New Place, Same Pace

03/02/2008
By From the Boston Globe

By Russell Contreras

He's not in Congress anymore, but Martin Meehan says his schedule sure makes him feel like he still is.

The University of Massachusetts at Lowell chancellor is usually at work by 8 a.m., running in and out of meetings before lunch, taking cellphone calls in
between formal receptions, participating in community task force gatherings, and, if he's lucky, getting home by 9 p.m.

And Washington, D.C.? Yep, he still has to go there sometimes, on university business.

"Sometimes it feels like I haven't even changed jobs," he said after leaving a UMass reception in downtown Boston recently. "My schedule is pretty much the same. But it's a different kind of work."

It has been a year since news first broke that Meehan was contemplating ending his 15-year career in Congress for the top job at UMass-Lowell. Since then, voters have elected Nikki Tsongas to Meehan's former Fifth Congressional District seat, and he has plunged deep into the business of running a university with nearly 12,000 students and a $220 million annual operating budget.

Meehan took over the job from interim chancellor David MacKenzie on July 1, and he has met almost all of his early goals, said UMass President Jack Wilson.
"He jumped in and got his team together," Wilson said. "I'm very pleased." Among those goals: nailing down the largest donation in school history for a $10
million endowed scholarship, helping to keep the UMass-Lowell hockey team in the preferred Division I East conference, initiating a search for a new provost, and putting together a new master plan.

Goals still on the list: building new residence halls for students, increasing the diversity of the student body and faculty, starting a recycling plan on campus, and tackling the school's graduation rates.

The University of Massachusetts system comprises four universities in Amherst, Boston, Dartmouth, and Lowell, along with a medical school in Worcester. Meehan said the Lowell campus has at times been overlooked, but plans are being laid to change that by attracting more research dollars and creating more of a campus environment.

"We're off to a good start," said the 51-year-old Meehan, who refused to give himself a grade on his first eight months on the job. "Some of these challenges are going to take longer than I originally thought."

For example, 75 percent of UMass-Lowell students are commuters. Meehan said he would like to see at least 50 percent of the student body living on campus in
the next few years, so it would have more of the traditional feel of a university. To accomplish that, the university will have to build new housing.
"That's a process that could take around five years," he said. "I wish I could put more beds on campus now."

The university has not built any new structures in more than 30 years. Not only are many of its buildings aging, but some have been outgrown and can't serve their needs on the 112-year-old campus.

Meehan's appointment was not greeted wholeheartedly by everyone. Robert E. Parkin, an engineering professor and president of the faculty union, said he was skeptical and disappointed when Meehan was chosen. A critic of the previous administration, Parkin wanted Wilson to appoint an academic who understood university life enough to know what changes were needed.

But Parkin said that after working with Meehan and watching the changes he has made, it's "been a breath of fresh air." Parkin said he likes how Meehan has moved new people into senior administrative positions and pushed for new buildings on campus.

"He's made the right moves. Things are different around campus," said Parkin. "You can feel it."

One of Meehan's first announcements was a plan for a new Emerging Technologies and Innovation Center, and that appears to be moving along. The building,
university officials hope, will house nano- and bio-manufacturing research and other emerging technologies, and would cost $85 million to $95 million. Meehan said he hopes to build it with both state and private aid.

The 97,000-square-foot facility is now slated to be erected at the present UML North location of Smith Hall, a 110-bed residence hall constructed in 1948. A
$15 million parking garage is planned for next door.

Another goal is increasing enrollment at the university and attracting more minority students. According to 2007 numbers, UMass-Lowell has an enrollment of 11,635 students. More than 90 percent of them are residents of the Commonwealth, and about 19 percent are minorities.

A big hurdle is making the university more affordable, said Meehan. Average annual in-state tuition for undergraduates is $8,731, with room and board costing $6,978. It's a far cry from the bills at top-flight institutions like Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, but still a challenge for the mostly working-class families who send their children there.

To help offset those costs, Meehan has been aggressively pressing alumni to help with scholarships. In September, UMass-Lowell announced that alumnus and former trustee Charles J. Hoff and his wife, Josephine, had donated $3 million - the
largest gift in the school's history - to help set up a $10 million endowed scholarship fund.

Wilson said Meehan was key to getting Hoff to commit to that gift. "Charlie took one look at Marty and said, 'Let's go,' " said Wilson. "He wanted to make sure that we had good leadership in place."

Helping students transfer more easily from other institutions is another area for improvement, Meehan said, especially for students coming from nearby
Middlesex Community College and Northern Essex Community College in Lawrence and Haverhill. "We still need to streamline the process," said Meehan. "It's not as smooth as it should be."

When he took the job, Meehan, who is married and has two children, negotiated a three-year contract as chancellor. But he said recently he may want more time. "My sense," he said, "is that I need to be here longer than three years to get things done."

But doesn't he miss Washington? "Sometimes," he said. "Well, not really. I don't have time to miss it.