It’s now or never for UMass Boston

J. Keith Motley, then UMass Boston chancellor, spoke at commencement in May.
John Tlumacki/Globe Staff/File
J. Keith Motley, then UMass Boston chancellor, spoke at commencement in May.

IT’S NOW-OR-NEVER TIME for the University of Massachusetts Boston — time to stop talking about its huge potential as an urban institute of higher learning and do what it takes to make it happen.

Unfortunately, after a year of fiscal chaos and unsettled leadership, UMass Boston still must prove itself worthy of such commitment.

In July, the interim chancellor, Barry Mills, took over after J. Keith Motley resigned as chancellor amid controversy over budgetary matters. Mills plans to leave next summer, at which point UMass Boston hopes to appoint a permanent replacement. Meanwhile, the interim chancellor is overseeing efforts to reduce a deficit that at one point was estimated at $30 million.


Martin T. Meehan, the president of the entire University of Massachusetts system, now pegs the deficit at $8 million. The plan is to bring it down to $5 million when the current fiscal year ends, on June 30. Meehan said he’s leaving it up to Mills, the former president of Bowdoin College, to figure out how to do that.

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But Mills’s deficit reduction plan has gotten off to a rough start. Staff reductions and a hiring freeze that is supposed to save $3.5 million targeted, among others, a janitor with mental health and physical challenges — who was two years away from his ability to retire with maximum benefits. That ham-handed move raises concerns that the cuts unfairly target employees at the lower end of the pay scale at the expense of highly paid employees who are politically connected. Meehan should assure that future reductions are done more equitably across the board.

Meehan should also be expected to make sure that UMass Boston gets its fiscal house in order before a new chancellor is installed. Financial stability is a must; great candidates won’t come forward if they know they are walking into a fiscal and infrastructure disaster. It is also critical that UMass Boston show the state it can manage the money needed to fix its crumbling underground garage. So far, Governor Charlie Baker is committing $78 million for the repair project; more is needed.

To help in the search, Meehan has enlisted the help of Freeman A. Hrabowski III, the longtime president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC). Hrabowski, who is credited with helping to establish one of the most successful urban public research universities in the country, is being paid a $25,000 consulting fee; according to a Meehan spokesman, it will be donated to scholarships at UMBC. Here’s some of Hrabowski’s advice, at no cost to anyone:

First, UMass Boston needs to demonstrate to the public that it knows how to manage its funds well. Then, the state needs to ask itself if it wants its public institutions — including UMass Boston — to be universities that “large numbers of students, including well-prepared students, will seriously consider,” Hrabowski said in a telephone interview.


The next leader also needs to know “there is a plan” and that Meehan, the UMass board, and the public are working together to address problems.

Finally, “the state needs to understand the role of a public urban research university and the important role it can play in the economy.” To do that, Massachusetts has to “look in the mirror” and decide whether it has the desire to make UMass Boston “an institution of choice” and not just “an institution for ‘those people’ who are less advantaged and who have no other choice,” said Hrabowski. His verdict: “I think UMass Boston has tremendous potential to become one of the nation’s leaders among urban public universities.”

Of course, that’s been said many times before. Absent real commitment to harness the potential of UMass Boston, and clarity of vision set by the system’s top leadership, Massachusetts might as well auction off this valuable waterfront property for private development and stop paying lip service to a mission it has yet to fully embrace.