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At UMass Boston, a new interim chancellor faces daunting challenges

Katherine Newman will take over as interim chancellor on July 1.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

Katherine Newman has spent most of her 39-year career at elite private universities, but as a sociologist who writes about income inequality, her work has always been about the type of student more likely to be found at UMass Boston.

Now, as Newman prepares to become the second interim chancellor in as many years on the Dorchester campus, she said she feels ready for a challenge and energized to serve the students she has written about for decades.

Newman, who will replace interim chancellor Barry Mills, is set to begin July 1. She faces a daunting task.

She will not only be responsible for the campus’s stubborn budget and construction challenges, but will also face a faculty increasingly critical of the UMass administration over the past year of turmoil.


The campus was supposed to have a permanent chancellor in place for the fall, but after some UMass Boston faculty took a no-confidence vote in system president Martin T. Meehan and publicly criticized the three chancellor finalists as unqualified, all three withdrew.

“I think there is a lot of trust to be rebuilt; that doesn’t daunt me,” she said in a recent interview on the Boston campus, where she doesn’t yet have an office but has already begun meeting with staff and students.

Newman spent three years as provost at UMass Amherst, and the past year working for the UMass system office under Meehan as senior vice president for academic affairs. Newman’s salary for her new position has not been determined. She made $408,000 in 2017, the year she spent half the year as provost at Amherst and half at the UMass system office.

Newman, 65, who has spent her career at Columbia, Harvard, Princeton, and Johns Hopkins universities, said she also feels a special calling to the majority-minority university, which serves many students who juggle school and jobs.


“At a certain point I decided if I was going to invest my time in leadership, I should put it in the kind of institution that was serving the people I was writing about,” she said.

Newman is optimistic about UMass Boston’s future. She thinks the budget problems will subside if the campus can find a way to repair its massive crumbling underground garage. And she said she believes the city will come to value the resources of the campus if it can get out from under embarrassing headlines.

“The raw material is all here,” she said.

Newman said she plans to spend time among city business leaders to convince them that internships, apprenticeships, and loan forgiveness programs for students and graduates will help fill employment gaps. She also said she is unafraid to ask the state for more funding for the campus.

As for the faculty, she said the best way to rebuild trust is with actions.

“I hope they will see me as a forceful advocate for the cause of this campus,” she said.

As provost in Amherst, Newman also experienced some clashes with faculty. According to several UMass Amherst professors, professors had high hopes for her when she arrived in 2014 because of her well-respected research and solid resume.

But frustration arose quickly when she tried to execute sweeping changes quickly and also denied an unusual number of tenure cases, they said.

“A little bit of a bull in the china shop, it felt like to the faculty,” said David Gross, a biochemistry professor who has taught at the school 32 years and has interacted with the administration through his roles on the faculty senate and union.


Newman said she learned from the experience. She said she has tremendous respect for the faculty and at the same time is not afraid of controversy.

“I want the faculty to feel that they have an advocate for their research and respect for the work that they do,” she said.

At the Boston campus, however, many professors are simply weary of change. Many see Newman as just another temporary leader who is not invested in the long-term future of the campus.

“People want a permanent chancellor and for the search to begin again,” said Marlene Kim, an economics professor who is head of the Faculty Staff Union at UMass Boston.

Meehan’s office has said the search will not restart immediately. Newman last week said that so far, she does not have a contract for her job as interim and does not know how long she will serve. She did not rule out the possibility of being interested in the permanent job.

Newman, a Californian, completed her undergraduate degree at the University of San Diego in 1975.

In 1979 she received her PhD and began teaching at UC Berkeley’s law school, where she started her research into the impact of economic downturns, according to her UMass biography.

In 1981 she joined the faculty of Columbia University, where she earned tenure and taught for 16 years, publishing a number of books about poverty and the urban working poor.


Her career continued at Harvard, where she was a professor at the Kennedy School of Government and founded a new program on inequality and social policy, according to her biography.

She was a professor at Princeton University for six years before she became dean of arts and sciences at Johns Hopkins University, where she oversaw 22 academic departments.

One sore subject Newman will confront at UMass Boston is the recent purchase of the Mount Ida College campus in Newton by UMass Amherst.

A number of faculty and students at UMass Boston feel slighted by that move, saying Amherst shouldn’t be allowed to spend $75 million on an outpost in Greater Boston while their own campus struggles through budget cuts.

Newman said she is focused on problems much bigger than how Amherst plans to use that campus.

“I see my job here as not spending a lot of time worrying about Mount Ida, which is a little tiny dot in Newton. It’s thinking about how to promote what this campus means to the city and linking its future to the economy of this vibrant city,” she said.

Newman has a book coming out in January about inequality in the American retirement system and the end of pensions. She has no plans to stop her scholarship, but it might have to take a back seat for now.

“I have to think about what comes next, and that probably will probably have to wait for a little while,” she said.


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