University of Massachusetts president Martin T. Meehan got what he wanted – the resignation of Keith Motley as chancellor of the University of Massachusetts Boston and the installation of Barry Mills as Meehan’s hand-picked interim chancellor. Now Meehan and Mills own a fiscal fiasco that Mills portrays as grim and alarming.
As Motley looked on from a far corner seat at the table, the man selected to replace him held court during an extraordinary session with the UMass board of trustees. During that time, Mills said the UMass Boston financial mess is “systemic,” adds up to “somewhere around $30 million,” and will take “discipline” to fix. “The budget process is fundamentally broken,” said Mills, and lacks transparency. He pledged to “evaluate every single program from the bottom up” financially and academically. From now on, he said, “it will be students first”.
Keeping those promises is critical to a university historically betrayed by those who put politics and patronage ahead of academic excellence and a balanced budget. At this moment, however, it’s unclear how long the promise-keeping job will belong to Mills. In announcing his appointment as interim chancellor, Meehan said the former Bowdoin College president will not be a candidate for the permanent position. Yet during his presentation to trustees, Mills also said, “This is not a one-year turnaround.” Nor did he sound like a short-timer when he told the board he’s going to ask UMass Boston “to reimagine what it means to be a public university in the 21st century.”
With UMass Boston in the midst of a major, budget-busting brick-and-mortar campus expansion plan, that’s an important matter to resolve. At universities across the country, the higher education model is shifting to less expensive online course offerings. UMass Boston is way behind on that shift, Mills acknowledged.
Even as interim chancellor, Mills still must prove that the leadership skills he demonstrated as president of a small, elite private school can meet the needs of a large public urban campus. He insists the issues are nearly the same, except for the union component at UMass Boston. But unions, of course, factor into cost in a big way in Massachusetts.
Mills clearly has the confidence of Meehan, who took on the job of president of the entire UMass system in July 2015. In this showdown with Motley, Meehan has worked to exonerate the board from any responsibility — even as he made clear that deficits built into three consecutive UMass Boston budgets were all approved by the board “before I became president.”
As president now, Meehan is responsible for what happens next, and that requires more than budget-balancing. With the departure of Motley, one of the few African-American leaders in this city, Meehan also has some serious community fence-mending to do.