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Deputy tapped as state’s new higher education commissioner

Carlos E. Santiago will be the state’s top official overseeing public colleges and universities.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

The Massachusetts Board of Higher Education didn’t have to look far to select a new commissioner to oversee the state’s public colleges and universities.

On Wednesday, it elevated Carlos Santiago, second-in-command to the current commissioner, Richard Freeland, to the position.

Santiago, who has more than 30 years experience in higher education, is credited with helping community college students more easily transfer to four-year public colleges and working to reform the community colleges’ remedial math program.

“What we’ll get in Carlos is a combination of continuity and change,” said James Peyser, the state secretary of education.

Santiago, 62, has worked for the state’s Department of Higher Education since April 2013 as senior deputy commissioner for academic affairs. He previously was chancellor of the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, that state’s second-largest research university.

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Santiago’s appointment is the latest in a series of leadership changes in Massachusetts public higher education since Governor Charlie Baker took office in January. Baker appointed Peyser and tapped Chris Gabrieli to chair the Board of Higher Education.

In addition, the University of Massachusetts this month chose Martin Meehan, chancellor of UMass Lowell, to take over the university system in July.

In an interview, Santiago, who was born in Puerto Rico and is the state’s first Latino higher-ed commissioner, highlighted three goals for the state’s public system under his leadership, goals similar to the ones put forth by Freeland. He said he wants to improve graduation rates, attract more under-served populations to higher education, and work in K-12 schools to better prepare students for college.

“There’s a lot of work that we will continue to do,” Santiago said.

The six-year graduation rate hovers around 45 percent at the state’s community colleges, around 55 percent at state universities, and 60 percent at UMass, according to data from the Department for Higher Education.

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The other two finalists were Bill Walczak, founder of the Codman Square Health Center and a former Boston mayoral candidate; and John O’Donnell, president of Massachusetts Bay Community College. O’Donnell dropped out of the running Tuesday night.

Toward the end of the search process, Peyser and Gabrieli realized the committee was not considering nontraditional candidates and Peyser suggested additional names including Walczak, according to sources close to the search process.

A fourth would-be finalist, Jack Warner, also dropped out toward the end of the search, the sources said. Warner, executive director of the board of regents of South Dakota, which oversees the state’s six public universities, is a former UMass official and dean at Bristol Community College in Fall River.

The search to replace Freeland, the former president of Northeastern University, began in October when he told the board he planned to retire in July after six years on the job. A search committee was assisted by the national search firm Isaacson Miller in choosing finalists from an original pool of about 300 candidates, which was narrowed to eight semifinalists.

Baker, who met with Santiago and Peyser after Wednesday’s vote, said he held informal conversations with the three finalists and “thought they were all terrific.”

Before the vote, board members took turns sharing their opinion of the three candidates. Almost all spoke in favor of Santiago, including member Nancy Hoffman.

“I really see in Carlos a real devotion to student success and an ability to do the hard work that many of us don’t like to do,” Hoffman said.

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Board member Paul Toner diverged from the pack, touting Walczak as a nontraditional candidate.

In the end, Toner voted for Santiago.


Contact Laura Krantz at laura.krantz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @laurakrantz.