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An elite college president’s new challenge: stabilize a struggling UMass Boston

Barry Mills, the recently named deputy chancellor and chief operating officer of UMass Boston.
Barry Mills, the recently named deputy chancellor and chief operating officer of UMass Boston. Keith Bedford/Globe Staff

From 2001 to 2015, Barry Mills was the president of Bowdoin College, home to 1,800 students, a $1.4 billion endowment, and a dining hall that serves locally sourced venison and farro salad with asparagus and parmesan.

He calls that time “the best 14 years of my life” — one that seems a world away from the challenges he’s facing now.

Two weeks ago, Mills was named the number two official at the University of Massachusetts Boston, a sprawling urban campus with 17,000 students, a $30 million projected deficit, and a faculty reeling from years of shrinking state support, ballooning maintenance needs, and chaotic management.

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“I’m sure he’s got friends who think he should have his head examined,” said Martin T. Meehan, the president of the UMass system.

Meehan persuaded Mills to take the newly created position as the school’s $250,000-a-year deputy chancellor and chief operating officer.

Mills signed a five-year contract and assumed all organizational, financial, and academic duties from J. Keith Motley, the longtime chancellor, who plans to continue to serve as the public face of the campus, earning more than $400,000 a year.

Despite the awkward arrangement, Mills said, “It’s important for folks to trust that Keith and I are partners.”

The position, Mills’s first in public higher education, has thrust the 66-year-old former corporate attorney into a financial and political crisis unlike any he has faced. And his presence on campus has unsettled faculty worried about cuts.

“There’s a real sense of uncertainty” about Mills on campus, said John Hess, a longtime English professor. “He’s a very affable man, he’s very well-spoken but, to be honest, we don’t know what to expect.”

In an interview on campus this week, Mills did not rule out cuts. But he said he is confident the university can overcome its financial woes.

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He argued his experience as a prodigious fund-raiser and overseer of major construction projects at Bowdoin, an elite private college in Brunswick, Maine, will help him clear the red ink and complete an ambitious building boom aimed at turning the commuter school into a top-tier research university.

“Substantively, the issues are all the same, but the scale is bigger so I don’t feel as though the learning curve is so hard,” Mills said. “What’s hard is learning the place.”

He said he does not want to become chancellor but rather stay in his deputy role, in part so he can work on the university’s problems during the week and then retreat on the weekends to his home overlooking Casco Bay, in Harpswell, Maine.

“I was the public face of a college,” Mills said. “I went to the dance performances, games, and travel. I’ve done that. I loved it. But I’m here for a different purpose.”

The first in his family to graduate from college, Mills grew up in blue-collar Warwick, R.I., the son of a stay-at-home mother and a father who sewed seat cushions for cars and owned a liquor store.

He graduated from Bowdoin in 1972, and then got his PhD in biology from Syracuse and his law degree from Columbia.

Barry Mills.
Barry Mills.Keith Bedford/Globe Staff

Mills became a partner at Debevoise & Plimpton, a prestigious New York law firm, and, in 1983, married Karen Gordon Mills, a venture capitalist and heir to the Tootsie Roll candy fortune. Currently a senior fellow at Harvard Business School, she served as chief of the Small Business Administration under President Barack Obama.

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Barry Mills became president of Bowdoin after he led the search committee for a new president and the other members of the panel asked him to take the job.

“I was the Dick Cheney of Bowdoin,” he said, referring to the former vice president who took the job after leading the search committee for George W. Bush’s running mate. “Dick Cheney with a good heart.”

Under his leadership, Bowdoin increased its endowment from $470 million to nearly $1.4 billion, replaced student loans with grants, and boosted minority enrollment from 14 percent to 33 percent. He renovated an art museum, turned a swimming pool into a concert hall, and built a new hockey rink, among other projects.

“When he was around, you would see him. He would talk to students, he would talk to anybody,” said Andrew Rudalevige, a professor of government at Bowdoin. “He did a lot of management by literally walking around. And I think that was appreciated. You never got the sense he was hidden. And he was considered to be very successful and certainly very effective in terms of his support for the faculty, both moral and financial.”

In 2013, Mills was plunged into the culture wars when a conservative higher education advocacy group produced a report that found Bowdoin had too few conservative professors and that it fostered “closed-mindedness” toward conservative views.

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Mills vigorously disputed the report, arguing at the time that it “exaggerates its claims and misrepresents both what we do at Bowdoin and what we stand for.”

Asked about the controversy this week, he said, “The comments I made at the time are the comments I live by.”

Last July, Mills’s legacy as president was sharply questioned in a podcast by the writer Malcolm Gladwell. He said Bowdoin’s devotion to serving some of the best food of any college in the country represents “a moral problem” because the funds would be better used to help more needy students.

“If you’re looking at liberal arts colleges, don’t go to Bowdoin,” Gladwell said in the podcast. “Don’t let your kids go to Bowdoin. Don’t let your friends go to Bowdoin. Don’t give money to Bowdoin or any other school that serves amazing food in its dining hall.”

Bowdoin reacted furiously, saying Gladwell’s report was “filled with false assumptions” and the “cost of our (made from scratch) food is below the average per meal cost of college food in the northeast United States.”

Mills said he listened to “part of” the podcast and “the statement that Bowdoin put out is entirely accurate.”

“If we were delivering gourmet food at gourmet prices, he might have had a point, but we weren’t,” Mills said. “We were incredibly efficient.”

After leaving Bowdoin, Mills moved to an apartment he has had for several years near Massachusetts General Hospital, which treated the oldest of his three sons after he was diagnosed with a brain tumor in 2008.

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In late 2015, Meehan called Mills and said, “We need to meet.” Meehan initially asked Mills to lead UMass Dartmouth, but Boston was a better fit, Mills said, because he can more easily visit Spaulding Rehabilitation Center, where his son, who is 30, now lives.

As Mills gets to know his new campus, he plans, at least initially, to increase private fund-raising and online course offerings and carefully review academic programs, he said.

“It’s interesting to me that so many faculty have said to me that the place has grown too quickly without discipline,” he said. “And everyone says, ‘My program is great, but that one should go.’ I think we just have to take a hard look at it.”


Michael Levenson can be reached at michael.levenson @globe.com