‘Disappointment’ and anger roil UMass Boston campus

UMass President Martin Meehan, center, spoke during a legislative hearing last week on the closure of Mount Ida College. He is flanked by UMass Amherst Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy, left, and UMass Senior Vice President and Treasurer Lisa Calise, right. Sam Doran/SHNS photo

Chancellor finalists withdraw in wake of faculty attack on process; search on hold; trustee rues “calumny” on the candidates

The search for a new leader for the UMass Boston campus in Dorchester came to an abrupt and embarrassing halt on Monday as UMass President Martin Meehan announced that all three finalists have withdrawn their names from consideration.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 search process in a letter to the UMass community that 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that I write to inform you that all three finalists recommended by the UMass Boston Chancellor Search Committee have withdrawn from consideration, bringing to an unceremonious end a seven-month search process.”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, the president of Western Illinois University, were presented as finalists by the search committee on May 11. UMass is seeking to replace Barry Mills, who has been serving as UMass Boston’s interim chancellor since Keith Motley stepped down from the post in 2017.

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

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

The statement noted that “the faculty assert a collective and resolute judgment that none of the final candidates have demonstrated that they are sufficiently qualified to serve as the chancellor of the only public research university in the greater Boston area and the most diverse four-year public institution in New England.”

The finalists visited the campus last 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 Monday, which was cancelled on Friday after the faculty issued their statement.

In separate letters to the university community, Meehan and Search Committee Chair and UMass Trustee Henry Thomas apologized for what had 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,” he said, “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 package 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.”

He charged the council, “representing a majority-minority campus but lacking a single African-American member," with visiting “disrespect and calumny on one of the country's few African-American sitting college presidents, a top African-American female university leader, and an academic administrator from an institution that graduates more African-Americans than any college or university in the country.”

According to WBUR, Heike Schotten, an associate professor of political science at UMass Boston and associate chair of the Faculty Council, said that a group of 150 to 200 faculty members, including employees of color, objected to the candidates.

Reyes Coll-Tellechea, a professor in the Latin American and Iberian Studies department, told the State House News Service that the faculty held a "huge meeting" on Friday and discussed the pros and cons of the finalists, whom she called "fine professionals" who "genuinely wanted to come to UMass Boston.” He added that the faculty will work with Newman "as much as possible.”

State Sen. Nick Collins took issue with the faculty statement with one of his own on Tuesday.

“I thought all three finalists were excellent,” he said. “What a handful of faculty decided to do on Friday was not constructive for the process or the campus.”
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 that 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 40-year-old crumbling garage – and ambitious expansions under way, like the new dormitories set to open this fall.

And the sale or lease of the former Bayside Expo property could net a funding windfall 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.

In his letter, Meehan praised Mills’s tenure so date as he worked to balance the budget and added that 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 time frame to return to a search for a permanent chancellor.”

Sen. Collins said the mess illustrates a risk to the chancellorship search going forward. “We have to keep in mind that at the end of the day, Umass Boston exists for its students, first and foremost,” he said. “Further, no one party or interest should have outsized influence over the search for the next UMass Boston Chancellor. For if that happens, I don't know who would want to be chancellor."

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