Fifteen months after a previous search collapsed in discord, University of Massachusetts officials gathered Aug. 27 to launch a new search for a permanent chancellor for the Boston campus, which serves more than 16,000 undergraduate and graduate students.
"Our job is straightforward but that doesn't mean that it's easy," search committee chairman and real estate lawyer Norm Peters said, calling the diverse makeup of the search panel its greatest asset. "There is a good deal of competition for the quote-unquote best candidates."
The new panel has 21 members, compared to the 15 members of the last search panel, which was helmed by UMass trustee Henry Thomas. With five faculty members and two deans who are also faculty members, the new panel features increased representation from a faction that was disappointed by the last search.
"We are at an inflection point, I think, where we could really become a world-class institution with the right leader," said search committee vice chairwoman Jean Rhodes, a psychology professor at UMass Boston. "We can get there. And that's our charge here. I actually have been talking with the other faculty members. We're delighted that there's so much faculty representation. We think that's going to make a huge difference."
Committee members discussed the qualities they'd like to see in a new chancellor — strong, strategic, inclusive, innovative — and said serious candidates need to be mindful of the challenges associated with tackling infrastructure challenges on the campus and the weight of UMass-Boston's "legacy debt" load.
"It's really important that we very intentionally position UMass as an urban institituion," said search committee member Joyce Linehan, policy and planning chief for Boston Mayor Martin Walsh. "We're looking for somebody who sort of understands the root causes of poverty and understands the population that's being served there."
"I would probably like to have someone in place by July 1," Peters told the News Service after the two hour-plus meeting, describing a tentative timeline that could feature candidate interviews in February and the announcement of finalists in April.
UMass President Martin Meehan said he would do "anything and everything" that committee members request to help recruit candidates but said he will not be involved in the panel's day-to-day activities and asked for recommendations to be made "independent of me." During the meeting, he called UMass Boston "the most important institution in Boston" and said the campus graduates more people from diverse backgrounds than any other university in New England.
"I think that UMass Boston is in a great position to attract world-class candidates from all across the globe," Meehan said.
Isaacson Miller partner John Isaacson compared the search committee to a "little legislature," with members representing various constituencies, and encouraged them to focus on learning throughout the process of vetting candidates.
Mentioning the diversity of the campus, Isaacson said the firm is also making a "major commitment" in the search to seeking diversity among candidates.
Search firm officials plan to visit the Dorchester campus and meet with stakeholder groups on Sept. 11, with the search committee meeting again on Sept. 18.
Committee members spent the bulk of their first meeting introducing themselves, being briefed on ways to handle media inquiries, and being warned about ways they can unintentially violate open meeting laws, including with email chains can become subject to being turned over if public records requests are made.
Chancellor searches have previously been undermined by honest mistakes, said Meehan. "This is important stuff," he said, later clarifying that there have been searches in the past where candidates have leaked their own names out, a choice that Meehan said usually hurts candidates.
In May 2018, ending the previous search, the three chancellor finalists each withdrew from consideration, citing "extreme disappointment" with actions by the school's faculty council, Meehan said at the time.
On the same day that UMass trustees were scheduled to vote on a new chancellor, Meehan wrote in a letter that the seven-month search had come to "an unceremonious end" and named Katherine Newman as interim chancellor.
The three finalists were Kathy Humphrey, the senior vice chancellor for engagement and secretary of the Board of Trustees at the University of Pittsburgh; Peter Lyons, the vice provost and dean of Perimeter College at Georgia State University; and Jack Thomas, president of Western Illinois University.
The decision of the three finalists to drop out of last search came after a university-wide meeting where more than 200 faculty members decided none of the candidates were the right fit, one faculty council member said at the time. Reyes Coll-Tellechea, a professor in the Latin American and Iberian Studies department, said at the time that "the major issue at UMass Boston right now is the relationship with President Meehan and the Board of Trustees is broken."
Search committee members were asked Tuesday to sign confidentiality agreements designed in part to protect the identities of chancellor applicants. Meehan said there have been instances of candidates who have pulled out of search processes because their names have been leaked.
"As you can imagine, the press will be aggressive about trying to figure out what's going on, and that's the role that they play and that's what they do," he said. "But we have to be just as aggressive in protecting the integrity of the process and also protecting those folks who are willing to put themselves forward as a potential candidate."
Asked what had changed since 15 months ago, when Meehan said it would be futile and untenable to restart a chancellor search, Meehan said construction on the campus has subsided, new dorms have been built, and there's an agreement to bring $235 million to the campus from redevelopment of a nearby parcel.
"I think things have subsided," Meehan said. "There are people on the campus who believe we should have a search and I agree with them. So, I think we're in a better position certainly than we were at that time."