In wake of Motley resignation from UMass post, some decry focus on him as unfair, misdirected

Keith Motley

Updated April 12, 2017, 2:15 p.m. --
Even as they applauded the legacy of UMass Boston chancellor Keith Motley, who announced his resignation last week, several elected officials have continued to express concern about the tenor of conversation that led up to his departure, in particular talk about the university’s financial situation.

Motley has headed up the university – the city’s only public research educational institution – since 2007, and plans to step down on June 30, take a year's sabbatical, then return to campus as a tenured professor.

State House News Service: Motley lends words of support to successor Mills

Still dealing with the political fallout from the announcement, the broader UMass community this week objected to the manner in which school officials have handled financial hurdles, which have been highlighted by Motley’s resignation.

UMass Boston reported an expected $15 million end-of-year deficit in late January, and UMass officials said Tuesday that number is now down to between $6 and $7 million.

At this week’s board meeting, students, faculty, and community members held up signs protesting budget cuts intended to reduce the UMass Boston deficit. A majority of the 60 courses that have been cut to help compensate for the deficit without input from instructors have been restored, officials said at the meeting.

"What is most upsetting to me is that we have to constantly come to this board and ask for respect, something that should be at the forefront," said Janelle Quarles, president of the Classified Staff Union, which represents employees. "This last year at UMass Boston has been a trying one to say the very least ... we still cannot get a straight answer from anyone when we ask about the cuts or the rumors and only when there is a breaking news story do we have confirmation that there has been a change that could significantly impact students and staff."

Under Motley’s tenure, UMass officials noted, enrollment grew by 25 percent, student retention and six-year graduation rates had risen notably, research funding had increased by 53 percent, and the school had opened the campus’s first new academic buildings in decades.

UMass president Marty Meehan praised Motley in an announcement last Wednesday after the chancellor’s resignation.

“Chancellor Motley is an inspirational leader whose decade at the helm of UMass Boston resulted in strengthened academic programs, increased enrollment, and the transformation of the campus," Meehan said. “He concludes his tenure as chancellor having successfully elevated the institution while preserving its vital mission and its contributions to the City of Boston and the Commonwealth.”

All of which came with growing pains. A series of Boston Globe articles since mid-March had laid out the institution’s financial struggles, which the central office cites as up to a $30 million deficit, reduced fundraising, and an enrollment decline between 2015 to 2016.

The Globe articles documented warnings going back to 2012 that the campus, dealing with overruns in a $750 million long-term facility and infrastructure construction project, was feeling the financial crunch.

Given his impending departure, some city and state leaders worry that Motley — a popular black leader at the helm of the prominent Columbia Point university, and until Robert E. Johnson was named UMass Dartmouth chancellor last month, the only black UMass chancellor — could see his reputation tarnished by the circumstances of his resignation, which they see as targeting him alone for the financial issues.

State Sen. Linda Dorcena Forry said last week that the steady drip of news has effectively led to Motley being “systematically discredited and removed over the past few months,” which sends a “disturbing message.”

More importantly, Forry said, “we keep talking about the budget deficit, and yet he’s not the sole decision maker.” The board of trustees, the UMass Building Authority, the president’s office, and the state Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance all play a role in approving budget and construction decisions at UMass Boston.

“I believe in accountability, efficiency,” said Forry, who is married to Reporter editor Bill Forry, “but it wasn't just Dr. Keith Motley who did the construction.” At a meeting of the Board of Trustees on Wednesday of this week she again called on the board to reject Motley’s resignation.

According to university data, enrollment at UMass Boston declined from a record 17,030 in the fall of 2015 to 16,847 last fall, a decrease that capped a steady but slowing year-to-year increase since Motley’s leadership began. Per-year applications over the decade increased from 5,192 to 15,539, although the percentage of admitted students who then enrolled has dropped.

Last December, Motley implemented austerity measures to address a roughly $26 million deficit, based on recommendations from the university's budgeting committee. The university prepared for an across-the-board 2.5 percent budget reduction, a hiring freeze, and to require at least five furlough days from certain employees.

Three months later, UMass management brought in Barry Mills, former president of Bowdoin College in Maine, to run the school as its chief operating officer. With Motley’s resignation, Mills will not be a candidate for chancellor, according to Meehan, but will serve as interim chancellor beginning July 1 "until finances are stabilized and the university is positioned to attract a world-class chancellor through a global search."

Some elected officials said Motley’s departure from university leadership took place under lamentable circumstances.

The chancellor was “working through an ambitious and difficult master plan,” said state Rep. Dan Hunt, adding that Motley “ushered in a new era for UMass. In a year, people won’t look to this as defining Dr. Motley, and his legacy is permanent in the buildings that will be on the peninsula for another 50 years.”

“In reference to the way he's exiting,” Hunt added, “it’s unfortunate that decisions made by the board of trustees along the lines of capital financing and other decisions are what reflects the economic position of UMass Boston, and it’s very disappointing that the board sought to air their grievances through the media.”

After a Massachusetts Democratic Party platform hearing last Thursday night, Suffolk County Sheriff Steve Tompkins said he was not comfortable weighing in on any political machinations, but he lauded Motley’s impact on the school and the city.

“I echo what everyone says about Keith being an inspirational leader,” Tompkins said. “I think he’s a pillar of strength, and not only that, but of encouragement. And to lose him, on one side of the coin, I think is a bad thing. But on the other side of the coin, I think that in the last ten years, between ’07 and now, he has established a presence for education, for inclusion, and I think that his legacy will go far past the ten years that he was actually in that chancellorship.”

Tompkins said he is “heartened” at the prospect of Motley’s continued presence on campus as an educator.
Motley will take a pay cut in his new contract. His salary as chancellor was $422,000 last year. As a professor, he will be paid $240,000.

When asked about Motley’s resignation at an event last week, Governor Charlie Baker said in a statement, “Obviously it’s a personal decision on his part and I wish him well; and I’m glad that when he finishes the sabbatical that he’ll be coming back and teaching, because I know he has a tremendous rapport with the students there.”

Mayor Martin Walsh has not yet commented on the chancellor’s departure, but City Councillor Tito Jackson, who is running against Walsh for mayor, concurred with Sen. Forry’s call for Meehan to refuse the resignation, as have other Motley supporters, including a group who rallied at the State House on Saturday.

“UMass is a better school than it was before Keith Motley was chancellor,” Jackson said Friday. “Not only did he build buildings, but he built a community and a uplifted the most important people on campus – students.”

Jackson, too, noted the various other entities that approve decisions to finance and build on the public university’s campus. Given the growth of the school under Motley’s leadership, Jackson said, he objects to the chancellor being singled out for all failings.

“It is shameful that his reputation, his leadership skills, and his contributions are being discounted at a time when other UMass campus and leaders face the same challenges and conditions that Keith faced,” he said.