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Meehan seen as contender in hunt for UMass chief

University of Massachusetts Lowell chancellor Martin Meehan chatted with students Miguel Guillen (left) and Jamil Jean-Jacques at the new University Crossing building.
University of Massachusetts Lowell chancellor Martin Meehan chatted with students Miguel Guillen (left) and Jamil Jean-Jacques at the new University Crossing building.(Joanne Rathe/Globe Staff)

Just over four years ago, former congressman Martin Meehan seemed poised to become president of the University of Massachusetts — until an apparent effort by then-Governor Deval Patrick forced him out of the running at the last minute.

Now, as a search committee kicks off a new hunt for a university system leader, the panel again appears to want someone with all the skills of Meehan, the chancellor at UMass Lowell for seven years: Fund-raising prowess; connections in state and national politics; and a strong track record in public higher education top the list.

The committee is led by a Meehan supporter and top U-Mass Lowell donor, and the firm helping to select candidates also ran the 2007 search that landed Meehan in Lowell.

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Meehan was coy in an interview last week on whether he wants to replace Robert Caret, who is leaving the UMass president’s office to head the University of Maryland system. He said he is happy at Lowell, but acknowledged that he could be tempted.

“If the process was a transparent and full and open process, I could imagine a scenario where if they were interested, that I would be interested in serving,” Meehan said.

A binder on his desk contains a printout of the search committee members, which he has studied, marking next to each name a letter to denote which UMass campus they are from. Two of the 21 are from UMass Lowell, a fact he said shows the committee is not stacked in his favor.

“I’m happy doing what I’m doing,” he said.

One search committee member said it would be wrong to assume that Meehan is a shoo-in, but believes he is interested.

“The question is, is he going to pull the trigger” and seek the job, said the member, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the process is in the early stages.

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A sense of deja vu pervades the search process so far.

Robert Manning, who heads the search committee, was chairman of the UMass board of trustees during the 2010 search. When the governor’s aides and his staff raised questions about the selection process, stirring complaints that Patrick was interfering, Manning resigned from the board.

“Marty’s obviously done a great job at Lowell,” said Manning, a UMass Lowell graduate and chairman of MFS Investment Management. Manning and his wife, Donna, have donated $9.3 million to the campus, most of that during Meehan’s tenure. Manning gave the 2011 commencement address.

He rebuts any notion that his past advocacy for Meehan and his close ties to UMass Lowell would bias him toward Meehan as a possible candidate. “I don’t even know if he’s interested in wanting to do this,” he said.

The search committee members have reiterated that they want a diverse group of applicants that includes women and minorities, a reflection of the student body across the five campuses.

The name of UMass Boston’s chancellor, J. Keith Motley, has circulated in political circles. In a statement Monday, Motley did not rule out a possible interest in the job.

“I am committed to serving the University of Massachusetts in the most effective way I can,” he said.

Consultants told the committee last week that a perception of strong internal candidates can stymie efforts to attract strong external hopefuls, if outsiders believe the committee favors an insider.

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In what could be good news for Meehan, the search committee tapped Korn Ferry, Boston-based consultants, who found Meehan his last job. The national firm is also conducting the Suffolk University presidential search. Meehan has a master’s and a law degree from Suffolk and has been mentioned as a possible candidate to become president there.

Meehan is close to Governor Charlie Baker, a Republican who made frequent visits to the Lowell campus during his campaign. During his first week as governor, Baker announced $4 million in grants to the school, matched by another $4 million from the Mannings.

Allegations that the search committee violated the state’s open meeting law marred the last presidential search, problems that culminated with a damning report by then-Attorney General Martha Coakley.

As the search committee aims for a speedy process, seeking to name a new president by July 1, it will be extra vigilant about transparency, Manning said.

Typically, UMass search committees consider a confidential list of preliminary candidates, then a shorter number of finalists interviewed in open meetings. The board of trustees makes the final decision.

If the committee does want Meehan, they know where to find him: darting around the Lowell campus that he has transformed since he became chancellor.

During his tenure, the school has become at once more selective and has increased enrollment. The campus now has the system’s second-largest enrollment, with 17,191 students last year. The campus has sprouted 10 new buildings in the past five years, including a $95 million student center.

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Its endowment has grown from $34 million to $78 million, and research expenditures have increased 80 percent, according to university statistics. Meehan has secured millions of government and corporate dollars for research, particularly from the defense industry.

Meehan, who earns $374,000 annually, also said he has increased the number of private donations of at least $1 million from one to 18 during his tenure.

“I don’t find asking anyone for money difficult,” he said.

In a presentation about his campus to a reporter last week, Meehan spoke of the importance of improving the five-campus university.

“I’m not interested in what UMass may have done for the last 10 years or 20 years, I’m interested in . . . the great public universities in the country. How are they rated? What do they look at? That’s what I want to do,” he said.

Whoever assumes the presidency will lead the university on its quest to market the University of Massachusetts as an economical public equivalent to pricier private schools. Annual tuition and fees at UMass Lowell are $12,097 for state residents, and $22,890 with room and board.

Meehan is clearly thinking about his next act. He said he has no shortage of job offers.

“I wouldn’t leave UMass Lowell unless I was absolutely certain that the transformation would continue here for many years to come,” he said.


Contact Laura Krantz at laura.krantz@globe.com.