Last month, Marcelo Suárez-Orozco, a dean in the California public university system, was chosen as the new chancellor of the University of Massachusetts Boston. As the first Latino chosen to lead a campus in this state’s public university system, he has an inspirational life journey, which took him from Argentinian immigrant to academia.
“I pinch myself. I am a kid who came to this country at age 17. It’s really the power of education, the power of public education,” said Suárez-Orozco, when he was named chancellor.
Harnessing and maximizing the power of public education for today’s UMass Boston students won’t be easy. But the university is a critical pathway to opportunity, especially for low-income students. UMass Boston is headed in the right direction, and the community needs Suárez-Orozco to be successful to keep it on that trajectory.
The Boston campus is still weighed down by millions of dollars of debt and the cost of fixing a crumbling underground garage. But, when Suárez-Orozco starts his new job, he will take over a campus that’s in much better shape than it was a few years ago. For that, he can thank Katherine Newman, who was dispatched to UMass Boston as interim chancellor in 2018 by Marty Meehan, president of the UMass system, after a search for a new leader collapsed due to faculty opposition.
During her tenure, Newman oversaw some program funding cuts and voluntary buyouts to save money, and increased parking fees — none of which made her popular on campus. She was in the running for the permanent job but withdrew just before the search committee announced the finalists. In the end, Suárez-Orozco was the sole finalist. Now he benefits from not only her tough budget choices, but the steps she took to grow online programs, increase student enrollment, and identify new revenue sources.
When Newman took over as interim chancellor, the campus was torn apart and a new student dorm — the first in UMass Boston history — was still under construction. Today, the dorm is open, and a revitalized campus is coming back together. But the core of UMass Boston still sits atop a structurally unsound underground garage. In order to rebuild it, the science building will have to be torn down. That means UMass Boston faces another big construction project. Currently, the $155 million construction cost is split evenly between UMass and the state. Last year, UMass announced it has a long-term lease with a private developer for the Bayside Expo Center near the Boston campus. The money from the $235 million deal has been promised to UMass Boston, and it might be used to help pay for the garage project — but that has yet to be finalized. One of the major constants in UMass Boston’s history has been endless construction woes, something Suárez-Orozco can hopefully put in the rearview mirror.
The acquisition of the bankrupt Mount Ida College by the University of Massachusetts Amherst remains a sore spot for UMass Boston. After the 2018 purchase, UMass Amherst started offering classes on the Newton campus, including some graduate-level business courses that UMass Boston faculty view as unwelcome competition. To counter that, Newman spearheaded a move to put together a consortium of six private colleges that will offer students a more affordable pathway to a graduate degree, while boosting UMass Boston enrollment. The two state schools shouldn’t be competitors, and Suárez-Orozco will need to be a forceful advocate for his campus.
UMass Boston is in a better place today than it was two years ago. Now its up to Suárez-Orozco to take the university to the next level.
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