Julie Chen, a longtime administrator and professor at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, was appointed its next chancellor by unanimous vote of the board of trustees on Monday.
Chen, 57, has been the school’s vice chancellor of research, innovation, and economic development, and a professor of mechanical engineering. With three degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, she has been a fixture on campus for 25 years. Chen is considered one of the region’s leading experts in nanotechnology, earning her the nickname “nanoqueen” in a field that builds structures and devices working at an atomic scale.
“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 following the board vote. “All of us recognize how transformative that college experiences can be, and I know that UMass Lowell has the spirit and the drive to make sure we continue to expand the opportunities for our students here on campus.”
Chen is the second woman to lead the Lowell campus and the first openly gay chancellor in the UMass system. With her appointment, the UMass system now has leaders of color overseeing three of its five campuses. Sheis one of only a handful of Asian Americans overseeing a college or university in Massachusetts, according to an analysis by the Eos Foundation.
Chen succeeds Jacquie Moloney, who announced plans last July to retire after this academic year. Moloney had been executive vice chancellor at UMass Lowell before she became its first woman chancellor in 2015. Chen takes the helm on July 1.
Both Chen and board members thanked Moloney, who has spent close to four decades at the Lowell campus. Moloney, who is also a UMass Lowell graduate, is credited with developing a long-term masterplan for the university of about 18,000 students and significantly expanding its footprint. She also was an early champion of its online education program.
Chen had been considered a leading candidate for the job, even as the university conducted a nationwide search process. On Monday, UMass president Marty Meehan recommended the board give her the nod over two other finalists — one from the University of Georgia and another from Oklahoma State University.
In an interview after the vote, Meehan said he has worked closely with Chen over the years, starting when he was still a member of Congress securing federal research dollars for the Lowell campus. When Meehan became the chancellor of UMass Lowell, where he studied as an undergraduate, he promoted Chen to a vice provost post.
Meehan credits Chen with helping to forge industry partnerships, such as with Raytheon, as well as fostering startups and core research facilities. She also sits on several boards, including those of the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center, Massachusetts Tech Collaborative, and Massachusetts Advanced Manufacturing Collaborative.
“I’m thrilled that Julie’s willing to take on this challenge,” said Meehan. “She clearly was the best candidate. There’s no question.”
Coming out of the pandemic, the biggest challenge facing Chen and any university leader is grappling with a declining birth rate that will result in far fewer college-age students in the coming years, especially in the Northeast. That’s already accelerated mergers in higher education and even closures of smaller private colleges.
“There are a lot of challenges ahead of us,” acknowledged Chen. “But I believe very strongly in the partnerships that we have created and will continue to create . . . with the industry, nonprofits, government, and other academic institutions. It’s only by working together that we can address the complex challenges that we have ahead.”
Shirley Leung is a Business columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.