Interim Chancellor Mills’s 2017 Convocation Address*

Barry Mills, Interim Chancellor | September 14, 2017

Good morning. I am Barry Mills, the interim chancellor of the University of Massachusetts Boston. It is my honor to welcome you all this morning and to celebrate the start of the 53rd academic year of this important public urban research university located in one of the world’s greatest cities—Boston.

I came to UMass Boston in March of this year and assumed the position of interim chancellor in July. Over this short period of time I have met with many of you and have learned and have listened to your hopes and aspirations for the university—and have heard your concerns, as well.

UMass Boston is a unique university. And, in this short amount of time, I have come to begin to understand the realities of this university. One cannot help but be drawn into this community in a powerful way. I am a believer in UMass Boston. The reality of this university is important and meaningful to thousands of students, faculty and staff, to this city, this region, and to the world we touch every day. The future of this university and its potential to be a leader in urban public education is unlimited and must be encouraged and supported enthusiastically.

This is a university that since its inception has had a vision of itself as being important, special, and destined for greatness. A university with a mission and a vision.

The founding chancellor of UMass Boston, John Ryan, pointed the university in the right direction when the campus community gathered for its first convocation on December 10, 1966.

It was a very different UMass Boston that gathered that day. The campus had been established only the year before, with 1,240 students and 200 faculty members. At that time, UMass Boston was located in temporary quarters in the Park Square section of downtown Boston, and was based in the former headquarters of the Boston Gas Company, prompting some to refer to the new school as “UMass Gas.”

Happily, the nickname didn’t stick.

But what we have retained is the vision that Chancellor Ryan, the original students and faculty, and others instrumental in our founding had for UMass Boston.

When the UMass Boston community gathered that day, Chancellor Ryan stated unequivocally that “the idea and the objective of this university is that of a public, urban center of learning committed to providing a liberal education of genuine quality, to communicating the truths and values of humanism, to providing our society with the leadership and creativity which the future will demand.”

While charting a course of achievement at the highest level, Ryan made it clear that UMass Boston embraced its public mission and its urban mission with equal fervor.

Chancellor Ryan said that UMass Boston must  “offer a quality educational opportunity to young people regardless of financial means,” and should “seek out young people whose race, recent immigration or depressed economic status” might otherwise jeopardize their access to higher education excellence. He also noted that, “urban America needs urban universities.”

Our founding chancellor said, and I quote: “Urban America needs urban universities. Let us have creative partnership politically, academically, and professionally to create an urban university, to support it, and to call upon it for massive contributions to our efforts to come to grips with our problems.”

The course that was charted that day is one that chancellors from John Ryan to J. Keith Motley have adhered to and have advanced—and it is what makes this campus that moved from Park Square to the shores of Dorchester Bay so special and so critical to our future.

And when I say “our future,” I mean the futures of the students who choose UMass Boston, and also to our shared future, because we at UMass Boston understand and insist that all of us, regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, gender, or gender identity, whether our families have been in this country for generations or are much more newly arrived—all of us are in this together. And we are stronger and better when everyone has the opportunity to develop his or her abilities to the utmost and live happy and productive lives.

These are the goals the founders of UMass Boston had in mind. And let me assure you that access, opportunity, justice, and excellence are our goals today. We are going to stand with and for each other here at UMass Boston.

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We find ourselves at the beginning of a new academic year and as such, it is a moment of renewal and hope.

I certainly felt the great sweep of the moment when I greeted our students last week. I met students from Boston, from around the Commonwealth, from other parts of America and from around the world who come to this university filled with hope and optimism for their futures. Our students arrived with excitement so palpable that it reinforced for me the imperatives of delivering on our commitments and mission.

At the heart of our mission resides our faculty. Over my career, I have had the opportunity to lead a remarkable liberal arts college and be engaged with colleges and universities across America. These educational institutions that are characterized as excellent have one very important and special common characteristic—they all have engaged, excellent, and ambitious faculty who are committed to their teaching, scholarship, and to the life of their university. 

Over my short time here at UMass Boston, I have come to understand that this university is truly exceptional because it, too, has a devoted and particularly talented faculty. There is much said about universities and what makes them great. But make no mistake, the strength of a university is found in the faculty and its commitment—a commitment to students, a passion for their research, and an understanding that an institutional perspective and engagement are central to the attainment of our mission.  And we at UMass Boston are excellent because of the strength of our faculty. That has been the hallmark of this institution, and continues to be.

I also think this should be said.  This institution has not always had it easy. An understatement, perhaps. Infrastructure problems from the outset.  Funding levels that have not always been what they should be. The disruption stemming from the construction projects in recent years. 

Despite all of the challenges, and because of its commitment to students, to the institution, to teaching, to scholarship, because of its passion and integrity, his faculty has delivered and has achieved at the highest level in liberal arts, the arts, in nursing and health sciences, environmental studies, the classics, gerontology, green chemistry, education, computer science, and in many other areas.

UMass Boston faculty research played a major role in the cleanup of Boston Harbor, but they also go into a more internal world, providing remarkable insights into how babies think. You have been research leaders in areas including: STEM education, health disparities, sustainability, biomedical and life sciences, and clinical psychology. It is important for this high level of achievement to be noted.  I want to take this moment to thank and commend the members of the UMass Boston faculty past and present for all that you have done. I want to thank you on behalf of the nearly 100,000 UMass Boston students who have received world-class educations.

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Over the course of the past six months, I have had the opportunity to meet and engage with hundreds of members of our staff who believe in UMass Boston and its mission. Our staff colleagues are diligent, talented, and committed—and their work is central to this university and its success. We at UMass Boston are fortunate to have such a talented group of colleagues committed to our mission.

UMass Boston is blessed to have a vibrant and committed alumni group eager to support this university as they each remember the vital contribution UMass Boston made to their lives. We must work hard to engage our graduates and make sure they understand how much we want them to stay close to their university—and give them meaningful and convenient ways to do so.

UMass Boston has a special place in the community.  Our commitment to social justice and opportunity is central to the relationship of this university to its neighbors and the larger community. Fundamental to what we do here is educating the family members of the Boston community. And, unlike so many other colleges and universities in Boston, our graduates stay and live and work in Boston and the neighboring communities.  So what we do here changes lives—we change the lives directly of our graduates, but also their families, which benefit from the success of their family members who graduate from UMass Boston. And that success is amplified by the success of the communities that our graduates help to lead and improve. 

This year we begin with many good news stories. We welcome this year the largest first-time freshman class in the university’s history. Our transfer population is strong. Our graduate programs are vibrant.

We have hosts of new faculty, a group of new deans and members of our faculty who have recently been promoted. Congratulations and thank you for your important work.

We have gleaming buildings in our campus center, University Hall and the Integrated Sciences Complex. The road projects are moving quickly now and one can even see Dorchester Bay as the construction abates. Our new parking garage is on schedule and the first residential hall—with over 1,000 beds—will be open this time next year.

Our faculty continue to be recognized for their teaching and research and for their activities in our community, where they make important contributions to the life of the city.

Notwithstanding all this good news and the optimism that accompanies the arrival of the new academic year, we all understand that our university faces significant financial and physical-structure issues that must be addressed. 

The challenges facing this university have been documented extensively over these past few months. We face significant financial issues in our operating budgets. And, we face serious legacy physical facilities issues—principally relating to the substructure—that must be remedied.

Complicating this process significantly, we have found it difficult to uncover reliable data and budget analysis. Much of our efforts over the summer and continuing today are to organize data and create process that is reliable and upon which we can make begin to make decisions based on fact-based and mission-driven analysis. The process has turned out to be more complicated and, candidly, frustrating than we expected.

We have worked very hard over this summer to understand the magnitude of these budget issues and the origin and basis of these financial issues. We have begun to map out and consider various strategies for the future. These conversations have included conversations with a large and varied set of constituencies, albeit probably not to the level of transparency we aspire to achieve, and certainly not to the level this community expects and deserves. 

We will endeavor over the next weeks and months to improve this communication. However, this imperative of openness, respect, and transparency is not limited to the third floor of Quinn, where I work with other senior administrators. This openness, transparency, and respect are also the responsibility of deans, program directors, department chairs, faculty leaders, staff leaders, and student government. It is important for everyone to understand and communicate. And I would hope and expect that we will all work together respectfully and with an institutional perspective in the interest of achieving success and advancing the common good for all at this university.

I have every confidence that working together we will chart a course for this university that will allow us to deliver on our mission within the financial constraints of our available resources. As we chart that course and implement our designs, I am also optimistic that public and private support for UMass Boston will grow. The more people believe in our mission, and in the discipline we will bring to bear in pursing that mission, the more private philanthropy and public resources will support us.

Finally, let me speak briefly about two issues fundamental to this university.  Access and opportunity and degree completion.

Access and opportunity are fundamental to an urban university. We must be open and affordable to students from across Boston, the Commonwealth, America and the world.  This mission is fundamental to UMass Boston.  And so as we make choices and set a course, this mission will remain paramount.

And students, both undergraduates and graduate students, must finish their course of study. It is essential that our students graduate and graduate on time. The six-year graduation rate at this university is 45 percent in the aggregate for our undergraduates. The optimism I felt last week as I greeted our new students was tempered by the reality I understand that too many will not finish. There are many factors contributing to students not finishing. Some of these factors may be beyond our control. But most are not—and our job is to promote student success. I take little comfort from our graduation rates relative to those found at other public research universities, because for us at UMass Boston, it is about absolute performance. And we should and must do better. 

Our university should be a model for success. We should be creating the inventive strategies for success. Some will argue that, in a world of limited resources, we are limited in what we can achieve.  I ask you to model our efforts on our students—students who are achieving often in a world of limited resources. And so, I ask that we refocus our imaginations, recommit to our strategies and we get out there and do the work—the blocking and tackling—to ensure that students who come to UMass Boston understand that our promise is excellence, and opportunity for them, and an unwavering focus on our efforts to help them achieve their goal of a college degree and a life of unlimited possibilities.

In what some may see as dark days, UMass Boston is the light—the beacon by the bay.

And it is my honor to be part of this community during this interim period.

I wish you all a healthy and rewarding academic year. All the very best to you, and let us join together for the success of our UMass Boston.

Thank you. 

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