Marty Meehan’s appointment as UMass president comes as little surprise

By Anthony Rentsch

(Photo Courtesy: UMass Lowell public affairs)
(Photo Courtesy: UMass Lowell public affairs)

The University of Massachusetts Board of Trustees met in private Friday morning following a three-hour interview session with both Marty Meehan and John Quelch – the two finalists for the system-wide president position which will open in June when current President Robert Career leaves for the University of Maryland.

It was tasked with deciding between Meehan, a former United States representative and current chancellor of UMass Lowell and Quelch, a Harvard Business School professor.

Evidently, the result was hardly a surprise.

The board voted unanimously to appoint Meehan as the 27th president of the five-campus, nearly 73,000-student system. He will take over July 1.

Since Meehan took over at UMass Lowell in 2007, its seen an increase in its enrollment rate, student retention rate and funding for research and scholarships. He also helped the University to climb 27 spots to No. 156 in the U.S. News & World Report’s Best National Universities ranking between the time he took over the chancellorship and 2011, according to its website.

“He has a lot of motivation and power, especially with the government,” said Sarah Freudson, a UMass student trustee and presidential search committee member. “He is beyond ready to take on the system as a whole.”

“He has every measure we look for in a successful leader,” added Victor Wooldridge, chairman of the Board of Trustees, citing specifically Meehan’s record in the areas of student growth and student success.

Francis Talty, assistant dean in the College of Fine Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences at UMass Lowell, said that, over the course of his nine-year tenure, Meehan has worked to expand the University’s offerings and opportunities.

Talty said that Meehan was involved in the peace process in Ireland in the 1990s and when he took the helm at UMass Lowell, he reached out and established partnerships in Ireland. Now, UMass Lowell has 120 partnership agreements in more than 45 countries.

On the domestic front, Talty said that Meehan helped to bring national political work to the Lowell campus. In 2011, UMass Lowell launched the Center for Public Opinion, which has done polling work for various regional and national races, as well as contemporary issues. In 2012, the Center hosted the Elizabeth Warren vs. Scott Brown senate debate.

Perhaps his most important skill, according to Talty, is in entrepreneurship.

“He’s an entrepreneurial leader,” Talty said. “That’s unusual in the public sector. He realizes that a great public institution needs money from outside public funding – and not just through donors.”

Talty said that Meehan has maximized revenue and minimized costs while increasing the quality of the product that UMass Lowell offers, even during the Great Recession in 2008.

“I expect him to bring the same entrepreneurial skills to the system,” Talty said.

Talty also mentioned how student-oriented Meehan is.

For one, Meehan has taught a class on the United States Congress every semester since he arrived at UMass Lowell. According to Talty, Meehan also meets with student leaders monthly at an open forum and even attends every UMass Lowell hockey game.

“Students love him,” he said. “It’s unusual for administrators to be well known.”

His efforts at UMass Lowell have been widely recognized, as well. Among other awards, he has received the Lura Smith Fund Living the Dream Award for embracing the dream of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Association of College Unions International President of the Year Award within the last two years alone.

Meehan’s name initially arose in conjunction with the presidency in 2010, when he was a top candidate for the position, which ultimately went to Caret. During that search, he dropped out last minute, reportedly due to concerns that his appointment would seem like political favoritism under the Deval Patrick administration.

Shortly after Meehan’s decision to withdraw, Robert Manning, then chairman of the Board of Trustees, stepped down, reportedly due to frustration over political interference with the search process.

This time around, Manning is the chair of the search committee and, although Meehan told the Boston Globe in March that he would not apply for the UMass presidency, he also said that he “could imagine a scenario where if they were interested, that (he) would be interested in serving.”

“He put his name into the hat again for good reasons,” Freudson said.

Talty said that he could only imagine how many trustees nominated Meehan for the position.

“From (last time) his capacity and his knowledge have only increased,” Talty said. “The only way it wouldn’t have happened is if he refused it.”

The presidential search committee worked toward Meehan’s appointment at a rapid pace. When the committee was created in early February, it set a goal of recommending candidates to the Board of Trustees in order for them to be able to appoint a new president by the time Caret leaves at the end of June.

Robert Connolly, a spokesperson for UMass, called the timeline “ambitious” at the time, saying that former searches had taken anywhere from six months to a year to complete.

For this type of search, Talty said it is better to work fast and make a decision so that UMass would have to focus on working with a transition and not uncertainty.

“Quick is better,” he said.

Despite how quickly the committee worked, those involved with the search process feel as though the search was done comprehensively.

At the beginning of the process, Manning visited each of the five campuses and held open forums to gather student and faculty input on and to talk about the goals of the search. While the attendance at each forum varied, Freudson said that they were successful.

“There was a lot of public input into the search,” she said. “(Manning) really took all of that into account.”

While Wooldridge did not attend the forums, he said, from what he gathered, the forums promoted “meaningful conversations.”

Ann Scales, a UMass spokesperson, added that the search process was “open an transparent.”

However, some UMass students felt differently.

“The student body was not involved at all,” said Diego Fellows, a former Student Government Association senator. “Students didn’t have much of a voice (on the Amherst campus). The process was not what it should have been.”

Madison Goldstein, chairwoman of Diversity and Student Engagement for next year, felt similarly.

“Students and people in the UMass community were not given a fair and transparent search process,” she said.

On March 20, the SGA Facebook page posted an open letter co-written by Fellows and Goldstein that asked the committee to be transparent with the students, especially considering only two undergraduate students sat on the 21-member committee.

Anthony Rentsch can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @Anthony_Rentsch.