A former Pennsylvania education secretary is in line to become the next higher education commissioner in Massachusetts after topping three other finalists to earn a state panel's support Tuesday.
The Board of Higher Education selected Noe Ortega, who is also a former University of Michigan official and spent almost a decade working in Texas, as its pick for the top job following a five-month search that drew two dozen applicants.
Ortega beat out two in-state candidates, Northern Essex Community College President Lane Glenn and Boston University Wheelock College of Education and Human Development associate dean Mary Churchill, and another out-of-state candidate, Marty Alvarado, who serves as executive vice chancellor for the office of equitable student learning, experience and impact in the California Community College Chancellor's Office.
Summarizing discussions the search team conducted with Ortega's references, Academic Search President Jay Lemons told the board that Ortega received praise as "being brilliant in policy and in operations."
"It was noted that Noe is highly respected and that his true strength is in diplomacy, leading groups of people around a united cause," Lemons said of the reviews Ortega received. "He's calming in his approach, he's above the fray and he has garnered a tremendous amount of respect in Pennsylvania as a result of his leadership during, I would note, a particularly divisive and tumultuous time."
To make their decision, each BHE member at first named two preferred candidates from the list of four that sat for lengthy interviews with the panel last week. Ortega and Glenn advanced from that pool for a final vote.
Eight board members — Ann Christensen, Veronica Conforme, Alex Cortez, Patty Eppinger, Paul Mattera, Judy Pagliuca, Education Secretary Jim Peyser, and Chris Gabrieli — voted for Ortega, one short of the nine-vote threshold required. Four others — Mary Burns, Travis Lawrence, Paul Toner and Bill Walczak — backed Glenn.
Burns, who represents UMass trustees on the board, prefaced her support for Glenn by describing herself as "a firm believer of promoting from within."
After the votes were tallied, Toner moved for the board to make its selection of Ortega unanimous, and all members who chose Glenn agreed.
"I want to say I do feel that President Glenn has done a wonderful job in his service to the state of Massachusetts and to the community colleges," Toner said. "I'm disappointed that he couldn't get the votes he needed, but in order to move forward as a strong system, I want to make the motion for us to go forward with a unanimous vote."
Peyser, a Gov. Charlie Baker appointee, will now be tasked with formally confirming the next higher education commissioner. It was not immediately clear Tuesday when that would take place, though Peyser himself voted in favor of Ortega during the selection process Tuesday.
Current Commissioner Carlos Santiago, who joined in July 2015, announced in January that he plans to step down from the position that pays him a $243,734 salary. He initially targeted June as his departure date, but Gabrieli, the board's chair, said Tuesday that Santiago will remain in his position "until we're fully ready for that next leg of leadership."
Gabrieli said choosing Santiago's successor was an "agonizing decision" and described himself as "tinged by sadness" he could not approve all four candidates.
"I've had the chance to work with Mary Churchill, who I think is just an excellent member of our community. I really praise what she did in the context of Wheelock, the book she's written, and many other elements of service," Gabrieli said. "I did not know Marty Alvarado before, but I'm super impressed with her and feel 100 percent certain we will see Marty Alvarado doing some big things in higher education. And Lane Glenn's just a great guy who has been an excellent ally on many critical things and I think would be an excellent commissioner."
"We had a unique situation here — to have someone who's already served in that job put their hat forward speaks to the opportunity at hand," he added about Ortega.
Ortega served for about two years as education secretary in Pennsylvania, much of it during the COVID-19 pandemic, before stepping down from that role in April. Before that, he worked for eight years at the University of Michigan in a range of academic and administrative roles and for nearly a decade at multiple public and private universities in Texas.
He told the board last week about his work in the Lone Star State improving access to higher education for lower-income students and students of color, pointing to satellite centers as "little, small wins that begin to pick up momentum in the idea of creating a college-going culture."
Ortega is poised to take the reins as colleges and universities in Massachusetts chart a course away from the pandemic impacts that dominated the past two years and grapple with declining enrollment, demographic shifts and persistent high costs. He's also on track to start the job with turnover in the executive branch about to take place once Baker leaves office in January.
In his interview last week, Ortega said he wants to identify "shortcomings" and ensure "we provide not just learning, but services to those who need it the most." He spoke highly of the equity agenda and strategic vision the board outlined to boost participation and success among underrepresented populations, particularly during what Ortega described as "a time when education, educational attainment and even the outcomes associated with higher education are highly contested."
"To me, that's a really important vision strategy to set out," Ortega said. "I gravitated to it immediately, thinking, here I am, I've been blessed with the opportunity to have been able to serve in a number of roles. Can I leverage my leadership to continue the good work that's already been done ... and really take the system from good to great to even greater?"