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Baker, Meehan tout online UMass classes

Governor Charlie Baker and the next head of the state's public university system vowed Tuesday to increase its online education opportunities, and said they wanted to shift the University of Massachusetts away from a billing system that relies on student fees.

Introducing Martin T. Meehan, a former Democratic congressman and the current chancellor of UMass Lowell, as the overall university system's next president, Baker said online course offerings are well-suited for a "24/7 world" and could save money for students while increasing revenue for schools.

"If you're a working kid or a working adult who wants to pursue a degree, the opportunity to be able to take a class when you can take it — on an online basis and not have to take it when it would disrupt your job or other parts of your life — is a great thing," Baker said.

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"We're going to expand it right across the board at UMass," said Meehan, noting that 53 percent of the graduates at the Lowell campus last year had taken at least one course online.

The UMass board of trustees last Friday unanimously named Meehan as the five-campus system's next president. The current president, Robert Caret, is leaving to take over as chancellor of Maryland's public university system.

Asked Tuesday about his reported commitment to stay in the job for 10 years, Meehan said he did not recall making that pledge.

"I'm committed to staying as long as it takes to make improvements that need to be made," he said.

Pressed on whether that constituted a 10-year commitment, Meehan, who famously broke a campaign promise on limiting his terms in Congress, replied, "Whatever it takes. Yes."

Meehan, who starts July 1, said he hoped to keep down tuitions and fees, but did not commit to an amount. He said the current billing system "lacks integrity" because fees outpace tuition expenses for many students. The schools often rely on students fees to cover shortfalls in education appropriations from Beacon Hill.

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Both Baker and Meehan signaled interest in shifting UMass toward "tuition retention," which would allow the individual campuses to keep the tuition paid by students who are state residents, rather than sending it back to state coffers.

Fielding questions from the news media, Baker also said he had privacy concerns about body cameras for police, using as an example a case in which officers entered a person's home while the device was recording. Baker said he thought trying out pilot programs could be a solution.

Joined by state Education Secretary James Peyser, Baker and Meehan spoke in the lobby of the governor's office. After a brief opening statement, Baker noted the former lawmaker was not equipped with his own text.

"Believe it or not, Marty doesn't have prepared remarks," Baker cracked.


Jim O'Sullivan can be reached at jim.osullivan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @JOSreports.