Martin T. Meehan kicked off his term as president of the University of Massachusetts on Wednesday with a round-table discussion with students at UMass Boston, saying he is committed to making the system a world-class research university.
Meehan discussed a range of topics, including his desire to contain the cost of college, his support for dorms for UMass Boston, and a goal of making the five-campus system more cohesive. He touted his experience as chancellor of UMass Lowell and in Congress as steppingstones that will make him a successful system leader.
“In many ways I feel as though I’ve spent my whole life preparing for this job,” he said.
Meehan said he wants to improve not only the quality of education and facilities at UMass, but to make the brand a national and international symbol of excellence.
“I want our reputation enhanced, I want our rankings enhanced at all the campuses and as a system,” Meehan said, adding that he also wants to bolster the system’s marketing efforts.
Meehan succeeds Robert Caret as the 27th leader of the system. Caret stepped down to take a job as leader of the University System of Maryland.
UMass Boston Chancellor Keith Motley also participated in Wednesday’s discussion in the atrium of the Integrated Sciences Complex. The $182 million center, which opened in January, is the first new academic building on the Columbia Point campus in 40 years.
Motley heralded Meehan as a local leader who understands UMass. Meehan, a Lowell native, graduated from UMass Lowell in 1978 and earned his master’s and law degrees from Suffolk University.
Before his eight years leading UMass Lowell, Meehan served in the US House of Representatives for 14 years. He has said his political skills will help him raise money for the school, and has pledged to raise more than any prior UMass president.
As cameras and microphones hovered Wednesday, it seemed almost as if Meehan and Motley were filming a commercial for UMass, as they chatted with the group of diverse, well-dressed students poised on couches.
Meehan played up his modest upbringing, telling stories about the house where he grew up, where his six siblings and two parents shared one bathroom, his third-grade class where students were given used textbooks, discarded from wealthier schools in Lowell, and his days working as a janitor to pay for college.
After freezing student fees for two consecutive years,
UMass is poised to raise the cost of attendance for the fall semester by 5 percent to 8 percent, saying an increase is unavoidable without a substantial jump in state funding.
The cost of attendance at UMass Boston next year is about $12,000 for state residents and about $26,000 for out-of-state students.
Meehan said the cost of a UMass education has remained flat, with the rise of inflation, but the burden has shifted from the state to students and their families, as state funding for higher education has shrunk.
Students asked Meehan about dorms at UMass Boston, a longtime goal for the campus. Meehan said dorms at Columbia Point are long overdue.
He also discussed how to unite the five campuses into a more cohesive system.
“There is strength in collaboration among the campuses, and I’m going to look for ways to do that even more,” he said.
Meehan will make $769,500 during his first year on the job, including salary and benefits. He said he is committed to the job for 10 years.
The system has made some gains in the US News and World Report rankings.
UMass Amherst is tied for 76th among national universities and UMass Lowell is ranked 156th. The medical campus is ranked 49th among medical schools.
Away from the discussion, other UMass Boston students shared a variety of reasons for choosing UMass.
Incoming freshman Safet Oboni, 18, of Charlestown, said the campus was cleaner than other colleges he visited.
Another student, Moi Le, of Dorchester, said he is proud to attend UMass but wishes students had more enthusiasm and professors expressed more interest in their students.
“It’s a good school, but it doesn’t really seem like a community,” said Le, a third-year student studying psychology.