Marty Meehan recaps eight years as chancellor, looks toward future as UMass president

Marlon Pitter
Connector Editor

In less than a month, UMass Lowell Chancellor Marty Meehan will take over as the next president of the University of Massachusetts system.

Since becoming chancellor in 2007, Meehan has been at the forefront of transforming UMass Lowell into a nationally ranked university with additions of new buildings, such as University Crossing and Riverview Suites, parking garages on both North and South campuses, acquisitions of the Tsongas Center and more.

With plans to elevate the entire UMass system similarly to what he has accomplished at UMass Lowell, Meehan reflected on the progress of the university over the last eight years and his plans as president.

Q: I want to first congratulate you on becoming the next president of the UMass system, but I also wanted to take some time to reflect on your eight years here. Can you share a bit about your background as a Lowell resident and a University of Lowell student?

I grew up on London Street in Lowell. I was one of seven children. My mother and father and the seven of us lived in a four-bedroom house on London Street with one bathroom, nine people. It was a great upbringing. I attended public schools in Lowell. I graduated from Lowell High School in 1974, and I got admitted to what at the time was Lowell State College and then became the University of Lowell, and then I graduated from the University of Lowell in 1978.

I had a great experience here. I was a commuter student. I was able, at that time, to pay for my education by working in summers and working part-time, and I had a great experience here, and I felt strongly that I got the tools that I needed, the basic education that I needed, to achieve whatever I set out to achieve in my life. So, I always felt good about the fact that I got a quality education at this institution and at a reasonable price.

Q: You said this institution gave you what you needed to be successful. How did that experience here shape going into Congress and then becoming chancellor here at UMass Lowell?

Well, I got a good foundation in terms of my education. I went on to get a master’s degree in public administration and then went to law school and graduated from Suffolk University Law School. I had a number of really interesting jobs. I was in charge of the Securities Division of Massachusetts for four years. I ran the Middlesex County district attorney’s offices, first assistant district attorney. Then I ran for Congress in 1992, and I think that, you know, you run for Congress and it’s your whole life experience that’s important. Being able to relate is important, but also, you know, the fact that I was a lawyer, and I was well-educated, and I got that foundation at the University of Lowell was, I think was an important part of my development as a person, and I think my years at Lowell helped me to relate to people in a better way than you could if you someplace else, and I had a great tenure in the Congress. I was in the Congress for 14 years. I got an opportunity to work with two presidents, work with leaders of countries from around the world, and it was a great experience for me.

But I got an opportunity to come back and give something back to my alma mater, the University of Massachusetts Lowell, and I felt that that was something that I wanted to do because I wanted to give back. I had felt passionately about education. I believe that education is how generations of Americans can work themselves up and into a better life. You know, my sisters and I were the first in our families to graduate from college, and I wanted to give something back to the institution that had given me so much.

Q: From your experience, how much had the university changed from you were a student here to when you became chancellor?

I think one of the problems I had… I didn’t think the university had changed enough from the period of time when I graduated in 1978 to when I came here. Many of the buildings were the same buildings. Twenty-five years had passed—30 years in some instances. There were buildings that needed work.I felt that we needed new buildings…

I was impressed with the way the faculty had grown in the sciences, specifically in research. The university had become more of a research institution, which was impressive to me. I was impressed with the quality of the faculty when I got here and the quality of the people that felt passionately about the institution, but I felt that what the university really needed was a strategic plan and really bring in a new leadership team to look outside the box and try to make the university as great as we could, and so that’s what I set out to do.

We set out a strategic plan to determine how we could get excellence in everything that we did, and then we went about trying to get the funding, growing the enrollment of the university, making the university more diverse. I’ll tell you, when I got here, I didn’t think the university was very diverse at all, and the strength of the great public universities in America, their strength is in their diversity. You can’t educate people to be world-class citizens if you don’t have people who come from different backgrounds, different ethnic groups, different parts of the country and, in fact, different parts of the world. I think all of that is really important, particularly for a university, so we set out on a number of goals and objectives to elevate the university in every way that we could.

Q: When you became chancellor eight years ago, where did you want to take UMass Lowell by the time you were done with it?

I wanted to leave it a better place than what I found it. I wanted the value of a UMass Lowell degree to increase. You know, I think there was a time when I would not always say I graduated from the University of Massachusetts Lowell. I’d maybe leave that out a little bit, and… I want everyone who graduates here, for their degree to mean as much as possible and for people to be proud. When I arrived here, I didn’t notice very many people wearing UMass Lowell sweatshirts and t-shirts and workout gear. Today, most students are wearing it, so I think students have more pride in the institution.

Our rankings have gone up significantly, and I wanted our rankings to go up. This is an institution that has been around about 120 years, but four years ago, for the first time in our history, U.S. News and World Report, which is sort of the ranker of universities in the country, we became a top-tier university, nationally ranked, and there are about 3,600 four-year institutions in the country. Only about 230 of them get in that top-tier ranking, and in the four since we’ve [entered] those rankings, we’ve had the second-fastest rise in those top-tier rankings, so I think people around the country are starting to take notice, and reputation is growing and enhancing every day. I think that’s a good thing for people who already have a UMass Lowell degree and also for the students now. Their degrees going to mean more because of it.

Q: Continuing on that, you often say the university has improved by “every metric you can measure.” Business Insider and Yahoo! News are a couples of sources that have rated UMass Lowell in their top two underrated college rankings in the last two and a half years. How would you say the university is improved quality-wise since you took over?

The quality of our students is greater. Higher SAT scores. The freshman success rate, meaning the number of freshman that go on to become sophomores at UMass Lowell, when I got here it was 75 percent. Now it’s all the way up to 85 percent. A great public university, you want to be about 90, so we need to continue to work on that, but, the amount of research that is conducted here has gone up by about 68 percent. When I say “any metric,” our graduation rates are headed up. The number of students who are alumni that contribute to the university, our endowment has more than doubled so that we can provide more scholarships for students.

All those things are important, and I think the quality of the faculty over the last eight years that we’ve brought in, and I don’t mean just in science and engineering… There was a time when, you know, we had a great reputation for science and engineering, not so much social science, fine arts, humanities. Well, I’ll tell you what. The faculty that we’ve hired and the world-class faculty, the English faculty, dramatic improvements. The quality of the programming across the board, it’s just much, much better than it was, and it’s a testament to the faculty, to the deans, the provost, and basically, we’re implementing a strategic plan where we say we want excellence in everything that we do.

And we’ve really focused on the academic side, but sometimes it means athletics. If we’re going to have a Division I hockey team that plays in arguably one of the most competitive collegiate hockey leagues in the country in Hockey East, then we want to do well in it. Well, we’d never won Hockey East ever, but we won it two years in a row, so I think…  I think what I like about the university is, the university, if they’re going to do something, people want excellence in whatever they do, and I think that’s a good thing.

Q: Aside from academic excellence through improved student recruitment, improved faculty recruitment, over the last few years, the student experience has also seen a bit of quality growth with the rec center, Health and Social Sciences Building, acquiring the Tsongas Center and the ICC? How would you describe how the student experience has changed with the new buildings and new facilities?

I think, partly because I’m an alum, and every student that’s here, I look at them and I say, “That was me,” and I feel passionately about that. And I think the facilities here were an embarrassment, and frankly, in many ways, a disgrace. I thought that we needed to invest in facilities. Fine Arts, Humanities [and] Social Sciences Building, the Emerging Technologies and Innovations Center, two new parking garages, improvements in the rec center, a rec center over on the South Campus, new housing so that students who want high-quality housing can get it, and the culmination of it is the new University Crossing, the building we’re in now, the new student center. This student center is as good as any student center anywhere in the country.

You know, the Tsongas Arena… I wanted that because I felt that the university could run it better, and we could do more student concerts, students’ events and athletic events, and it’s a high-quality building, and students like to go there… All of that was part of our strategic plan to enhance the facilities. We’re going to break ground, or we have broken ground on a new business school that will be right on the North Campus on the other side of the Emerging Technologies and Innovations Center on the other side of Alumni Hall.

So, I feel that we’ve made dramatic improvement, but more than that, food courts… Students are interested in good food courts, for example. They’re interested in programming on weekends. They’re interested in clubs…, intramural sports. Not everyone is a Division I athlete, so we need to have high-quality intramural sports, good facilities and all of that, so I think we’ve made dramatic improvement. I don’t think that we can rest on our laurels. I think universities always need to strive to improve, but I think the transformation, physical transformation of the University of Massachusetts Lowell, is something I’m very, very proud of. I think it’s been a remarkable change, and I see students are here on weekends. I come into this building on weekends, a lot of times, on Saturdays and Sundays, and it’s so great to see the building full with students, and it’s a great thing.

Q: You’ve done a lot for this campus in the last eight years, but it probably hasn’t all come easily. What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced as chancellor?

Lack of state funding. Trying to come up with a business plan to pay for the things that I felt we need to invest in. Part of our strategy was to grow enrollment because with growth in enrollment, you have the revenue you need to invest in buildings. We never could have built this building if we didn’t grow our enrollment by almost 50 percent. That gives us the revenue we need to make investments.

There have been challenges all along. Getting the Tsongas Arena, getting the city to give it to us for a dollar was challenge. It took a year and a half of negotiations and negotiations with tents, and ultimately it worked out, and now the city’s happy, and obviously the university’s happy.

We played Boston College last year in a hockey game. We had 7,000 people, and to see the people from Boston College leaving and coming over to me saying, “This facility is the best facility we’ve ever been in. This is world-class. It’s a great facility. This was a great experience,” as a fan, as a parent, as a visiting school, Boston College coming to the University of Massachusetts Lowell, that’s what I want. I want the reputation of this institution to continue to soar.

But there have difficult times [in] negotiations. We negotiated to buy the downtown Doubletree Hotel, and those negotiations were intense, and we broke them off several times, but we ended up, in the long run, getting it. I think it enhanced our reputation, and it enhanced our housing. So, there have been… There’s been a lot of work that’s gone into it, but I tell you, as hard we’ve all worked, I’ve never enjoyed a job so much in my life or a position so much in my life as the last eight years. No matter what happens in my life, I don’t think I’ll enjoy any position or get more satisfaction in any position I ever have. I’ve got more out of this position in terms of personal satisfaction than any one I’ve ever had.

Q: Looking forward to your new position as president of the UMass system, how do you seek to advance all of the campuses under the mission of the University of Massachusetts the same way you’ve done here?

Working with the other chancellors on the other campuses. I went out to the Amherst campus a couple of days after I was appointed to the position. I was impressed with the development there.  We have a law school that we need to pay attention to and see if we [can] make that into a great law school. We have a world-class medical school. So, I think it’s about working with the chancellors and the leadership at all the campuses to try to get people to think about elevating, increasing of the ranking, increasing graduation rates, increase the amount of money for student scholarships, which means continuing to increase the endowment.

All of those things are really important, and the great thing about it is all the campuses basically have the same mission, and that is to transform the lives of the students who enter its doors. The missions are a little different at the various campuses, and sometimes they play a different role—they have different strengths. But on the other hand, when you talk to students, when you talk to faculty, the mission is the same thing, so I know that I can take some of the things I’ve learned at Lowell and elevate the entire system, and that’s what I’m looking forward to doing.

Q: How do you think both your roles as a former student and a chancellor will elevate your experience and influence among the chancellors and improving the system?

I think the fact that was a student, a UMass alumnus, and the fact that I view myself as someone who in [the] exact position of all the students that are on all the campuses, I think that makes me have a certain passion that will serve me well on the job. I think, no matter what you do in life, and I’ve given students [this] advice all the time—I teach a course on the Congress and often times we get philosophical, and students ask for advice—I think having a passion for what you do is really important. The fact that I’m a graduate of this institution gives me a real passion for making sure we do the right thing all the time. We make mistakes, but we want to do the right thing wherever we can, and we want to elevate the institution and make the quality of a UMass degree worth more and more and more.

I think the University of Massachusetts really is the engine that drives the economy of Massachusetts. It’s the engine that drives social mobility, I can tell you that, and it’s really important that we have the highest-quality education that we can have at the most reasonable price that we can get it for, so part of my job will be to get the state to provide more money so that tuition and fees don’t increase. It’d be my job to make sure we increase the quality of what we do, but I think…having been a student at UMass is really a plus…

For the first time in our history, we have a president who an undergraduate of UMass, and we have a chair on the Board of Trustees who’s also a UMass graduate, and I think that’s a good thing.

Q: How do you plan to compete with other state university systems?

I want to do a study or an analysis of the great public university systems in the country and see what we can learn about what states are doing, what other public research universities are doing and take some of the… It might be governance. It might be how they’re structured. It might be how they’re funded. I want to look at the best university systems in the country and then see what we can learn and then try to implement a strategy so that we can, as a system, move up and up and up and become the best system in the country.

So, that’s what my goal is, and you do that by looking at those systems. University of California has always had a great system. University of Wisconsin’s system is a great system. Pennsylvania. North Carolina has done great things. So, I think you look at the great things that public research universities are doing around the country. You look at what the systems are doing around the country, and then you look to achieve excellence. You have to want to become the best university system in the country, and that’s what I want for UMass.

Q: What will you miss most about being chancellor at UMass Lowell?

Looking out this window. Interacting with students. One of the tough things about the job as president of the system is you don’t interact as much directly with students and faculty. When I go down and get lunch downstairs in this building, I never take the elevator. I walk because I see students studying, I see them interacting. Sometimes there are student meetings, and it gives me a sense of pride and purpose. It makes me feel that what the universities provide, the environment, what the students…, the way they’re working hard and getting into this opportunity to get a world-class education, and to see it first-hand, I’m going to miss that the most. Dealing directly with faculty, teaching a course, I’m going to miss that, although I’m looking at the possibility of maybe being able to teach on in Boston. But I think direct interaction with students and faculty is what I’ll miss the most.

The other thing is, I said this is the best job I’ve ever had. Part of me, I have mixed feelings about leaving. Part of me doesn’t want to leave at all, but there’s another part of me that is very ambitious and wants to continue to do great things and move up and see if I can get the same things done, great things done, on a higher level, so… I’ve always had a burning ambition to do better and try to achieve greater things, but I have mixed feelings about it. I’m going to miss it a lot.

One of the things I like about the job is I won’t be that far away, and I will be on the campus on a regular basis I’ll probably be on the campus about three, four times a year at a minimum, so I’ll still get an opportunity to interact a little bit with students, not just at Lowell [but] at all the campuses. But I’m going to miss Lowell a lot, and over the last couple of weeks and over the next month, I have a lot of mixed feelings. It’s an emotional time for me. I’m proud as I look out the window and see what we’ve accomplished, and I have mixed feelings about leaving.

Marlon Pitter is a former editor-in-chief of the UMass Lowell Connector. Hailing from Hartford, Conn., he graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in English with a concentration in journalism and professional writing and a digital media minor in 2017. Follow him on Twitter @marlonpresents.

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