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April 06, 2017

University of Massachusetts Boston Chancellor Keith Motley announced Wednesday he is stepping down. (Courtesy of UMass Boston)

Students and faculty at the University of Massachusetts at Boston are reacting to the resignation of Chancellor Keith Motley, the university's first black leader. 

On Wednesday, facing mounting concerns about the school's financial stability, Motley announced he would step down after ten years at the helm.

On Columbia Point, between mounds of dirt and chain-link fencing, the sounds of construction are a reminder of Motley’s legacy.

"He dreamed big," said English professor Barbara Lewis, who runs the William Monroe Trotter Institute for the Study of Black History and Culture.

She says it's the school's gleaming new buildings for which Motley should be remembered.

"He saw this university and this particular location, which didn't start off in the best kind of place,” Lewis said. “We were stuck here in Boston on a dump, and he transformed that because he loved the campus so much and he loved the student body and he wanted Boston to thrive in new ways."

But the dream of turning a one-time commuter school into a research university came with a cost. The physical expansion of the campus, along with rapid administrative growth and steep cuts in state funding, left UMass Boston with annual deficits as high as $30 million.

The University's Board of Trustees had approved most of this expansion, but board turnover brought new members who wanted Motley to control spending.

Motley tried, but apparently was not fast enough.

Earlier: UMass-Boston Chancellor Keith Motley To Step Down

Last month, UMass President Marty Meehan hired former Bowdoin president Barry Mills as deputy chancellor. Sources say Mills was given budget control, a move that undermined Motley's authority.

Mills, who has been tasked with stabilizing the school's finances, will serve as interim chancellor after Motley steps down in June.

“It’s reasonable to raise and it will be raised that part of the legacy of Keith Motley will be the financial difficulties that the campus is facing,” said political science professor Paul Watanabe, who directs the Institute for Asian American Studies.

Watanabe suspects UMass leaders are blaming Motley for budget decisions that involved many others.

"I think he'd be willing to accept his share of the responsibility, but I think that responsibility is broadly shared,” Watanabe said. “I think he understands if there needs to be a change sometimes that you don't fire the players you fire the coach."

Barbara Lewis agrees that Motley probably was forced out.

"Encouraged,” Lewis suggested. “You know you can use a number of verbs. Scapegoated. Removed."

UMass officials deny that allegation, saying Motley's resignation was his own decision.

Regardless, Watanabe says UMass Boston's troubles won't go away when Motley leaves.  If anything, the broader funding problems in public higher education are likely to get worse.

"If people think this is just UMass Boston facing a crisis of public higher education then I think they have a very narrow vision of what we're confronting," he said.

Next year, Motley will be on sabbatical before taking a significant pay cut and returning to campus as a tenured professor.

UMass says Mills will not be considered for the full-time job.

On campus Thursday morning, many UMass Boston students said that they looked up to Motley and described him as respected, inspirational, energetic and kind.

Sophomore Cameron Chase, who is black, says he was encouraged to see a black man in a leadership role.

"I came from a predominantly white school, and it was nice to see someone who looked like me in a position of power,” Chase said. “It told me that I could be in a position of power like that one day, too."

UPDATE: The Baker administration is pushing back against criticism that Motley has been unfairly blamed for larger financial problems at the school.

Education Secretary Jim Peyser says ultimately the chancellor of each campus is expected to balance their books.

"Everyone shares responsibility for the health of the system as a whole," Peyser tells WGBH News. "The Board doesn't directly manage the campuses. We oversee them. Could we have done better? I think that's always the case."

Peyser says the Board has acted responsibly, and he dismisses charges that Motley was 'scape-goated.'

Motley supporters are planning a rally at the State House Saturday afternoon.  

Related: UMass Boston Faculty Cuts Emblematic Of Funding Crisis In Public Higher Ed

Greater Boston: UMass Boston Finances

confronting cost, higher ed

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