The University

Convocation Address: The Public University: Facing Challenges as a New Frontier

J. Keith Motley, PhD, UMass Boston Chancellor | September 08, 2008

Thank you, President Wilson; I am so grateful for your leadership of the university and your support of this campus. Thank you, members of the board of trustees, distinguished guests, students, faculty, and staff for sharing this special ceremony. Thanks, Winston, Ellen, our student speakers Terrell, David, and Alex for your wonderful introductions. Welcome Education Secretary Paul Reville. We look forward to hearing your keynote address.

My beautiful wife Angela is also here today, which for me is always a sign that much is right with the world. We are so glad to be back as part of this campus community. We love meeting all of you at campus events and appreciate your cards, emails, words of encouragement, and ideas. My children are happy to be back too. They are developing into young ladies, intellectually and physically. They remind me that time flies, particularly when you’re doing something you love.

Before we start, I’d like to say a few words about Senator Edward Kennedy, who is much in our minds and hearts these days. His moving speech in Denver spoke volumes about his courageous fight and what he means to all of us.

Many around the country think of him as their senator, for the causes he has championed for nearly half a century.

We know he is our senator. It started with the very decision by the Kennedy family to locate the JFK Library here. It continued over the years with a host of special activities and research grants that have helped transform the University of Massachusetts Boston.

And now, the special relationship deepens further. This campus will be home to the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the Study of the United States Senate. As the senator sees it, having a place where people can learn first-hand about the Senate’s important role in our system of government is crucial to our democracy. As we begin this new academic year, we thank Senator Kennedy for all he has done, pray for his well-being, and look forward to working with him on the realization of his dream.

In this, my second official convocation address to this wonderful institution, I want to report on some highlights of what together we have accomplished. I want to introduce to you some newcomers to our university, and recognize our newly tenured professors and some other faculty, staff, and students. Finally, I want to reflect on some of the challenges facing us as we continue to build this great student-centered urban public university.

We had a wonderful year, and I want to welcome you back to what I know will be an even more exciting year of achievements and excellence.

Let’s look at some examples from last year.

But our achievements are more than just numbers. The faculty continued its outstanding work, enhancing our reputation for cutting-edge research just as student-centered teaching is gaining ground. And we’re actively maintaining our strong tradition of engagement with the community, enhancing in myriad ways the quality of life of the people and neighborhoods we serve. That’s an important part of who we are.

Our staff continued its important contributions to the university. Today, I am very pleased to present to you Apurva Mehta of the IT department and Yvonne Vaillancourt of the Biology Department, recipients of the Chancellor’s Achievement Award, which recognizes both professional and classified staff members who have shown exceptional performance in innovation, initiative, and/or service. Congratulations to Apurva and Yvonne! I notice that you have a whole lot of friends following you around since the announcement of the monetary part of the award!

Thank you all. Such examples make it clear that, across our institution, we have a demonstrated commitment to quality and a strong foundation for academic excellence.

I am pleased to tell you that we have 34 new members of the faculty, and, at this time, I invite members of our new faculty to please rise together so we can formally greet you. Welcome to the University of Massachusetts Boston. May it long be your academic home!

Few, if any, actions on the part of any university are as important as the granting of tenure. It is my pleasure to acknowledge the newly tenured professors of the university and members of our faculty who have been promoted to full professor. Please hold your applause until I have called their names. Would you please stand as your name is called. Associate professors: Jason Evans, Darren Kew, Elizabeth Marran, Jorge Capetillo-Ponce, Lisa Cosgrove, Erik Blaser, Christina Bobel, Michael Johnson, Corrine Etienne, Vincent Cannato, Atreya Chakraborty, Amy Den Ouden, Hannah Sevian, Julie Nelson, Haeok Lee, and Wenfan Yan. And our full professors: Lizabeth Roemer, Carol Smith, Lilia Bartolome, Judith Zeitlin, and Weili Ye.

Congratulations to all.

There have been changes, familiar faces in new positions. You all heard from Provost Langley, who, as you know, had been my associate chancellor. Thank you, Winston, for stepping up. We have added Terry Mortimer as an assistant chancellor. Joan Liem has become dean of graduate studies. John Ciccarelli is now associate vice chancellor for government relations and public affairs. And Cuf Ferguson is interim administrator for the College of Public and Community Service. We look forward to working with you in your new roles.

As we stand poised for the new academic year, let’s salute all of you who, day in and day out, play important roles, sometimes unsung, and have helped bring us to this next rung on the ladder of excellence. Every one of you is an important part of building an outstanding community here.

Last year, I started a series of informal faculty breakfast discussions, at least one each month. More are on the calendar for this year. I also hold chancellor’s teas and chancellor’s student luncheons. Everyone gets fed! I’m also pleased to hold open office hours on a regular basis.

I’m fully aware of the concerns that many have expressed regarding union contracts. I’m sensitive to the various issues and strongly support the union in its need for a fair solution, and I will do everything I can to help.

As I walk the campus—and, as you know, I do walk the campus—everyone registers an opinion. I love that. I treasure the personal interactions, the exchanges of information, and the diverse perspectives.

UMass Boston alumnus Mayor Thomas Menino is famous for being everywhere in the city, asking “How can I help?” The beauty of this campus is, I don’t have to ask. I get suggestions from everyone. I am blessed in having a whole community of chancellors, who care deeply about this place and are not shy in asking questions or offering opinions on matters great and small.

I hear from workers in the cafeteria. I get advice from the facilities department. A positive spirit permeates this campus. Take Dane Popplewell, for example. He’s rebuilding our plaza cement block- by-cement-block, and every time I pass by, he weighs in with a “How’re you doing Dr. Motley? Hope you have a nice day!” even though he is constantly working in at least 80 degree heat and the wet cement becomes posters for lovebirds and other campus artistes. So too do the painters, who keep me posted on how things are going. Their recent project, painting 80 rooms in seven days, has been outstanding. They take pride making sure our students have the best because, as they put it, our students deserve the best. The faculty of the College of Public and Community Service, instead of having a lazy summer on the beach, have worked hard to rethink the mission of that college. They were eager to tackle the challenge. Those are just a few examples of how we are poised to launch this year on every front—from our physical surroundings to our intellectual output.

I talked a lot last year about values and vision, but I also made some observations about bricks and mortar. I am pleased to report that the cornerstone of our master plan, a $100 million new Integrated Sciences Complex, is underway.

Last month Governor Deval Patrick signed into law legislation that provides up to one billion dollars for the five campuses of the University of Massachusetts to address too-long-neglected infrastructure needs. His funding will help provide better classrooms, laboratory technology, and IT systems. It is part of our ongoing effort to meet our physical infrastructure challenges. I want you to know, President Wilson, that I’ll be at the chancellors’ meetings to oversee the flow of that money, and I’ll be looking for resources for buildings 4 and 5 in our master plan.

The higher education bond bill is a major achievement, but we cannot rest here. We know that many of our needs are still greatly underfunded, and we have a long way to go. We also know that, working in a public university, we are often forced to tighten our belts to adjust to lean times. And, for me, that belt tightening is no mean feat!

We on this campus are not immune to the cold economic winds bearing down on our region like a Nor-easter in January. But we are a nimble and creative community. And I am optimistic that, with all of us pulling together, we will weather any storm and succeed in our great journey.

Last year, I stood in this very place and told you that I would dedicate myself to the development of the student-centered, urban public university of the new century. Today, I would like to take one of the words in the title of that speech—the word “public”—and reflect on its special importance for our role as a public university, our distinct mission, and some of the challenges our many “chancellors” talk to me about.

I recalled the goal of the founders of the University of Massachusetts Boston some forty-four years ago: to create an urban public university that would offer its students an education equal in quality to that provided by the best private liberal arts colleges and universities in the Commonwealth and beyond. The guiding principle was that no student—because of modest circumstances—was to be denied equality in the opportunities that higher education can offer.

This commitment is a centerpiece of my vision for this campus.

To most Americans, public universities and colleges are what one means when talking about higher education. They enroll over 75 percent of all college students and award most of the undergraduate and graduate degrees.

We in Massachusetts are a national anomaly. We are the only state that educates more students through private universities than public ones.

As I’ve said on many occasions, “public,” to me, is connected to the concepts of access, affordability, and quality. “Public” also speaks to engagement, to responsibilities of citizenship, to shaping the future by responding to constant challenges on new frontiers.

Public universities have been created to serve the public interest and provide a public good. Their evolution is an extension of the social contract articulated by thinkers in all societies, as the basis of society. The understanding here was that, in exchange for serving the public good through education and innovation, these institutions were to receive public support and guidance.1

The responsibility to each other, this social contract, was never an immutable agreement, but a memorandum of understanding subject to renegotiation from generation to generation.

As our rapidly expanding nation grew from its agrarian roots into its urban industrial and post-industrial phases, elected and appointed officials decided, at different times, just what social values, changing needs, and aspirations required expression in academic programs and which educational priorities warranted public investment.

Remember the different rationales behind the founding of the land grant colleges and the post-World-War-II GI Bill: different assessments of who should be educated —and why.

Traditionally, public universities have differed from private institutions in governance, cost, size, funding sources, and responsibilities toward teaching and research. In recent years, these distinctions have tended to blur. But clear differences remain in their respective missions and commitment to social responsibilities.

A public university is unique among institutions of higher education. It can’t hide. It is complex and serves multiple constituencies, who often espouse conflicting agendas.

Access, affordability, quality and engagement are all intertwined in assessing the challenges of a public university generally—and our campus in particular. Whom do we recruit, who gets in, how do we teach, what are our benchmarks for excellence?

Expectations of public colleges and universities have been complicated by competing scholarship in the area of human development, conflicting assessments of the nature of intelligence, and an often underlying ambivalence about the importance of equality. These cross pressures have fueled a host of debates over the definition and proper role of a vibrant research university. A little historical perspective is useful.2

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts was home to the nation’s first public school and the first public library, but, despite the term “commonwealth,” our state has not been high on public higher education historically, and not particularly democratic in its impulse toward higher education generally.

Private institutions dominated the scene until the late nineteenth century, and they were run as a semi-hereditary system. Your parentage was more important than your intellectual abilities. Your father went to Harvard, so you went to Harvard, and your sons and grandsons went to Harvard. Note the gender reference. Access to higher education was for men, and men of certain religious and racial backgrounds only. Women and minorities need not apply. Even Thomas Jefferson and John Adams supported the concept of a “natural aristocracy among men.”3

This hereditary design eventually provoked a reaction that went as follows: if intelligence were the most important human trait, society should be organized around it.4 So a movement formed to identify and screen the intelligence of high school students through standardized tests. This business of sorting out intelligence posed a special challenge to public colleges and universities.

They faced the burden of “catching up” with the privates, which were seen as setting the standard for quality, but also had to respond to calls for access. This challenge continues today as public universities have increasingly become the “new frontier” for educational advancement.

The image of universities, particularly public ones, staking their claims on the new frontiers of knowledge is intriguing. As a concept, it’s not actually that new. The American wellspring was historian Frederick Jackson Turner’s famous essay in 1893 on the significance of the frontier. His thesis was that the American frontier decisively influenced our national character and the development of our democratic ideals. According to Turner, society’s focus on equality was more a product of the expanding frontier of the “West”—where people had found opportunities—and not so much a real policy commitment among political or educational leaders. In other words, as long as there was more than enough to go around, everyone could get a piece of the action.

With the frontier closing, however, there needed to be a new source of opportunities, if the American credo of equality were to mean anything. So critics of the hereditary habits of private universities, armed with the frontier thesis, came to see education, particularly public education, as the new frontier. The idea gained popular support especially in the rising urban centers, where new immigrants were arriving to help fuel the nation’s industrial engine and, at the same time, better their lives.

Then, as now, the public university was the instrument for providing the supposed equality of the “new frontier.” It was also the vehicle for inculcating the ideological focus on the American spirit of individualism.

Meanwhile, the challenges of the Russian Revolution, touting its own new frontier of worker equality, made education here, particularly higher education, a matter of national security. Time and again, the Cold War drove many of last century’s educational priorities. The idea was to expand opportunities for college education so more people would be invested in this nation’s social and economic system.

Over time, people began to appreciate the differences between the life chances of those with a college education and those without it—differences in status, quality of life, children’s prospects, and personal liberty. Expressed in financial terms, the differences have been put at over a million dollars in earning capacity in a lifetime.

In many ways, education has become a national obsession. Every politician pledges to improve it. It is a fundamental good that parents try to get for their children.

But, for the public university, getting it right hasn’t always been easy. We’ve been dogged by too narrow a definition of intelligence and limited by the standardized test results that measure intelligence. We thought we were creating a meritocracy, but, lo and behold, those who made the cut were children of parents who had succeeded by the old rules and had their children coached and tutored to compete according to those rules.

We’re smarter today. We now know that people possess many different intellectual faculties— what we call multiple intelligence. These faculties—linguistic, mathematical, musical, spatial, and more—have considerable independence from one another.5 Traditional recruitment approaches that ignore this fact end up promoting inequality and depriving us of talent.

You and I know that you simply cannot fit people, in all their complexities, into a formulaic sorting out. Half the human family doesn’t fit the framework. And the sorting leaves you with a commitment to higher education for the few, not the many. The public university sees as its mission to serve the many. The public university takes all who are qualified.

We face another challenge as a research university, and that is the need to be student-centered. Traditionally, the great knock on public research universities is that the intellectual capital of the faculty doesn’t trickle down to the students. All too often a focus on research comes at the expense of teaching, a lessening of the undergraduate educational experience. A single-minded focus on publication and grantsmanship without regard for the equally important roles of teaching and service is self-defeating.6

What’s worse, a publish-or-perish syndrome can lead to cut-throat competition in an environment that should be fostering collaboration. We need to look at our various research projects, see who is working on what and how the cross-pollination of efforts can have a multiplier effect. That’s the purpose of the new research clusters we have formed.

Harry Lewis, a former Harvard College dean, in his book Excellence Without a Soul, has written about how the competitive pressures faced today by research universities distract from helping undergraduate students develop and shape their lives. He wrote:

    Universities have forgotten their larger educational role for college students. They succeed, better than ever, as creators and repositories of knowledge. But they have forgotten that the fundamental job of undergraduate education is to turn eighteen-and nineteen-year-olds into twenty-one and twenty-two-year-olds, to help them grow up, to learn who they are, to search for a larger purpose for their lives…. Every student needs…help in shaping the life that he or she will lead.7

We at the University of Massachusetts Boston must indeed produce excellence, but it must be excellence with a soul.

To do this, we have to avoid falling into traps. Traps like confusing traditional definitions of selectivity with quality. Traps like the budget-cutting arguments of those who view higher education as essentially a private good, a private benefit, for those who can pay, and not as a public good, a public right, a national security priority worthy of a public investment. In a world where jobs are uncertain and careers are not permanent, it’s more critical than ever that we educate people now who can learn throughout their lives.

The forces of globalization are relentless and unforgiving.8 Many of our esteemed local private colleges see their mission as providing leaders who can move themselves and the jobs they control anywhere in the world to take advantage of changing markets. Most of them leave this area upon graduation.

While some of our graduates may play in that world, most of them are committed to working, living, and raising their families here. The return on investment on our graduates is real. Once again, we must understand that national security, as well as higher moral imperatives, demands no less.

Until the higher education bond bill just signed into law by Governor Patrick, Massachusetts was the only state that spent less on education than it did ten years ago. Only four states spent less than Massachusetts on higher education capital improvements between 2004 and 2006. The national average is twelve percent spending on capital improvements for public colleges and universities. During that time, our state spent a meager three percent, and, even with the recent important infusion of support, new state funding over the next five years won’t even get us to the national average.

Many believe that private institutions here serve the functions of public schools elsewhere, and their sheer number provides a ready excuse for underfunding public higher education. But to draw such conclusions is both wrongheaded and dangerous. There is a distinct and important role played by public colleges and universities and by our campus in particular. We welcome the Patrick administration’s understanding of this, and we look forward to the Governor’s Higher Education Task Force report to buttress our case.

So what do we do? In a global society, there is no governance structure to fix inequalities the way our state and national governments have tried to do in the past.

We can focus on economic development, all the while sorting for the “natural aristocracy,” but this will only compound our problems.

We can reinvest modestly in public higher education. But we are derelict in our duty as a society if we end up just limping along, protecting those who quietly fear a society of equals, and subvert the futures of our children and children’s children.

We are facing a new frontier in the United States and in Massachusetts, a frontier as daunting as that faced by pioneers of the Old West. The challenges on our frontier have to do with global economic and technical competition, global warming, crumbling physical infrastructure, “fossil fuel scarcity,” unprecedented diversity, increased private and public debt, and a public education system that is starved. Global markets are inherently dis-equalizing, meaning they make rising inequality more likely and more dismaying, not less.

We must commit ourselves to a system of education—led by public research universities—that produces the best basic and applied research on terms equal to the best at any private university, link that research with the best teaching, and link teaching and research to the mission of transforming societies into more wholesome environments for human social, moral, and spiritual habitation.

For me, I begin from—and return to—my understanding of public: that which is related to or affects all people; all people. No one is dispensable.

And I conclude that we cannot discharge the responsibilities we have as a public university by allowing the pursuit of excellence—and we will pursue excellence—to undermine our obligations to undergraduate students or our more general obligations to the many publics of the multi-bordered world we serve.

And this begins with the keen awareness of the dramatic diversity of our students, whether we are talking age, background, stage of life, abilities, or goals.

All students who are qualified and committed to the demands of a university education should find our doors open to them. And we must hold fast to the larger ends of education, which comprise nothing less than the development of human beings; and I repeat, human beings.

We cannot do this alone. For those who harbor “purpose envy” against us, because they see us as having a clear purpose, we must give them more to be envious about. Let us work with all people of good will, who are committed to the public. We must find collaboration locally and elsewhere; we must persuade the public and the legislature to “come home” to the interest of the public, so that ballot questions like the one abolishing the income tax will have few takers. We must return to the idea of public education as an investment.

An investment in an adequately skilled workforce who can meet the needs of employers, employers who have no compunctions about moving to another state or country. How can Massachusetts thrive socially, economically and morally if opportunities go elsewhere?

An investment that exposes our students to an environment where the inventory from the universe of meanings is available to them. The equal distribution of that inventory is an unassignable public responsibility.

An investment in the recruitment of professors whose values include the co-equal importance of research and teaching, and who think the narrative imagination is sacred, something to be protected and nurtured in our students.

An investment in the pursuit of “a third culture”—one in which scientific literacy and cultural studies are not strangers in the same individual and society.

An investment in the careful advising and mentoring of our students, and the nurturing and development of our faculty.

An investment in civic engagement, not as a marginal association, but a central feature of what we are. Many of our faculty already work in the community. The multi-bordered university should be able to do this everywhere the public’s interest seeks and needs it, locally, nationally, globally.

I have asked the provost to take the lead on making this a university-wide endeavor. The stewardship we have for the well-being of the public, as a public university, cannot be carried out half-heartedly. It must face up to—and surmount—the challenges we have faced historically and still face today.

With energy and creativity, we can brighten the future of the University of Massachusetts Boston, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and future generations of students. As Governor Patrick has said, each of us has a chance at the American dream. Each of us—through hard work, creativity, discipline and vision—can transform our lives and the lives of others.

Faculty and staff have a stake in the success of our students. Our students have a stake in the future.

As the governor put it in Denver last month: “If we want the leadership our times demand, we are going to have to work for it.”9

And I say to you that, if we want the University of Massachusetts Boston to be all it can be, we’re going to have to work for it.

If we want to harness our skills to solve the nation’s problems, we at this university are going to have to work for it.

If we want to become the world-class student-centered public research university that we all aspire to, we are going to have to work for it.

There is a temple inside our being; we attend it when we minister to the best that is within us.

We must protect and care for that temple. Its care entails, at a minimum, that we not forget our own moral being. Service to the public is not to gain a salary, only.

It is part of an ever-expanding “new frontier,” which is now part of our emerging global society; it is also part of our journey of personal and social growth.

In that growth, we interact with the temple, and encounter our own nobility.

You are the right people at the right time,

serving the right institution,

with the right passion,

for the right reasons.

I call you, this audience of my fellow “chancellors,” to nobility, in your service to our great public university, the University of Massachusetts Boston.



This is an edited, annotated version of a speech given by Chancellor J. Keith Motley of the University of Massachusetts Boston in the university’s Campus Center at the annual Convocation on September 8, 2008.

1 For background, see James J. Duderstadt and Farris W. Womack, The Future of the Public University in America: Beyond the Crossroads (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003); Report of the Commission on Public University Renewal, “Renewing the Promise: the Public Universities in a Transforming World,” American Association of State Colleges and Universities, 2005; “Partnerships for Public Purposes: Engaging Higher Education in Societal Challenges of the 21st Century,” National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, April 2008.

2 These and following observations reflect and respond to information and views in Nicholas Lemann, The BigTest: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999).

3 See Lemann, Chapter 4.

4 See Lemann, Chapters 1-3.

5 See Howard Gardner, Extraordinary Minds: Portraits of Exceptional Individuals and an Examination of Our Extraordinariness (New York: Basic Books, 1997), p. 35.

6 See Luc E. Weber and James J. Duderstadt (editors), Reinventing the Research University (London: Economica, 2004).

7 Harry R. Lewis, Excellence Without a Soul: How a Great University Forgot Education (New York: Public Affairs, 2006), p. xii.

8 See William Greider, One World, Ready or Not: The Manic Logic of Global Capitalism (New York: Touchstone, 1997).

9 Deval Patrick, Remarks Prepared for Delivery to Democratic National Convention, August 26, 2008.