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UMass Boston Search Committee Taps UCLA Dean For Chancellor's Job

The new UMass Boston dorm buildings. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
The new UMass Boston dorm buildings. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

The committee that has been seeking the next permanent chancellor of UMass Boston since last August has identified its man.

Around 5 p.m. Tuesday night, the committee voted unanimously to recommend only one candidate, Marcelo Suárez-Orozco, to Marty Meehan, president of the UMass system.

Historically, UMass search committees have often named several finalists. But committee chair Norm Peters said that Suárez-Orozco is a "really outstanding candidate," worth forgoing another round of scrutiny. Peters added that it's "not set in stone" that the committee name multiple finalists.

Since 2012, Suárez-Orozco has been the dean of UCLA's Graduate School of Education and Information Studies. Previously, he served as a university professor at New York University and as a professor at Harvard's Graduate School of Education.

"So he's coming home," joked Peters after the vote.

Now a U.S. citizen, Suárez-Orozco was born in Argentina, and has studied migration since his days at UC Berkeley in the 1980s. It's a powerful biography for the prospective leader of the most diverse public university in Massachusetts.

In 2018, 64% of the students enrolled at the state’s 13 other public universities were white. At UMass Boston, the reverse was true: nearly 63% were students of color, an almost-even mix of Asian, Black and Latino students.

About half of its undergraduates qualify for federal Pell grants targeted at low-income households. In 2018, UMass Boston students who received aid or scholarships paid, on average, $6,000 less per year than they would to attend UMass Dartmouth or UMass Lowell.

Suárez-Orozco "really speaks to the urban mission of our university," said search committee vice chair Jean Rhodes, a professor of psychology at UMass Boston. She added that Suárez-Orozco is also a "world-class scholar" befitting her ambitious home institution, and has a track record as "an amazing, charismatic, warm, empathic administrator" at UCLA.

If Meehan approves the choice of Suárez-Orozco, he will hand it on to the UMass Board of Trustees for a final vote. Meanwhile, Suárez-Orozco is tentatively scheduled to visit the school's Columbia Point campus on Friday, Jan. 31.

Before the vote, the search committee did lose some of the 11 candidates from whom they hoped to select a finalist. Peters and Rhodes explained that because UMass Boston is a public institution, the names of potential finalists are eventually disclosed.

"Unless they feel a hundred percent about the job," candidates often drop out before that happens, said Peters, who has taken part in five such searches in the past.

One of those to withdraw was Katherine Newman, UMass Boston’s interim chancellor since May of 2018. In an email to the university community, Newman wrote that the decision was difficult, but that “a number of opportunities have presented themselves” elsewhere in higher education.

The statement prompted an uneasy flashback: Newman became interim chancellor after all three finalists in the 2018 search for a permanent chancellor withdrew their names from consideration. The collective withdrawal came after some UMass Boston faculty complained those finalists did not “have the skills, experience, or values” to lead the campus, according to Meehan.

Rhodes said that she believed there was much broader consensus this time around.

"We had far more faculty representation on the committee itself," she said. "That ensured that we could have confidence around the qualifications of this particular candidate."

Aside from Rhodes, six members of the university's faculty sat on the search committee, alongside UMB alums like Jeffrey Sánchez, former chair of the Mass. House Ways and Means Committee, and Joyce Linehan, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh's chief of policy.

UMass Boston's "urban mission" does come with challenges. Its most recent six-year graduation rate — of 48% — was the lowest among state universities. After an ambitious, decade-long construction boom, the campus may no longer look like a massive construction site, but there remains structural and financial work to be done.

The first residents of its first-ever dormitory, which opened in 2018, complained of structural problems and lax security. The $15 daily price of parking in a new garage has sparked protests on the working-class campus. And the campus has contended for years with the crumbling of its original physical plant and substructure — the subject of a corruption scandal in the 1970s.

In recent years, UMB administration has contended with long-term debts tied to construction, as well as annual budget deficits. The operating shortfalls prompted layoffs, as well as the closure of a university-owned child care center. So while the campus looks almost brand-new, the next chancellor will have to contend with some painful history.

But things may be changing. DeWayne Lehman, UMass Boston director of communications, said the university “is on track to meet a zero-deficit budget this year,” with projected surpluses in the years ahead.

Committee members expressed a shared hope: that Suárez-Orozco is willing to take on what rebuilding work is left on Columbia Point — and can then lead Boston's only public research university into a brighter future.

Related:

Max Larkin Twitter Reporter, Edify
Max Larkin is a multimedia reporter for Edify, WBUR's education vertical.

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