Fulfilling the Promise: Keeping the Pledge – Unlocking the Potential

J. Keith Motley, PhD, UMass Boston Chancellor | September 13, 2012

Good morning! 

Welcome to members of our Board of Trustees, including Student Trustee Alexis Marvel, Executive Director Katherine Craven of the University of Massachusetts Building Authority, distinguished guests, students, staff, and faculty.

Provost Langley, Vice Chancellor O’Connor, Undergraduate Student President Jesse Wright, and Graduate Student Assembly President Katia Canenguez, thank you, each and every one of you, for your words this morning.

And last, but never least, I’d like to welcome my beautiful wife, Angela. Thank you so much for joining us!


A convocation is a “calling together” for a purpose. This morning, we have been called together to welcome the 2012-2013 academic year on our beautiful campus at the University of Massachusetts Boston.

A new academic year brings with it a sense of promise. For me this year also brings a sense of fulfillment – a sense that we are making good on our promises.

For example: all you have to do is look outside to see the terrific progress being made on our Integrated Sciences Complex. Crews are working to enclose the building this fall and are installing HVAC systems, plumbing, vents, wiring, and the like. When the doors of this building open in the fall of 2014, the University of Massachusetts Boston will have fulfilled a part of the promise: the promise to provide our students and faculty 220,000 square feet of research space, labs, classrooms, and study spaces equal to the best.

But we aren’t stopping there. The final rendering for the second new academic building – General Academic Building Number One – was completed over this summer. You can see it online at umb.edu/gab, and explore the layout of the performing arts spaces, fine arts studios, classrooms, and study lounges.

The entire master plan vision for the physical development of our campus is also online: the roadways, the green spaces, the plans for our existing buildings. I hope you’ll look it over, if you haven’t already. It’s exciting to see.

In fact, this has been a year of expansion on many fronts: We have broadened our academic offerings to provide our existing and prospective students with new and expanded opportunities and programs; we also have exciting new developments regarding approved and proposed colleges, schools, centers, and institutes, all of which I will highlight shortly in the course of this address. 

But while great potential lies in the new physicality and programming, the real promise of the University of Massachusetts Boston resides, not in buildings, not in designs or plans, not even in the programs, but in our people.

Take, for example, our faculty:

I’d like to recognize Distinguished Professor of Biology Kamal Bawa, who, earlier this year, won the first-ever Gunnerus Award for Sustainability from the Royal Norwegian Society of Sciences and Letters for his work on population biology in rainforest areas. Professor Bawa is also a faculty fellow at the Center for Governance and Sustainability, founder and president of the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment in Bangalore, and a recently elected member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He has been a member of our faculty for nearly 40 years. I am so grateful for his service, and awed – but not surprised – by the honors and awards he and his research have been accumulating lately.

I’d also like to recognize Professors Cheryl Nixon, Judith Smith, Karen Suyemoto, and Joan Liem, who are the first-ever winners of the University of Massachusetts Boston awards for outstanding mentorship this year.

Of course, it’s not just our faculty who show promise – for what would the University of Massachusetts Boston be without our motivated, multi-faceted, multi-talented, multi-cultural, memorable, and marvelous students? All 16,000 of them are special, but I’d like to call out:

Also making good on their promises to support our students and faculty members are our amazing, dedicated, hardworking staff, especially:

I’d also like to take a moment to recognize someone very special to the daily operation of this university – someone who is truly dedicated to her job, who takes her time to learn the names of hundreds of students, faculty, and staff, who always greets everyone she sees with a big smile and even big hugs. Samantha Almyda – we know her affectionately as Sammy – you are a model of service and kindness to all of us on campus. Your positive attitude, your love of people, and your endless optimism are so valued and appreciated. Your smiles brighten our days! You are one of a kind, and we’re so grateful that you’re part of our university community.
What a remarkable team we have. Give yourselves another round of applause!
Each year for the past five years, I have spoken with you about what it means to be a student-centered, urban, public, research university, reflecting on each of those qualities in turn. Through these addresses, and in our working together in myriad ways, I believe that we now share a sense of what this university is – and can become.

Our recently completed strategic plan envisions the University of Massachusetts Boston in 2025. That vision, titled “Fulfilling the Promise,” is the subject of our exploration today, an exploration not just about what the documents say but about what they mean to you, in your personal mission and in what you do every day.

Before we touch on the outlines of the strategic plan, we should look at the implications of its title. Clearly, it suggests, among other things, that a promise was either made or recognized, and that we are now seeking to fulfill it.

Making a promise is part of what the founders of the university did in their creation of this great institution. The original statement of purpose began with the words “our mission is to develop in Boston a great public urban university.” The founders’ core commitment was to offer students from urban communities the opportunity to secure an education that would be “equal to the best” that private academic institutions could provide.

Only through achieving greatness – providing that we do it right – can we keep our covenant with urban students, the people of Boston, and the Commonwealth. For me, this vow – to provide an education “equal to the best” – is sacred.
Those who have been successors to the founders, which includes all of us as well as our predecessors, have steadfastly renewed this pledge. As faculty, staff, and students of the University of Massachusetts Boston community, we have all accepted this commitment.

The word “promise” has at least one other meaning. It refers to the as-yet-untapped potential that resides in an endeavor, a person, or an institution. The University of Massachusetts Boston, at the time of its founding, was seen as having great potential by virtue of the very mission it had embraced and continues to pursue.

These two complementary features of the word “promise” are those that will inform my remarks today. They are both embodied in the all-important documents that, together, we have conceived, developed, and refined. Now it is time to excite and implement.

Our attention and our energies must focus on fulfilling the pledge and the potential of the university, by way of our strategic plans – including our master plan, which, by the end of this year, will also incorporate Bayside, the Nantucket property, and the Pump House. This has been, and will continue to be, a remarkably inclusive process, with faculty, staff, and students at the table. Together these plans constitute a comprehensive and dynamic blueprint for our future, building – ever mindfully – on the traditions of our past.

Let me be clear. Our vision statement proclaims that, as Boston’s only public university, we honor and sustain our origins as a teaching institution and our tradition of public service. We must also continue moving forward as the increasingly sophisticated research university that we are and continue to become. Only in being “both/and,” rather than “either/or,” can we live out our promise as an “outstanding public research university with a teaching soul.”

So what is this process of becoming?

First, allow me to offer a little background on the strategic plan. “Fulfilling the promise” builds on a three-year plan I inherited when I returned to campus in 2007. That plan had its completion date in 2010.

The current plan reaches to the year 2025, and many people are already hard at work on our objectives. All of these objectives were subsumed under five major goals:

  1. to advance student success and development – equal to the best;
  2. to enrich and expand academic programs and research – equal to the best;
  3. to improve the learning, teaching, and working environment – equal to the best;
  4. to establish a financial resources model consistent with the university's vision statement – equal to the best; and
  5. to develop an infrastructure supportive of all these goals – equal to the best!

All of this is to take place within the context of a mission that envisions a campus evolving rapidly – from 16,000 students today to 18,000 by 2015, which is right around the corner, and 25,000 students by 2025. 

Why the reach? Clearly, society has an increasingly compelling need for graduates who can respond to the demand for independent, skilled, creative, and compassionate citizens, who can at once be leaders in shaping the quality of individual and social life – and satisfy the demands for a well-educated workforce. We must not shrink from those responsibilities.

Because of who we are, our graduates will largely be from modest socioeconomic backgrounds and be committed to the development of urban areas. Many will see public service as something ennobling, to be pursued in the interest of the City of Boston, the Commonwealth, the nation, and the world. And, for those who come from different backgrounds or choose careers purely in the private sector, we want them also to be touched by our mission and imbued with a lifelong sense of public-spiritedness.

Centuries ago, Benjamin Franklin said that encouraging students’ “inclination, and developing their ability to serve mankind, country, friends, and family…should, indeed, be the great aim and end of all learning.” 

Creativity and discovery, environmental stewardship, cultural transformation, interdependence, access, civility, and civic engagement are essential hallmarks of our long-term vision. And they are inseparably linked to our implementation and achievement of each of the five major goals of our strategic plan.  

First, the idea of student success is very broad, but it means, at its core, that we should ensure that those who enroll with us, who become part of the University of Massachusetts Boston family, succeed.

Indeed, what justifies our very existence as a university is the success of our students, and this success is a binding moral commitment, which we all make and renew every day.

From every corner, people are calling on us to quantify our students’ success. From Congress to the American Council on Education, to the National Research Council and others, we face inquiries. How many years does it take students to complete their education? Are they getting jobs? Are they paying off their student loans? What’s the level of alumni satisfaction? How productive are we as a ratio of outputs, such as degrees and credit hours completed, to inputs, including labor, infrastructure, materials, and supplies?     

One university recently came up with the Wall Street–oriented metric of return on education (ROE), as a way of measuring student success. It considers university standings in college guides and among ranking institutions, where their grads have jobs, what salaries they are making, what their career paths are, and what internships they have held. We know that success takes many forms.

Certainly, finances are a key part of the foundation for success. There’s no doubt that, as costs rise, as public dollars shrink, and as student indebtedness nationally tops out at more than a trillion dollars, we will continue to be pressed for still more vigorous and comprehensive data tracking as individuals across the political spectrum seek to document and measure the value of a higher education. 

We’re all trying to get a handle on the right way of measuring success. And this is important. A recent McKinsey Institute report notes increasing shrinkages in the skilled labor market. By the year 2030, it indicates there may be a shortage of 40 million workers with college and postgraduate degrees. That’s 14 percent fewer than employers require. This is especially true in science, engineering, and other technical fields. And it reinforces our drive for more students, on whose success our share of the global economy, our share of mankind, depends.

Yet there are ways in which measuring success can and should go well beyond elements that are easily quantifiable. As I’ve said before, we are committed to producing excellence, but excellence with a soul. And how do we measure soul?

We must recognize our success in the eyes of the students around us. Are they becoming more well-rounded individuals? Are their characters rooted in integrity and humanitarian concern for others, on campus, nationally, and internationally? Do they reach deeply within themselves to find new powers, insights, and passions? Student success, as measured by a variety of noble intangibles in addition to more traditional metrics, is the overriding purpose of the student-centered urban public research university.

To achieve success, our students will also be co-creators of knowledge in all major areas of human endeavor, at the highest levels of research, and across a broad range of inter- and transdisciplinary concerns.

The concept of co-creation of knowledge is how students become actors rather than being acted upon. Co-discovery is also how students come to regard themselves as junior scholars, having capabilities similar to those of professors. It speaks to the interdependence of professor and student, and augments the ever-expanding sphere of knowledge.

Setting the stage for success means that our students should have exposure to the greatest range of offerings and people our plan seeks to put in place. They should also have every opportunity to graduate in a timely manner.

Improving retention and graduation rates involves just about everyone here. It not only helps current students but enhances our reputation and attracts potential students. All students should have a mix of faculty who can help them gain the skills and experience necessary to ensure that they can advance personally and professionally in a global social, cultural, economic, political, and technical environment.

Students as well should find the academic environment a diverse one — one in which people with different ambitions, experiential orientations, and life circumstances can flourish. Students come to us with unique mixes of these attributes and they strengthen our learning community.

There are many ways to provide diverse experiential opportunities. Take, for example, the University Honors Program, which seeks to meet the needs of students who thrive on intellectual challenge by offering special interdisciplinary academic opportunities outside the major. These students are curious, ambitious, reflective, independent-minded, and can be expected to go on to graduate work at the highest levels. 

We are engaged in exciting ways to open new doors to students while opening their minds. Through countless internships, we give students hands-on opportunities to be exposed to potential careers in one field or another. Undergraduates get to participate in programs of serious research. And, as part of our commitment to a global education, we offer undergraduate and graduate students opportunities to study abroad, including a program that has individual students accompanying professors abroad to work on specific research projects. 

Greatness in learning involves crossing the boundaries of disciplines as well as of geographic borders. As I have said many times, we ignore the need for transdisciplinarity at our peril. Using a single discipline to pursue knowledge can lead to compartmentalization and isolation.

Consider, for example, our recent Great Recession. The subprime lending crisis initially was treated as an isolated problem in the domestic economy. But the reality was far more complex and its impact much more profound. Like a metastasizing cancer, it spread into many other areas of social, economic, and political life. We needed many disciplines to understand the phenomena: the loss of home ownership and weakening of the family structure, the erosion of the tax base, the disappearance of jobs, the increased cost of education, the loss of self-esteem, the shattering of faith in financial institutions, politicians and regulators who failed to prevent the abuses or lessen their consequences, and the international scope of all this. This is just one tiny example of why we can’t think in disciplinary silos and why we need the nimbleness of mind that comes from transdisciplinarity.

And to be able to understand the world from a multivalent perspective, a signature approach of the University of Massachusetts Boston, one must have a research university of the first order.

Indeed, our second strategic goal is that of enriching and expanding academic programs and research at both undergraduate and graduate levels.

We are moving aggressively in this area through the development of new doctoral programs, four of which have come into being for the first time this September. As a result, the first class of doctoral students are starting this fall:

Two more are now with the President's office, on their way to the Board of Trustees; and one has passed the Board of Trustees and is on its way to the Board of Higher Education, the last step in the approval process. And be assured that others are in the pipeline for approval.

At the master’s level, we have developed a number of new programs, including applied economics, and, at the undergraduate level, we have expanded opportunities in areas like engineering and communications, with others under development. So, too, have we strengthened programs like instructional design, exercise science, family therapy, and creative writing.

Of central importance to meeting this goal of expanding academic programs is the creation of new schools and colleges; and thus far, we have created the School of Global Inclusion and Social Development; we have a proposed consolidation of all areas dealing with environmental studies; and we have a proposal to evolve the Honors Program into an Honors College. 

All of us know that student success, the growth in academic programs, and the creation of new schools or colleges depends on recruiting the best professors. And as you have already seen, last year we recruited over 40 new professors, and they join us from 13 different countries.

In the meantime, we are focusing our faculty research resources with a laser-like precision on the critical issues of our time and setting through centers and institutes like the Center for Excellence in E-Learning at University College; the Center and Archives for Peace, Social Action, Public Policy, and the Arts; the Child Development Unit; and finally, the Center for Health Equity Intervention Research. 

This last item is a National Institutes of Health grant–funded partnership between the University of Massachusetts Medical School and the University of Massachusetts Boston that will allow our researchers and faculty members to study and improve health outcomes for minority and socioeconomically disadvantaged populations. It also will allow us to begin offering a minority health scholars program for undergraduates – giving students the chance to be deeply involved in high-level research, which is always our goal.

Our efforts to reexamine our general education are advancing, and our centers and institutes are expanding our research activities. In short, so purposefully are we moving to fulfill the promise of our vision that we can all feel the electricity and excitement on campus. 

The transformation and development of the campus, the third goal of our strategic plan, could not take place without a significant improvement in the learning, teaching, and working environment. This goal is being pursued on several levels – assessing how we understand and measure learning; how we promote the development of our faculty, staff, and students; how we provide for the research experience of all our students, our faculty, labs, studios, theatres, data sets, information technology, course loads, ratio of full and part-time faculty, and new academic buildings.

Bricks and mortar are an important part of this development. Even as we continue to make progress on our academic buildings, the time has come to turn our focus toward residential housing. For that reason, we’re working on ways to respond to the disparate housing needs of our students. We need to provide a wide range of housing options including, but not limited to, on-campus residence halls. We believe that a certain number of on-campus residents would further invigorate the campus and increase student identification with our university, thus enhancing their chance at success. 

Some of the services that come with on-campus housing will also be helpful to other students, a majority of whom will continue to commute. On-campus housing will be a critical component in the growth, competitiveness, and quality of the University of Massachusetts Boston educational experience. You can see how all the goals of our long-term plans reinforce one another.

Now, I’m sure you’re all asking yourselves, “Well, yes, Chancellor, but how can we do all the above in the face of declining state financial support?” You’re also saying that, back in 1985, the Commonwealth provided 75 percent of our operating budget. In 2012, that amount was down to roughly 30 percent. 

That is a staggering decline. And it means that the University System has been forced to find other means to support its operation. One of those ways has been to increase tuition and fees.

Doing that, however, can mean the subversion of our cherished value of access. Access remains a priority, part of our commitment to our founding principles. We are acutely sensitive to the fact that, in the current financial environment, many students face challenges in staying in school.

What we have done in response is to find means by which over 90 percent of our students' financial needs are met through financial aid. I believe it is in response to this kind of institutional commitment that the Princeton Review named the University of Massachusetts Boston among the nation’s top 75 “Best Value” public colleges and universities in the country. That means we demonstrate a high-quality education at a relatively low price. This is a significant accomplishment, but our financial challenges do not end there.

This brings us to our fourth goal, which is establishing a financial resources model that is aligned with our vision. This is absolutely essential if we are to fulfill the promise of our founders.

We are creatively linking our budget process to our strategic priorities. All new FY13 budget requests were scrutinized against the backdrop of the strategic plan.

We are attracting more research money. Over the past 15 years, we have more than tripled our research expenditures, from $16 million to more than $56 million, and to meet our pledge, we plan to do even better during the next 15 years. 

We must also secure more funds from benefactors, something that never used to enter the calculation because, after all, we are a public university — and the public thought we didn’t need it as much. Well, we need it now.

Consequently, we must broaden our mix of students, increasing our out-of-state and international students to 15 percent of our student body while preserving and expanding opportunities for in-state students. 

Finally, all of this has to be done in the context of some long-term capital and infrastructure planning. One need only look out the window at the emerging Integrated Sciences Complex to witness exciting plans becoming concrete and glass reality. Its location welcomes the community to a 21st century research university, and its multifaceted vistas inspire dynamic, far-reaching, barrier-shattering scholarship. And General Academic Building Number One is not far behind. You know what the Campus Center has meant to life on this campus. These newest buildings will be fitting companions to that structure, transforming the feel of the campus as a whole and demonstrating the value we place on environmental sensitivity, our commitment to living “green” for our own benefit and that of future generations.

At each stage of the process, the capital plan and the strategic plan are aligned, to ensure that the vision of our founders finds expression in the vision we have for 2025. We are responsible for seeing that vision implemented year by year, month by month, week by week, and day by day. Our various plans for building out our campus will take many years, but we already recognize the beginning of the fulfillment of our promise to create a physical environment to drive and inspire the greatest possible academic achievement and human development. Even as the first bricks are laid, we are moving to foster the community in which our students, faculty, and staff will prosper. To paraphrase D. H. Lawrence, “the spirit of place is a great reality,” and that spirit is driving us now.

In short, we are already becoming our dream, fulfilling our promise. The focus of everything we do is helping to achieve student success. And, as we gather here on Convocation Day, we can feel good that all of us – students, faculty, and staff, are part of something much larger than ourselves, something with a rich history, a dynamic present, and a promising future, limited only by the power of our imaginations. We will work hard to continue ensuring student success, expanding academic programs, improving the learning environment, developing new resources, and creating the bricks-and-mortar context in which all of this can happen. 

It will not be easy – no part of greatness is achieved without great challenge or effort. Yet the nobility of the promise and the integrity of the legacy, which we have inherited, demand greatness from us. So I ask you, today, not to grow weary in doing well. Find renewed strength, this new academic year, in the vision of the brilliant future that beckons to each of us, and that is, indeed, coming to be right in our midst.  

Think about how each and every one of us fits into this visionary plan, starting with the simplest aspects of our daily life here, how we go about our work, our commitment to excellence in all we do, the smiles we exchange with folks in the hallways, the extra time spent helping others, the pride we take in being part of this very special university at this moment. Our most basic attitudes influence how we fulfill the promise of our founders.

We of the University of Massachusetts Boston are enriching the soil, sowing the seeds, nurturing the growth, and harvesting the goodness of future generations. This is a world-shaping mission both of grand proportions and of personal intimacy.

Langston Hughes understood the poetry of what we at the University of Massachusetts Boston do on a daily basis when he wrote:
And so the seed becomes a flower
And in its hour
Reproduces dreams and flowers.
And so the root
Becomes a trunk
And then a tree
And seeds of trees
And springtime sap
And summer shade
And autumn leaves
And shape of poems
And dreams
And more than tree.

We are “more than” a strategic plan, more than a capital plan.
In “fulfilling the promise,” we are the keepers of the flame ignited by our founders.
We are the shapers of the future – our own, the city’s, the state’s, the nation’s, and the world’s. 
We are the University of Massachusetts Boston.