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April 12, 2017

UMass Boston's campus. (Courtesy of University of Massachusetts)

Tuesday's University of Massachusetts Board of Trustees meeting was the culmination of weeks of behind-the-scenes drama over the future of UMass Boston, its finances, and its leadership.

The meeting was tense. It was the first opportunity for the public to hear both from University President Marty Meehan and UMass Boston Chancellor Keith Motley, who announced last week that he would step down in June amid growing concerns about the school's financial stability and academic mission.

For hours, Motley sat quietly in the corner, his head down, as UMass Boston administrators promised to reduce the school's $30 million annual deficit, pledging to end the fiscal year with a gap of only $7 million.

"While the Board has broad authority to ensure that university funds are spent properly, responsibility for campus-level decisions are delegated to the five chancellors," President Meehan told the Board.

Meehan pointed out that second quarter financial reports had shown the Boston campus was awash in red ink after losing nearly half of its financial reserves.

Meehan said his office ordered an audit. Then, last month, he hired former Bowdoin president Barry Mills to serve as deputy chancellor under Motley.

Related: Administrative Bloat Victimizes Students At UMass – And Everywhere

While some faculty have said that move undermined Motley’s authority, Meehan told reporters that the chancellor was on board.

“Chancellor Motley interviewed Barry and was in agreement that that was an appropriate move,” Meehan said. “We’re moving forward. We believe that the failure here is more in the execution of the plan that was presented to the Board of Trustees by the Boston campus.”

But Motley's supporters have argued that he alone is being blamed for financial decisions that prior boards signed off on.

Meehan rejected that criticism, saying it's not about blame.

“It’s about taking what is a very important campus to this city and state and getting it on a strong financial footing so that it’s able to complete its mission without dramatic increases in tuition or without getting itself into big financial problems.”

To address those financial problems, administrators are proposing deep cuts to classes and part-time professors, and pushing off expensive building projects that were supposed to complete UMass Boston's transformation from a commuter school to a research university.

At the end of the meeting, Chancellor Keith Motley finally rose and spoke.

“Infrastructure. Infrastructure. Infrastructure,” Motley shouted. “That’s what I worried about, and I let my colleagues worry about the rest of it.”

Speaking publicly for the first time since he announced his resignation, Motley recalled the nights he spent dreaming about the future of UMass Boston and worrying about the school’s mounting debt.

“When I came to this institution from some other institutions in the city they said I was going to the Titanic. ‘Good luck,’” Motley recalled. “Two years later they were begging me to work with us. This university is on the move, and it’s because of your support. Don’t run from that!”

Motley told trustees that he would work closely with Mills to transition the school’s leadership, and he thanked them.

“Thank you for allowing us to have the vision we have in a capital city in this Commonwealth as its only public university starting on a refuse site, which is a tremendous deficit to work from.”

Taking his seat, Motley rested his 6-foot frame, leaned back and received a standing ovation.

UMass Boston students, faculty and staff are planning to rally against the proposed cuts at another UMass Board of Trustees meeting today.

Earlier: At UMass Boston, A Campus In Turmoil 

confronting cost, increasing access and success

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