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Motley to step down as UMass Boston chancellor

PAT GREENHOUSE/GLOBE STAFF/FILE 2017

J. Keith Motley will step down as UMass Boston’s chancellor at the end of the academic year .

By Globe Staff 

University of Massachusetts Boston Chancellor J. Keith Motley will step down at the end of the academic year amid mounting financial problems at the campus that he has led for the past decade, university officials announced Wednesday evening.

The news came after Motley met with UMass president Martin T. Meehan Wednesday afternoon at the UMass central office on Beacon Street.

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Motley sent a note to the campus in the evening, pointing to the university’s accomplishments and describing his decade as its leader as among the best years of his life.

“Despite funding cutbacks, collapsing garages, and the doubts of unsympathetic outsiders, we have thrived and grown,” Motley wrote in an e-mail to students, staff, and faculty on Wednesday evening.

Motley has been chancellor since 2007, heading a diverse campus on Columbia Point of 17,000 students. But despite its new buildings and increased stature, the campus faces a deficit of up to $30 million, declining enrollment, overdue construction projects, and weakening fund-raising, according to UMass officials.

Still, Motley is a widely respected figure in Boston, especially in the black community, and many voiced outrage Wednesday night over what they perceived as his forced departure.

“This sequence of events has been a campaign to diminish and embarrass one of the most powerful men of color in the state. And I think it’s disgraceful,” said state Senator Linda Dorcena Forry, whose district includes UMass Boston and who has been an ally of Motley. She said it sends a troubling message to the district she represents, and she hopes the decision will be reversed.

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Motley’s contract with the school expired in January, and trustees had not renewed it. Amid concerns about finances, Meehan installed former Bowdoin College president Barry Mills to oversee the daily operations of the campus while Motley was to stay as the university’s popular, public face.

Motley, who earned $422,000 last year, will take a one-year sabbatical then return as a tenured faculty member, according to the central office. As a professor he will be paid $240,000, according to the terms of his contract.

In his message to the campus, he struck an optimistic tone.

“We are going through hard times at the moment, but the hard times are temporary,” Motley wrote in an e-mail to his campus. “So are the huge dirt piles,” he added, referring to the construction that clogs the campus.

Motley touted the new academic buildings that have opened on campus and noted that enrollment and research funding have grown over the past 10 years. Graduation and retention rates have also risen, although not as quickly as projected.

“For a university that started out in a gas company building and moved to a landfill, we haven’t done badly,” Motley wrote.

Before becoming chancellor, Motley served as interim chancellor and, before that, 10 years as a dean at Northeastern University.

Mills, who is paid $250,000, will become interim chancellor on campus on July 1, the release said. He will not be a candidate for permanent chancellor. In a statement, Mills said he hopes to leave the campus on more solid financial footing for its next leader.

Motley did not immediately return a call for comment, nor did Meehan.

In a press release from the central office, Meehan thanked Motley for his service.

“Chancellor Motley is an inspirational leader whose decade at the helm of UMass Boston resulted in strengthened academic programs, increased enrollment, and the transformation of the campus,” Meehan said.

UMass Board Chairman Robert Manning, in a text message statement Wednesday, said he believes in the mission of the city’s only public university.

“That campus represents the mission I care about, which is helping mostly first-generation students realize their hopes and dreams by achieving a degree from a world-class university,” Manning wrote. “Keith is a great person and someone I admire. I’m glad he will be on campus and continue to inspire students and help UMass Boston. We move forward.”

In response to the campus’s budget problems, adjunct professors have been laid off and classes have been canceled, among other cost-cutting measures.

Despite the unrest and frustration those cuts have caused, several professors said they are disappointed to see Motley depart.

Tony Van Der Meer, a professor in the Africana Studies Department who clashed with the administration over the future of that program, said he still thinks Motley’s departure is bad for the school.

“You saw this in the making,” he said. “It’s the president’s power play to force Keith out.”

But Wednesday night a spokesman for the university said that was not the case. “The facts simply don’t support that,” said Jeff Cournoyer.

Van Der Meer said if Motley goes, the board of trustees and university system president should also resign, since they had a role in overseeing the campus and its building projects and finances.

Van Der Meer, who is black, said he believes there are deeper issues about race at play as well.

“Keith is a black chancellor. He’s not the chancellor, he’s a black chancellor. That’s how people see him,” he said.

John Hess, a longtime English professor, said he personally likes Motley but isn’t surprised this is happening.

“Whenever there’s a deficit, the people at the top go,” said Hess, who is white. “It’s no surprise although personally it’s a disappointment, but I’m hoping this will be a way to go forward and resolve things.”

He and other professors said despite the changes at the top, students and professors continue to do what they always do: learn, teach, and research.

“UMass Boston has suffered from a lapse in leadership for sure, but that failure is by no means Motley’s alone,” said Joe Ramsey, a professor who has galvanized a group of students and faculty over the past year to oppose the budget cuts.

Ramsey said Motley kept alive the “shining idea” that all people are entitled to a quality education.

“To keep Motley’s ‘shining idea’ alive will require the active engagement and empowerment of the broad UMB community — students, faculty, staff, alumni, community,” he said in a Facebook message.


Laura Krantz can be reached at laura.krantz@globe.com
Follow her on Twitter @laurakrantz.