Mayor Walsh says a strong UMass Boston is critical, and offers to help
Mayor Martin J. Walsh has made an offer to the University of Massachusetts that should be accepted immediately.
Walsh has offered to serve on the search committee that is seeking a new president for UMass Boston. Obviously, Walsh has been involved in plenty of hiring. And he knows the place well: Though it sat just outside his Dorchester district when he was a state representative, he was a staunch advocate for the campus in his days on Beacon Hill.
“I adopted it, basically,” the mayor said in an interview Tuesday. “I have longstanding relationships with a lot of people there. I had great relationships with [former chancellors] Keith Motley and with Michael Collins.”
Walsh watched with dismay as the search for a new leader came to a sudden halt over the past few days. All three finalists for chancellor dropped out Monday, after being publicly assailed as unqualified by the school’s faculty. UMass senior vice president Katherine Newman has been appointed interim chancellor. She should probably get comfortable, because she’s likely to serve for at least a year.
A search committee that has worked for more than seven months selected three finalists for the chancellor position, who were then brought to campus for interviews and meetings. Those finalists were roundly roasted — in an open letter and on social media — as inadequate to the task. They dropped out over the weekend.
UMass president Martin T. Meehan and search committee head Henry Thomas ripped the faculty in response — Thomas in particularly condescending terms. But while the faculty was being bashed, Walsh directed the blame where it belongs, on the failure of the UMass administration to effectively communicate with the people they purport to lead.
“You have to communicate constantly,” Walsh said. “One of the issues when you’re doing a negotiation with labor, you have to have an ongoing conversation. It might not be going the way you want it to be going all the time, but you have to have an ongoing conversation.”
Walsh’s emotional investment in UMass Boston comes naturally. It is one of only two public four-year colleges in the city. Moreover, the college serves as an engine of opportunity for a diverse, ambitious, working-class student body for whom the city’s elite private colleges are virtually out of reach.
“I know Amherst is the flagship, but you need to have a presence in the capital city, and this is the presence,” Walsh said. “And it needs to be supported.”
UMass Boston is at a turning point in its history. The construction of new classroom buildings and long-awaited on-campus housing point to an era of unprecedented opportunity. At the same time, the toxic relationship between the campus and the UMass system places those signs of progress in jeopardy.
Half-a-dozen UMass Boston professors I spoke to in the past couple of days told me they simply don’t believe Meehan understands or appreciates the mission of the school. The war that erupted last weekend has been simmering since he pushed out Motley over campus budget woes.
It intensified under interim chancellor Barry Mills, whose approach to fixing the campus involved closing or deeply cutting many of the centers and institutes that have been a central part of the public identity of the college. I’m not saying that some of those cuts were not necessary, but they have been made with a striking lack of sensitivity for what they mean to the campus.
And then, UMass Amherst bought the Newton campus of Mount Ida College — giving the system’s flagship a leafy presence right in Boston’s backyard — and a simmering feud became a raging fire. Fairly or unfairly, the narrative became: UMass leadership doesn’t care about working-class UMass Boston.
Meehan — a working-class product of the UMass system — staunchly rejects that notion.
“That’s a concept that I don’t understand,” Meehan told me. “I want UMass Boston to succeed, and the idea that I don’t defies logic. I’m the one who got [on-campus] housing. They’ve been trying to get housing for 40 years.”
When I asked faculty members what they wanted in a new leader, one of the first qualities listed was that they wanted a leader who would stand up to the governing administration. That speaks directly to the lack of communication — and trust — that has poisoned the relationship.
Who would want to walk into this civil war?
Let me be clear: I am far from persuaded that all of the faculty criticism of the three finalists was accurate or fair. Three successful educators were basically branded sellouts by people who had met with them for a few hours, if that. Those seem like hasty, sweeping judgments under the circumstances.
But this is also the expression of frustration with a process in which much of the campus community has felt roundly dissed. That frustration was expressed by the only means available, albeit with disastrous results. Faculty members have complained repeatedly that Meehan has not talked to them. That lack of communication is surprising for a hugely successful politician like him.
Meehan said the search is on hold for the foreseeable future. Any applicant now is going to feel like they’re sticking their head into a buzz saw. Recruiting a new batch of talented applicants — and finding a chancellor acceptable to all sides — will take some time now.
But time isn’t all it is going to take. Both the faculty and administration sides need to embrace the mission and opportunity UMass Boston represents as an invaluable resource to students hoping to realize an increasingly unattainable dream of higher education. The greater good is being subsumed by a destructive power struggle.
“It’s too important to the city of Boston to let it fail,” Walsh said. “It’s too important to greater Boston to let it fail — it’s bigger than just Boston.”