Chancellor J. Keith Motley delivers the 2016 convocation address

Chancellor’s 2016 Convocation Address

Annual Fall Convocation Address

Thank you, Pantea, for representing your classmates as our student trustee. I look forward to a successful academic year working with you in your exciting new role, and I’m proud your commitment to your studies. Yes, class sometimes needs to take priority over a Board of Trustees meeting.

Welcome to all of our Board of Trustees members who are here today, as well as those who have joined us from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Department of Higher Education, including our guest speaker today, Secretary Jim Peyser. Secretary, we are so grateful you are here today representing the citizens of this great state and the Baker Administration to address our university community on behalf of our partners from the Commonwealth.

Welcome, also, to our distinguished guests, students, faculty, staff, Provost Langley, vice chancellors, undergraduate student president Ciro Castaldi, and graduate student assembly president Gabriel Garza Sada. We are fortunate to have such an incredible team of leaders guiding our university.

President Marty Meehan could not be here today, but I want you all to know that he is just as energized as I am about the start of a new academic year. We look forward to working with him to continue building on the immense progress we have made as the Commonwealth’s capital city’s student-centered, urban public research university.

Marcie Williams, who is recovering from a recent surgery: Marcie I know you will watch this at some point and we want you to know how much we love you and wish you a speedy recovery.

Another cherished member of our university family is not here today because we lost her tragically in June, just days after our 2016 commencement ceremonies. Gina Cappello, our late and beloved vice chancellor for university advancement, lit up this campus with her smile and grace, while her hard work and leadership bolstered our historic Just Imagine campaign and many other efforts to move our university forward. We continue to miss Gina deeply, but her legacy of generosity continues long after her death with the Gina M. Cappello Memorial Scholarship Fund, which will help support University of Massachusetts Boston students in need. Thank you to our University Advancement team who made this fund possible and who continue to do great work despite the gaping hole we all feel in Gina’s absence.

It is not news to anybody in this room that I deliver this convocation address today in the midst of some challenging times for public higher education. Not only are we working hard to find solutions for new fiscal constraints we face – internally and externally – but also there are many individuals out there who are taking aim at our value to the Commonwealth and to our society at large.

There are some who have stood up to say, the University of Massachusetts – and I quote – “adversely affects some of the private colleges.” But that should not surprise any of us from the University of Massachusetts Boston, an institution of teaching and learning that was founded for the sheer purpose of providing quality, accessible public higher education options equal to the very best that private colleges can offer.

As an institution undermined and doubted for more than 50 years, the University of Massachusetts Boston is no stranger to the critics who come out of the woodwork any time we excel. The headway we have made here on Dorchester Bay and for this great city of Boston, with one of the greatest higher education eco-systems in the world, ought to raise eyebrows and make people take notice.

But I echo President Meehan when he said in a response to those detractors that the “University of Massachusetts Boston has arrived – and we’re not backing down.” We will not be deterred by forces internal or external.

It’s important that you understand, colleagues, that even under the closest scrutiny, this university continues to shine. Last December the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC) approved the University of Massachusetts Boston’s continued accreditation. We will send NEASC an interim report assessing our progress in 2020, and look forward to our next comprehensive review in 10 years, in 2025.

Our university will continue to move forward and overcome any obstacles in our way with excellence in our sights. The excellence we have pursued for five decades remains at the center of our pursuits today.

The reputation of our academic programs continues to improve, as does our status as the institution for inclusive higher education.

  • The University of Massachusetts Boston has been ranked number 220 by US News and World Report in their first-tier listing of “national universities”.
  • We also earned U.S. News’s top 100 rankings for master’s or doctoral programs in rehabilitation counseling, nursing, education, public administration, and clinical psychology.
  • We also ranked no. 31 in the nation for ethnic diversity and 59th in the nation for economic diversity.
  • Our College of Management was ranked one of the Best Business Schools by the Princeton Review and no. 8 on the Greatest Opportunity for Minority Students List.
  • We also were named to Victory Media Inc.’s Military Friendly School list for the third straight year.

We remain grateful for the ongoing understanding cooperation of our campus community as we continue to enhance our physical campus to the standards of excellence that our students, faculty, and staff deserve.

  • Last semester, we opened parts of University Hall, our brand new academic space, with a 500-seat auditorium, a new home for the arts, chemistry teaching laboratories, and much more. Join me on October 17 at 4:00 pm for the grand opening celebration;
  • In the spring, we threw out the first pitch at Monan Park, the new home of our University of Massachusetts Boston Beacons baseball team, conference champs who went to the NCAA tournament;
  • We are making progress on our utility corridor and roadway relocation project, which will make our campus more pedestrian- and bike-friendly and ease traffic, and we are looking to break ground on a new parking garage this fall.
  • And, finally, we announced our first student housing, which will create 24/7-365 living-learning communities for our students in 2018 and transform our campus.

But we are doing so much more. Our external funding awards continue to rise in spite of a challenging environment; our researchers and support staff received $63,760,695 in external awards for fiscal 2016, amounting to a 51 percent increase since 2009!

We are engaged in projects that will have major impacts from Boston to Brazil and Ethiopia.

  • We are proud that three students, two alumni, and Professor Angela Stone-MacDonald are representing our university around the world on Fulbright scholarships and grants, while many others partake in international research partnerships, such as our students engaged in coastal environment studies in Brazil.
  • Our School for the Environment’s Associate Professor of Hydrology Ellen Douglas and Professor of Climate Adaptation Paul Kirshen led a team of 25 area researchers in developing the Climate Ready Boston report.
  • McCormack Graduate School Dean David Cash and Associate Professor Maria Ivanova represented our university proudly at the United Nations’ COP21 Climate Change Summit in Paris last year, and held an environmental diplomacy workshop in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
  • Sociology Professor Bianca Bersani’s research showed us that foreign-born, first-generation immigrants have lower crime rates than US-born second- and third-generation citizens, providing evidence-based truth to a public too often caught up in xenophobic rhetoric.
  • And this summer marked the passing of another milestone at the University of Massachusetts Boston. Thanks to the ingenuity of physics professors D.V.G.L.N. Rao and Chandra Yelleswarapu, our research university landed its first licensing deal, for the development of an innovative new Fourier phase contrast and multimodal microscope that enables biomedical researchers to view the structures and functions of cells at the same time.

Our leadership in internationalization garnered significant recognition this past March, when the University of Massachusetts Boston was one of four institutions nationwide to earn the comprehensive 2016 Senator Paul Simon Award for Campus Internationalization, given by NAFSA: Association of International Educators. The award recognizes higher education institutions that are making significant, well-planned, well-executed, and well-documented progress toward comprehensive internationalization—especially those using innovative and creative approaches.

These are just a few examples of the countless accomplishments of our faculty and students that continue to enhance our position in the higher education marketplace.

I also want to recognize again the faculty members we honored at our 2016 commencement:

  • Shirley Suet-Ling Tang, for Distinguished Teaching
  • David L. Levy, for Distinguished Scholarship
  • Jan E. Mutchler, for Distinguished Service

We look forward to your Distinguished Faculty Lectures this fall on November 17, at 3:30 pm.

The outstanding work of our faculty members knows no bounds. Our teaching soul at the University of Massachusetts Boston lives and breathes thanks to each and every professor in this room. Whether you have been here for decades, or just a few weeks, we are so grateful for all that you do.

This year we are welcoming 41 new faculty members. Let’s greet them with open arms and a hearty round of applause.

We also congratulate and thank the 20 faculty members who received tenure this year for their tireless dedication to our students and their disciplines.

At the same time, six faculty members have been promoted to full professor, including:

  • Jay Dee, Leadership in Education
  • Terry Kawashima, Asian Studies
  • Elizabeth Klimasmith, English
  • Paul Watanabe, Political Science
  • Erik Blaser, Psychology; and
  • Mark Warren, Public Policy and Public Affairs

Congratulations! We also welcome our new vice chancellor for student affairs, Gail DiSabatino, who comes to us from Clemson University where she served as vice president for eight years. I am confident she will add extraordinary value to the great work done by our entire student affairs team, including Lisa Buenaventura and James Overton, who provided leadership as interim co-vice chancellors. Let’s show them our heartfelt appreciation for their selfless service to our students.

With so many incredible teachers and mentors on our campus, it is no wonder that enrollment continues grow here at the University of Massachusetts Boston. This semester, we welcome many new students to our beautiful waterfront campus, from across the country and around the world, bringing a rainbow of beliefs, cultures, and backgrounds.

Our Honors College welcomed 215 freshmen, setting yet another record for the college. And our graduate enrollment remains on the rise, as we are excited to welcome more graduate students to campus.

These students, like us, seek excellence now and in the future.

And they will join a student body that already strives for excellence—students like the winner of our 2016 John W. Ryan Award, an honor bestowed annually on the junior with the highest grade point average at our university.

The award, named for the first chancellor of the University of Massachusetts Boston, commemorates our first convocation and celebrates—what else?—excellence in our student body.

This year’s winner has earned As in every course so far, and has already been awarded the Peter Brooks Butler Memorial Scholarship, which sent this student to another institution known globally for its excellence: Oxford University.

Professors qualified this English major’s work as “graduate level” and praised her critical and artistic mind. She came to us from Cohasset Middle-High School, and hopes to motivate other students to strive for excellence one day by becoming a high school English teacher.

Please join me in congratulating our 2016 Ryan Award winner, Hannah Piasecki.

Our students and faculty achieve unbelievable things with the support of our entire university community, and especially our unbelievable staff.

As you know, I have already honored the contributions of two special staffers whose support keeps our institution moving toward greatness. Let’s give it up again for our 2016 Chancellor’s Achievement Award winners:

  • John Carty, our classified staff winner, and
  • Mark Pawlak, the professional staff winner.

John and Mark exemplify the commitment of our team to make sure not a second and not a resource are wasted in our pursuit of excellence.

There is another member of our staff whom I must recognize before I go any further.

Every year at this time, I see all the leaves falling and blowing around the campus throughout the day. And then in the mornings when I arrive on campus, I see those leaves under attack. They fly under benches; they run behind trash cans; they sneak into the gutters of the streets! It doesn’t matter, because every morning there is a gentleman with a gracious attitude and a broom making an all-out assault on the fallen leaves on this campus. Also for trash that we mindlessly drop or that blows out of open top trash cans – it possesses a very short lifespan on our plaza, because we have this gentleman who tracks it all down and quickly disposes of it. Even the snow and ice shivers and shakes when he shows up with the tools of his trade. Nothing stops Bobby Carroll from facilities from keeping our walkways passable and as pristine as they could possibly be. That he does it with such cheerfulness as we rush back and forth, taking for granted the fact that our walkways are so clear, is a solid, flesh and blood example of the excellence I have come to expect at the University of Massachusetts Boston. Bobby – thank you for your wonderful example of dedication and commitment to vision we all have for this university. Bobby Carroll, please stand and be recognized.

The University of Massachusetts Boston has been able to come so far in 50 years only because of the collective efforts of students, faculty, and staff who will stop at nothing to achieve excellence.

I have used the word “excellence” many times today in reference to our university and community, yet I cannot think of an academic institution in the United States, or anywhere in the world, that does not have excellence as its goal. Administrators, faculty, benefactors, and students and their parents all seek it and want to contribute toward furthering it. In short, the search for excellence is pervasive.

But what do we mean by excellence? Why do we use this superlative so frequently? And why should we care about it?

The use of the term means more than simply completing a task or reaching a goal.

When we are committed to excellence, we seek to transcend the expected. A person or institution committed to excellence refuses to simply accept things as they are. They reject the status quo, and refuse to acquiesce to limits, especially those that are imposed from outside. Oftentimes those limits are intended to persuade others about what is “realistic,” “rational,” or “illusory,” among other adjectives. Such limits are also short, quick, and easy ways of identifying or categorizing – so as to impose a sense of a thing’s proper “place” in a given ecology. Yet those who pursue excellence cannot be constrained by such boundaries.

Today I want to look at excellence as a strategic goal, as an ongoing operation, and as a virtue.

When people speak of excellence, they most often refer to it as a goal—a strategic goal. We, for example, have the strategic goal of becoming the model student-centered urban public research university of the 21st century. It is our duty to offer a higher education that is accessible to all who seek its empowerment.

In our journey toward fulfilling that responsibility, there are plenty of examples of excellence to guide us, some of which come from the same era in which we were founded.

For example, President John F. Kennedy set as a measure of national excellence that of landing a person on the moon—excelling anything any country had done before. In an environment plagued by the doubts and fears of the Cold War year, he implored Congress:

Now it is time to take longer strides—time for a great new American enterprise—time for this nation to take a clearly leading role in space achievement, which in many ways may hold the key to our future on earth.

Shortly thereafter, his successor, President Lyndon B. Johnson, set out to end one of the worst societal problems still afflicting our planet when he introduced the War on Poverty in the face of great opposition and incredulity.

And Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., put the wheels in motion to ensure that our nation lived up to its credo of protecting all citizens’ rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—regardless of their skin color. We are still working to achieve his vision of excellence.

Aspirations to achieve beyond what is expected are shared among families throughout our country and the world. Similar to the many first-generation students at our university, around the world, daughters and sons declare, “I will become a lawyer, a physician, an architect, or a CEO”. They look to excel beyond their parents, with better jobs, higher standards of living, and greater opportunities for their own children.

Similarly, our own student athletes aspire to exceed, by breaking records and winning championships. Just look at one of our newest alumni, Hulerie McGuffie, who won two national track titles last year. Or look at our five Beacons sports teams that captured league titles last year – three of which represented us in the NCAA tournament.

For professors, it might be the receipt of tenure at a distinguished university, as 20 did this year; or to have an exhibit at a respected venue; or the more personal achievement of leading students to new paths of discovery.

As a university, we have a strategic plan that enunciates our aspirations for excellence:

  • to advance student success and development;
  • enrich and expand academic programs and research;
  • improve the learning, teaching, and working environment;
  • develop an infrastructure supportive of the goals just mentioned; and
  • establish a financial resource model consistent with the university’s vision.

In whatever way we define excellence, or what is required to make progress under its terms, no aspiration, however laudably strategic and excellently realized, is ever achieved unless accompanied by a series of coordinated principles, processes, and instruments. These coordinated means and processes are often overlooked, but they are no less important than the goals themselves.

In many respects, striving for excellence of infrastructure can be more difficult than accomplishing strategic goals. A nation that lands a person on the moon, a dreamer who becomes a lawyer or an engineer, or even a student who earns his or her baccalaureate degree—these offer us impressive examples of achievements that each deserve the stamp of excellence. But how do they arrive at these results?

It is invariably through something we call operational excellence—the day-to-day, sometimes minute-by-minute, intertwining levels of efforts that enable us to realize the strategic excellence we seek. Perhaps the world-renowned artist Vincent Van Gogh put it best in his famous statement that “great things are not done by impulse, but by a series of small things brought together.”

For an institution to achieve excellence, the team working toward it must commit fully to it and prioritize its realization above individual objectives – or risk falling short of the collective goal. At the same time, any process that delays in the delivery of services toward that end may compromise the quality of the product that is delivered.

Because many laudable goals for excellence are sacrificed through operational incompetence, scholars and organizations have focused their energy on operational excellence. As a result, consulting firms throughout the world have zeroed in on the idea of operational excellence, and business schools have incorporated it into their curricula.

One of the world leaders in operational excellence is soon-to-be-Boston-based General Electric. For many years, GE grew and trounced the competition through what is called Six Sigma—a term associated with the statistical modeling of manufacturing processes. In simple terms, it seeks to uncover and eliminate “defects” in a process.

Manufacturing and delivery are centered on customers, and quality is defined in terms of the outcomes related to the customer.

In short, GE, which is considered the greatest manufacturing company in the nation, has standardized a coordinated effort of aligned systems to achieve desirable outcomes.

Thus, if we are to become the distinguished university we claim to be building, we, too, must examine how each of our individual efforts can be improved and better integrated to produce outcomes equal to the excellence we seek.

For example, if we improve the coordination of when budgets are constructed, Enrollment Management can better communicate with students about tuition and fees. If we improve the communication of student enrollment information, we can better plan space requirements and facilities demand, etc.

We are a complex, interrelated organization. Coordinated better together, each of our parts improves our health as one institution.

But excellence must encompass more than just goals and achievements, or the facilitators, tools, processes, and environment needed for those achievements. An equally important element of excellence is the character of the individual who is pursuing it – or his or her state of being.

Those of us who have been influenced by the Judaic-Christian traditions, or even the Greco-Roman heritage, have been told that one should excel in speech, in faith, in knowledge, in doing what is good or just, in humility, and in kindness. Aristotle informs us that we are what we repeatedly do, and that “excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”

The search for excellence may be something inherent. It may be something for which we have an inner need, with its satisfaction varying culturally, according to what is possible. It may be that the excellence we seek as individuals in the world may ultimately be grounded in our own need for moral excellence, in the capacity to contain our ego, and upon the excellence in who and what we are.

Excellence as a virtue must be considered in the context of the achievements of strategic excellence and operational excellence, as well. But neither of these two, without excellence as a virtue, is sustainable. So one should consider how efforts to pursue strategic goals, as well as the operational achievements that enable such pursuits, are learning opportunities for the satisfaction of the inner need for excellence. One may seek to know whether such learning does not yield more morally aware persons and better moral judgments, and hence better human beings.

On the way to excellence at the strategic level, we have opportunities to focus on how we benefit others and to test our development as less self-centered beings. We can ensure that the quality of our actions avoids defects, partakes in fairness, leads to humility, eliminates waste, prevents any defect from going forward, relies on data—not opinion, adds to scientific thinking, focuses on process, and keeps process simple and transparent, all toward our mission of upholding excellence as a human virtue, in our strategic planning and throughout our daily operations. Excellence permeates all dimensions of our work and lives.

So, colleagues, the pursuit of excellence is not about a desire for awards and recognitions. Associations and councils do not define “excellence” for us.

It is not fundamentally rooted in a desire to distinguish the University of Massachusetts Boston from the many great institutions of higher education that inhabit this city, Commonwealth, and region.

All the hype, pomp, and circumstances aside, there is no other institution like ours.

It is gratifying to see our programs near the top of rankings lists, but the many rankings organizations do not, in any final way, define excellence for us.

My preoccupation with excellence… comes from watching you as you go about your work.

I came to this campus with an outsider’s perspective, thinking I knew nearly all there was to know about public higher education; but watching you transformed my thinking.

Watching you helped me understand your commitment to students whose options may be limited or non-existent should you give up on them.

Watching you helped me appreciate your stewardship of limited resources, and your value and care for facilities in spite of raindrops that sometimes fell on your head during classes; when concrete crumbled onto cars in parking garages; and when conducting groundbreaking research using lab equipment and facilities dating from before the first moonwalk.

You stayed the course even when funds dried up due to economic recession, shifting political winds, or unfavorable ideologies. You continued to serve your students and your disciplines at a high level that has captured the attention of the world.

I have watched you create pathways to excellence for the underrepresented and underserved in higher education.

I have watched you advocate for students who work long hours in order to eat, sleep indoors, care for loved ones, and still come to class.

I have watched you transform near dropouts into future academicians, and chase down students who are on the verge of giving up and instead inspire new hope in them.

I have watched you exhaust intellectual, emotional, and moral resources to ignite the fire for learning in students’ eyes so they can see their bright futures and come to soar on their own.

I’ve seen your research, discoveries, and projects attract attention, money, faculty, and students—students who become alumni and describe how you changed their lives.

I’ve seen mayors, governors, legislators, and presidents covet and acknowledge your outstanding service, as this city, this Commonwealth, this region, and this country awaken to the progress you are making on this small peninsula.

So I don’t need – and we don’t need – any outside entity to tell us what excellence is. Our excellence comes from within, from who we are.

Please understand that I don’t make this observation to render this notion of excellence meaningless. I make this observation to call you to commitment:

  • Commitment to the highest and best ideals that call to your soul.
  • Commitment to the most qualitative work you are capable of.
  • Commitment to the success of our students, to the principles of our institution, and to the transformation of our city, commonwealth, nation, and world.

From oft-fleeting moments, excellence beckons to us, reaching, against the odds, for the greatness we feel in ourselves and in our mission.

Excellence beckons to us all, fueling our ceaseless review of our operations—because where they can be better, they must get better.

Excellence beckons to us all, prodding self-reflection and reminding us that we must not forget our moral being nor lose sight of the fact that public service is infused with a sacred quality not derived from particular interest or the promise of monetary gain.

I wish all of you could see what I see when I look at you.

At our best:

  • We show a divided nation how diverse people live, work, study, argue, and make change together.
  • We inspire the leaders of nations toward peaceful resolutions of conflict.
  • At our best we show corporate heads and captains of industry their next generation of leaders.
  • We remind our communities to remember their poor and underserved.
  • At our best we catch convicts with literature; we engage school children with philosophy; we lift communities with technology.

At our best, we show the world new possibilities, and thereby change it.

Excellence is in your DNA, and I remain convinced that we are destined to lead as Boston’s public research university, in the construction of that proverbial “city on a hill” of which our forerunners prophesied.

You are the right people.

You’re getting the right tools.

You’re building the right space.

We’re in the right place.

I pray that every one of you will continue to maintain the right mindset, and the right heart, to enable the excellence of your soul to achieve its full expression here.

Because we are the University of Massachusetts Boston – and this is our time!

I remain proud and excited to be your chancellor!

Note: This is an edited version of Chancellor Motley’s remarks as prepared for delivery.

Note: Secretary James Peyser was delayed and could not attend this speech. He did, however, deliver his scheduled guest address later on convocation morning.


100 Morrissey Blvd.
Boston, MA 02125-3393