LOWELL — In his mind’s eye, it’s easy to conjure up that little kid again, the boy with 96 newspapers to deliver every afternoon, the teenager who played football on the wide street outside his bedroom window and picked up some cold pocket change shoveling neighbors’ driveways.
It was a lifetime ago, but Marty Meehan can still see his dad and the next-door neighbor working to place a white statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary on a stone pedestal just outside the back door of the eight-room house where his parents raised seven kids.
“This is where I come from,” Meehan, now 58, said Monday, standing in the sultry sunshine that bathed his old blue-collar neighborhood here. “And I think people who come from these neighborhoods don’t always get the fair shake that they should.”
He’s got a new job now. He wants to change all that.
When Meehan graduated from what was then the University of Lowell in 1978, the state paid for about 88 percent of the university’s budget. That number today is about 24 percent. That’s one of the challenges that sits on Meehan’s desk when he becomes president of the University of Massachusetts next week.
“When I graduated from Lowell, I worked weekends, summers, and semester breaks and actually paid for it all,” he said. “You can’t do that today. And that’s what really worries me.’’
If Charlie Baker’s background as former governor William Weld’s budget chief and as the leader of a health insurance company made him unusually prepared to be the Commonwealth’s governor, Meehan, the former congressman and prosecutor, who spent the last eight years as chancellor of UMass Lowell, should have the skills to lead UMass beyond the ranks of the average. He’ll need them.
“There’s not a huge gap between the national leaders and where we are, but we ought to be a national leader and we’ve got a ways to go to get there,” said Richard M. Freeland, who will step down next week as the state’s higher education chief.
Meehan’s job is to make that happen.
“The public in Massachusetts is pretty complacent about higher education,” Freeland said. “There’s no sense of urgency. The public doesn’t get outraged when our budget gets cut. You need a strong leader and a persuasive leader.”
As he steered his SUV toward his London Street boyhood neighborhood, Meehan said he’s ready to carry that torch. He knows his way around the State House. He’s not shy about twisting arms. He knows how to shake trees full of big donors. Excellence, he said, will be his watchword.
“I really embrace the mission of making sure that there’s quality education for everyone from every neighborhood in this state,” he said. “I think my roots in this neighborhood helped me develop the passion I have for education.”
When Meehan still lived on London Street, his father worked as a compositor (Google it) at the Lowell Sun during the day and three nights a week as a guard at the Billerica House of Correction.
Martin T. “Buster” Meehan never collected a college degree, but his home was filled with hundreds of books. He was a self-educated man, discerning enough to know what it meant when his kids at the local grammar school brought home textbooks with sentences underlined in pencil by their previous owners from wealthier neighborhoods. That message? Yours is a hand-me-down education.
‘If you’re going to run this system, then you need to be for excellence in everything you do.’Martin Meehan, incoming UMass president
Buster Meehan’s oldest son becomes president of a great system next week. He says the days of UMass being considered a second-tier institution are over.
“The political leadership in this state over the last three decades has viewed the University of Massachusetts as a safety net for either people who can’t afford to go to elite colleges in this state and beyond or people who aren’t smart enough to get in,” the incoming president said. “If you’re going to run this system, then you need to be for excellence in everything you do.”
His father would have savored those words. The son he raised has resolved to make them his solemn oath. His presidency depends on it.Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @FarragherTom.