The University

An Assessment of Our Environment: 2013 Convocation Address


Enhancing Our Environment: Locally, Globally, Physically, Programmatically, Educationally, and Culturally

A Fall Convocation Address

Good morning! 

Welcome to the 2013 University of Massachusetts Boston Convocation! Student Trustee Nolan O’Brien, thank you for your wonderful remarks. Welcome to all of our distinguished guests, students, and faculty.

I’m pleased and excited to be welcoming later our esteemed keynote speakers, Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim, co-directors of the Forum on Religion and Ecology at Yale University, whom we will honor today with the Joint and Common Future Award. 

Governor Deval Patrick and state legislative leaders aren’t with us personally this year, but I want  to thank them publicly for standing with us in holding the line on tuition and fees.

Provost Langley, Vice Chancellor O’Connor, Speaker of the Student Senate Ignacio Shapara, and Graduate Student Assembly ranking member Ashley Brewer, thanks to each and every one of you for your words this morning.

And last, but never least, I’d like to welcome my beautiful and talented wife, Angela. Your support and love allows this campus to have a happy and enthusiastic chancellor.

Thank you all so much for joining us!

Convocation is a calling-together for a purpose. This morning, our purpose is to usher in the 2013-2014 academic year on our beautiful campus at the University of Massachusetts Boston. The occasion engenders both a joyful and a reflective mood for me.

This is our campus community’s season for taking stock, looking at what we’ve planted and harvested, and what we are sowing. A new academic year brings with it a sense of promise. For me, this year also brings a measure of fulfillment – a realization that last year was a very good year – and a clear sense that we are continuing to make good on our vision for the future of this great university. Our garden is yielding a cornucopia of achievements. We can all be proud. The state of the University of Massachusetts Boston is very strong and getting stronger. 

In recent years, I’ve selected as themes for our convocation reflections on what it means to be student-centered, urban, public, to do research – and what it means to be a university. We’ve considered each component, explored how they contribute to our understanding of the whole concept and help further our great mission.

This year’s theme is inspired by our keynote speakers, whose remarkable work has embraced the journey of the universe, telling the epic story of cosmic, earth, and human transformation and the truly awesome exploration of world religions and ecology. And so today I want to look at our own university, the University of Massachusetts Boston, through the prism of the environment – in all its multidimensional glory.

I want to use our diverse University of Massachusetts Boston environments as a framework for this discussion.

Convocation, for us, is the celebration of the start of our academic year. It’s a time of excitement and eagerness to embrace our upcoming opportunities, challenges, and responsibilities.

It is also an opportune time for us to reflect on who we are, our purpose, and the nature of our world. With great humility, we think of our place in the biosphere, from our immediate ecosystem to our speck in the dynamic and holistic connection of all the planet’s ecosystems. In short, we think of our environment.

But what do we mean by that? Broadly defined, the concept of the environment embraces the totality of our surroundings, circumstances, and conditions that shape our existence and development. It’s the overarching, interdependent ecological system that provides for the essential exchange of mass and energy.

But we rarely refer to the environment as an undifferentiated whole. We segment and divide it into types, such as the biophysical environment within which the interactions of the biological, physical, and chemical take place. Sometimes we speak scientifically, objectively, and dispassionately about the environment. Other times we try to humanize it, invoking the activities of “Mother Nature.”  

To better grasp this reality, we differentiate the whole into smaller categories, such as the physical, social, cultural, educational, programmatic, learning, knowledge, built, and other environments. All these different concepts are interconnected and play out on this campus.

Understanding this interconnectedness reminds us that we all at the University of Massachusetts Boston have special roles to play, individually and collectively, in large ways and small ways, today and in the coming weeks, months, and years. 

As we look to our new year, we must rededicate ourselves to being a success-driven, thriving, great student-centered urban public research university with a teaching soul, where our distinguished scholarship, dedicated teaching, and engaged public service are mutually reinforcing, and where our hallmark diversity, inclusion, and partnerships change lives and the world around us, near and far, for the better.

Mindful of our founders’ original statement of purpose, we must recommit ourselves to the implementation of our strategic and master plans, which further our bedrock mission and exemplify our core values: pursuing rigorous, open, critical inquiry; ensuring access and affordability; and providing an excellent education equal to the best. 

With Herculean work, the grand dreams embodied in our vision and mission statements have been transformed into vibrant master and strategic plans. They, in turn, guide our action. Thus, with the thoughtful oversight of the Board of Trustees and the staff, faculty, and students who have given countless hours to this transformation, we have become environmental role models.

We at the University of Massachusetts Boston are blessed with a beautiful natural environment and an evolving, life-enhancing built environment. 

All around us are myriad manifestations of that built environment. Note the terrific progress being made on our Integrated Sciences Complex, the first new academic building in almost 40 years. When the doors of this research center open in the fall of 2014, the University of Massachusetts Boston will have fulfilled a part of its great promise by providing our students, faculty, and partners with 220,000 square feet of research space, labs, classrooms, and study areas that will rival the best facilities found in research institutions anywhere.

General Academic Building No. 1, the foundation of which is being built as we speak, will have state-of-the-art classrooms, lecture halls, laboratories, study lounges, and offices. And we will create a new, consolidated home for our campus arts community: performing arts spaces, fine arts studios, recital facilities, and exhibition spaces.

We’re also relocating our utilities and reconfiguring our roadways, making our campus – temporarily – more difficult to navigate but in the long term easier to get around in and much more accessible to pedestrians, bikers, and visitors from our surrounding communities. This – temporary – inconvenience is a first step toward removing our concrete central plaza and turning it into a beautiful green space overlooking the harbor.

The Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate is scheduled to open to the public about this time next year. As we help to transform Columbia Point into a destination point, this structure will add to the historical, archival, and educational import of the peninsula and campus for Boston, the nation, and the world.

And there is more. We are taking steps toward adding residential housing by 2015, enriching the entire University of Massachusetts Boston living and learning experience, enhancing opportunities for student success, and thereby increasing retention and graduation rates.

Furthermore, plans for our first aboveground parking garage are in motion.

Although I’ve outlined a number of campus enhancements in the works, I want to make sure I highlight one that over this past year has been completed. Have you seen the Clark Center gymnasium? It has been transformed into the Clark Athletic and Convocation Center. It’s a beautiful new facility that not only celebrates and supports our athletes but also provides our campus with a fabulous new multi-use facility.

While some of these enhancements to our built environment are complete or nearing completion, others are at earlier stages of progress. The movement forward and upward that you can see, sense, and feel will be a constant on this campus long into the future. For example, plans are ramping up for a second new academic building, with Governor Patrick’s commitment of $100 million in funding.

The entire vision for the physical development of our campus is online: the roadways, the green spaces, the plans for our existing and future buildings. If you haven’t already, I hope you will look them over. This built environment of ours is exciting to contemplate.

The master plan takes as its starting point the beauty of our natural environment. It then seeks to shape a built environment that respects and sustains that natural beauty to enhance the growth and development of the knowledge environment. So the real promise of the University of Massachusetts Boston goes well beyond our physical buildings, designs, and plans. That promise resides in our knowledge environment and our learning environment. 

As I hope you already know, a major goal of our strategic and master plans is to improve the teaching, learning, and working environment. And the keys to our vibrant learning environment are our programs and, more important, our people.

Recent changes in our programmatic environment have been bearing beautiful fruit, signaling clear progress on our strategic plan.

In a direct response to regional demand for graduates with STEM skills, especially in reemerging Gateway Cities in the Commonwealth, the past four years have seen a 400 percent increase in incoming freshmen who choose science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields, and that’s just in our College of Science and Mathematics. So the pipeline for attracting and developing homegrown talent is flowing.

We are responding to our strategic plan’s priority of student success with improved results in retention and graduation rates. In the past year alone, our undergraduate retention rate is up an almost unheard-of 4 percent. All of you here who have put so much effort into this work deserve applause.  And I must commend the respective colleges for their commitment to these objectives.

Convocation is also the season for giving special recognition to the enhancing of our knowledge environment – our faculty, staff, and students – and it is with enthusiastic pleasure that I do so today.

I’d like to offer an official university welcome to the 45 new faculty members who have joined us for the 2013-2014 academic year;

  • along with congratulations to our nine newly tenured professors;
  • and eight faculty members who were promoted to full professor.

Our outstanding faculty continues to make strides in securing research dollars. In fiscal year 2013, we obtained $56 million in sponsored awards.

Three Fulbright fellows – two students and a faculty member – have joined us this month, but I’m also pleased to say that Associate Professors Ellen Douglas, Eve Sorum, and Pratyush Bharati, who have also earned Fulbright scholarships, are studying abroad, respectively, in Australia, Burkina Faso, and India, so they can’t be with us today.

At commencement last spring it was my pleasure to give the Chancellor’s Awards for Distinguished Teaching, Scholarship, and Service to Arindam Bandopadhyaya, Lizabeth Roemer, and Paul Watanabe, respectively. We take great pride in your accomplishments, and all of us look forward to hearing from you at the Distinguished Faculty Lecture in December.

Of course, it’s not just our faculty who enrich our living and learning environment – for what would the University of Massachusetts Boston be without our wonderful students? And while we continue to educate more of them, we envision a campus evolving rapidly from 16,000 students today to 25,000 students by 2025. 

Now, you know that all of our students are special. But I would like to recognize especially Joanna Cronan, this year’s winner of the John W. Ryan Award, which we present annually to the junior with the highest grade point average. Joanna is from Norwood. Please stand up so we may recognize you.

Whether they are leaving with a University of Massachusetts Boston degree, coming anew to campus, or remaining to pursue advanced degrees, we have some of the best graduate students in the world. To name but a few:

Angela Erb, a new doctoral student in the School for the Environment under the supervision of Professor Crystal Schaaf, has been awarded a distinction for her master’s thesis by the faculty at the University of Zurich, a premier international research university.

Karen Daniels, a graduate student of our doctoral program in Leadership in Urban Schools, was appointed by Governor Patrick to the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education in May.

Uttam Babu Shrestha, a current graduate student in biology supervised by Distinguished Professor Kamal Bawa, has already published more than a dozen papers in well-recognized journals, including two very influential science magazines, Science and Nature.

Three University of Massachusetts Boston doctoral students are recipients of the most competitive and prestigious Graduate Research Fellowships from the National Science Foundation. These are among the most coveted fellowships for graduate research. Two of these students are attending this university, and the third is one of our graduates who received the award to pursue graduate work at the University of California, Berkeley.

Three hundred eighty-five students are enrolled in our Honors Program, which includes the largest class of incoming freshmen in the program’s history, 95. Soon they will be part of our new Honors College, recently approved by the Board of Trustees. While we have always been committed to excellence in all of our programs, we are very proud that the many stakeholders of this institution are now acknowledging this commitment.

I would also like to recognize our first winner of the Voices of the Future Award, Angela Newton from the College of Nursing and Health Sciences. This award is based on an essay contest in which students envision and share what they believe the future might be like. I’m happy that we have drawn so many forward-looking, hope-filled personalities to fill our classrooms, to contribute to our scholarship, and to influence our campus community.

To continue to attract such awesome students and further our access mission, we have increased our commitment to financial aid by 288 percent since 2008, with students receiving $16.4 million in institutional need-based aid for last year alone. In total, students received over $145 million in financial assistance through grants, loans, and federal work-study in 2012-2013.

Also making good on their promises to support our students and faculty members are our amazing, dedicated, hardworking staff. I’m especially honored to recognize: 

  • Tom Goodkind from the Dean’s Office at the College of Science and Mathematics and
  • Diane Kirkpatrick of Public Safety.

These two outstanding members of our staff were awarded the Chancellor’s Achievement Award for their exemplary service based on the recommendations of those they work with day in and day out – congratulations again.

I feel it’s important that I acknowledge someone today whom most of you rarely see around the campus, but little goes on, of which I’m actually a part, that she does not have her fingerprints on. She literally facilitates my coming and going on this campus, around the city, the nation, and all over the world. Few of us actually see when she arrives and when she leaves, because she greets us when we come and waves to us as we leave. She chooses to remain in the background, but all the players in events and meetings remark at her kindness, patience, and her grace in dealing with them – this despite legendary Charlestown roots and her oft-spoken threat to unleash it on the next person to ask for an appointment. For years, since before I came back to the chancellorship of this campus, she has been at the heart of my institutional leadership and has helped to set the tone and ground the values of this institution’s character. Kay Ryan, pride of Charlestown, thank you for being who you are to and for me, for being a rock in my life and my work, and for being an excellent community member for the University of Massachusetts Boston.

What a remarkable team we have at this university. Give yourselves another round of applause. You create a learning environment that is second to none!

Closely related to the learning environment, intertwined with it, is our social and cultural environment. Our diverse, vibrant, multicultural educational environment, with its profound respect for differences, encourages and enables us to thrive and succeed. As our mission and vision statements articulate, we serve and seek to serve many different communities – local, regional, national, and international – and, in doing so, eagerly embrace and engage in partnerships to that effect near and far.

For example, our Office of Community Partnerships has documented more than 950 partners engaged with 350 University of Massachusetts Boston community programs. Nearly half of those partnerships are located within the greater Boston area, with the rest reaching throughout the Commonwealth, the nation, and the world.

Also, the University of Massachusetts Boston, already the most diverse four-year higher education institution in New England, is setting a national standard for creating an environment of diversity in key academic programs.

Remember my earlier mention of the 400 percent increase in STEM applicants? Our College of Science and Mathematics is now a majority minority college, addressing the well-documented need to diversify the STEM pipeline of graduates.

This summer, our College of Nursing and Health Sciences received a $1 million grant aimed at helping to diversify the nursing field by providing financial and other support to ethnically and economically disadvantaged students. This builds on our six-year collaboration with Partners Healthcare via our Clinical Leadership Collaborative, which provides financial and mentoring support – and near-guaranteed employment opportunities – to similar students.

And this past summer, the American Psychological Association named the University of Massachusetts Boston as one of only three winners of the 2013 Bersoff Presidential Cultural Award, honoring clinical psychology programs with a special commitment to recruiting and graduating students from U.S. ethnic minorities and students from other countries.

Next week, at our annual gala, we will celebrate and endow the James T. Brett Chair in Disability and Workforce Development, the nation’s only such endowed chair. Jim Brett is president and CEO of the New England Council, a nonpartisan alliance of businesses, academic and health institutions, and public and private organizations whose mission is to promote economic growth and a high quality of life in our region. He is also a neighbor and good friend of the university, and his involvement will help to elevate our new School for Global Inclusion and Social Development, the first graduate school in the world to focus, from an international perspective, on the important issues of wellness and economic development.

We also recently conducted a Climate Survey through the university’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion. We are eager to share the results with you this fall, and we especially look forward to engaging you in discussions and strategies around the results. As your Chancellor, I ask you to remain engaged and involved in making this a better campus for everyone who chooses to be here.

These steps are all part of our major focus on the development of leaders, from the United States and abroad, in a variety of fields that bear on human well-being and possibilities. We continue eagerly to embrace and engage with our borderless world.

All these different facets of our environment have come together in an exciting, visionary initiative. The University of Massachusetts Boston has taken a major step toward becoming a global leader in environmental research, education, and outreach with the Board of Trustees’ approval of a new School for the Environment. The school, derived from the former Department of Environmental, Earth, and Ocean Sciences in the College of Science and Mathematics, is welcoming its first undergraduate and graduate classes this fall.  

The School for the Environment incorporates a range of disciplines, including physical, chemical, biological, and social sciences; business; and human dimensions to generate and apply new knowledge about the quality of our environment and the sustainable use of its resources. In Massachusetts, 27 institutions grant “interdisciplinary” environmental degrees; however, the University of Massachusetts Boston is the only university that provides undergraduate and graduate degrees in environmental science that integrate the sciences and social sciences.

The school’s approval came a month after the launch of the university’s Nantucket Living Lab, a semester-long residential environmental studies program on Nantucket Island. One focus of the new school will be to enhance our students’ learning experience by providing greater access to our Nantucket Field Station – in other words, develop a greater and more sustained satellite university presence on the island.

The National Science Foundation recently awarded the University of Massachusetts Boston an extraordinary $3.1 million Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship grant to train PhDs. As environmental problem solvers, this program’s trainees will apply their innovative and sustainable solutions to environmental problems across disciplines and geographies. Of the 156 applicants, we were one of only 18 universities to receive this prestigious grant.

For five years, starting next September, the School for the Environment, the College of Management, and the McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies will welcome eight new IGERT Fellows. 

The goal is to train a new generation of environmental professionals for careers as academics, government leaders, and entrepreneurs able to create and implement solutions to emerging global environmental problems.

A critical part of understanding one’s environment is grasping the influence and effects of the passage of time – grasping, in essence, where one is in one’s history. Next June we kick off plans for our 50th anniversary, commemorating passage of the legislation founding the University of Massachusetts Boston, and we will celebrate our founding through the entry of the 50th class in 2015.

We have come light-years from the days when our built environment was the former Boston Gas building in Park Square, when we had only 200 extraordinary faculty and 1,227 incredible students. 

The old image of the University of Massachusetts Boston may be dramatically different from our image today, but the founding spirit commitment to excellence remains.

Setting our course with this vision as our North Star means that we are not changing one degree of latitude or longitude from the course of our original commitment to the people, culture, and issues of our community. It is still our steadfast mission to provide an accessible and excellent education, highly informed research and deeply engaged service, to the residents of Boston, the Commonwealth, and the global community.

From our increasing sensitivity to immediate environmental issues affecting our campus on Dorchester Bay, to our growing awareness of what lies beyond, let us remember that:

We’re an integral part of the story of Boston and Massachusetts.
We’re part of the story of our universe.
And for better or worse, we’re in it together.

Our thinking should always be guided by a vision of the world we want to pass along to our children, grandchildren, and future generations, and a sense of how that responsibility should be taught so that they, in turn, will carry that mission forward.

We know what we’ve achieved. We’ve touched on some of it today. While it is appropriate to celebrate in this moment, we needn’t dwell long on self-congratulations. We cannot rest on past success. We must come to the task at hand –

  • the implementation of our strategic plan
  • the fulfillment of our mission
  • the realization of our vision
  • the ensuring of student success
  • – as if they are brand-new undertakings; that proverbial first step in many, many miles.

We know our school’s accomplishments of the past 50 years. All of us together – faculty, staff, students – all of us must start at this very moment to write page one of the history of the next 50 years.

Our founders, despite the inadequate built environment, had a clear vision: to create a great urban university – in Boston – equal to the best. 

I encourage you to approach both the new academic year and this grand enterprise with renewed vigor, far-reaching vision, and expansive imagination.

Guided by our values!
Fueled by our vision!
Committed to our mission!
A nearly 50-year legacy behind us –
Yet already writing pages for the next 50 years –

And that spirit, that vision, that mission is as strong and enduring today as it was at its inception. It endures in our drive to make our campus a 24/7, 365 reality. 

Alive and connected, internally and externally, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.

We are the University of Massachusetts Boston!
And at this momentous juncture of our history, I am proud and excited to be your Chancellor!

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