Both Suffolk University and the University of Massachusetts are eyeing Martin T. Meehan, the current leader of UMass Lowell, as one of their top choices to serve as their next president, setting the stage for what could be an intense bidding war for his services.
Meehan is expected to be one of three finalists named Thursday morning by the UMass search committee, according to a person familiar with the selection process, with a possible vote by the full board of trustees on Friday. Suffolk plans to announce its three finalist candidates on Monday.
Both institutions, citing the confidentiality rules governing their searches, refused to comment on whether Meehan is a leading candidate for either post. But those with direct knowledge of both selection processes say he is a strong contender for both positions.
“Suffolk is courting Marty Meehan very strongly, there’s no doubt about that. [But] the UMass job would be the job that he’s interested in,” a person familiar with Meehan’s thinking said Tuesday.
The Globe has learned that Meehan, who in the past has said he is happy with his job at Lowell, was interviewed by the UMass search committee and has had informal talks with the Suffolk trustees, according to the people familiar with the searches.
If he is chosen for both positions, the institutions could end up in a bidding war for the former Lowell congressman. Whether Suffolk could meet the sort of salary and benefits that the UMass gave its outgoing president Robert Caret is not clear. Caret was to be paid $952,000, including performance bonuses, a housing allowance, and deferred compensation, by July 2018. Meehan currently earns $374,000 at UMass Lowell. Suffolk’s last full-time president, James McCarthy, earned $545,000.
Suffolk is seeking a strong leader to help the school recover from a financially rocky stretch and some embarrassing missteps, including the disclosure in 2008 that former president David Sargent had made $2.8 million in total compensation in 2006-07, which was four times the national average.
Interim president Norman Smith has led the school since last fall when McCarthy left abruptly. Suffolk depends heavily on tuition, has a large amount of debt, and flat or declining enrollment at its locally prominent law school.
UMass, however, would be no less of a challenge. The five-campus system is in the midst of transforming its profile from that of a safety school for applicants to a first-choice for local as well as national and international students. UMass also struggles with funding and while it receives some money from the state, has to make up the difference largely through tuition and fees.
If he took the UMass job, Meehan would have to transition from leading a single institution to overseeing an entire system, with much less daily interaction with students and faculty. The presidency instead requires political and fund-raising skills, something Meehan honed during his years in Congress.
But if the last UMass presidential search lends any lessons, it is that anything can happen at the eleventh hour.
Meehan was the top pick for UMass four years ago, but withdrew at the last minute, after a scuffle involving former governor Deval Patrick, who raised concerns that his appointment would look like political favoritism.
UMass had originally set an early June deadline to pick a president, but changed it to May 1, which put it in direct competition with Suffolk’s search. A UMass spokesman denied that deadline was changed because of Suffolk’s interest in Meehan, but rather to give the new president more time to switch jobs before the July 1 start date.
The UMass presidency opened in December when Caret announced he had accepted a job as chancellor of the University of Maryland.
The chairman of the search committee sent an e-mail Tuesday to Suffolk staff and students saying that three finalists will be announced May 4 and would visit the campus for interviews shortly thereafter.
“All three are excellent candidates with experience as university presidents,” said the e-mail from search committee chairman and trustee Mark E. Sullivan.
Since he took over UMass Lowell in 2007, Meehan has earned national accolades as the endowment has more than doubled, from $34 million to $78 million, and enrollment has increased 48 percent to 17,000. The campus has also added 10 new buildings and attracted research funding from private companies and the federal government.
Meehan in an interview in March said he would not apply for the UMass presidency, but if UMass approached him, “I could imagine a scenario where if they were interested, that I would be interested in serving.”
But for now, Meehan is not weighing in publicly on the contest for his leadership.
“I really can’t comment as the searches are at the confidential stage,” he said via text message.
A UMass trustee, who asked not to be named because the search is confidential at this point, said that Meehan’s name was floated by consultants at Korn Ferry, a firm helping with the search. Korn Ferry is also leading Suffolk’s presidential search.
While all signs indicate that Meehan is a heavy favorite, the trustee said if he is one of the finalists, he could run into some opposition when the full board takes a vote. The board is dominated by Patrick appointees, some of whom may still hold animus towards the Lowell chancellor.