10 questions with David MacKenzie

10/27/2006
By From the Lowell Sun

By MICHAEL LAFLEUR, Sun Staff

LOWELL ߞ; David MacKenzie, 60, interim chancellor of the University of Massachusetts Lowell, is charged with overseeing the search for a successor to longtime UMass Lowell Chancellor William Hogan, who retired July 3. Originally from Springfield, MacKenzie lives in Wayland with his wife, Mary. The couple have a 23-year-old daughter, Meghan. A 1977 graduate of Northeastern University Law School, he has retained his job as head of the UMass Building Authority while at Lowell.

Q: Have you cried on the job yet?

A: I've come close to it a couple times because we've had a couple students who, unfortunately, passed away, and talking to their parents was a very difficult thing to do. We feel a responsibility to do everything we can for the students, and when those things happen, it's terrible.

Q: Have you gotten lost driving around Lowell yet?

A: Several times. I've gotten better, but it takes a while to get used to it. I thought this was supposed to have been a planned city. It's not supposed to be former cow paths like in Boston, but it seems that way at times.

Q: How did you get involved in academia?

A: I started work at UMass ( Boston) in 1999 (when he was hired as vice chancellor for administration and finance). I had a limited involvement with academia from 1993 to 1999. I was general counsel to something called the Massachusetts Health and Educational Facility Authority. What they did was financing for nonprofit hospitals and colleges as well as the University of Massachusetts to some extent.

I spent 14 years on the staff of the (state) Senate Ways and Means Committee, from 1979 to 1993. I worked for three different chairmen: Chester Atkins, Pat McGovern and Tom Birmingham. That was actually the most interesting job I've ever had. Every year, there's a million issues that you've got to deal with.

Q: Why aren't you a candidate for the permanent chancellor's position?

A: The circumstances of the appointment are such that I'm not applying. It's not that it wouldn't be a great deal to be the next chancellor here, but my role is to prepare the way for the next chancellor. Having an interim chancellor apply can cause problems for the search process. If it had been different, that would have been terrific, too, but I'm very content and honored to have the job just on an interim basis. It's not clear, but I'll probably be here until the summer of next year.

Q: Given that your stay is limited, what are your top priorities and initiatives?

A: The general idea is to try to get the campus in as good a shape as possible and also to continue on with some of the initiatives that Bill Hogan started that need to be carried forward. One of the best examples of that is the nano-bio manufacturing center. We will come up with a preliminary design for it as well as the site for it. The idea is to get it built in the next three or four years, so we have to keep moving forward on it. The interesting thing is the building authority will be running the project, so I'm kind of wearing two hats at the same time working on this.

Q: So what is the latest news with the nano-bio manufacturing research center?

A: Today (Wednesday) is the day we are getting responses for the request for proposals to do the initial design work and the siting. We will select a firm in the next couple weeks.

Q: What has been your biggest challenge?

A: The biggest challenge will be working out the politics of the nano-bio (location) thing. A lot of people have different points of view, and they're strongly held. I don't know where the right thing is at this point. Obviously, the two student deaths were very challenging, too. Those were probably the low point, but there have been many high points. Other than that, faculty and staff here have been very helpful and welcoming. There's always issues we have to work through, but we've worked through them in a collegial spirit.

Q: What are UMass Lowell's greatest strengths and weaknesses?

A: It's no question the biggest strength is sort of the science and engineering programs and faculty. I like to consider us the MIT of UMass. If Amherst is the flagship, i.e., Harvard, we're the MIT. ... We have limited resources, like all public higher education, so you have to make choices about where you put your money. Hogan put money into science and technology faculty and took it out of the staff. So we have a very lean staff here. Faculty are doing things that typically a staff might do. I don't think it's a fatal flaw or anything, but it's something that's very rare in academia. (Hogan) was such a strong leader that he was able to shape the campus in the way he wanted it to be.

Q: What is the biggest challenge facing the school in the next 10 years?

A: It's similar to what's going on in higher education generally. What's happening is knowledge has become interdisciplinary. The old way of teaching separate little courses in chemistry, history or whatever doesn't really address the issues of today. Having that transformation is a big challenge.

The other thing is, the university believes very strongly in developing programs that will help sustainability in the environment. We'd like to be even greener in the future, but it's a difficult process and an expensive transformation to go through. We'd like to be known as science and technology but also science and technology that helps the environment. It's easy to say that. It's harder to do it. But we're working on it.

Q: Does Massachusetts invest enough in the infrastructure of its university system?

A: There's aging infrastructure, and we have that here, although I would say we're probably marginally better off than any other campus except for the medical school. They have over a billion dollars in deferred maintenance at Amherst. In Boston, they had the parking garage they had to shut down. Dartmouth is in pretty good shape, but they had to shut down the Cedar Dell Dorms.

There was a building boom on the UMass campuses in the '60s and '70s, but since then, very little has been built and the state funding has been cut back to a great extent because of the Big Dig.