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November 11, 2015

On Thursday, Marty Meehan will be inaugurated as the 27th President of the University of Massachusetts (Stephan Savoila/Associated Press).

Marty Meehan will be formally installed as the 27th president of the University of Massachusetts on Thursday. The former congressman and University of Massachusetts Lowell Chancellor will present his vision for the university’s future during his inauguration ceremony at the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate.

Meehan has spent his inauguration week crisscrossing the state, visiting all five UMass campuses - from Dartmouth to Amherst, Worcester to Lowell, and finally to Boston. As the first UMass graduate to lead the system, Meehan says he still learns something each time he steps on campus.

"I'm inspired by the quality of the faculty, the quality of the research that’s taking place on the five campuses, and also I’m inspired by students,” Meehan said during an interview in his new downtown office on Beacon Street.

Related: New UMass President Spends First Day Focusing on Students

But Meehan also recognizes there will be challenges ahead for the system and its leaders.

"I think the greatest challenge is to find the right combination of state resources. What should the commonwealth of Massachusetts contribute to a student’s education at UMass? I want this university to be world class and be high quality and I’m not going to compromise on that," he said.

But Meehan may have to compromise on state funding. His inauguration this week comes as the state's investment in UMass has dropped by 25 percent over the past 15 years.

This month, he has been struggling to convince lawmakers on Beacon Hill to kick in $10.9 million to retroactively pay faculty raises. Without that funding, Meehan expects the five campuses will be forced to make mid-year cuts.

"I hope we get the money, but I’m not waiting to see what the state does to see whether UMass can be great. We’re going to strive for excellence whether the state provides the revenue and resources that we think they should or whether they don’t."

Meehan will use his inauguration speech Thursday afternoon to pledge his commitment to making higher education more affordable, and to making the public university relevant in a region packed with prestigious private colleges.

“Massachusetts is an area that has a lot of higher education institutions, but UMass is more relevant than any of them. We literally educate the workforce of Massachusetts," said Meehan.

About 80 percent of UMass graduates stay and work in Massachusetts in the near term, and more than 60 percent stay long term.

Still, higher education experts say Meehan is battling the public perception that the cost of higher education is out of reach for many American families, as well as the stigma that UMass is a second-tier institution overshadowed by more elite schools.

"He's got to figure out how to position UMass within the region," says Brian Mitchell, the former President of Bucknell University and founder of the Edvance Foundation, an organization that's trying to strengthen partnerships between public and private colleges and universities.

Mitchell says Meehan needs to clearly define the university's role to Massachusetts taxpayers and lawmakers. 

"It is surprising that in a place that values education, where the economy is so intimately and closely tied to education, that public education has received a sort of middle-of-the-pack analysis from state legislators," says Mitchell.

Mitchell thinks that Meehan, as a former politician, is well positioned to take on this challenge.

"If UMass is going to differentiate itself and going to move beyond the sort of middle-of-the-pack of public sector institutions, there has to be a sort of change agent and there has to be somebody who is clearly attuned politically," says Mitchell.

That's certainly one of Meehan's strengths. He served seven full terms in Congress, despite his pledge to support term limits.

Earlier: Is College Affordability Destined to Fall By the Wayside This Election?

college costs, Marty Meehan, increasing access and success, higher ed, global competitiveness

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