The University

Convocation Address: Toward the Student-Centered, Urban Public University of the New Century

J. Keith Motley, PhD, UMass Boston Chancellor | September 10, 2007

Thank you, President Wilson, trustees, all my colleagues in the President’s Office, Dr. JudyAnn Bigby, distinguished guests, students, faculty, and staff. My beautiful wife Angela is here today, our children are in school, and one is working up the street at Enterprise.

It is with great enthusiasm that I stand before you today to deliver this, my first convocation address1 as chancellor of this wonderful university.

At the founding of the University of Massachusetts Boston in 1964, a principal goal of the state legislature and other founders was 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.

Students from a variety of socio-economic backgrounds were not—because of modest circumstances—to be denied equality in the opportunities that higher education can offer.

This commitment to quality and equality has meant many things. For one thing, this urban public university is clearly in the spirit of the great tradition of land-grant colleges, a spirit that is very much alive here today.

My immediate predecessor, Dr. Michael Collins, embraced that commitment. And former Chancellor Sherry Penney, who is here with us today, worked hard to fulfill that expectation of quality, as she moved aggressively to develop doctoral programs. Chancellors David Mackenzie and JoAnn Gora, faced with some significant budgetary challenges, never wavered.

My personal experience, when I was here as vice chancellor for student affairs, and then as interim chancellor, persuaded me that students, faculty, staff, and other members of the campus community saw themselves as building a great university.

Since my return as chancellor, in July of this year, my meetings with students, faculty, administrators, and staff, have only reinforced that knowledge. I am committed to honoring the vision of the founders of this university and to keeping faith with the high expectations of its students, faculty, staff, and alumni. I know the president feels that way, and members of the Board of Trustees expect no less.

Let’s look at just a few examples of what we did last year alone in that pursuit of excellence.

One of the accomplishments last academic year was our recruitment of new professors. At this time I invite members of our new faculty to stand. We have, among this group, representatives from thirteen different countries. 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. And few are the professional achievements for professors that supersede the winning of tenure. It is my pleasure to acknowledge the newly tenured professors of the university. Please hold your applause until I have concluded the list of names: professors Ann Blum, Alex Des Forges, Lisa Gonsalves, Jeffrey Keisler, Askold Melnyczuk, Cheryl Nixon, Mary Oleskiewicz, Marc Pomplun, Lorna Rivera, and Stephen Silliman. Congratulations. 

Full professorship is the highest academic achievement a member of the faculty can have. I now recognize those who were recently promoted to full professor: professors Arindam Bandopadhyaya, Carol Ellenbecker, Virginia Harvey, Martha Montero-Sieburth, Rachel Rubin, and Meng Zhou.

To all the new full professors, may you continue your outstanding research, teaching, and service, in leading the university by example. Thank you so much.

Finally, I would like to introduce to you three new members of our senior administration: Professor Carol Colbeck, dean of the College of Education and Human Development, who joins us from Penn State University; Professor Andrew Grosovsky, dean of the College of Science and Mathematics, who joins us from the University of California Riverside; and Dr. Anne Agee, our chief information officer, who joins us from the Connecticut state university system, where I know she had a good pedigree because she worked with one of my mentors, Dr. David Carter.

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

I’m going to be talking a lot today about values and vision, but I also want to make an observation about bricks and mortar.

Over 40 years ago, University of California President Clark Kerr said in his Godkin lecture at Harvard, “I have sometimes thought of the modern university as a series of individual faculty entrepreneurs held together by a common grievance over parking.”2

Clark Kerr had his laugh line, but this is serious business for me. I want to assure you that I see infrastructure needs as part of the university’s foundation, quite literally, and additionally seek better classrooms and laboratory technology, IT systems that work for us, and meeting our physical infrastructure challenges through methodical and consistent effort.

Over the next year, we will be working together to articulate and implement a shared vision for the future of this wonderful university. Some of that has already emerged from the strategic and master planning in which the campus has been engaged for over a year.

A central part of my vision is rooted in the idea of a student-centered, urban public university for the new century.

First, let me note that the words “urban” and “public”—for me—have a distinguishing and special meaning. “Public” is associated with access, affordability, and quality, but “public” also speaks to responsibilities of citizenship, including helping to shape societies of the future. “Urban” suggests the multiplication of the promise and challenges that society faces. It points to the site of innovation, creativity, and, optimally, openness of spirit from which the challenges can be properly met.

So, Keith, what is this student-centered, urban public university?

It is one that sees itself as the center of creativity and innovation and accepts that students, who represent youth—in spirit not just in age—can be the very embodiment of novelty and creativity. Their passions, their impulses, their instincts can all work toward those ends. Faculty members too, of course, are centers of innovation and creativity, just as they are the centers for the conservation of our intellectual capital and the exploration of new frontiers. But the student-centered university begins where students are—students who want to be part of original research, not merely imbibers of facts and the ideas of others.

The student-centered, urban public university is one that recognizes that change and renewal are part of its essence. And here I am not referring to the circadian academic rhythm of graduating students each June, and then welcoming a new cohort each September. Renewal does entail these rhythms, of course, but it also encompasses the return of those who left, after perhaps a year with us, for a variety of reasons; those who—from anxiety, uncertainty, fear, illness of a loved one, or financial considerations—could not complete even the first semester, but who come to find a new “self” and return to join us. There are others who, after continuing with us, have a different view of life; and still others who, having moved to raise a family, come back to make another mark.

The continuing renewal of the student-centered, urban, public university makes it potentially the most powerful agent of social and cultural change.

This multi-faceted university is also a multi-bordered community, one not so much defined by the location of the physical buildings—after all, universities are not just buildings—but the multiple and diverse locales from which its students come. Those boundaries are local, regional, national, and global. We have students from over 140 countries who, at home, speak 90 different languages.

The concept of civility rose out of the idea of the city and its need to deal with dense populations of “different people.” The city could not exist without civility—a certain politeness, courteousness, and cordiality which suggests consideration of and for others. In many ways, the world has become a “global village.” It demands we aspire to that same civility.

It is from the city, also, that we derive the term “civic,” which focuses on the public and the wider community. To civilize someone, therefore, is to socialize that person into a consideration of the public, the community—to shape an attitude and mode of behavior that allows one to be a fit cohabitant of the city.

I suggest to you that the student-centered, urban public university of the new century must incorporate into civility an ethic of care for those who are co-occupants of our common communities, the most complex of which is the global community. This university is—and must be—about that ethic of care. We are about educating the entire person.

We must never take for granted how we treat each other. We are focused on building supportive relationships between faculty and students, between staff and students, and among students themselves. No institution is so big that it cannot stop for a minute to ensure that the members of its community are looking out for their peers or colleagues with a genuine sense of caring.

To paraphrase Victor Hugo, if one must civilize a person, one must begin with her or his grandparents. Look to your right and look to your left. Tomorrow’s grandparents are with us now. We even have—another expression of our diversity—some of today’s grandparents with us (a club that I am proud to belong to). We embody a cross-section of the human family, of global society. A student-centered university must prepare those students, those grandparents, for the world in which we must co-exist and thrive, and help to enrich their presence.

Harvard social scientist Robert Putnam, the author of Bowling Alone, recently published a controversial study on diversity and democracy in the twenty-first century.3 He concluded that, although, in the medium-to-long run, immigration and diversity have important benefits, in the short term, often due to conflicts over limited resources, immigration and ethnic diversity lead to reduced social capital and civic engagement.

The challenge is to get previously separate groups to see themselves as part of a shared group with a shared identity, to create a new, broader sense of “we.” I submit to you that, at the University of Massachusetts Boston, we are already successfully meeting this challenge, for here previous strangers come to realize how much they have in common.

Every day on our campus we strive to create “new, cross-cutting forms of solidarity and more encompassing identities.”4 The University of Massachusetts Boston campus is diverse and vibrant. It is also a place of respect, consideration for others, and genuine care. I believe the Greater Boston region can learn from us.

We welcome the challenges and the opportunities of diversity. It is part of our being, part of what is called a “civilizing ethic of care identity.”5 And far from seeing immigrants and diverse groupings as lacking in social capital, we welcome that capital in the form of curiosity, enthusiasm, gratefulness, and persistence. These forms of social capital are central to the enterprise of human growth and development.

The student-centered, urban public university helps to develop citizens who can contribute to our encounters with complexity. Citizenship for us goes beyond the conventional emphasis on the “rights” and “powers” associated with it to include responsibility and accountability, which, sadly, appear to be lacking in public life today. That responsibility and that accountability, which so effectively complement rights and powers, are in part measured in civic engagement—engagement with the multiple communities to which we individually and collectively belong.

The ancient founders of democracy understood that one could not be a citizen and at the same time be civically disengaged. Indeed, the person who was disengaged, who took no part in his civic duties, was one who was regarded as “idiotes”—a private person whom Pericles described as not merely unambitious but someone who was useless.6

Engagement may take many forms, but among those forms of its expression should be those of helping to address some of the outstanding challenges to communities, local, national, and global—challenges such as global warming, the integrity of the environment, and social disparities, be they in health, income, enlightenment, housing, security, or access to influence in shaping the responses to human collective and individual needs.

To be effectively engaged, of course, requires not only that one has the inclination and interest to do so, but, as well, the knowledge, technical skills, and conceptual and theoretical breadth to identify, to predict, broker, or solve challenges. These activities may have to be addressed world-wide, so systems thinking, experimentation, collaboration, and abstract analysis, must be conjoined with efforts at finding practical solutions.

We must aspire to be a cutting-edge university, to anticipate the needs of the future and meet them here.

The student-centered, urban public university for the new century must be committed not only to continuing to prepare students in the language of arts literacy that defined the “best education” in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but, as well, in the twenty-first-century language of technological and scientific literacy of the first order.

The type of preparation I refer to entails the development of research and teaching clusters, as well as collaborative ventures, which reflect the fact that the major issues facing society today cannot be adequately addressed by thinking that strictly follows traditional disciplinary boundaries. Likewise, no single university or research institution, however academically distinguished or materially well-endowed, will be able to solve all the daunting problems of the world.

From the standpoint of the most weighty responsibilities of universities, the real world in which we lead our lives does not observe the disciplinary boundaries established within the academy, although each of these individual disciplines has added much to our understanding of things. A course on “Gender and Society,” for example, may have to include sociology, politics, history, neuroscience, evolutionary psychology, human genetics and medicine, history of science, and law. And one on “Life” may have to include physics, astronomy, evolutionary biology, earth and space science, philosophy, and religion.

The two examples are purposely given, because I want to make another point about the student-centered, urban public university of the new century: it must be one that offers its students an opportunity to be multilingual. Only by becoming multilingual will they be able to recognize the processes in our rapidly evolving world, make choices, find their way, develop coherent moral and social selves, and assume the tasks of citizenship.

Let me explain how I mean “multilingual.” The term “multilingual,” referring to an individual who uses two or more languages, is one about which the academy has rightly concerned itself over the years. Traditionally, when the term has been used, it has referred to the laudable goal of ensuring that students (and members of the public, in general) acquire some mastery of languages other than one’s mother tongue, whether Spanish, Hindi, Chinese, Swahili, German, Arabic or something else. More broadly, language is a system of communicating with other people using sounds, symbols, and words and other cultural cues in expressing a meaning, idea, or thought.

But language can also refer to specialized expressions that are peculiar to a field of study or activity. This is the sense in which I use the term “multilingual.” Our students will need to master the languages—the ideas, the assumptions, the conceptual frameworks, and modes of analysis—of many (often overlapping) fields. So they must become multilingual in the languages of history (not just an aggregation of facts), mathematics, biology, neurology, economics, chemistry, ethics, film, and poetry.

The student-centered, urban public university of this new century must explicitly recognize that students bring with them a wealth of experience, one on which the university can build. We often say this, but we have not always made it explicit, in the sense that professors—the best of whom historically have been some of the most admirable students throughout their lives—seek to include students as part of a community of learners and teachers.

A mentor of mine, Dr. Sarah Lawrence Lightfoot, uses a process called portraiture in her writing. She uses portraits to open your mind’s eye. So, visualize a student exploring, with her digital camera, a street in an industrial city in Japan, its crowded apartment and office buildings rising to the sky. She tells how she turns off that urban thoroughfare and enters a passage by a river. Garbage cans give way to tropical plants. A small river opens up to a lake, a beautiful pagoda stretches out into the water. Swans gracefully paddle near the shore. Plum trees blossom on the surrounding hillsides. A shrine for prayer and reflection blends unassumingly into the natural setting. Isn't that just beautiful?

She feels as if she has stumbled into “a whole different dimension.” She realizes that “the families in the nearby apartments [and] the workers in the offices…could [use that] park …to unwind and reflect.” She realizes that there is “an equilibrium between the sacred shrines and the surrounding community” and begins to write in her journal that her understanding of the world has changed. She understands that studying the liberal arts is much like this neighborhood in Japan, “a mixture of elements coming together to serve a purpose.”7

Exploring areas that one has not visited before and discovering that they are like one’s “neighborhood”–using neighborhood literally and metaphorically—“a mixture of elements coming together to serve a purpose”—are part of what it means to be part of the diverse, the urban, and the public.

Picture another university student who writes:

Instead of viewing the university’s task as one of training students in their respective areas of inquiry,…the emphasis should instead lie upon giving students broad tools of analysis and interpretation that enable them to function effectively across disciplines, regardless of what they happen to study.8

And what are these tools? The tools to observe, reason, criticize, analyze, understand, act upon information from increasingly diverse sources, using “integrated methods of quantitative and qualitative analysis reaching across the social and natural sciences and the humanities.” In doing so, he says, we can strive “toward the development of globally minded, fluid, analytical citizens able to effectively function in the context of an increasingly complex, pluralistic world.”9

These students have had experiences on which our university can build. They understand that our times require movement across traditional academic borders, finding connections among the mixture and many-sidedness of things, as one learns by comparison and by locating family resemblance among the diverse. Of course, all of this mixture and diversity are part of the unity of knowledge, the union of history, and the fact that the planet earth on which we live is itself “a single, though highly differentiated, community.”10

New York University history and humanities professor Thomas Bender questions claims of U.S. “exceptionalism” and argues that the history of the United States is “but one history among histories.” The “argument here,” says Professor Bender, “is that…there is a common history that includes all [but] it plays out in many local variations.” Then he goes on to say that:

If we begin to think as a local instance of a general history, as one history among others, not only will historical knowledge be improved, but the cultural foundations of a needed cosmopolitanism will be enhanced. We do not want to reinforce a narrow and exclusive notion of citizenship [here comes that word again!], but [to] encourage and sustain a citizenry at once proud nationals and humble citizens of the world.11

These observations reflect the broad context within which the lives of students and future generations must develop; the need for flexibility through which they, the students, can be part of widening networks, opening themselves to the possibility of life-transforming encounters; and a real concern that their “life chances” could be cut short if their education is not focused on the long-term, progressive unfolding of their capacities.

They must also be concerned about something else: nothing less than the repositioning of disciplines, education, academic institutions, and individuals to face a new world. Professor Bender’s emphasis on cosmopolitanism is, above all, an effort at re-positioning.

The urban is the seat of the cosmopolitan, the flexible, the networks, and the transformational. All we need to do is to live out the full meaning of what we are. I intend to see that this university makes every effort to do so and, in accomplishing that, helps make the city of Boston not just the capital of the Atlantic rim but a gateway to the world.

I want briefly to touch on three other features of the student-centered, urban public university of the new century: the place of the faculty and staff, the campus environment within which teaching and learning take place, and the graduate.

It is important to recognize that, in the student-centered university, the faculty occupies the central core—one that makes possible all of what I have sketched about students. I embrace the accomplishments and potential of this institution as a public research university, the only one in the Greater Boston region. It is on the shoulders of many giants here today that we will build an international reputation for leading research in the twenty-first century.

We are quick to note that, at the same time as we have a faculty engaged in research, it is also involved in teaching. And we must remember that teaching and learning also take place in settings other than the academic side of the university—settings that are critical for the development of the whole person, such as extracurricular affairs and athletics.

Since the prospects for students are so dependent on professors and other teachers, it follows that the student-centered university will expend every effort to recruit and retain the best available professors and teachers who will help students in their development and prepare them for the future they envision, even one which they may not have dreamt about themselves when they entered the university.

In the case of the environment for learning and growing, the student-centered university needs classrooms of the best kind, labs, studios, libraries, counselors, librarians, enriched and enriching cultural activities, professors who love to extend the classroom, and strong and sympathetic leaders in student affairs, athletics, financial aid, institutional advancement, as well as administration and finance. In other words, we need all of you. Many of you walk up and say, “We need you.” But I need you. We need all of you. This is about all of us.

Our staff also must be student-centered, seeing itself as the great facilitators to chairs, deans, and vice chancellors, among others—but above all, facilitators in the process of learning and teaching. The staff here is indispensable to the can-do success of this university. However, if one, as a staff member, cannot be a facilitator, then may I humbly suggest that there might be other places for such a person to work?

The student-centered, urban public university will produce graduates who are leaders. Too often we yield to others positions of leadership, especially at the national and global levels. Is this a lack of self-confidence? If so, we must change this diffidence. Remembering the vision of this university’s founders and the illustrious careers of many of our alumni, we must audaciously claim the meaning of our birthright.

Leadership should be in all areas—in education, science, technology, business, commerce, government, philanthropy, dispute resolution, law, policy studies, communications, sports, medicine, in culture leadership broadly understood, including creative writing, and in community building.

Who is to be the true leader if not one who is creative, one accustomed to change and renewal, who lives with and in multi-bordered, overlapping communities, who embodies the ethic of care in her or his understanding of civility, who is always a grandparent in attitude, who combines the language of arts literacy with technological and scientific literacy, who is multilingual, who accepts accountability as part of responsibility, who is engaged—a cosmopolitan who seeks to help people and institutions to re-position, who sees history, knowledge, and the very planet earth as single, though highly differentiated entities, who adds value and values, and who is young in heart?


Well, as Chinese philosopher Lao-tzu is said to have observed, a journey of many miles begins with the very first step.

We will begin with the work of the faculty, staff, and students which is the result of an intense, one-year effort in strategic planning. The report from the Chancellor’s Strategic Planning Task Force—which led that planning—was passed on to me when I became chancellor.

First, I agree with the four strategic goals established by the Strategic Planning Task Force and believe they can inform how we shape the life of the university over the next 25 years. These goals are:

  1. To increase student access, engagement, and success
  2. To attract, develop, and sustain highly effective faculty
  3. To create a physical environment that supports teaching, learning, and research.
  4. To enhance campus-community engagement though improved organizational structures

Now we know that there are many issues in the mix when we talk about making our university greater in these four areas. New academic buildings need to be constructed. We must increase our enrollment and also our financial aid. The master planning process must continue to unfold and plot the course of our physical campus.

We need to invest in our faculty and the facilities they use for research and teaching. We will discuss how we can strengthen our government and community relations. Finally, the task force has asked us to look at housing options for our students.

All of this is going to be developed during the next two months as I work with executive staff, the campus community, and other administrators to create the priorities and develop the strategies and funding mechanisms for the range of proposals we put in place through a final strategic plan. That plan will be presented to the campus, our external constituencies, and, in December, to the University of Massachusetts Board of Trustees through a process that will continue to be as open and inclusive as the year-long planning effort the task force just concluded.

These recommendations might seem ambitious to some of you, but I am ambitious for this campus. In some ways, I am not certain that the planners were ambitious enough. But that is a matter that the campus community, the president, and the Board of Trustees will wrestle with over time. It is also something that our own audaciousness will determine.

Governor Deval Patrick, at graduation, reminded us that we are not just facing a “local landscape” in planning our future—although that local landscape must be the foundation from which we pivot. He said to us: we “are about to enter an economy that does not recognize borders. The skills and talents [we] offer will be measured against those of people in Shanghai and Bangalore as well as in Raleigh and San Jose. China is building a university the size of UCLA every year for the next ten years.”12 That is enormous to contemplate!

I ask you to join me in boldly facing the future, in continuing our urban mission and pursuing the highest levels of excellence as we reposition to climb and contribute to the reshaping of our lives and the lives of many “beyond our borders.”

The drama of the urban must be part of us—we are all about adventure.

In closing, please visualize with me again.

There once was a university that sat in the most beautiful space in the city and had some of the most brilliant, caring faculty and staff working with a tremendously talented student body. For years that university—surrounded by one of the Creator’s great oceans—looked so inwardly at itself that it never took the time to reflect on its real space in the world. But one day it lifted its head and took a look out and realized that it is okay to claim its position as this country’s Great Student-Centered Urban Public University.

So I ask you—Risk more than others think is safe.
So I ask you—Care more than others think is wise.
So I ask you—Dream more than others think is practical.

Then I want all of us to wake up, and go to work expecting more than others think is possible.13

Thank you; and my blessings for a new academic year.


1This 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 10, 2007.

2Clark Kerr, The Uses of the University (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1972), 20.

3Robert D. Putnam, “E Pluribus Unum: Diversity and Community in the Twenty-First Century,” in Scandinavian Political Studies, vol. 30, no. 2 (2007).

4Putnam, “E Pluribus Unum,” 137.

5Putnam, “E Pluribus Unum,” 137.

6 See Thucydides’ account of the Funeral Oration of Pericles, which can be found in Robert B. Strassler, ed., The Landmark Thucydides (New York: The Free Press, 1996), where the reference to “useless” citizens is on page 113.

7The quoted material is taken from, and the preceding paragraph is paraphrased from, an essay by Heather Damitz, “Significant and Applicable Knowledge: Liberal Arts in the Twenty-first Century,” in Liberal Education (Fall 2006),

8Andrew Myszewski, “Empowering Citizens for the Twenty-first Century,” in Liberal Education (Fall 2006),

9Myszewski, “Empowering Citizens.”

10Thomas Berry, Evening Thoughts, ed. Mary Evelyn Tucker (San Francisco: Sierra Books, 2006), 20.

11Thomas Bender, “No Borders: Beyond the Nation-State,” in The Chronicle of Higher Education (April 7, 2006), 318. This article is adapted from Bender’s book A Nation Among Nations.

12Deval Patrick, “The Readiness Project: Education as Our Competitive Edge,” University of Massachusetts Boston commencement address (June 2007).

13“Risk more than others think is safe. Care more than others think is wise. Dream more than others think is practical. Expect more than others think is possible” appears in many collections of quotations, sometimes described as a maxim traditional among West Point cadets, sometimes attributed to Claude T. Bissell, a former president of the University of Toronto.