Meehan Making the Grade

12/26/2007
By From the Lowell Sun

By Matt Murphy

LOWELL -- Scheduling an appointment these days with UMass Lowell Chancellor Marty Meehan often means calling his office weeks in advance to find an opening.

Though he has cut the back-and-forth flights from Boston to Washington from his itinerary, Meehan finds himself no less busy, barely pausing for a second to learn the ropes of his new job.

"I'm impatient by nature," Meehan said last week after fielding a phone call from a member of the Board of Trustees while most of his staff was attending a holiday party. "I like to get things done, and get them done as quickly as possible. That's the part of the job that can be sometimes frustrating."

After spending 15 years in Congress, Meehan is no stranger to the pace of government, which prepared him well for his new role in higher education.

But six months since taking over as chancellor of his alma-mater, that impatience might explain the laundry list of goals on his desk that grows only longer as he checks off tasks already accomplished.

"He's off to a terrific start, a very fast start," said UMass President Jack Wilson, who recently sat down with Meehan for his six-month review. "I teased him in the first week that the only problem I had was that I had set out some goals for him and he had already gotten them done. But none of this is a surprise."

Before officially taking over at UMass Lowell on July 1, Meehan had already set to work putting in place a new leadership team at the top of the administration. The move drew praise from the faculty.

Among several moves, he tapped Don Pierson as acting provost, the well-respected dean of the UMass Lowell Graduate School of Education, to replace John Wooding, who stepped aside July 1.

A national search to find a full-time replacement has yielded many top-notch candidates, said Meehan, who expects to hire a new chief academic officer within the next six months.

He also walked into a tempest surrounding the UMass Lowell hockey team amid a push by some trustees to move the financially struggling team out of the Division I Hockey East conference.

Meehan successfully laid out a blueprint to help the hockey team succeed, which led to a restructuring of the team's contract at the Tsongas Arena with the city of Lowell and paved the way for the team to remain in Hockey East.

Despite his fast start and Wilson's confidence in his new chancellor, not everyone was as optimistic for Meehan.

As it became clear that Meehan was the favorite to replace William Hogan as chancellor last spring, UMass Lowell mechanical engineering professor Bob Parkin said he was skeptical of bringing in a politician to run the university.

His trepidation was quickly swayed.

"I think he's done splendidly," said Parkin, head of the faculty union at UMass Lowell. "He's high energy, high intelligence. He has sought advice from, I think, the people who really can give him good advice and he's followed it."

Parkin said he has been impressed with the changes Meehan has made in the upper levels of administration, as well as his ability to come in and start addressing the university's $3 million deficit.

In fact, there are few skeptics Meehan has yet to convert.

Since arriving on campus, faculty, students and adminisitrators all speak of a new energy at UMass Lowell, an impression that the university is on the move.

"This is a genuine mood. People feel as if now we can get things moving," Parkin said.

Meehan, upon his arrival, completely blew up the $273 million master plan for revisioning the university drafted under Hogan, picking a new site for the soon-to-be emerging center for nanotechnology research and emphasizing upgrades to the current facilities.

He has pushed for state funding to move forward on the new M2D2 biomedical-device research center on east campus that could become a model in the state for regional economic development.

He also has proposed plans to build a new dorm near LeLacheur Park, and said he hopes to achieve a 50 percent split between residential and commuter students within the next five years.

"I think there's an awful lot that needs to be done at this university and my approach has been to be aggressive, but that's been my approach to everything in my professional life," Meehan said.

Funding is a major obstacle to an aggressive plan for upgrading and expanding any public institution, Meehan said.

This is where Meehan and Wilson agree that all UMass campuses need to blend public dollars with private donations to achieve goals.

Since July, Meehan helped secure UMass Lowell's largest donation in its history, a $3 million gift from alumnus Charlie Hoff to help create a $10 million endowed scholarship.

He also has brought a new level of visibility to his office, making himself available to everyone.

"He's been more open than the previous two chancellors I've dealt with," said Steve Holstrom, a senior who is currently the student-body president. "Marty actually makes an effort to go out and find where students are and solicit advice, rather than just hold office hours."

Asked to grade his new chancellor, Holstrom gave Meehan an A-, but then decided to make it a straight A.

That said, Holstrom does have a small to-do list for Meehan, which includes adding a recycling program on campus, creating a freshman seminar and repairing the bridge on east campus used by students to access the recreation center and Fox Hall.

Meehan said he is aware of, and shares, all these concerns. He's waiting for reports on recycling proposals and a plan to address freshman dropout rates.

The next six months promise no stop to the changes in store for UMass Lowell under Meehan.

He proudly announced that six new "smart classrooms" with state-of-the-art technology will open in January.

"I told him I hope to see more of the same," Wilson said. "His goals have been ambitious, but if you don't put markers out there of where you want to go, you can be pretty sure you won't get there."