Marcelo Suárez-Orozco became the new chancellor of the University of Massachusetts Boston this year, which means he began work just as the twin crises of the pandemic and the protests for racial justice landed a gut punch to the nation.
The pandemic was leveling communities of color; meanwhile the death of George Floyd, among other factors, had spawned a long-overdue reckoning with race.
He quickly concluded UMass-Boston — to which he arrived after a long and distinguished career at UCLA — was no exception to the long list of institutions that have work to do in the area of racial progress. And he has attempted to turn a charged moment into an opportunity.
To that end, he and his wife donated $50,000 to kick-start a scholarship fund named after Floyd. And now he has tapped Joseph Cooper, a distinguished young scholar, as a special assistant for Black Life, a senior management position meant to address all aspects of the Black experience on campus.
Suárez-Orozco said he viewed the appointment as a powerful way to speak to the challenges of the moment. He said his goal is to make the campus a national leader in building what he called an antiracist culture.
“My judgment today is that there’s a real longing to put UMass Boston at the forefront of the defining issues of urban public education in our country,” he said in an interview. “We need to embody best practices on this defining issue.”
Diversity is, no doubt, a defining issue at one of the most diverse universities in the region. But both Suárez-Orozco and Cooper maintained that, in this moment, an emphasis on the specific experiences of Black students, faculty, and staff was not just appropriate but critical.
“We need to start with something that is significant, and we need to start with something that is urgent, and we need to start with something that is of our city, and of our times,” Suárez-Orozco said.
Cooper, 36, who joined the UMass Boston faculty a year ago, grew up steeped in racial justice movements and the fight for greater racial representation. He was raised in Greensboro, N.C., which he proudly cites as a hotbed of civil rights activism, the son of an American mother and a father from Liberia.
“I think it’s courageous leadership by the chancellor to say, looking at the data, and understanding our society, we recognize that Black people have experienced distinct challenges that require concerted approaches,” Cooper said.
Cooper said the fact that his role will focus solely on Black life on campus does not diminish the importance of supporting other marginalized groups.
“It’s almost taboo to say we’ve going to support Black people, it’s like saying you don’t support anyone else,” Cooper said. “You don’t get that response about anyone else.”
Cooper’s agenda is broad. UMass Boston has had chronic challenges, he acknowledged, in retaining Black students to graduation. Certain departments, such as Africana Studies, have felt neglected by the administration. And he said there is a huge need to boost the number of Black faculty members across campus.
Black students make up 21.1 percent of the undergraduate student body and 11.1 percent of the graduate students, according to figures provided by UMass.
“Just in terms of the climate overall, there have been students and faculty and staff members who say they have experienced racism, whether overt or covert,” Cooper said.
“Climate” is a term that encompasses many things, and Cooper’s agenda is ambitious. UMass Boston is an urban campus that sometimes gets lost among the glamour of so many competing institutions in the region. But Suárez-Orozco is clearly hoping the school can make a mark as a place where inequality can be tackled in a substantive way.
Both he and Cooper hold out the hope that this can be a model for other colleges, and for Boston.
Cooper is thinking big. “We’re at a very historic moment where we really have an opportunity to shift the trajectory of black life, not only at UMass Boston, but in Boston overall, in New England, and in the world.”