Marty Meehan’s decision to stay put for now

By all accounts, Marty Meehan has done a terrific job at UMass Lowell, expanding the campus, lifting academic standards, sharpening connections with the business community, raising funds and enhancing the overall brand of the university. Not surprising then that he became a prime prospect for replacing University of Massachusetts President Jack Wilson, who will retire in June.

As discussion became more public about the search for said replacement, critics speculated that tapping Meehan for the system’s top spot would be Marian Walsh redux, demonstrating the political establishment’s inclination always to promote its nearest and dearest. Not a good thing at a time when Beacon Hill is poisoned by the Probation Department patronage scandal.

Mindful of the pitfalls of appointing an insider, Governor Patrick apparently communicated to search committee chair UMass Trustee James Karam his concerns that the search be as broad, deep and authentic as possible to ensure the next president was absolutely the best for elevating the University of Massachusetts to a higher tier in higher education. I found myself thinking it would be too bad if, in order to keep up appearances, Meehan would be disqualified simply because he has been a successful politician.

But columnist Joan Vennochi has presented a very compelling argument for seeking a president with greater academic credentials.  Vennochi notes Meehan’s accomplishments, concedes that he isn’t burdened with the baggage that former Senate President William Bulger brought to the presidency of the University, but credibly asserts that “his resume lacks the experience and heft of those who lead the most elite public universities.”

Vennochi looks at the credentials of the presidents of the top-ranked universities in the country (according to US News and World Reports) and shows how they have weighty experience in running institutions of higher education and significant scholarly accomplishments in their respective fields. And many have also achieved substantial success in fundraising. Recent studies, she reminds us, have shown that top high school students are still not, in general, going to the University of Massachusetts as their first choice.

In withdrawing from consideration, Meehan told the search committee that, upon reflection, he prefers to “ directly lead an academic institution and interact on a daily basis with faculty, staff and students” and thus his “interest remains in running UMass Lowell.”  Clearly, he has a lot on his plate at UMass Lowell, and it will take some time to achieve his stated goals there.

However, his decision is particularly interesting because his name is also mentioned frequently as a possible successor to Suffolk University President Dave Sargent, who has already become President Emeritus. A search is underway. At Suffolk, Meehan would earn more, could be a perfect fit for the University’s Beacon Hill location right next to the State House, and might be able to run the institution with less media scrutiny than that which comes with public colleges and universities. He would bring to the post his political and fundraising bona fides and his track record running another urban university. This chapter has yet to be written.

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