Commentary: Fulfilling the founders' vision for UMass Boston

Marty Meehan/WBUR photo

Now that the UMass Boston Chancellor Search Committee has selected a finalist and the process moves forward, we inevitably look to the future and think about the UMass Boston that can—and will—be.

As we look ahead, I also think about the vision of founding chancellor John W. Ryan, who in UMass Boston’s early days said the campus was established “to bring to realization the will of the Commonwealth that Boston shall have a great, public, urban University.”

Those were different days, and it was a distinctly different UMass Boston that opened its doors in 1965–1,240 undergraduate students coming to class in makeshift quarters in Boston’s Park Square. Now, more than five decades later, 16,000 undergraduate and graduate students are enrolled at a major public university that conducts $60 million in research annually in areas ranging from cancer therapy, climate change and eliminating health disparities to creating better lives for people whose disabilities leave them vulnerable to marginalization.

While so much has changed, the desire to be the “great, public, urban University” that former Chancellor Ryan envisioned at UMass Boston’s first convocation remains undiminished.

UMass Boston is typically described as the UMass system’s “urban public university,” and that’s a phrase that has deep meaning for me—because UMass Lowell, an urban public, transformed my life and the lives of many of my family members and friends. So UMB’s mission is one that I understand and embrace.

When I am at UMass Boston, I see a campus that has been physically transformed, I see faculty and staff of fierce dedication, and I see a diverse student body that is a model for a new and better America. I see a university that has produced more than 65,000 graduates who live and work in Massachusetts and help to drive our innovation economy. I see a UMass Boston that deserves our full support and is poised to climb higher.

Appropriately, UMass Boston stands at the shore and sees the sun rise over Dorchester Bay, heralding the promise of a new day. Just up the coast are the docks of Boston Harbor, where newcomers to this country once arrived in large numbers, and Logan Airport, where those who believe in the American Dream still come today. As was the case in 1965, it remains today: UMass Boston stands for opportunity for all – and I’m very proud of its mission and many accomplishments.

Without question, UMass Boston has had to deal with more than its share of challenges over the years, but I firmly believe that the campus is going to be able to seize opportunities and sail with favorable winds in the years ahead. With astute leadership and with the support it deserves, UMB can achieve the level of success so many have worked for over the past half century.

What makes me so confident?

As was announced last year, the university is leasing its nearby Bayside property for a development project that could generate as much as $235 million in revenue for UMB and provide many other benefits for the campus and region.

Additionally, the university recently announced that it is seeking proposals that could lead to the development of the former harbor pumping station. Ideally, this could bring about a public-private partnership that would generate more revenue for UMass Boston, provide the campus with space for an admissions center or events complex, and also function as UMB’s “front door.”

UMass Boston is now enjoying the full benefit of new facilities that opened in recent years, including the Integrated Sciences Complex, the University Hall academic building, the new campus garage, its first-ever dormitories, new roadways and an upgraded IT infrastructure.

UMB increasingly is making more substantial use of the many advantages that flow from its superb waterfront location and proximity to Boston–one of the nation’s top cultural, innovation, health care, business and entertainment centers.

In addition to the significant rebuilding that has occurred on campus and what we will see at Bayside and could see at the Pump House, the campus will benefit from the major development boom occurring nearby. The former Boston Globe headquarters is being transformed into an innovation and office center, and other projects are emerging along Morrissey Boulevard. A little further from campus, the Mary Ellen McCormack public housing complex is being converted into a much larger mixed-income community. Additionally, these and other ventures will likely lead to corresponding public works upgrades. Collectively, we are seeing a surge of development on an epic scale–one that is being driven by UMass Boston but will also benefit the campus immeasurably.

Finally, students, faculty and staff of UMass Boston–their spirit, commitment and dedication–make me certain that UMB can and will soar.

Over the past five months, nearly 400 prospective candidates expressed interest in the UMass Boston chancellorship. Truly outstanding candidates competed for this position—and that’s because the shining Beacon of opportunity and education envisioned by all of UMass Boston’s founders is within our grasp. This is UMass Boston’s moment. Let’s seize it.

Marty Meehan is president of the five-campus University of Massachusetts system.

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