How Marty Meehan could lead the fight for public higher education

The UMass Lowell graduate took over the UMass President’s office on July 1.

Photo: Marty Meehan at the Rappaport Center in 2009.
(Courtesy of the Rappaport Center/Flickr)

Many UMass Amherst student activists were worried when they heard that former U.S. Congressman and UMass Lowell Chancellor Marty Meehan would take over the presidency of the University of Massachusetts system from Robert Caret on July 1.

Initially, this concern seemed warranted, and university students will always have serious disagreements with administrators, regardless of who has the job.

Concerns of Amherst campus student activists focused on whether Meehan would neglect the system’s flagship in favor of his baby in Lowell, how he would fight against further privatization of public higher education, and what he would say to legislators to convince them to reinvest in the UMass system.

But “Marty’s” first week in office went a long way towards allaying those fears.

Related: UMass gets $532 million in state budget agreement, limiting fee increases

In addition to meeting with students and getting situated on his first day, Meehan joined the hosts of WBUR’s Radio Boston talk show to discuss his plans for UMass. He addressed several major issues facing the system, mainly focused on the growing cost of a UMass education.

Since Radio Boston accepts questions from callers, I figured I would use my new bully pulpit as an alumnus to get a straight answer from Meehan on underfunding.

I was pleasantly surprised that he had a strong response that has been consistent since he began his quest for the UMass presidency. (You can hear my question at minute 13:50 of the segment.)

Beyond his congenial “Call me Marty” request, which I appreciated, Meehan praised student activism as essential to State House advocacy for the UMass system.

At a June 10 meeting of UMass trustees, Meehan specifically highlighted the work of Charlotte Kelly and Jeremy Tibbetts, and added support for myself and many other students, who have been working with the Student Administration Accountability Coalition to keep fee increases to a minimum, during his Radio Boston segment.

Meehan’s view on state underfunding and how he would advocate for strong state support paralleled arguments made by Kelly and Tibbetts for SAAC at June 10 and June 17 meetings of UMass trustees as well as to the media.

Meehan often touts his strong working relationship with Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker, which concerns many activists who see Baker’s push towards three-year degrees and private funding as detrimental to state support of public higher education.

But where Baker never mentions systematic underfunding, Meehan has made it central to his presidency.

He also defended the benefits of four-year, residential higher education at UMass Amherst only days after his selection by the UMass Board of Trustees.

The new president’s vision for the UMass system also addresses some of the systems major failures, such as recruitment and retention of a highly diverse population and ensuring that student costs are more sustainable.

His statements on the diversity of the UMass student population were particularly encouraging. As I reported for the Massachusetts Daily Collegian in March, UMass Amherst has failed to enroll a student body that represents the growing diversity of Massachusetts.

While the state’s population of groups underrepresented at UMass Amherst has doubled since 1974, from nine to 18 percent, their enrollment at the flagship campus has gone up by less than half of that, only four percentage points.

In light of this, Meehan’s statement that the number of students from diverse backgrounds jumped by 115 percent during his time at UMass Lowell is encouraging.

A skeptical view of proposals by the Boston 2024 Olympics organization also shows Meehan’s focus on what’s best for UMass. While he accepts that there could be benefits, such as student housing for UMass Boston, Meehan will wait to “see if there are advantages to (UMass).”

His deep understanding of the dire situation students face now that they are picking up the vast majority of the tab for a UMass education surprised me when I spoke to “Marty” on Radio Boston.

When I talked about underfunding, I cited think tank statistics that said Massachusetts had skipped out on 30 percent of the money needed for public higher education since 2001.

Marty’s statistics—that Massachusetts funded 85 percent of the system when he was a student, but only funds about 19 percent now—were better than mine.

His focus on students, knowledge of how the cost of a UMass education is dangerously high, and interest in the success of all of the UMass campuses, not just Lowell, are encouraging.

“The public in Massachusetts is pretty complacent about higher education,” Richard Freeland, the state’s outgoing higher education commissioner, said in a recent Boston Globe story. “You need a strong leader and a persuasive leader.”

In a few years, and through partnership with students and community members, we may have Marty Meehan to thank for a fully funded public system that offers the promise of higher education to all of the Commonwealth’s young people.

Zac Bears can reached at zac@dblstand.com.

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