April 12, 2017
Last week’s forced resignation of UMass Boston Chancellor Dr. J. Keith Motley – who will leave his post in June amid a chaotic debate over the campus’s finances and future— is a bitter pill to swallow in this neighborhood. While Motley is not without his flaws, his ten-year tenure has been marked by unprecedented growth in the Dorchester campus’s size, prestige, enrollment, and potential. For the Motley era to end in such an ignominious manner is a shameful moment, not only for the UMass system, but also for the city and the commonwealth, where Keith Motley has become one of the preeminent leaders of his generation – of any color.
It is highly unlikely that the decision will be reversed, and Motley’s statements indicate that he is resigned to the transition. But, let there be no doubt: There is no addition by subtraction in the rush to force Keith Motley from his leadership post at UMass Boston.
The university will be weakened as it loses his unique perspective on UMass Boston’s mission, the hard-earned goodwill and respect that he has won in the neighborhoods we cover, and, critically, his sincere devotion to balancing the core mission of this university with the realities of its tremendous growth over the last decade.
No one individual is more responsible for the success of UMass Boston— which cannot be measured simply on a spreadsheet. Motley is the heart and soul of the place itself, and in driving him from the campus— no matter how UMass board members and their president want to frame it— they have done a disservice to the man and to the campus.
If there are systemic failures in the UMass budget system— and there no doubt are— it defies common sense to presume that they will be ameliorated by Motley’s removal. Where is the accountability on the university’s board of trustees, who are ultimately responsible for approving spending and the building projects that are at the root of the deficit? What of the “quasi-public” UMass Building Authority, which is charged with planning, financing, and approving construction projects— all of it done without the benefit of scrutiny from local planning boards— like Boston’s BPDA. (Legislation that has been introduced to change that exemption from local control is one of the measures that should be fast-tracked to fix this glaring gap in accountability at UMass.) How about the state’s Division of Capital Asset Management (DCAM), which is supposed to track day-to-day progress on construction jobs and rein in cost overruns?
When will the leaders of these less-visible but powerful state boards have to answer the tough questions that only Keith Motley, to date, has had to shoulder?
We’ve not always agreed with Dr. Motley. The lingering impasse at Bayside Expo Center, for example, began when he engineered the site’s purchase in 2007. It was a bold move and— from the UMass perspective — a master stroke. But it has been poorly managed. Motley’s push to link the Bayside site’s future to the ill-fated Boston 2024 gambit was ill-advised. But imbroglios such as the Olympics fiasco were the collective work of a cadre of city and state leaders— elected and unelected— who’ve created confusion and delay in the redevelopment of this waterfront section of Dorchester.
Hovering out of public view amid the onslaught of negative press that preceded Motley’s removal this month is an ongoing, secretive effort aimed at delivering the Bayside parcels to Robert Kraft and his private sports and entertainment venture. UMass president Martin Meehan has all but endorsed the idea, promising a windfall for the cash-strapped campus. The fact that these talks with a private entity— leveraging land held by the state’s public university— have been happening without public scrutiny is itself a scandal in the making.
Could it be that the real motive behind this campaign to discredit and jettison Keith Motley was the removal of a potential obstacle to a privately built stadium on Columbia Point? We’ll know soon enough.
In the meantime, as angry students on the UMass campus might say: Stay woke. The powerful forces complicit in this assault on Keith Motley themselves need to be held to account.