Business

Shirley Leung

In the mess at UMass Boston, it’s hard to know whom to blame more

All three finalists for the chancellor position at UMass Boston withdrew from consideration after criticism from the faculty.
Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff/file
All three finalists for the chancellor position at UMass Boston withdrew from consideration after criticism from the faculty.

There’s plenty of blame to go around in the latest mess unfolding at the University of Massachusetts Boston, which has left the struggling campus yet again without a permanent leader.

My only problem is deciding whom to blame more.

There’s the faculty group that threw the academic equivalent of a Molotov cocktail when they publicly dismissed as unqualified the final three candidates for chancellor, prompting each of them to withdraw over the weekend and upending a bona fide nationwide search.

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For a change, I didn’t have to prepare a column railing against the white-male-insider candidate because there was none; in fact, two of the three finalists were African Americans from out-of-state institutions.

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Then there’s the UMass brass — president Marty Meehan and the Board of Trustees — who woefully underestimated the deep resentment of the faculty and to what lengths they would go to derail the process. This after the faculty council took a vote of no confidence in Meehan and the trustees after the blessing of UMass Amherst’s $75 million purchase of the Mount Ida College campus in Newton. The faculty feared the deal would exacerbate inequities in the UMass system.

Meehan and trustee Henry Thomas III, who headed the search committee, could have taken the high road when they made the surprising announcement on Monday that the finalists had withdrawn, less than a week after visiting the Columbia Point campus and meeting with faculty, staff, and students.

Instead, Meehan and Thomas added fuel to the fire with a pair of public statements that excoriated the faculty.

“The unprofessional conduct of a small segment of the UMass Boston community is unconscionable and disrespectful and the misrepresentation of the candidates’ qualifications and capabilities is nothing less than shameful and mean spirited,” wrote Thomas, who serves as president of the Urban League of Springfield. “This petulant behavior will inflict long-lasting damage on UMass Boston’s reputation and future ability to recruit the academic and administrative leaders we need at UMass Boston.”

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I get why Meehan and Thomas had to lay down the law and be tough with a group of faculty. They wanted to send a message to any future candidate that this won’t happen to them.

Yet I also get how some faculty felt they needed to take a dramatic stand. That was the only way to get the attention of Meehan and the trustees, who were slated to vote on a new chancellor this week.

Well, it worked. But now what?

Enough is enough. No one wins in this war between the faculty and the UMass brass. This year was supposed to be a turning point for the school, with turnaround plan in place and a new chancellor in the wings.

Now there will be another interim chancellor, Katherine Newman, who oversees academic affairs for the UMass system. She will follow in the footsteps of former Bowdoin College president Barry Mills, who took over after popular chancellor Keith Motley stepped down under pressure amid budget problems in 2017.

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Meehan rightfully can’t restart the search until trust is rebuilt. That could take months.

“I don’t know anything to heal this except time,” said Paul Reville, former state education secretary who now teaches at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Reville didn’t know any of the finalists personally but has followed the search process and praised the approach, especially the hiring of Freeman Hrabowski III , president of the University of Maryland Baltimore County, as an outside consultant.

“He played a strong role in this, and he steered it in a direction that defied expectations,” Reville said.

But now? “It’s a really negative mark on the Commonwealth,” added Reville. “If you are a candidate, why would you come forward?”

Finding good candidates was always going to be a tall order, given UMass Boston’s budget woes, but what’s most disappointing is that the process yielded candidates people were excited about.

“I thought we had three great candidates with unique skills sets and experiences,” said state Senator Nick Collins, whose district includes UMass Boston, and who interviewed each of the three candidates last week.

“My hope is that as the process continues, that people who feel like they need to be included are included going forward, but that the process and outcome will not be hijacked by one party or particular interest,” he said. “Because if that’s the case, I don’t know who wants to be chancellor of UMass Boston.”

Andrea Silbert, who organized Women Leading Change and who has pushed for more female leaders in public education, felt that UMass conducted a good search, which makes the outcome all the more upsetting.

Like others I spoke to, Silbert was excited about Kathy Humphrey, who is senior vice chancellor for engagement at the University of Pittsburgh. She’s also black and was the lone female finalist.

“She was completely qualified and would have been a dynamic leader,” Silbert said. “It’s a real lost opportunity.”

The faculty have been unhappy with the search process because they wanted more representation on the 15-member search committee. The faculty had two representatives, including Manickam Sugumaran who is the faculty council chair. Sugumaran could not be reached for comment, but Heike Schotten, who will be the next faculty council chair, said the faculty felt ignored.

“The fight has happened because of the board’s and president’s refusal to talk to us,” said Schotten, an associate professor of political science.

She said the faculty doesn’t want to be an obstacle.

“Speaking on behalf of the faculty council executive committee, we are committed to working with Kathy Newman,” Schotten said. “In terms of ending this fight, it is up to Meehan and this board.”

Hrabowski, the outside consultant and UMBC president, tells me failed chancellor searches happen. You can have good candidates, but you also need consensus.

“A good fit between a campus and president will require considerable consensus among the people,” Hrabowski said. “There was no consensus.”

Let’s hope that lesson isn’t forgotten in the next search.

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