Emails show how UMass Boston faculty scrambled chancellor search

The 2018 UMass Boston undergraduate commencement ceremony at TD Garden. Image courtesy UMass Boston

The seven-month search for a new UMass Boston chancellor ended with a whimper late last month when the three finalists withdrew their candidacies for the post in the midst of volleys between the UMass president’s office and faculty at the Columbia Point campus.

UMass is seeking to replace Barry Mills, who has been serving as interim chancellor since J. Keith Motley stepped down from the post last year. For now, Katherine Newman, the UMass system’s senior vice president for academic affairs, will follow Mills as interim chancellor.

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Interim chancellor Barry Mills speaks to new graduates. Image courtesy UMass Boston

A series of emails between faculty members, sent as the chancellorship selection process unfolded, shows a prominent group of stakeholders bristling against a sense that they were being forced into a number of unacceptable choices. The Reporter obtained the chain between the faculty, using their university email accounts, last week.

Last Friday, as the campus celebrated its commencement, faculty and university officials touted the many plusses of UMass Boston, including its academics, programming, and the steady progress toward overhauling the campus infrastructure.

“I’d really like our neighbors in Dorchester to understand how important shared governance is to the future of the university and the place that faculty hold in determining the future of any institution,” wrote Sharon Lamb, a professor in the Department of Counseling and School Psychology, in an email responding to requests for comment. “We are a loyal and committed bunch here.”

In this email thread, which Lamb notes is only one of many back-channel discussions between faculty members, some took issue with the qualifications of 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 while also lamenting answers the candidates gave at campus meetings with faculty members the week before the selection was to be made.

Screen Shot 2018-05-31 at 10.30.16 AM.pngFrom left: Peter Lyons, Kathy Humphrey, and Jack Thomas

The complaints ran the gamut.

Reyes Coll-Tellechea, a professor of Latin American and Iberian Studies, said Lyons’ “answers were too long” and “when asked about the Mt Ida [being sold to UMass Amherst] situation, he said he did not know enough!” Others said he seemed “nice and thoughtful” but was nonetheless “not a good fit for the chancellor.”

The director of the American Studies Department graduate program, Jeffrey Melnick, wrote that both men “alarmed me in much different ways.” He said he was worried about Lyons’ commitment to the value of the public sector, and added that Thomas gave neither concrete answers nor satisfactorily explained why African American Studies and Women's Studies majors had been axed on his campus.

“No confidence” votes by Thomas’ faculty and non-answers around union negotiations and program closures also worried writers along the email chain.

For her part, Lamb wanted to know when the candidates had “made a decision or fought for a position that was unpopular with higher administration or their BOT.” She also wondered whether it would be “unethical” to reach out to colleagues at the candidates’ universities for additional information. They did so for each finalist.

In an email written by Luis Jiménez, an assistant professor in the Political Science Department, he related that his research on Humphrey with her colleagues determined her to be a “dynamo” who was “good with students” and “full of ideas,” but also someone who apparently was “absolutely terrible at any kind of logical sequencing” and “cannot run meetings.” An unsatisfactory answer on an LGBTQ question led to a chain of conversation around Humphrey’s church and personal beliefs.

The emailers floated a few names of dream chancellors, at least for the time being should the search be halted, one of which was former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick.

In later emails, Heike Schotten of the UMass Boston faculty council suggested template language stating "it is my conviction, shared almost universally with every other faculty member I have talked to, that two of the candidates would be simply unacceptable as UMB Chancellor: Kathy Humphrey and Jack Thomas."

Community comment: Another view on the 2018 UMass Boston chancellor search, from Rita Kiki Edozie and Barbara Lewis of UMass Boston

After the candidates withdraw, UMass President Marty Meehan and Trustee Henry Thomas strongly condemned the faculty critiques. Thomas said they visited “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.”

That comment did not land well with the faculty on the email chain, who read the statement as “implying racism” from a council that had conferred with 150 to 200 members of the UMass Boston staff.

Randy Albelda, a graduate program director and professor of economics, wrote, “In terms of Trustee Thomas’s accusations, there is always room for reflecting on that. But I would note that it was not the faculty or any of its representative bodies that got rid of Chancellor Motley – a chancellor students, staff, and faculty had worked with fruitfully for 10 years. That was President Meehan and the Board of Trustees.”

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UMass President Marty Meehan at the undergraduate ceremony. Image courtesy UMass Boston

A reading of the comments in the emails, one of which, in assessing Humphrey, drew the rejoinder, “Sounds like another Motley to me,” indicate that it is not exactly clear what the faculty consensus is on the desired qualities of a new chancellor.

The lengthy search, involving a 15-member search committee with two faculty representatives, submitted the names of the three finalists on May 11. Meehan planned to recommend his choice to the university board of trustees on Mon., May 21, but that meeting was cancelled after the faculty staff union rejected the three finalists and condemned the search process in a searing letter the previous Friday.

State Sen. Nick Collins noted that, unlike the faculty council’s “no confidence” vote against Meehan, the faculty letter itself did not result from a vote of the faculty council. In an email to Trustee Thomas, parliamentarian for the council Aaron Lecklider wrote, “the statement you referenced in your message was not written, issued, or endorsed by the UMass Boston Faculty Council…and should not be read as such.”

UMass spokesman Jeff Cournoyer said that the independent vetting by faculty members and their letter to Meehan and the board, followed by the withdrawals by all the finalists, was a very unusual outcome for a chancellorship search.

“The process for these searches is well established and has resulted in consensus opinions and successful appointments more often than not,” he said last week. “We learn from them all and try to implement those learnings moving forward. That is certainly the case with this one. The timing, especially in that final stage, is always a delicate balance between providing maximum opportunity for community consideration and feedback and ensuring that the candidates are still there when you’re ready to pick one. It’s obviously a moment for reflection, to take a breath and re-focus on all of the great opportunities on that campus and on the students.”

A number of students expressed unease with the way the search ended. UMass Student Trustee Gray Milkowski wrote in an email that he was “disappointed, ashamed of, and disgusted by the shortsightedness of the faculty who have now set this University further back than it already has been.”

Katie Mitrano, president of the UMass Boston undergraduate student body, told the Reporter that the faculty “decided to do this on their own and not get student input” and “forced an unnecessary transition that could be scaring away any other candidates who would want to come to UMass Boston.”

The possibility of a canceled search did enter the conversation, though some expressed doubt that it would be called off entirely. A few emails along the chain grappled with the prospect of being saddled with another interim chancellor or ending up with a chancellor they felt was not a good fit in the long haul. To professor Marlene Kim’s concern that a failed search could just lead to another interim — “and that may be worse than getting one of these three” — Steven Ackerman said the choice was between “one year of torture or 5-10 years!”

The faculty council letter was an unusual move, but apparently one that had crossed the minds of faculty members before. “The last time we hired a Chancellor,” Coll-Tellechea wrote in an email, “it was without a search committee, without faculty, staff, student input. He was selected by the president. Our Chair of the Faculty Council at the time refused to let the faculty council intervene. The Chancellor was Keith Motley, the outcome is where we are today.”

In a follow-up interview with the Reporter, Coll-Tellechea said that Motley “was unfairly ousted by the president’s office, and blamed for decades of political and financial neglect by the president’s office and Boston’s political class.” UMass Boston is at “a critical point,” she added, which makes faculty worry that Meehan is trying to install a chancellor who would be more pliable to his vision for the UMass system than Motley was.

In an editorial last week, Reporter editor Bill Forry proposed bringing back the former chancellor, Keith Motley, who left the office in the summer of last year under university pressure stemming from several financial struggles at the campus.

Unknown_0.jpegJ. Keith Motley

UMass Boston faculty have not openly weighed in on the Reporter’s Motley proposition, although some alumni and students wrote supportively about it on the “Save UMB” Facebook group.

Boston Mayor Martin Walsh, who caused waves of his own when he said he was open to the prospect of the city playing a larger role in UMass Boston’s management, said last week of a Motley comeback: “It’s an interesting idea. He’s still part of the system. People liked Keith Motley and people were very disappointed when Keith stepped down. His bigger than life personality and Keith wasn’t just the chancellor of UMass, he was a member of the community. He was engaged, he was out there, he was talking to people, he was active. People knew Keith Motley by name and that’s special, that’s a special type of person.”

Employees of other universities also shared supportive sentiments about Motley. Keith McDermott, former community relations director at Northeastern University, commented that Motley might want to consider the UMass presidency in general to spook Meehan. “If I was Keith Motley I would not want to work with an administration that did not support him and constantly leaked inaccurate and derogatory stories about his leadership,” McDermott wrote.

Carol Donovan of Regis College, a member of the advisory board for the Women in Politics and Public Policy program at UMass Boston, said she “couldn’t agree more” with the Reporter’s suggestion, calling Motley “a dedicated administrator who always understood the mission of having a university in Boston.”

Joining in the fray from off campus, former Bay State Congressman Barney Frank used his commencement speech before UMass Boston graduate students last week to weigh in in support of the faculty. In his eight years as a member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives, Frank said, he believed in the quality of the university system. “I recall it as a matter of deep commitment to equity and excellence. I believe I voted for the highest possible appropriation for the University of Massachusetts in every one of those eight years,” he said. “And it is a shame, it is a shame that the distinguished faculty and staff and students are not better treated!”

28540854108_d7162d8b21_o.jpgFormer Congressman Barney Frank delivered the principal address and received an honorary degree. Image courtesy UMass Boston

Collins said the university needs a Motley-style leader who will push for the continued advancement of the campus and champion its value. He worries that “anyone watching this from the outside, a.k.a. leaders who would have interest [in the post] would be apprehensive despite all the great things going on at the school.”

There is a “legitimate dispute,” he said, but “over the summertime, when people take a break, there needs to be a willingness on both sides, leaders of university system and different interests, on campus to come together."

The tone of the emails among faculty members as they wound down shifted toward one of resignation. Several told the Reporter in emails that they hoped to take the discussion out of the press and focus on working with Newman.

“Given that we’ve been assigned an interim chancellor (again), it seems important for us to at least try to develop a functional working relationship with her, despite our understandable frustration that that appointment, also, did not involve any campus input,” David Pantalone, graduate program director of clinical psychology,” wrote in a May 21 email on the faculty thread. “(déjà vu, anyone?)”

Editor's note: A shortened version of this story appeared in the May 31 print issue of the Reporter. Jennifer Smith can be reached at jennifer.smith@dotnews.com, or follow her on Twitter at @JennDotSmith

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