Metro

UMass Boston leader offers emotional defense of his tenure

UMass Boston Chancellor J. Keith Motley addressed the UMass trustees Tuesday.

Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

UMass Boston Chancellor J. Keith Motley addressed the UMass trustees Tuesday.

Outgoing UMass Boston Chancellor J. Keith Motley delivered an emotional defense of his decade-long tenure Tuesday evening, telling the university system board of trustees that he is proud of everything he accomplished, despite the financial problems that now plague the campus.

“I have no regrets because if the creator blesses me to walk on this campus three years from now and you walk it with me, I know you’ll see an incredible institution,” Motley said.

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The remarks were the first time Motley has spoken publicly since announcing last week that he would step down at the end of the academic year — an announcement that followed news of the university’s budget deficit, declining enrollment, and eroding fund-raising.

Motley’s pending departure has sparked protest from supporters on campus and within the city, some of whom have accused the university system of making the chancellor a scapegoat for the school’s troubles.

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But Tuesday, Motley seemed resigned to the change. “When we come into these jobs as president and chancellor, we know that they end. We also know that we can’t do everything,” he said, saying he spent his years focused on growing the school’s physical and academic infrastructure.

In the weeks he has left as chancellor, Motley said, he was prepared to work with Barry Mills, the school’s new deputy chancellor, to solve the campus’s myriad problems.

Motley’s speech concluded an afternoon of meetings of trustee subcommittees in preparation for the full board’s meeting Wednesday morning on the Boston campus. After he spoke, the chancellor received a standing ovation from those at the crowded meeting.

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UMass Boston faces a budget deficit that had been estimated as much as $30 million. On Tuesday, university officials said now they believe they can whittle the deficit down to $6 million or $7 million by the end of the fiscal year in June. At the moment, the Columbia Point campus is torn up by ongoing construction projects, many of which are significantly delayed and over-budget.

One trustee asked whether Mills, whom the central office appointed in February to fix the major problems on the campus, was prepared to work with Motley.

Until that moment, at the very end of the meeting, Motley had spent the afternoon sitting quietly in the back corner of the room. He was not called on during the meeting to make formal comments, but gave his speech after trustee Henry Thomas’s question.

“I’ve sat in this corner squeezed up over here. I haven’t dealt with anything people have said in the press because I know the truth,” Motley told trustees.

The chancellor said he used his decade at the helm to focus on growing the physical and academic infrastructure of the school, and he thanked trustees for their support.

“I’m proud to wear on my back whatever is on my back around this institution. Because it’s an institution that gets into your soul. That’s why people run to us,” Motley said.

Motley called the current problems “a pebble in the road for us” and said it was his successes that inspired Mills to accept the job on campus.

“He becomes the mortar. I had to build bricks,” he said.

But the growth Motley spoke proudly about has come at a price, and indeed that cost was the focus of much of the rest of the afternoon’s meetings.

UMass President Martin T. Meehan and Lisa Calise, the system’s chief financial officer, said the fiscal year was difficult for all five campuses in the university system, with concern about bond ratings and the system barely breaking even.

Meehan said that at the beginning of the year all five campuses — Lowell, Dartmouth, Amherst, Worcester, and Boston — identified cuts they needed to make to balance their budgets. But, he said, while the other four campuses did so, Boston did not.

Originally the Boston campus projected a $2.3 million surplus this year, but instead it showed a $10 million deficit after the first quarter, Meehan said. After the second quarter, that had risen to nearly $15 million, he said. That sum, left unattended, could have ballooned to $30 million, some officials worried.

The medical school in Worcester had also projected a $11 million deficit, Meehan said, but managed to correct it by the second quarter.

Before Motley’s speech, Mills spent half an hour describing the problems he has uncovered in his first four weeks on the job. He said it will take several years to fix them.

Mills called the problems systematic and chronic. He said rapid construction, hiring, and the creation of new academic programs have created the situation the campus finds itself in. He called the university’s budgeting process “fundamentally broken.”

“Every day there is a new problem that has a lot of zeros, and it’s daunting,” said Mills, former president of Bowdoin College.

To fix the problems, the campus will likely need to increase enrollment, cut academic programs, increase its online education program, and do more fund-raising, he said.

“This is not a one-year turnaround,” he said.

Mills described the ongoing construction projects — to build a dormitory and a new parking garage and to fix the underground utility system and a crumbling underground parking garage — as expensive and complicated.

Still, Mills said he doesn’t want the school’s current problems to deter future students from choosing UMass Boston.

Earlier in the meeting Meehan, who took over as president in July 2015, emphasized that his responsibility is the health of the entire system. He became concerned when he saw that Boston’s financial reserve had dropped to half of what it was two years prior, he said.

“I have a fiduciary duty to protect the interests of UMass Boston, its students, faculty, and staff. I also have a fiduciary responsibility to the five-campus system,” Meehan said.

The president also defended the board of trustees’ role overseeing the financial well-being of the five campuses.

“While the board has broad authority to ensure that university funds are spent properly . . . responsibility for campus budget decisions are delegated to the five chancellors,” Meehan said.

Outside the meeting, Meehan was asked whether he would have liked to see Motley stay on as chancellor longer. He declined to answer directly.

“I want to see Chancellor Motley recognized for all the positive things he’s done,” Meehan said.

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