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JOAN VENNOCHI

Sorting out the UMass Boston mess

Marty Meehan and J. Keith Motley in July 2015, during a roundtable discussion at UMass Boston.
Marty Meehan and J. Keith Motley in July 2015, during a roundtable discussion at UMass Boston.(Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff/File)

What did Marty Meehan know about the fiscal crisis at UMass Boston, when did he know it and — as president of the entire University of Massachusetts system — what did he do about it?

The public deserves to know the full story behind the story of a projected $30 million deficit at UMass Boston. According to a report by the Globe’s Laura Krantz, UMass Boston chancellor J. Keith Motley was warned of serious fiscal problems in 2012, 2014, and 2016. While there’s good reason to hold him accountable, there’s also reason to wonder about oversight after Meehan took over in July 2015 — and before, when Robert Caret was president of the UMass system.

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Meehan kicked off his new job with a roundtable discussion at UMass Boston, during which he said he was committed to making the UMass system a world-class research institution while keeping student costs down. Since then, Meehan has touted growth at UMass Boston, most recently related to a December groundbreaking for a $120 million residence hall. As a public-private partnership financed with tax-exempt bonds, the dorm doesn’t depend on the school’s balance sheet. But it does project an ambitious vision for the Boston campus.

In an interview, Meehan said he stands by that vision. To restore fiscal health at the Boston campus, Meehan tapped Bowdoin College president Barry Mills as deputy chancellor at a salary of $250,000. Motley, meanwhile, stays on as chancellor, at $400,000. Robert Connolly, a retired UMass spokesman, is also under contract to assist Mills, for a salary of $48,000.

Bottom line: As usual, Massachusetts taxpayers are paying more to figure out how to spend less.

Which also raises the question of why it took so long to address fiscal problems that were documented at least five years ago. The answer could be that no one in authority was eager to fire Motley, the popular face of UMass Boston, and until recently, the only African-American chancellor in the state university system. However, now it looks like the goal is to make it so uncomfortable that Motley leaves.

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Asked directly about that, Meehan said, “I don’t think that’s the case at all.” Asked if he has confidence in Motley’s leadership, he said, “Keith is a very good leader.” Asked who beyond Motley should be accountable for the financial problems, he said, “Everyone’s accountable.”

Everyone should be.

When he started his new job, after a hugely successful tenure as chancellor of UMass Lowell, Meehan said he was “aware” of a deficit issue at UMass. He subsequently asked all the campuses to begin submitting quarterly financial reports. In the first report submitted by UMass Boston, he said, the campus was projecting a $10 million deficit that “they felt they could get down to $6 million.” When the second quarterly report showed the projected deficit had increased, Meehan said he brought the matter to the attention of the Board of Trustees.

In February, Meehan wrote a letter to Motley, in which he expressed “my significant concern over the year-end projections for the Boston campus” and said he was hiring an outside firm to “conduct an organizational assessment and strategic audit.”

Meehan, a former congressman, graduated from UMass Lowell and earned his master’s and law degrees from Suffolk University. Wooed by Suffolk to be its president, he chose UMass instead, and now has big plans for the university system he leads.

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Give him credit for energy and passion. Then demand he does whatever it takes to bring fiscal stability to UMass Boston, without ducking responsibility or tough decisions.


Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.