Saluting Barry Mills, who righted the ship at UMass Boston

By Robert P. Connolly
Special to the Reporter

When Barry Mills addresses UMass Boston graduate students later this month, his job will be to impart wisdom at the first commencement to be held on the Dorchester campus since 2014. For the past five years, it was clear that the ceremonies could not exist alongside UMB’s mega-construction projects.

How appropriate, then, for the spotlight to be on Mills when graduates gather on May 30. It was he who steered UMB’s epic projects to completion while righting its finances and injecting a spring back into the campus’s step.

When he stepped forward to become interim chancellor of UMass Boston in 2017, many wondered: Why? Why take over from the popular Keith Motley, engage in the wrenching task of budget-cutting, and take on implacable demons like UMB’s decayed foundation and garage?

But Barry Mills has been surprising people and transcending expectations all his life. He grew up in a blue-collar Warwick, RI, family. His father, who left school in the 10th grade to work, repaired car seats, sold auto glass, and owned a dress shop. His mother helped with those ventures and cared for their three sons. So while Mills did not begin life destined to attend a college of privilege and prestige, his talents and the school’s generosity took him to Bowdoin College, where he double-majored in government and biochemistry.

From there, he took the unusual step of earning a doctorate in biology (Syracuse) and a law degree (Columbia) and then stood expectation on its head by abandoning a lucrative New York City law partnership to become president of his alma mater. As Bowdoin’s 14th president, Mills succeeded beyond what those who recruited him could have imagined, raising $1 billion for the college’s endowment, making Bowdoin more affordable and diverse, and completing a major curriculum reform before retiring in 2015 and moving to Boston.

At that point, writing, consulting, and serving on boards is what might have been expected, but when UMass President Marty Meehan asked Mills to help UMB erase its $30 million deficit, complete its high-stakes building projects, and generally improve a campus that has nurtured urban students’ hopes and dreams for more than 50 years, he asked: When do I start?

Having had the chance to work with Barry – and that’s how he was known and would introduce himself, not as Chancellor Mills or Doctor Mills, but as “Barry” – it’s not hard for me to answer the “why” question.

Simply put, while Bowdoin has played a pivotal role in Mills’s life, it is UMass Boston and schools like it that provide larger numbers of blue-collar and lower-income students with tickets to better lives. Thus, UMass Boston already had a special place in his heart. His decision to sign on was unequivocal and his commitment to UMB was absolute.

To have been at UMass Boston during Barry Mills’s year is to know this: From the moment he stepped off the shuttle bus, he maintained a level of caring and fought for UMB with a ferocity that was almost hard to understand, but very easy to appreciate.

He brought his “A game” to Columbia Point and a scouting report might say that his Bowdoin presidency left him with a command of virtually every aspect of the academic enterprise. Immersed in a discussion about UMass Boston’s health-disparities research, Mills could pivot to offer a suggestion about the kind of carpeting that might work best in new dorms. A report might also note his lawyer’s ability to think clearly - and his startlingly impressive Rolodex. As interim chancellor, Mills harnessed it all for UMass Boston’s students and mission, and his efforts were noticed.
Key faculty members credited him with helping to restore hope and delivering on his promise of openness and transparency. Marty Meehan simply said: “Barry Mills made UMass Boston better for the next 50 years.” No one disagreed.

These days, as it prepares to award 4,000 new degrees, UMass Boston looks remarkably … normal. The construction cranes are gone. Traffic flows. Students stream in and out of buildings, a number of which are new and compare favorably with those found on other campuses. If anything seems out of the ordinary, it is the beauty of the setting, as the waves roll in, seabirds soar, and sailboats cut across Dorchester Bay.

If UMass Boston appears to be alive and well and itself ready to soar, you can thank a lot of people, including founders who had a vision of a great urban public university, a faculty that sought to create a “Berkeley East” and has never backed off its commitment to quality or to its students, those leaders and administrators who somehow kept it all float, and students who endured the campus’s physical flaws and made the most of its opportunities.
A name that should be on this list – and will be, come May 30 – is 2019’s graduate commencement speaker and honorary degree recipient, a man who understands the importance of educational opportunity, a leader who answered the call and delivered for UMass Boston: Barry Mills.

Robert P. Connolly, the former UMass vice president for communications, served with Barry Mills as UMB’s interim vice chancellor for communications in 2017-2018.