The New Student-Centered Urban Public Research University: Research as an Approach to Life
September 13, 2010
J. Keith Motley, PhD, UMass Boston Chancellor
Thank you, President Wilson, members of the board of trustees, distinguished guests, students, faculty, and staff for sharing this special ceremony. Thanks, Winston, Ellen, Neil MacInnes-Barker, Sameer Tandon, and Stasha Lampert for your presentations. Thank you, also, Roger Ferguson of TIAA-CREF for being with us; we look forward to your address. And thanks to my beautiful wife, Angela, for joining us today.
We have much to be grateful for at the University of Massachusetts Boston. Yes, the second year of the Great Recession has not been much easier than the first. Like other educational institutions, we are dealing with fiscal challenges and we have faced very difficult decisions. But, with the help of everyone here, we will do more than pull through. Together, we will flourish.
We often speak of our university as a community. At its core lies a solid structure, built brick by brick and block by block over the past half century by generations of dedicated faculty, staff, and students. These human building blocks are integral to the architecture of this university. Together our community members care for each other and for the world; they strive for excellence, to lift up not only themselves but everyone around them.
As part of our Convocation tradition, I’d like to acknowledge those community members whose accomplishments deserve special recognition today.
Alix Cantave is the associate director of the William Trotter Institute for the Study of Black Culture. After January’s devastating earthquake in Haiti, Alix worked with an international community to deliver aid and plan for the future. Now he’s helping to lead the effort to rebuild Haiti’s higher education system. I want to thank him for his important work.
- Today, we are pleased to welcome 32 new members of the faculty. New faculty, please rise together so we can formally greet you.
- It is also my pleasure to acknowledge the 18 newly tenured professors of the university. Their names are on the screen; let’s give them a round of applause.
- We are also proud to acknowledge the achievements of Stephanie Hartwell in Sociology, Alfred Noel in Mathematics, Kenneth Rothwell in Classics, and Miren Uriarte in Human Services, each of whom is promoted to the highest academic rank of full professor.
- At Convocation, we also recognize the winner of the John W. Ryan Award, which is given to the University of Massachusetts Boston junior with the highest grade point average. This year’s recipient is Kyle Clark, an anthropology and philosophy major with a perfect 4.0.
- We also want to recognize the excellence of our staff. Charles King of the Biology Department and Assistant Dean Rosanne Donahue of the College of Liberal Arts—would you please rise and receive recognition as recipients of the 2010 Chancellor’s Achievement Award.
- There are two more outstanding staff members here today who helped make the past year unforgettable for our student-athletes. Thank you to the women’s volleyball team and coach Terry Condon, and the men’s baseball team and coach Brendan Eygabroat, for leading our teams to record-shattering successes.
Today, I’d also like to recognize a gentleman who helps fend off chaos and maintain order throughout the university every day—Mr. Kenneth Herbert of our custodial staff. Mr. Herbert is always the first one here in the morning and goes about his work in such a dedicated and precise manner. I like to use him as an object lesson for my staff to follow. Thank you, Mr. Herbert, for your contribution to the mission of our university.
All of you here today are to be commended for your willingness to greet the challenges we face with creativity and courage. You are the foundation of our ability to move toward the fulfillment of our strategic goals.
- We’ve seen a 26 percent growth in enrollment over the past five years. Last year we were so close to 15,000 students that we rounded up. This year we are over.
- And these are quality students, who have an average grade point of 3.0. Our Honors Program grew to nearly 300 students.
- Freshman retention has climbed to 77%, and our commitment to financial aid is up 108% over the past five years.
- Our students hail from 139 countries and speak more than 90 languages; 45% of undergraduates and 21% of graduate students are people of color. Our campus community looks more like Boston, more like the world, than any other university in New England.
- Faculty research funding is up 18% over last year, reaching $50 million.
- We’re moving forward on our 25-year master plan, from drawings on paper to concrete and steel, bricks and mortar.
- The Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate will break ground this fall. Next spring we will put shovels into the ground to start building our new Integrated Sciences Complex.
- And, just last month, we completed the programming study for our new General Academic Building.
Be prepared to get mud on your boots and hear the constant music of pile driving. And be prepared to help us plan another chapter of the University of Massachusetts Boston’s future this fall, when we begin envisioning the possibilities at the former Bayside Expo Center, which is now part of this great campus.
As we build our physical spaces, we continue to build our human connections and reputation through the work of our colleges and institutes.
- Reflecting the increasing breadth of the university’s academic programming, we created an eighth college—University College—which will incorporate our Division of Corporate, Continuing, and Distance Education. We have also renamed the Graduate College of Education: It is now the College of Education and Human Development to reflect better its present and future focus.
- Our new Collaborative Institute for Oceans, Climate and Security in the McCormack Graduate School will effect policy and management changes in this important emerging field.
- The College of Management’s new Entrepreneurship Center, in partnership with our Venture Development Center, will enable our students to study, practice, and live in a start-up environment—before they graduate.
- Our new Center for Portuguese Language will strengthen our connections with Lusophone communities. And the new Center for Sustainable Enterprise and Regional Competitiveness will provide our students with the knowledge and skills to compete in—and lead—green industries.
Truly we have an impressive community. The building materials that we use to renew our campus are also a metaphor for the foundational work that faculty and staff do with our students every day, grounding them in the basics, strengthening their ability to soar skyward, building their capacity for engaged and productive lives in the community. Several elements of this distinctive human architecture were honored this past year.
The University of Massachusetts Boston has been named one of the “Best in the Northeast” by the Princeton Review, based on our excellent academic programs and student surveys.
Students praised how much we care about them. One wrote that professors—quote—“will blow your mind with their intensity, passion, and commitment to your success.” Such remarks hearten me, because they show we are right on track with our objective to be a research university with a teaching soul.
How does all this translate practically, and why are we so privileged to play a part in this work? The clip I’m about to show might answer those questions. In it, you’ll hear from one of our alumni, a former thoroughbred jockey whose dream was derailed in a racing accident, Trevor Morin. Trevor was chosen to be a Commencement speaker for the class of 2010 at the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences at the UMass Medical School in Worcester, where he received his PhD.
[Video] [Video Transcript]
n a split second it was over. A green two-year-old I was galloping threw me hard into the rail. I shattered both wrists and knew instantly my comeback was over, possibly indefinitely. Life isn’t fair. My interest in school had waned so much, Shepherd asked me not to return, my high school girlfriend dumped me by e-mail, and the one thing I loved, the one thing that made me feel superhuman, was gone.
Washed up and worthless, I entered a deep, dark depression that most people, unless they’ve been there themselves, are incapable of comprehending. Like many depressed individuals, I turned to drugs and alcohol, and before I knew it my life had spun out of control. I lost the respect of my family and my friends—thankfully, not their love and support. Sickened by my own reflection, my passion for life was gone. I was the walking dead.
After being institutionalized and failing rehabs, I finally reached bottom, and what would be some of the hardest months of my life began. I got off drugs and started classes at UMass Boston. At UMB I met Esther, once a homeless alcoholic, now a JFK Award winner and Johns Hopkins Medical School graduate. I met Annika, who also had past demons and is now finishing her residency in oral surgery at UPenn. I met Tunde, a gangbanger and crack dealer who is now a postdoc at Harvard. Needless to say, I found the perfect place for a washed-up jockey-turned-junkie to make a new start.
University of Massachusetts professors put passion into teaching and put passion back into my life—passion for science, for the truth. As my chemical dependencies diminished, my academics flourished and UMB unlocked potential I didn’t know I had.
Trevor’s is a powerful story, told frequently, of finding community here with others on the path from challenging circumstances to passion, discovery, and achievement.
And there are many more, similar stories to come.
This year, the University of Massachusetts system received approval from the State Board of Higher Education to open the Commonwealth’s first public law school, the University of Massachusetts Law School, on the Dartmouth campus. In coming years, we expect to see some future alums of our university selected as class speakers at the Law School’s commencements.The University of Massachusetts Boston is one of the “Best in the Northeast” not just because the Princeton Review says so, but also because those students who may have been counted out in the past have found in our faculty, staff, and students a hand up, inspiration, and direction.
They have found pathways to PhDs and postdocs, med school, law school, and our own superb graduate programs, pathways to passion and achievement in the world of work and service. As I shared with you in the State of the University address last spring, the University of Massachusetts Boston is and will remain a pathway to excellence.
As we stand poised for the new academic year, let’s have a round of applause for all of you, who, day in and day out, are invested in our community and keep us growing, expanding, and connecting.
Thanks to you, we have material strength, powerful mass, and inescapable momentum.
When I first became chancellor, I promised that I would dedicate myself to the development of the University of Massachusetts Boston as a student-centered urban public research university. And, for the past several years at Convocation, we have been reflecting on just what that means. Together these elements are what make our beloved institution so remarkable. They give us our competitive advantage—locally, regionally, nationally, and internationally.
So far we have analyzed the concepts of “student-centered,” “urban,” and “public.” Today I want to highlight some essential elements that are defining of research, and that we should keep in mind when we reflect on our identity.
Research is the core of what we do here. It is the path to understanding the essence of our disciplines. And research, for all of us, can be an approach to life.
Research commits us to the foremost frontiers of the leading theoretical and applied sciences. Indeed, our significant achievements—from green chemistry to neuroscience, from studies of semiotics to anthropology and exercise science—all help build our reputation as a growing, major research university.
The term “research” isn’t difficult to deal with if one begins with an understanding that the history of human evolution is intertwined with people’s efforts to find meaning—in their lives, experiences, environment, and relationship with the universe.1
The young child who lovingly batters a toy again and again, tastes it, chews on it, flings it gleefully, is doing some basic research—perhaps to gain a sense of control, perhaps to see how something works, or to test the tensile limits of the object itself.
Similarly, our ancestors centuries ago were engaging in research with their incremental stop-and-start efforts to control water, soil, and vegetation to ensure production of food and safe habitation. Even now, when we surf the Internet for facts, we are engaging in research that imparts meaning to life, even if only to settle disputes on trivia.
The concept “research” has undergone, and will continue to undergo, major changes and refinements, especially as people go about finding new ways of dealing with human experiences across what we label disciplines.
Unlike a child pummeling a toy, academic research is a scholarly process that involves both thoughtful design and method. It’s an organized and systematic way of finding answers to questions.
It has everything to do with how we live our lives, deal with challenges, relate to each other, and what values we embrace, whether we’re in chemistry or communications, statistics or sociology, English or environmental science, mathematics or music.
Everyone at this university is affected by our involvement in and commitment to research.
The reasons for research are compelling. Nearly four centuries ago, Sir Francis Bacon reminded us that, absent a systematic testing of our intuitions, preferences, and beliefs, that which we are sure “is” may very well not be.2
Consider how human beings knew with absolute certainty that the sun revolves around the earth…until, of course, they discovered it didn’t.
At the same time, Bacon famously cautioned us to avoid corrupting pitfalls he called “idols.”3
- He warned about human beings who egocentrically, often with elaborate cultural justifications, place themselves and their immediate concerns at the center of everything and conclude that everything and everyone else must serve them. It’s this pernicious fixation that has us self-indulgently despoiling our planet, with little regard for our grandchildren.
- So, too, it’s this spirit that has been at the core of messianic crusades and other race- and ethno-religious-driven atrocities throughout history.
- Sometimes we assume that things must be “right,” “valid,” and “true” just because they emanate from an actual or supposed authority, such as government officials, leading textbooks, or learned professors, whose words should not be challenged. Just because you read something in
- The New York Times does not automatically mean it is true or irrefutable.
Research is both a method of and attitude toward inquiry. It is rooted in the view that all understandings are just holding places, to be subjected to more exacting analysis. And we must always remember that research is linked to many of our dearly held values, and those values are pervasive.
Method in modern research begins with a question, a problem, or a goal that must be clearly defined and systematically pursued. Large questions are then narrowed and focused as designs are shaped, phenomena observed, data analyzed, and conclusions reached. And the generalizations of those very conclusions lead to still other questions. Answers themselves are meaningless and irrelevant if they are not linked to specific, and, it is to be hoped, useful and important questions.
One step in defining the goal is to conduct a thorough review of the literature—a careful look at past research, thinking, and practice. Theoretical and conceptual frameworks must be canvassed, the encountered difficulties acknowledged. What are the questions that have been raised and perhaps only partially answered or not answered at all? What are the strengths or weaknesses in the approaches embraced, the questions asked, or insights offered? What may have been overlooked?
This is nothing less than an ongoing debate between the current researcher and all those who came before. It is part of a broader, systematic accumulation of knowledge.
A careful review helps to frame and refine further the question to be answered. In most cases, it will help lead to a “what if” or “I bet” statement that is a hypothesis from which an answer to the question might best be gained.
If conceptualizing the problem and articulating the research question form the first step, then more clearly defining it as a working hypothesis takes us to the second step: a research design. This organic linkage— even in cases of possible radical departures—offers a greater sense of continuity. All important research builds on, refines, or even refutes the research of others.
From the discovery of the X-ray to the invention of television, inventions are seldom eureka moments. More often they involve painstakingly building on the work of others.
The “organic” linkage I mentioned has to do with “fit.” The research design must fit the hypothesis. So, for example, if one were to hypothesize that students attending the University of Massachusetts Boston perform significantly better academically if they work at an outside job 15 or fewer hours per week than those who work more or do not work at all while attending classes, there would have to be a research design that, at a minimum, provides for the control of all the factors, all the relevant variables, that could affect the results of the study.
So factors such as commuting time, the demands of the curriculum, eating habits, the nature of work performed, condition of students’ health, age, experience, work done at home, et cetera, must be considered.
The research design must appeal to the value of inclusive inquiry. This means it must be one that is replicable should others seek to test or augment the validity of the findings or other claims that may be associated with the hypothesis.
Few areas of research are as demanding and as fulfilling as preparing research designs. They appeal to our imagination and bring to the enterprise an excitement that is rarely surpassed, except for certain results that may ensue from the design’s successful implementation.
Researchers feel a palpable joy when they find it difficult to remove themselves from the research. This is the time when people neglect their friends and even forget about eating and bathing! Thomas Edison himself said that his greatest pleasure, and hence his reward, was in the work that precedes what the world calls success.
This excitement is part of what I believe must emerge as a defining attribute of the University of Massachusetts Boston, as inquisitive undergraduates tackle important questions, gather and interpret data to address those questions, and find responses to specific predictions and other questions that allow for increasingly exact duplications and verifications by independent researchers here and elsewhere.
This emphasis on replicability, like the repetitions found in all of nature, helps establish assumptions in human knowledge so that they can be further built upon and questioned.
It is also a form of empathy and kinship we establish with researchers to come —a kind of intellectual solidarity in the pursuit of knowledge, wherever researchers happen to be, temporally, geographically, or culturally.
This brings us to a final attribute of research design—that of generalizability. That is to say, the findings of the researcher, the proof of the hypothesis, must not only be duplicable but also be capable of transcending the particulars that gave birth to its claim.
Remember the research design example concerning University of Massachusetts Boston students and number of outside hours worked? The results from the hypothesis would have to be universalized—to all students. We want to know to what extent the work/study results of our students may be applicable to students in Liverpool or New Delhi.
We must also remember that disproving a hypothesis is, in some respects, as important as confirming the proof. The proof, disproof, or disaffirmation must be able to be universalized.
Research is an important part of the meaning of university, a concept we will explore together in time to come. Indeed, research is part of the very definition of a modern university.
And, as I said before, research is an approach to life.
There is another aspect of research I must address: that is, the philosophical orientation of our sciences—physical, social, and human.
Physical sciences and mathematics are governed by an orientation called positivism, which sees reality as objective—“out there,” as they say—to be discovered by research, universal in reach and meaning.
A second orientation, called neopositivism, says, yes, reality is objective, but sometimes it can’t be captured until human beings interactively deliberate and define it.
Then there is the constructivist outlook, found primarily in the social and human sciences, which argues that all reality is affected by human perception and is culturally influenced and so may never, if ever, be universally understood and agreed upon.
At the University of Massachusetts Boston we also want to encourage and embrace research on a plane apart from these approaches, and to do it without aggravating traditional differences between those in the College of Science and Mathematics, those in the humanities, and the group in between—namely, the social sciences, each of which often thinks it is operating in a single, isolated universe.
Too often academic protagonists fight border wars or squabble about disciplinary boundaries.
The debates sometimes remind me of the Tower of Babel, where the inability to share, the unwillingness to develop a common language and work cooperatively, not only impeded the larger effort but was the root cause of ultimate failure.
Researchers in science and math, the so-called positivists, must be able to speak the language of the constructivists in the humanities and social sciences. The constructivists must be able to use the language of the positivists.
We at this university are pledged to the cultivation of interdisciplinarity where it is possible and practicable. We want to encourage innovation, creativity, and new dimensions of teamwork.
We believe that the jargon and distinct research methods of specific disciplines are not insurmountable impediments. We believe that new avenues of communication, collaboration, and cross-pollination can yield positive results for both participants and external beneficiaries. This is what neuroscience, the life sciences, and quantum physics require of us.
Furthermore, we want to be identified as a leader in transdisciplinarity, which views reality as something that exists on many levels and can help us “deal with the dynamics of several levels of reality at once.”4 We want to encourage the design of comprehensive frameworks that transcend the confines of both disciplinary and interdisciplinary research. We want to encourage you, our faculty and students, to look for connections that others fail to see. We want to encourage you to find bridges between and among disciplines, bridges through which the language of one discipline is translated into the language of another. We want to encourage you to remove or leap the boundaries that have limited human beings from adequately addressing problems that do not themselves recognize disciplinary boundaries.
Dealing with the long-term cleanup of the recent BP oil disaster, for example, and taking steps to prevent another such event cry out for transdisciplinary approaches and solutions.
All research is a process of fermentation, the electric excitement of ideas. Research doesn’t have to mean taking sides. But it does entail a willingness to take risks, even making oneself vulnerable. Everything one has been teaching may be proven wrong! And what students are learning may be upended. Accordingly, professors must be willing to step down from the podium and become co-learners. This is central to the spirit of inquiry in a student-centered university.
Research is an opportunity to look at what’s important. And it’s not just about what we commonly call success. Even when an end proves illusory, it is important.
To discover what doesn’t work is still significant. Edison himself famously said, “I have not failed. I have just found ten thousand ways that won’t work.”
It is useful to remember the story of Srinivasa Ramanujan, the impoverished Hindu clerk and self-taught natural mathematical genius, the man who knew infinity and surprised the world with his pathbreaking insights and achievements. His theories were first dismissed as the work of a religious nut.5
Abilities, even genius, often come in different packages and from unexpected places.
We don’t know which bright undergraduate student, graduate student, or faculty member is going to create a research design that will spark a revolution, finding answers to long-unanswered questions.
What we do know is that there isn’t a problem that, over time, creativity cannot address. We want to, we need to, we must develop both students and faculty who can be or can cultivate those creative problem-solvers. We can best do this if we are not locked into our disciplinary silos, if we are not afraid to take risks, if we are not afraid to fail.
I’ve reviewed these aspects of research not because I felt it would be new for many of you, but because I want to say a number of other things about research and why it is so important for a great university.
First, research develops or elicits certain cognitive qualities that all great universities should be associated with in their efforts to advance the development of students, professors, and societies. These include the ability
- to identify underlying assumptions,
- to clarify issues and conclusions,
- to substitute or transfer to new contexts within which insights can be tested,
- to refine generalizations,
- to recognize connections, similarities, patterns—be they affirming or contradictory,
- to distinguish the relative accuracy and persuasiveness of data,
- to develop criteria for the evaluation of evidence,
- to listen critically—even dialogically—comparing arguments, insights, and perspectives,
- to draw precise inferences, and
- to assess the relevance and significance of findings.
Second, research promotes certain affective attributes in individuals and groups. It promotes patience that comes from the need to suspend judgment.
It promotes independent thinking, intellectual courage, effective communication, perseverance, confidence in reason based on evidence, and trust in teamwork, even when one excels in individual effort.
Among the important human values that stem from research are humility, audacity, and integrity.
Humility stems from the ability to see several sides of an issue. It comes from having to accept that one may know little—if anything at all—about an issue. It makes us better citizens and more critical thinkers. It helps us better understand what it means to be human.
Audacity encourages us to think big and differently. It stirs us to ask why not as well as to question why.
Integrity includes both the soundness of the work and the ethical fiber of the researcher. This means constructing our conduct from that place in us that has —and pursues—the greatest truth.
As societies seek help with myriad challenges, educational institutions, especially research universities, are called on to lead.
Today, we need thinking that will offer us alternative futures—thinking that will not be an extension of the status quo—mind-sets that, for example, have given us an unbridled passion for fossil fuels, a folly that has mightily contributed to global warming.
We must move beyond mind-sets that accept as inevitable international conflicts, religious intolerance, freebooting economic selfishness, and a zero-sum “I win / you lose” orientation.
Research as an approach to life reminds us that we need the values of openness and commitment to evidence-based outcomes. We need the courage to withstand reversals and the patience to suspend judgment. We need the integrity to follow the verifiable evidence and the humility to accept individual and collective limitations. We need the audacity and the imaginative richness to inquire into the nature and meaning of things.
We do not have long lead times to address some of our urgent challenges—such as climate change or the prejudices that inform our behavior (note the threatened burning of the Koran). So let us act now.
The foundation for our action is to be what research universities should always be: centers that lead in the pursuit of truths. This, morally, is the ultimate goal of research.
Let us pledge ourselves to this goal and to do our best this academic year to exceed even our highest expectations.
Now is the time.
You are the people.
This is the university.
We will rise to the challenges.
And we will do it together.
We are the University of Massachusetts Boston.
This is an edited, annotated version of a speech given by Chancellor J. Keith Motley of the University of Massachusetts Boston in the university’s Campus Center at the annual Convocation on September 13, 2010.
1. Herbert J. Muller, The Uses of the Past (New York: Oxford University Press, 1952).
2. Carol K. Yoon, Naming Nature: The Clash Between Instinct and Science (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2009)
3. Lord Bacon, Novum Organum (New York: P.F. Collier & Son, 1902.
4. Basarab Nicolescu, Manifesto of Transdisciplinarity (New York: State University of New York Press, 2002).
5. Robert Kanigel, The Man Who Knew Infinity: A Life of the Genius Ramanujan (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1991).