attend UMass Boston.

Search committee members selected Suárez-Orozco because he can raise UMass Boston’s academic profile, understands its mission to help first-generation students and those with few resources, and is a strong fund-raiser, said Jean Rhodes, vice chair of the committee and a psychology professor at UMass Boston.

“He was head and shoulders above the rest,” she said.

Suárez-Orozco, whose academic work has focused on immigration, education, and globalization, will meet with UMass Boston faculty, staff, and students on Friday. Feedback from those meetings will be considered by the university system’s president, Martin T. Meehan, and the board of trustees, who will eventually vote on a new leader.

Suárez-Orozco immigrated to California at 17 and attended community college before earning his degrees at the University of California Berkeley.

He has been an education professor at Harvard and with his wife cofounded the Harvard Immigration Project in 1997, which was tied to their longitudinal study of 400 immigrant children and their adaptation to life in the United States.

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Suárez-Orozco has also been a professor at New York University and a special adviser to the chief prosecutor of the international criminal court in the The Hague.

Suárez-Orozco said in a written statement that, if selected, he would lead the 16,000-student campus with “an ethic of social justice, a commitment to nurture the life-enhancing powers of education, and an unwavering devotion to excellence and equity.”

Part of his challenge will be winning over the vocal and powerful faculty.

UMass Boston has been without a permanent chancellor since 2017, when its longtime leader, J. Keith Motley, resigned amid financial upheaval. The campus has seen two interim chancellors since then, Barry Mills and Newman.

This is the public university system’s second attempt at finding a permanent leader for the Boston campus, which is the most diverse one in the system and one that educates the largest share of low-income students. It also has the lowest undergraduate graduation rate of the four campuses. .

UMass Boston was supposed to have a permanent chancellor in place for the fall of 2018. But after many faculty members criticized the lack of transparency in the process and publicly opposed the three finalists as unqualified, all three withdrew. Separately around that time, the faculty also took a no-confidence vote in Meehan, adding to the turmoil that rocked the campus at that time.

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Meehan relaunched the chancellor search last summer and included several members of the faculty on the committee in hopes of avoiding the kind of furor that had upended the previous process.

Rafael Jaen, chair of the UMass Boston performing arts department and a member of the search committee, said he was impressed by Suárez-Orozco and hopes his colleagues will be, too.

Suárez-Orozco knows how to raise money for a campus: He brought in more than $120 million for a UCLA campaign and can push back against outside pressures.

As a Harvard professor, he lived in the Boston area and understands the complicated political dynamics in the city, which can be tricky for newcomers, Jaen said.

If Suárez-Orozco gets the job, he will face a raft of financial and cultural challenges. The university is in the middle of a reorganization review to determine what programs are needed and what can be cut and whether it may have too many administrators.

Last summer, the university offered voluntary buyouts to address a projected $14 million deficit. It was the second employee buyout program in two years.

UMass Boston also saw a reduction in the number of incoming freshmen last fall, and faculty remain angry about UMass Amherst’s purchase of the former Mount Ida College campus in Newton. To some Boston faculty, the UMass Amherst satellite campus is seen as competition for limited students and resources. The Boston faculty have questioned the priorities of the public university’s administration and in 2018 took a no-confidence vote on Meehan over the Mount Ida purchase.

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University of Massachusetts trustees are expected to vote on filling the chancellor’s position in the coming weeks.


Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at deirdre.fernandes@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @fernandesglobe.