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Shirley Leung

It took a village to create the mess at UMass Boston. Where was the board?

At least when Margaret McKenna was going down in flames at Suffolk University last year, she took the board down with her.

That’s what Keith Motley should be doing with the University of Massachusetts board of trustees who seemed to have looked the other way all these years as the Boston campus headed toward financial turmoil.

Motley is the popular but embattled chancellor of UMass Boston who agreed on Wednesday to step down at the end of the academic year after a series of Globe stories exposing that he had been warned repeatedly — and as far back as 2012 — that the campus had overextended itself and would soon run out of money.

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How bad? A deficit that could run as high as $30 million by the end of the fiscal year in June.

I’m not absolving Motley of responsibility here. He is the de facto CEO of UMass Boston, and the buck stops with him. But the UMass board has a fiduciary responsibility to make sure that one of its campuses isn’t heading over a fiscal cliff.

It’s too easy to paint this as a failure of one person. As taxpayers, we shouldn’t. It’s a failure of the system, and the board needs to look at itself in the mirror. For that matter, so does Motley’s direct boss, UMass president Marty Meehan.

If problems were known, why didn’t they act sooner? If they weren’t aware, why not?

The truth is probably much more complicated. I get the sense the board knew about the Boston campus’s precarious situation, but thought Motley had things under control — a plausible theory only if it weren’t for the fact the numbers were so far off it makes you wonder how tight a ship the board runs.

Not surprisingly, members of the UMass board are ducking for cover. They prefer not to talk, deferring questions to board chairman Rob Manning, the co-CEO of MFS Investment Management who was appointed by Governor Charlie Baker in 2015. This is Manning’s second stint as chairman after quitting in a huff in 2010, accusing then-Governor Deval Patrick of meddling.

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Manning did not respond to my repeated requests for an interview.

The subtext here is race. Was the board slow to react because they didn’t want to push out Motley, who up until last month was the only black chancellor in the system? Why didn’t Motley get the support structure necessary to succeed?

By many accounts, Motley is regarded as a charismatic and inspirational leader who needed a strong operating staff under him. In recent weeks, the UMass board tried to fix the situation by bringing in former Bowdoin College president Barry Mills to oversee day-to-day operations.

My take: too late. Mills will now become interim chancellor on July 1 when Motley steps down, but will not be a candidate to run the majority-minority campus on Columbia Point with 17,000 students.

Bennie Wiley, a friend of Motley’s, said she and other black leaders are upset about how he has been treated publicly. He spent a decade at the university, raising its profile and growing its enrollment, yet he appears to be the only one getting blamed.

“We all sit on boards. This was done in partnership with the board. The good things and the bad things,” said Wiley, who used to run The Partnership, a nonprofit that advances people of color, and now sits on a half-dozen corporate and nonprofit boards.

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“I hate to see any leader, particularly a very strong, a highly respected black male leader handled this way,” she added.

Last spring the bad behavior of the Suffolk University board consumed this town. McKenna, a popular president, was being shown the door for having an “abrasive” management style. Others will tell you that McKenna was just doing her job, which was to clean up Suffolk and shake up the male cabal on the board.

Unlike the Suffolk board, which was too involved in day-to-day operations, perhaps the UMass board isn’t engaged enough. Historically, the chancellors at the five campuses have been proudly independent. That has started to change in recent years, first under UMass president Bob Caret and now under Meehan, who took over in 2015.

The Motley mess is hardly the first high-profile bungling by the board.

In 2015, Divina Grossman, chancellor of UMass Dartmouth, was pushed aside amid falling enrollment and mounting debt. The problems apparently were well known, but the board still allowed her contract to be renewed, only to terminate her five months into the new agreement.

Baker has questioned whether the board should have allowed Caret to personally profit from a real estate purchase funded with a taxpayer-subsidized housing allowance. Caret, who resigned as president in 2015, netted $465,000 when he sold his harborfront condo at a time when the board was raising student fees. Caret had used his housing allowance to cover his mortgage.

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The board has also come under fire for the way it has conducted presidential searches in the past, as well as its approval of a generous compensation package for an outgoing president.

Starting in July, Motley will take a one-year sabbatical and then return to campus as a tenured professor. To get its finances back on track, UMass Boston will be cost cutting, such as laying off faculty and reducing course offerings.

So far UMass trustees are getting a hall pass on the problems at the Boston campus. They shouldn’t. Instead, they should be figuring out what lessons they can learn.


Shirley Leung is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at shirley.leung@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @leung.