Three finalists withdraw from UMass Boston chancellor search

(l-r) Kathy Humphrey, Peter Lyons, and Jack Thomas withdrew from the UMass Boston chancellorship search this week. Photos from University of Pittsburgh, Georgia State University, and Western Illinois University websites.

Incoming interim chancellor Katherine Newman to replace Barry Mills; search on hold for now

The search for a new leader for the UMass Boston campus in Dorchester came to an abrupt and ignominious halt on Monday as UMass President Martin Meehan announced that all three finalists have withdrawn their names from consideration.

Meehan scolded on-campus critics of the candidates and the process in a letter, in which he began: “It is with profound disappointment that I write to inform you that all three finalists recommended by the UMass Boston Chancellor Search Committee have withdrawn from consideration, bringing to an unceremonious end a seven-month search process.”

Finalists Kathy Humphrey, Senior Vice Chancellor for Engagement and secretary of the Board of Trustees at the University of Pittsburgh; Peter Lyons, Vice Provost and Dean of Perimeter College at Georgia State University; and Jack Thomas, President of Western Illinois University were recommended by the search committee on May 11. The university system is seeking to replace Barry Mills, who has been serving as UMass Boston interim chancellor since former chancellor Keith Motley stepped down in 2017.

Meehan said Katherine Newman, UMass senior vice president for academic affairs, will become interim chancellor after Mills departs at the end of this academic year.

The chancellorship search weathered extreme ups and downs, coming to a head on Friday, when the UMB Faculty Staff Union released a blistering statement calling the process “deeply problematic” and said that the faculty was “marginalized and silenced throughout the search process.”

All three candidates visited the campus this past week to meet with the UMass Boston community. Based on feedback, Meehan planned to make a recommendation to the UMass Board of Trustees at a noon meeting today, which was cancelled Friday after the faculty statement.

In letters, Meehan and Search Committee Chair and UMass Trustee Henry Thomas apologized for what transpired.

Meehan said he was seeking “confidential feedback” from the campus visits.

“I was mortified when the candidates’ commitment and qualifications were questioned in public forums, including the news media and social media. I have apologized personally to each of them on behalf of the campus community. I know the majority of you do not support the sensationalized critiques of these candidates’ professional and academic qualifications and accomplishments.”

The pack of chancellor candidates was diverse and well-qualified, both Meehan and Thomas said, as was the 15-member search committee.

“It has been deeply disappointing, therefore, to see a small but vocal group of members of the UMass Boston community take their criticism of the candidates public, issuing statements directly to the media and airing specific criticisms on social media,” Thomas wrote. “It is outrageous to see higher education leaders who were willing to put their careers and reputations on the line for a chance to join the UMass Boston community be subject to this kind of denigration.”

The Columbia Point campus has been rocked with outrage over UMass Amherst's purchase of the Mount Ida College campus in Newton. UMass Boston students and faculty say they see the purchase as a direct attempt to compete with their school for students interested in access to Greater Boston. UMass and UMass Amherst officials said in a hearing last week the Newton campus will be supplementary, accepting no students directly, and aimed at experiential learning.

Any future chancellor will enter a university with a backlog of expensive capital improvement projects -- like its crumbling garage -- and ambitious expansions underway -- like the new dormitories set to open this fall.

And the sale or lease of the Bayside Expo lot could net a major sum for the campus. Sixteen developers responded to a Request for Information on the parcel, which has now led to the start of a bidding process for the waterfront acreage, officials say.

Meehan in the letter lauded Mills’ tenure so far, working to balance the campus’ budget, and said Newman would be “laser-focused on academic excellence and meaningful engagement with students.”

But the chancellorship search is on indefinite pause for now, he said.

“Dr. Newman has committed to serving as interim chancellor for as long as needed,” Meehan said. “In my judgment, the campus community needs time to put the unfortunate outcome of this search behind it and restore the kind of trust and decorum needed for an effective search to unfold. In consultation with the Board of Trustees, I will consider an appropriate timeframe to return to a search for a permanent chancellor.”