As search for UMass Boston head begins, interim leader makes her mark

UMass Boston Interim Chancellor Katherine Newman.
UMass Boston Interim Chancellor Katherine Newman.Jonathan Wiggs /Globe Staff/Globe Staff

Katherine Newman prides herself on making do with very little sleep, and as the interim chancellor of the University of Massachusetts Boston, that’s a necessity.

She has been spotted after midnight walking through the new dorms when complaints surfaced about sloppy security there. She’s a frequent presence at the campus food court chatting up tables of undergraduates, more like a high school principal than the head of a 16,164-student public research university.

She has traveled to San Francisco and Seoul to court potential donors — helping to increase contributions to the urban campus to $22 million during this past fiscal year from $8.3 million, the previous fiscal year.


And last month, she brought the presidents of a dozen small, Boston-area private colleges to Dorchester to form a consortium that would allow undergraduates from institutions such as Curry College and Emerson College to take some advanced classes and eventually enroll in graduate degree programs at UMass Boston. It’s a money-making scheme, for sure, but also Newman’s strategy to combat the threat posed by the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s encroachment into the Boston market with its purchase last year of the former Mount Ida College campus in Newton.

“We have work to do,” Newman, 66, said during a recent interview in her office in her usual blunt style. “I am a very competitive person, and I never let somebody else move ahead if I’m not moving ahead faster.”

A year into her job as interim chancellor, Newman has charged forward with plans to stabilize UMass Boston’s future and its shaky finances with new hires, plans for construction projects, partnerships with foundations and businesses, and cost-cutting measures to shrink certain programs and employees.

She has won fans with her ubiquitous presence on campus, quick response to concerns, and passion for the school’s mission of educating a majority-minority population, many of whom are juggling jobs, family responsibilities, and their degrees.


“She is visible. I see her quite a bit. It’s nice,” said Rebecca Engel, 19, a student from Worcester. When problems arose over lax security and construction glitches at the commuter campus’s first dormitory, Newman installed turnstiles and added uniformed guards, Engel noted.

But Newman’s continued support of cuts and fee increases that began under the university’s previous leadership has some faculty and students concerned that she won’t be a forceful and effective defender of UMass Boston and may not be the right person for the permanent position.

“I feel very split about her,” said Joseph Ramsey, an English and American studies lecturer at UMass Boston. Whoever is named as permanent chancellor, “I want to see them fight for and advocate for the campus.”

Newman, herself, won’t talk about whether she’d like to be considered for the permanent job. She would say only that the search committee should determine the best candidates.

UMass president Martin Meehan in April told faculty that Newman “had reservations” about participating in a national search process.

Meehan initially wanted to give Newman a three-year contract for the chancellor’s job after a community evaluation of her performance so far. But after last year’s failed search for a new chancellor left many professors feeling so disappointed that they took a no-confidence vote on Meehan, faculty members insisted this past spring on a national search.

In late May, Meehan said he was reopening the search for a permanent chancellor.


“I encourage her to be in the search,” Meehan said of Newman. “I hope Katherine will be part of it.”

Mayor Martin J. Walsh of Boston also said he hopes Newman “decides she is interested in being a candidate.” Newman has been a thoughtful collaborator, Walsh said in a statement, but ultimately the campus needs the stability of permanent leadership.

“It’s in the best interest of everyone — the university, the students, faculty, and the entire city — that UMass get a permanent chancellor,” Walsh said.

The candidates for permanent chancellor will ultimately have to win over the often skeptical faculty at UMass Boston. During last year’s search, some faculty publicly criticized the three finalists as unqualified, and all three withdrew.

Having a national search with more robust faculty and community involvement will ensure that the candidates aren’t just loyal to Meehan and the central administration, said Reyes Coll-Tellechea, a professor of Latin American and Iberia studies, who has taught at UMass Boston for 26 years.

“It is a signal that the institution is important to the whole city of Boston . . . and that the chancellor works with all of us,” Coll-Tellechea said.

Still, the challenges for UMass Boston remain.

The campus is saddled with debt of more than $650 million from badly constructed buildings and projects that had to be rebuilt. Interest payments on UMass Boston’s debt have climbed from $7 million in 2014 to a projected $21 million for the next fiscal year. And the school faces a $14 million budget deficit for next fiscal year and is considering offering employees incentives to leave.


The campus had plans to increase online enrollment and revenue by as much as 7 percent this past school year, bringing in an additional $1.3 million in revenue to the campus, but as of the spring, online revenue had slipped slightly.

Students and faculty have become frustrated by the rounds of cuts and fee increases, including significant hikes to parking fees, which were proposed under the previous UMass Boston leadership and continued under Newman’s tenure.

Newman has also stuck with funding cuts, proposed before she arrived, to academic research centers on the campus.

Many of the research centers, which study minority and underserved communities, were launched by state legislators and some of them have been irked that they are on the chopping block. One Quincy lawmaker proposed legislation this spring that would have cut the pay for UMass Boston administrators in response.

Newman, whose own annual compensation is $412,000 and includes more than $132,000 she earns as a professor and researcher, called the salary cut proposal a “cheap political shot” during a budget meeting with the campus community. Newman defended her financial stewardship of UMass Boston and said that while the university is reducing funding for these centers, she hopes to work with them to find foundation and private financial support.

“If we were a wealthy university, this wouldn’t be an issue,” Newman said. “But in the end, the highest priority in my chair has to be the students and the classrooms that they need, the faculty who teach them; that has to come first.”


UMass Boston can’t escape its financial limits, many of them built up over decades, Newman said.

“I have come away understanding the historic financial burdens that have plagued this campus and why there is such strong sentiment around that,” she said.

Yet Newman remains bullish about UMass Boston’s future. The campus will receive $235 million from its lease of the nearby Bayside Expo property to a developer, helping offset capital expenses, she said.

Although the new dormitories opened to a rocky start, they have helped ensure that more students return to campus after their freshman year, Newman said. The campus still has to improve graduation rates. Less than half of the students enrolled graduate within six years, the lowest of all the UMass campuses.

Businesses and alumni are becoming more involved as the improved private donations have shown, Newman said.

The university is aggressively chasing out-of-state students, who pay more in tuition, increasing its recruitment events outside of Massachusetts last fall by 12.5 percent over the same period the year before.

“There are a lot of people in Boston who are really rooting for this campus,” Newman said. “You come away thinking this is the most important thing we could be doing in higher education.”

Fernandes can be reached at deirdre.fernandes@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @fernandesglobe.