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SHIRLEY LEUNG

Will the next UMass Boston leader be another white male insider?

David L. Ryan/Globe Staff/File 2014

So far, Massachusetts Gaming Commission chairman Stephen Crosby is the only announced candidate for chancellor.

By Globe Staff 

Ah, the white male insider. He has been the candidate of choice in the last two searches for top public education appointments in this state.

Will he win out again and become the next chancellor of the University of Massachusetts Boston?

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So far, the only candidate to publicly throw his hat into the ring is Stephen Crosby, who served as a UMass Boston dean before becoming the chair of the Massachusetts Gaming Commission. Talk about someone who epitomizes our WMI syndrome.

Crosby (photo at right) is a smart guy, but c’mon people, let’s think bigger.

How about someone like Condoleezza Rice? She comes with both academic and management experience and national stature as a former US secretary of state, the first African-American woman to hold that post.

OK, I doubt we can lure Rice from Stanford University, where she teaches. But let’s aim high and out of the box.

Crosby — whose term at the gaming commission is up in 2019 — has confirmed his interest as the search committee prepares to interview candidates at the end of March. The committee would like the UMass board to select a leader by the end of the school year and have that person start in August.

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Cutting it close? Yeah, feels like it, especially when you see that other schools in need of new presidents this year have in recent weeks announced their picks.

“That’s aspirational,” Henry Thomas III, head of the search committee, told me of the August start date. “I am not making a prediction here.”

But UMass Boston won’t be rudderless. Interim chancellor Barry Mills, who has said he would step down in June, told me that is not a hard stop. He won’t overstay his welcome, but he wants to ensure a successful transition.

Thomas, a UMass trustee and former board chairman, won’t divulge how many candidates they’re looking at, but he’s happy with the response. One helpful factor: People want to be in Boston, not just for the quality of life but because it’s a place that values education.

“We’re definitely encouraged by the level of interest,” Thomas said. “People understand this is a real opportunity.”

It’s understandable if the search committee is a bit nervous. UMass Boston has been in such financial straits — staring down a $30 million deficit at one point last year — that good candidates might be scared off. Then there’s the crumbling underground garage, dubbed the “Big Dig” of UMass Boston, which has the potential to turn into a never-ending money pit.

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This is a search that shouldn’t be rushed because there’s too much at stake. The school is at a crossroads. Like Northeastern University in the mid-1990s, UMass Boston is transforming itself from a commuter school to a destination campus with a slew of new buildings, including dorms, all on a Dorchester waterfront that is one of the city’s up-and-coming neighborhoods.

But beyond having a vision, the next chancellor has to be adept at balancing a budget, managing infrastructure, and fund-raising as if the school might never see another dime from the Commonwealth.

Mills, a former Bowdoin College president, was brought in last year to stabilize UMass Boston’s finances. He has done so by cutting aggressively and devising a more affordable plan to fix the garage.

Of course, I would love to see the next chancellor be a woman, or a man or woman of color, given the state’s dismal track record as of late in diversifying its leadership ranks in education. (Say what you will about the last chancellor, Keith Motley, but having a black leader resonated with the majority-minority school.)

As you’ve read here before, an all-male cast runs public education in Massachusetts, from Secretary of Education Jim Peyser to early education commissioner Tom Weber.

A decade ago, women helmed five of the nine state universities (not including the UMass system); today, that number is zero.

It’s not a pipeline problem: Women made up close to 40 percent of the finalists in those presidential searches, according to statistics compiled by EOS Foundation, a nonprofit that is seeking to diversify leadership ranks.

So is the pressure on UMass system president Marty Meehan to resist a Crosby-like choice for the next leader of its Boston campus?

Here’s the reality: Meehan has helped create one of the most diverse teams in state public education. Of the five UMass chancellors, two are people of color (Kumble Subbaswamy at Amherst and Robert Johnson at Dartmouth) and one is woman (Jacquie Moloney at Lowell.)

Meehan gets it.

It’s a good sign that Thomas, an African American who is chief executive of the Urban League of Springfield, is heading the search, and that Meehan has brought in the University of Maryland Baltimore County’s president, Freeman Hrabowski III, as a consultant. Hrabowski, who is black, is a pioneer in steering African-American students into math and science.

But here’s the other reality: Given how diverse UMass chancellors are systemwide, Meehan has the option to pick a white guy. My sense is that he is most worried about finding the right person who has the set of skills to handle all of UMass Boston’s challenges.

“It will be one of the most important decisions I will make in my tenure as president,” Meehan tells me. “This is not a local search by any means . . . We are going to develop a pool of candidates that will be qualified and be diverse.”

As for Crosby, he has the fiscal and political skills to run UMass Boston. But he’s not an inspired choice. We should not once more default to the white male insider.


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