Cover Story

A Matter of Perspective

UMass Grad Marty Meehan Now Leads the System

COVER0615cMarty Meehan acknowledged that, when someone decides to run for Congress, and then succeeds in that mission, they’ve done more than win an election. They’ve also more or less committed to a career in politics.

But when Meehan set out to capture the Bay State’s 5th Congressional District seat, anchored by his hometown of Lowell, in 1993, at age 37, he said he did so with a much different mindset.

“I knew I didn’t want to serve in Congress for the rest of my life,” he told BusinessWest, adding quickly that he didn’t know exactly what path his career should ultimately take.

So in 2001, he engaged the services of New Directions, an executive career-development firm that, in essence, helps clients determine a path and, in Meehan’s words, “tells you what you’re good at.”

After an extensive three-week process that included several tests and interviews with people who knew him well, those at New Directions told Meehan he’d be good at running a professional sports league or taking an executive position in higher education.

Marty Meehan, seen here with the mascot for UMass Lowell

Marty Meehan, seen here with the mascot for UMass Lowell, says graduating from the university gives him a unique perspective that will serve him well as president.

To make a long story short, that analysis was on the money.

Meehan, who said he essentially put himself on a track for either of those pursuits, eventually became chancellor of UMass Lowell, where, by all accounts, he led a stunning resurgence at the school.

And last month, he was chosen to succeed Robert Caret as president of the entire university system, thus becoming the first UMass undergrad (he earned a degree in education and political science at the Lowell campus) and first chancellor within the five campuses to ascend to the president’s office.

He said those two qualities, if you will, provide him with a unique perspective, one he believes will serve him well in his new position.

“I have a passion for the University of Massachusetts, and I view that as an asset,” he explained. “When I interact with students, I literally say, ‘I was where you are.’ I have a passion for the institution because I was a student here. I fundamentally understand at my core what it means to have a great university system.”

In a wide-ranging interview, Meehan, who takes the helm July 1, touched on a number of issues involving the university and his role as its president. They include:

• The overall accessibility of the university’s campuses: “The fact is that public higher education in this state has been privatized over the past three decades; the cost of a UMass education has stayed the same, adjusted for inflation, but the burden of paying that cost has shifted from the Commonwealth to students and their families”;
• His perceived role: “A big part of my job is to make the case for this system and demonstrate why it’s important to make the investment in a world-class public research university”;
• His quick take on his job description: “My job is to provide leadership, inspiration, and passion to help the university get what it needs in terms of funding and what it needs in terms of stature, prestige, and reputation. Universities are all about students, faculty, and the interaction that takes place between students and faculty; the rest of us are there to support and embrace that interaction”;
• His leadership style: “I’m very strategic in everything I do; I’m also collaborative and accessible”;
• The importance of the Amherst campus: “UMass Amherst sets the standard for what the UMass brand is all about. So it’s in the interest of all the UMass campuses for UMass Amherst to improve its ranking; that’s where the brand comes from.”
• The role of the system as a whole: “I think the economy of Massachusetts runs through this university”;
• His expectations for the Baker administration: “The governor fundamentally understands how the economy of this state works, and he understands the role UMass plays in the economy. I think he’s thoughtful, he’s smart, and the University of Massachusetts could do quite well under Governor Baker”; and
• His commitment to stay for the “long haul,” as he put it: “I didn’t take this job to get another job — I’m not thinking about what else I’m going to be doing. When I got the job at Lowell, everyone thought I was going to run for the Senate a couple of different times or run for governor. What I said was that I didn’t think you could take a job like that and not make at least an eight-year commitment, and I feel the same about this job.”

For this issue, BusinessWest delves into much greater detail on these and other matters as we talk at length with the next leader of the state university.

School of Thought

As Meehan wrapped up his comments with BusinessWest in the office of the UMass Amherst athletic director — he was at the Mullins Center to attend the June board of trustees meeting — he used that setting and its view of the arena to segue into one of the dilemmas he’ll be facing as president, if one could call it that.

“Someone in the press asked me who I was going to root for when UMass Amherst plays UMass Lowell,” he said, referring specifically to two hockey squads that face off against each other and the 10 other teams in the highly competitive Hockey East conference. “I said, ‘that’s an easy one; when the game’s in Amherst, I’ll be rooting for the Minutemen, and when the game’s in Lowell, I’ll be rooting for the Riverhawks; that’s how I’ll solve that.’”

Marty Meehan says one his first priorities

Marty Meehan says one his first priorities is to initiate a new strategic plan for the UMass system, one that will be conducted from the ground up.

Surely, the myriad other issues he’ll be confronting as president will resist such quick, easy, and diplomatic solutions, but overall, Meehan believes he’s ready for pretty much whatever this job can and will throw at him.

Such confidence stems from a career in leadership positions, which have yielded a wide range of learning experiences.

They came in Congress, where he served seven terms, served on the Armed Services and Judiciary Committees, and established a national reputation for his work with everything from campaign finance reform to tobacco control; before that, in stints as the first assistant district attorney of Middlesex County and Massachusetts deputy secretary of state for securities and corporations; and especially at UMass Lowell — which brings him back to that determination readied by New Directions.

Meehan said he worked to position himself for possible management roles with sports leagues — on the House Judiciary Committee, he became more involved in anti-trust issues that affect professional sports leagues, for example — but soon became more focused on the second career path recommended to him.

Indeed, the post at UMass Lowell was actually the second opportunity within the broad realm of higher education that he considered. The first was his pursuit of the job as dean of the law school at Suffolk University, where he earned both his master’s and juris doctor degrees and was also on the board of trustees. But it wasn’t a hard pursuit.

“I told the search firm that I didn’t think I was what the law school needed at that point,” he recalled. “I felt it needed a nationally known academic or perhaps a former federal judge.

“But during the course of an hour-and-a-half conversation, I got an opportunity to talk about higher education,” he went on. “And when the Lowell position came up, the same search firm was hired to handle that search, and after that long conversation we had, I knew they’d be calling me for that position.”

They did, and after overcoming some reluctance to being named a finalist — he was concerned about both publicly acknowledging his pursuit of the job and competing against seasoned academics — Meehan was awarded the job.

He believes that aforementioned passion resulting from his student experiences there — and his ability to communicate it — was a big factor.

“I wanted the job because I felt that I could make a difference at an institution that meant so much to me personally,” he explained. “Number one, it’s in my hometown, and number two, I graduated from the school. And I felt UMass Lowell could be a much greater institution than what it was.”

At Lowell, he took over a school that was, by most all accounts, underperforming, and certainly changed that dynamic.

Indeed, during Meehan’s tenure, the school, founded in the 1890s as the Lowell Normal and Lowell Textile schools, achieved record growth in enrollment, student retention, research, and scholarship funding. The school has also undergone a dramatic physical transformation, with new academic buildings and residence halls; upgraded academic, research, and athletic facilities; and enhanced student-activity spaces.

Meehan’s comprehensive portfolio of improvements includes:

• Rating as a top-tier university by U.S. News & World Report for the first time in 2011. The school has subsequently seen a four-year gain of 27 spots, from number 183 to 156, the second-largest leap in the nation;
• A 50% increase in enrollment over the past seven years, to more than 17,000 students;
• An accompanying rise in academic qualifications, as the average SAT score of incoming freshmen, math and verbal combined, has increased 80 points since 2008;
• A 10% increase in freshman retention, from 75% to 85%;
• A dramatic rise in research expenditures, specifically 80% since FY ’07 to $65 million;
• The construction of 10 new buildings on campus. That boom includes two new academic buildings (the first in 35 years) — the Mark and Elisia Saab Emerging Technologies and Innovation Center and the Health and Social Sciences Building. It also includes two new residential facilities that are now home to a quarter of the 4,000 students living on campus, a 33% increase in three years;
• Purchase of an underutilized hotel in the city’s downtown and converting it into the UMass Lowell Inn & Conference Center, which provides housing for 500 students as well as conference space, lodging, and a restaurant for the public;
• Acquisition of the 6,500-seat Tsongas Arena in 2010 (it’s now known as the Tsongas Center at UMass Lowell); and
• The opening in 2014 of University Crossing, a $95 million student-engagement center created in a former hospital site purchased by the university in 2011.

Degrees of Progress

When asked how all that and more was accomplished, Meehan said it resulted from assembling a great team, putting in place an ambitious strategic plan titled “UMass Lowell 2020,” and achieving critical buy-in on its many initiatives.

This is the same formula he intends to use as president of the system, which, he believes, has already achieved considerable progress in a number of areas, ranging from enrollment to academic qualifications to new building on each of the campuses.

But there is still considerable room for improvement, said Meehan, who was asked to interview during the system’s last presidential search, in 2010, but eventually withdrew, believing the timing wasn’t right and because then-Gov. Deval Patrick had his own preference for a candidate — someone else.

Looking back, he said that decision was a good one, because it gave him additional opportunities to build on his track record of success at UMass Lowell and ultimately learn from the man he would eventually succeed.

Marty Meehan says his primary role as UMass president is to advocate for the system

Moving forward, Marty Meehan says his primary role as UMass president is to advocate for the system and secure funding to ensure that the schools are accessible.

“I got a great opportunity to do two things,” he said. “One was to finish what I set out to accomplish at Lowell, and secondly, I got to work with a second UMass president, Bob Caret. And because of those experiences, I feel that I’m better-prepared to lead the entire system.”

Looking ahead, Meehan, as he mentioned earlier, said one of his primary responsibilities will be as an advocate for the UMass system — in Boston, Washington, and wherever else that broad assignment takes him.

And as advocate, one of his duties is to articulate how the university’s role has changed and broadened — within the Bay State but also nationally and even globally — and what that means in terms of how the system should be viewed and, more importantly, funded.

“Historically — and when I say historically, I mean over the past 30 years — the political leadership in this state has often viewed the University of Massachusetts as a safety net for students who either can’t get into the elite private colleges or can’t afford to go to those schools,” he explained. “The paradigm has changed dramatically; the elite private universities in this state are not training residents of this state, by and large.”

Thus, with this change in role, the university has taken on an even bigger role when it comes to fueling the state’s economy — an assignment that involves everything from sparking startup businesses to educating and training the workers that ventures across all business sectors will need to succeed.

“I think the argument is powerful: if you want a strong economy, you must have a strong university of Massachusetts,” he told BusinessWest.

“The truth is that social mobility and economic development in this state really drives through the university on every level. We’re an innovation economy; we literally educate the workforce in Massachusetts in terms of the engineers we produce, the nurses, the teachers. So Massachusetts is very reliant on a world-class public research university, and we have to keep the quality up,” he continued, adding that 88% of the graduates of the schools in the UMass system stay in the state for at least five years after earning their diplomas, and 66% stay longer.

“In an innovation economy, you need a workforce that’s well-trained and highly educated, and I think this state gets the fact that our graduates are the key to economic development and economic growth. I sure get it.”

Course of Action

Making sure everyone gets it will help the university achieve a better commitment from the state and therefore the more sustainable financial model it needs in the decades to come, said Meehan, adding quickly that the economy, and specifically state revenues, need to improve for this to happen.

The Baker administration inherited a severe budget crisis, he went on, one that has forced painful mid-year cuts, hard decisions, a slowing of the momentum achieved over the past few years when it comes to state funding of public higher education, and, ultimately, the rate increases approved by the trustees at their June meeting.

The scope of those increases isn’t known yet, said Meehan, adding that any increase impacts accessibility and grows already-worrisome student debt.

To attain more attractive funding levels, the economy must improve, but the university as a whole must continue to become more efficient and thus worthy of a larger investment from the state.

“The governor is going to want to hold UMass accountable in terms of performance, graduation rates, student-success rates, fund-raising, and more,” he said. “And I think the university is ready to be held accountable in exchange for a deeper investment by the state government.”

One of the other priorities moving forward, said Meehan, is to draft a new strategic plan for the university, something similar in many ways to “UMass Lowell 2020” but much larger in scope.

It’s been 25 years since a new comprehensive strategic plan has been created for the university, he said, which means the system is overdue for such a document. And like the one at UMass Lowell, this plan will come from the bottom up.

“We had more than 200 faculty, deans, administrators, and students who all came up with a strategic plan,” he explained. “It took us 13 months to create it, and because we included all those constituencies, we had buy-in. And that’s how it’s accomplished in any large, complex organization, and a university is certainly a large, complex organization.

“We need to evaluate what the system has done well over the past 25 years and what it needs to improve,” he continued, referring to the broad scope of such a strategic plan. “And we need to bring in some of the best high-level academics from public research institutions around the country to help us determine whether this can become the best public university in the country.”

As for the immediate future, Meehan said he plans to spend considerable time visiting the various campuses and gaining feedback from a host of constituencies.

These include the chancellors of those institutions, staff, faculty, students, and alumni. But he also intends to gain perspective from a business community that has placed workforce issues at the very top of its list of priorities — and concerns.

“I look at corporations like EMC and Raytheon, and the majority of the people they hire come from UMass,” Meehan explained. “I want to talk with those major CEOs in the state, not only get some advice on UMass, but also to get them to join with us to fight for more state funding and more federal funding. The business community should be UMass’s biggest cheerleader because of the huge contribution we make to making sure these companies get the best, most highly qualified employees they can get; it makes Massachusetts more competitive.”

Checking Some Boxes

Returning to the subject of those hockey teams and the intense rivalry that has developed between them, Meehan related a conversation with UMass Amherst Athletic Director John McCutcheon, who was lamenting how his school has come up on the short end of many recent contests between the schools.

Meehan said he responded first with some sarcasm, then a challenge, wrapped in the form of a leadership philosophy.

“He [McCutcheon] said, ‘you guys at UMass Lowell have been beating us up the past few years,’” Meehan recalled. “I said, ‘the problem is, everyone has been, and you have to work at this — I want attendance up.’

“Sometimes, I get into a lot of various details, but there’s a reason,” he went on, explaining why he was dwelling on hockey. “I think good leaders need to say, ‘we want excellence in everything we do.’”

That has been Meehan’s approach throughout a career that’s taken him to the House of Representatives and then the career in education recommended years ago. And it’s one he believes will ultimately help drive continuous improvement at the state university. n

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

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