State of the University Address: A Gift to the Future

J. Keith Motley, PhD, UMass Boston Chancellor | May 01, 2012

Good afternoon, and thank you for taking time out of your busy schedules to join with me in reflecting  on the state of our university, the University of Massachusetts Boston.

As I move about this busy campus and regard not just the quantity, but the quality of the activity taking place, I sometimes note that the activity implies how urgently one is driven to somehow push one’s life and spirit beyond the given, beyond our work life, beyond our life span, and into a future from which destiny is duty-bound to physically exclude us. 

Many of us here feel this push in the pursuit of new knowledge, new insights, or in that special moment when the light of understanding, consciousness, or passion flames in our students’ eyes.

We sense it when we build programming whose impact is both high and far- reaching, touching the lives of people, places, and generations far beyond our personal reach.

I see it at commencement in the rituals that confer rights and privileges upon classmates to extend upward, outward, and forward the teaching and learning, the research, the service, the growth and transformation that they have experienced here in our midst.

Our grand and noble enterprise here at the University of Massachusetts Boston is at once a privilege-laden labor for the day and a subtly personalized gift to the future.

We have been the beneficiaries of many such gifts from generations past.

Throughout human history and at places all over this great planet people envisioned, planned, and labored for a better life—for themselves, to be sure, but most important to prepare for a better, more human life for their children and their children’s children. They endeavored to present a gift to the future.
It is to this forward-thinking, planning, and working tradition we seek to remain connected, and I am grateful for this opportunity to speak to my colleagues about the high level of activity that has been present on this campus over the last year.  

This campus, the University of Massachusetts Boston, was identified as among the nation’s top 75 “Best Value” public colleges and universities in the country by the Princeton Review.

The Princeton Review also recognized our College of Management as being among the top 294 business schools.

Coming into 2012, the College of Nursing and Health Sciences has been ranked in the top 7th percentile of nursing colleges in the nation.

These national recognitions are simply making the rest of the nation aware of what we have known here for years, with more to come.

As you know, we were very busy in the development of a long-term strategic plan that will help this university reach new heights into the next decade; and now we are working together to implement while maintaining our core values. Allow me to pause to recognize and thank Provost and Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs Winston Langley for his leadership in moving this process forward.

Following the priorities of our strategic plan, we as a university remain on the move. And every move that we make is toward one or more of the following goals: improving our students’ chances for success, building our research enterprise, and enhancing our physical teaching, learning, and working environment.  

Our enrollment has grown from 13,000 students in 2008 to well over 15,000 students this academic year, and we’re planning to welcome 25,000 students by the year 2025.

We are all acutely aware that the implementation of these lofty plans will require significant financial support. University Advancement continues to step up to this reality. It has reported tremendous successes for fiscal year 2011, and is forecasting more support in the future to undergird the great work we are implementing in accordance with the strategic plan. Thousands of alumni, friends, corporations, and foundations helped the university raise more than $11.5 million in private support in fiscal year 2011, and they continue to do the same in this fiscal year. A case in point is that last night the eighth annual Scholarship Gala attracted nearly 600 people, shattering records for funds raised by the institution, funds donated as gifts to the future.

From our academic core we strain toward a brilliant future.

Four new doctoral programs will be accepting students this coming fall:

And four more are in the pipeline for approval. 

Next fall we will offer our first four-year engineering degree program. The new electrical and computer engineering program is yet another step for us in offering high-quality, affordable science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) programs to future students that will stimulate economic development in this region.

Despite the economic slump, our faculty research funding grew nearly 18 percent in 2010 and 8 percent in 2011, to nearly $55 million. The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching classified the University of Massachusetts Boston as a Doctoral/Research University with High Research Activity, and for 2025 we have set our sights on attaining the foundation’s highest designation.

This is why you’re seeing so much construction on this campus. We’re in the middle of building our Integrated Sciences Complex: with 220,000 square feet of research facilities for the hard and social sciences, wet and dry labs, classrooms, and study space… where faculty and graduate as well as undergraduate students will carry out their research. The ISC is scheduled to open its doors in the fall of 2013. This fall, we’re breaking ground on General Academic Building Number One, which will hold studio, rehearsal, and performance and exhibition space for the performing arts and fine arts, along with classroom and study space for all students. We build not as a projection of our collective egos or ambitions, but so as to make space for what we collectively have agreed should be this generation’s legacy: new learning, new knowledge, new collaborations, and new visions for our world. It is our gift to the future. 

Yes, we do intend these buildings to transform the look and feel of our campus, but it is so much more important that they add to an environment and atmosphere that we are building of student achievement. Based on the findings of our own research and that of other institutions, and with the help of a Vision grant from the Department of Higher Education, we have implemented a series of programs to improve our students’ success.

I couldn’t be more proud of the College of Science and Mathematics and their dean, Andrew Grosovsky, for the formation of their freshman success communities: small cohorts of students who take the same courses, studying together over their first year with direct guidance from their dean and seminar professors. After the first year of freshman success communities in 2009, 90 percent of the students involved reenrolled in the College of Science and Mathematics for the 2010–2011 school year. The model has been so successful that similar programs have been created by the College of Liberal Arts and the College of Management.

We are so fortunate at this university to have a faculty, staff, and administration that continue to grow in our understanding of how to use our research mission to reinforce our commitment to student success…and how to use our commitment to student success to reinforce our research mission. For example, we made it a priority in the ISC to build a lab dedicated to undergraduate student research, where our advanced students may run their own experiments with faculty guidance. In this lab our undergraduates will connect their hands-on, sensual research experience with academic learning—an experience that is often, perhaps too often, reserved for postgraduate students.

Already, our students are benefiting from our dual focus on research and their success. For example, graduating senior and Honors Program student Luke Eglington is part of a team of advanced researchers, including doctoral candidates, all working together under Associate Professor Marc Pomplun in his Visual Attention Lab. Luke is combining psychology with computer science to research visual attention, memory, and pupil size as an indicator of cognitive load. In his lab, his colleagues study human eye movements in order to develop gaze-controlled human-computer interfaces.

And College of Education and Human Development student Shaun Glaze is collaboratively engaging her community in research—as she says, part activism, part research. She is working with politicians, community leaders, academics, and tradeswomen to boost women’s involvement and achievement in the construction trades. Her project has already changed the way a few political organizations approach their policies, and she works closely as well with our own Project Labor Agreement on campus.

Our faculty is also planting seeds for a rich harvest of discovery and innovation in the future.

On October 28, Professor of Environmental, Earth, and Ocean Sciences Crystal Schaaf watched, from a post in Santa Barbara, California, the launch of NASA’s next-generation weather satellite. Funded by grants from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and NASA, Schaaf serves as a member of the scientific team evaluating the Visible Infrared Imager Radiometer Suite’s (VIIRS) imagery products used by the satellite to collect its data. It is anticipated that the data collected by the satellite will be used to evaluate a range of environmental phenomena and impacts into the future.

College of Management faculty member David Levy was named the “2011 Faculty Pioneer” by the Center for Business Education at the Aspen Institute. This recognition program, dubbed the “Oscars of the business school world” by the Financial Times, celebrates business school instructors who have demonstrated leadership and risk-taking in integrating social, ethical, and environmental issues into the MBA curriculum.

Kamaljit Bawa from our Department of Biology was awarded the prestigious Gunnerus Sustainability Award by the Royal Norwegian Society of Sciences and Letters, the world's first major award for sustainability, in response to the impact his research has had on the sustainability of global biodiversity. As if that were not enough, as he was receiving this award, Professor Bawa was being elected as a member of the prestigious American Academy of Arts and Sciences along with inductees such as U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, former Tennessee governor Phil Bredesen, Jr., veteran diplomat R. Nicholas Burns, television journalist Judy Woodruff; and Boston Globe editor Martin Baron.

Following from our deep and abiding heritage in the social sciences, Bianca Bersani, assistant professor of sociology, was named as a recipient of the 2011
W. E. B. Du Bois Fellowship Award for her research in the “‘Marriage Effect’ on Desistance from Crime Among U.S. Immigrants,” deepening our understanding of issues around immigration and crime.

While we focus on learning, while we continue to raise our research profile, that rich scholarship retains its deep connection with the communities out of which our students come and to which they go to live and work. In all the spheres of this world we are coming to recognize that partnerships and the collaboration which they foster is the key to future innovation, growth, and development in this region. 

Keeping track of these collaborations is our newly created Office of Community Partnerships, directed by Luciano Ramos, who works to promote and encourage our scholars’ work with our community members. Last month I had the privilege of attending the poster-board session of the Community-Engaged Partnerships Symposium in the ballroom upstairs. There I saw precollegiate partnerships, environmental partnerships, anthropological science partnerships, and health care research. There I saw partnerships between students, faculty, centers, institutes, and community organizations focused on concerns related to anthropology, STEM initiatives, education, health care, psychology, literacy, gerontology, public administration, diversity, and nursing. It is in such a crucible where the intermingling of expertise from scholars, practitioners, and citizens has the heat of human struggle with real-life problems that imaginative and inspiring visions of better worlds are formed and concretized.

Last fall we completed an agreement with the Boston Water and Sewer Commission to transfer the commission’s pumping station property on Columbia Point to the university in exchange for a new scholarship program aimed at helping graduates of Boston public high schools succeed in college. Called the Boston City Scholarships program, through it graduates of Boston public high schools who are admitted to the university with a 3.0 GPA or better the semester following their graduation will be granted a $1,000 scholarship. That scholarship will be renewed for up to three additional years for students who stay enrolled full-time at the university and maintain a 3.0 grade point average or above. We expect that the scholarship will benefit more than 70 incoming freshmen this fall.

The University of Massachusetts Boston continues to scan the contemporary landscape by which it is surrounded and provide thought leadership to our society, deeply anxious as it is for informed reflection and practical guidance.

Earlier this semester the Center for Civil Discourse, funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, hosted a national forum on “Civility and American Democracy.”  The forum brought together nationally recognized humanities scholars, including Diana Eck, Randall Kennedy, Jill Lepore, and Austin Sarat, to explore civil discourse, the tension in its theory and practice, and its place in American democracy. This topic, of profound import for our contemporary polity, continues to resonate beyond the university, as an online community participated before and after the event, extending the public conversation throughout the year and engaging ordinary citizens in this important process of examination and discovery.

IDEAS Boston, an annual conference to stimulate and celebrate innovation and creativity founded by the Boston Globe in 2004, last year became a University of Massachusetts Boston program, and last fall it conducted its first forum at its new permanent home. We were treated to the latest in cutting-edge thought on economics, technology, culinary arts, film, medicine, and more. It is such a joy to watch as all of you go about your work; you create a magnetic attraction for people and organizations needing a community of thinkers and educators to help sharpen their ideas.

The Beacon student-athletes are setting the stage for regional and national recognition of our athletic programs.

The Beacons women’s volleyball team won its third Little East Conference title, earning a berth in the NCAA Division III tournament. The 20th-ranked Beacons became only the third program in the history of the Little East Conference tournament to win three straight tournament titles.

Our cross-country, women’s soccer, and women’s tennis teams also progressed to postseason play this year.

This year the University of Massachusetts Boston has attracted its share of celebrity, providing a forum for these people to share messages of purpose and persistence that lie behind their fame.

Former Olympic track star Marion Jones was invited to campus in December through the UMass Uncommon Leadership speaker series, started by Amherst alumnus Glenn Mangurian. Jones gave a talk to our students, faculty, and staff titled “Responsibility, Redemption, and Resilience,” and her message continues to resonate with me.

This January a new and innovative student leadership development program focused on women’s leadership was launched. America Ferrera, award-winning actress and political activist, came to campus and gave a talk titled “The Intersection of Race and Class” to help us inaugurate the Women’s Leadership Initiative.

I remember Christmas as a small child.  It was always difficult to wait for the actual day to arrive when we could open our gifts, as time slowed in the December cold. Christmas Eve seemed like it would never end and Christmas morning like it would never come. All night we talked about what the next day would be like. The anticipation of toys and games called to us anxiously, and the night of imagining seemed so long at five and six years old. Somewhere in the midst of our anxious wondering we slipped off into nighttime slumber, unable to bear the seeming suspense of the slow-moving night.

As we plan for, build for, and work toward 2025, toward our excellent  graduation rates, toward our undisputed designation as a highest research university, toward our residential campus, our endowed chairs, an abundance of parking—and, oh, the office space! The eve of its coming seems to last so long. Like Christmas Eve from the perspective of impatient childhood we sometimes feel like it will never come. But I realize now as a gift giver in my house that the day comes all too quickly. The gathering of the lists, the rush to and through the stores, the search for the right gifts, reading the instructions, assembling the toys, and then really reading the instructions because it didn’t work the first time, decorating the tree, the house, the yard… it all takes time, planning, and execution. As a gift giver, that sun rises all too quickly on Christmas morning. 

Having lived a few decades now, I can assure you that the sun will rise all too quickly on 2025 and your contribution to this campus, whether as a faculty or staff member (retired or still plugging away), member of the alumni or Chancellor, will be embraced, celebrated, and engaged for a better world. Yet we must stay on task, because that day comes quicker than you think.

The carrot-topped character from the stage production of Annie has become a bit of a cultural joke because of her unbridled and sunny optimism. But time continues to prove her catchphrase to be an abiding truth that we can rely on—“the sun will come out tomorrow.” 

One of the uniquely powerful human capacities, though limited in scope, is the capacity for transcendence. Though our mind is in some sense bounded by time and space, we do have the capacity to transcend the present and envision a tomorrow. So our efforts, decisions, thoughts, and investments can’t always be about today, but we must ready ourselves for tomorrow. 

We must teach our students today, but we must learn new approaches and pedagogies for tomorrow.

We discover and construct new knowledge today, which becomes the building blocks of innovation tomorrow.

We build reciprocal, collaborative relationships today based on visions of problems solved tomorrow.

We act today with a view to tomorrow. What we build, what we discover, what we organize, what we innovate, what we administer successfully today will become our gift to the future. 

Tomorrow the sun will rise and cast its tawny beams over this sleepy bay and paint a horizon whose vista will no longer be marred by the overuse of fossil fuels.

That sun will glint off the glassy waves of bay water purified by thoughtful and dedicated research on our aquatic environment.

Sun rays will shine on this coastal city through which disparities in health care based in race, ethnicity, and class were wiped away through thoughtful, collaborative scientific investigation.

That light will lift the shadows on weary student-artists exhausted from all-night practices to perfect their performances.

That sun will bring light to the sleepy eyes of citizens who will have learned here that uncompromising, polarizing, mean-spirited political rhetoric only feeds the spirits of the warlike; and that passion and civility need not be mutually exclusive when we sit at the table of democratic policy to solve our common problems.

The light will lift the veil on a new generation of our students, substantiating and enhancing their classroom experience with service and research in organizations, agencies, schools, and businesses in and around the communities, the city, the Commonwealth, the nation, the globe. 

As it has from time immemorial, the sun will ascend and cast its rays on gleaming structures: 

That sun will rise on this future, on this university, well-equipped, well-resourced, well-respected, and well-prepared to animate our citizenry though the life of the mind and to commission them as passionate lifelong learners to actively and responsibly engage in the ongoing project that is our continuously unfolding democracy and our ever-emerging global citizenship.

That, my friends and colleagues, is the vision toward which we are ever moving, it is the gift to the future for which we are all working, and it is the proud essence of the University of Massachusetts Boston.

Thank you for all that you do. I am honored and proud to be your chancellor.

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