Late on Sunday night a couple of weeks ago, Katherine Newman was working late, dealing with a frequent concern at UMass Boston: lousy construction.
This time, it was in the highly touted new dormitory that is supposed to mark a turning point in the school’s transformation from a commuter college into something more grand.
But then the problems came: toilets malfunctioned, the security system proved balky, the students complained of mediocre dormitory food.
So Newman — the interim chancellor at the University of Massachusetts Boston — went to the dorm to inspect the damage for herself. She knocked on every door and spoke to every student who would talk to her. She tested the turnstiles that are supposed to keep out unauthorized visitors. Newman left, she told me, at 2:30 a.m.
“I haven’t seen a dorm room in a long time, but I think [the students] were glad to see me,” Newman said. “I’m not happy that there were problems, but I’m dedicated to fixing them.”
As acting head of the state university system’s Dorchester campus, Newman has stepped into a role steeped in drama. In May, the faculty torpedoed a search for a permanent chancellor, publicly declaring all three finalists unqualified — all three immediately withdrew. UMass president Martin T. Meehan stopped the search and then tapped Newman as the acting chief.
It’s an unexpected step in a distinguished academic career. Newman, a sociologist, has written 15 books focused on poverty and inequality. She’s taught at Harvard, Columbia, and Johns Hopkins. Newman was vice president for academic affairs for the UMass system before assuming her current role.
While Newman has spent much of her career in elite institutions, she has much in common with the working-class young people who make up the bulk of the UMass Boston student body. She worked her way through college at the University of California San Diego, graduating with her bachelor’s degree in 1975.
“I’m very acutely aware that if I hadn’t been growing up in California at that particular moment in time — that is, in a state that was robustly supportive of public higher education — it wouldn’t have been possible for me to do what I did,” Newman said.
Newman was a professor for 30 years, moving into administration relatively late in her career. A bookcase in her office is filled with her books — not books she owns, but books she wrote, the product of years of assessing who gets ahead economically and who doesn’t, and why.
That passion goes a long way toward explaining her attraction to UMass Boston, an urban campus where increasing economic mobility is central to its purpose.
“The mission of the university as I see it, is to connect this peninsula to the hip of this prosperous city and enable students — older students, younger students, veterans — to take their place in a booming economy,” Newman said, looking out from the window of her office. “It’s not just an employment factory — it’s an opportunity to create reflective citizens. And to me, that is the essence of what public education should be everywhere. That’s what it was for me. That’s what it should be for them, too.”
Make no mistake, Newman isn’t viewing this as a temporary assignment. She doesn’t hide the fact that she would love to be in the job permanently.
“I would be honored and I think many people would be honored,” Newman said. “And I’m going to go at this job like my life depended on it, no matter what happens.”
For all the controversy of the past year — and the dorm issues of the past few weeks — UMass Boston seems poised to turn a corner. A year ago, so much of the campus was mired in construction projects that simply moving from building to building was an undertaking. That’s over now, and the campus has never looked better. The dorm will eventually be a major asset.
But the financial woes of the campus remain — in no small part because Beacon Hill has shown little appetite for making the kind of investment UMass Boston sorely needs. Not having a chancellor who can advocate for the campus has only made a bad political situation worse.
But in a city full of elite universities, UMass Boston has a serious role to play, as an engine of advancement for thousands of students looking for their way in to the city’s thriving economy. Newman understands that role as well as any university administrator could.
“For me, this is sort of the opportunity of a lifetime, to take all that understanding derived from research and put it into acton to make an actual difference,” Newman said. “For me, it’s a tremendous opportunity. I feel very lucky to have this chance to see what we can do to move that needle.”Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or follow him on Twitter @adrian_walker