The University

The New Student-Centered, Urban Public Research University: Urban Mission with a Global Perspective

J. Keith Motley, PhD, Chancellor, UMass Boston | September 14, 2009

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Thank you, Vice President Williams, members of the board of trustees, distinguished guests, students, faculty, and staff for sharing this special ceremony. Thanks, Winston, Ellen, Tanveer Gill, Terral Ainooson, and Tara-Jean DeSisto for your presentations. Thank you, too, Professor Walker. We look forward to hearing your address. Welcome to Linda Edmunds Turner, president of the Urban College of Boston. And, even though President Jack Wilson is not here today, I want to express my thanks to him for his support and the trust he has placed in our decision-making process and the culture of our campus. Thanks, too, to my beautiful wife Angela for joining us today. We have much to be thankful for.

The past academic year has been a difficult time for the University of Massachusetts Boston, as it has for other educational institutions across the country. Confronted by unprecedented fiscal challenges, we have faced very difficult decisions. However, working collaboratively and with transparency, a lot of late nights, and cold pizza, we have carved out a course that, while painful, should get us to where we need to be.

So, here we are at convocation—and, to continue a tradition, I begin by recognizing certain individuals whose accomplishments merit special mention.

You know, it’s impossible to overstate the importance of our staff. That includes Maria Przychodski in the Quinn cafeteria, whose good cheer makes any day brighter.

I know I can get coffee or tea in my office, but I like starting the morning with Maria.

I think also of Tom Joyce in Engineering and my voyage to the labyrinth under our campus. It’s an astonishing world underneath, miles of wires and pipes, laboratories and offices, and air vents to the outside. It’s Tom who’s in charge of this place, who fixes everything and keeps this campus running, no matter what. Where would we be without him?

All of you here today are to be commended for your willingness to greet the challenges we face with creativity and courage. You are why, despite the issues we face, we are rapidly moving toward the fulfillment of our strategic goals.

Just consider:

Our newly opened $8 million state-of-the-art Venture Development Center is already approaching capacity. The center heralds the extension of university-driven development that occurs all along the Red Line and adds to the competitive advantage of our region. That’s the line that Harvard University President Drew Gilpin Faust rode to get to the opening of our center, to symbolize our connectedness.

Since her trip here, I’ve been thinking about the multicolored lines of the T and how each, in some way, speaks to an aspect of our campus.

The Orange Line links people from neighborhoods in and around Boston to its business, political, academic, medical, and nonprofit communities. We, too, are making connections beneficial to city and state.

The Blue Line, with its link to Logan, connects us to virtually any place on earth. Today, our university is on a grid of global proportions. Our urban reach is a global reach.

When I think Silver, I think about our path-breaking work in gerontology. And, when I think Green, I think about how this campus is getting greener.

Biology professor Michael Rex was honored by the U.S. Department of the Interior for his research on changes affecting the natural resources of the outer continental shelf. And so—from green back to red:

As we stand poised for the new academic year, let’s have a round of applause for all of you—students, faculty, administrators, and staff—who, day in and day out, play important roles, often unsung, and keep us moving, connecting, and serving.

Thanks to each and every one of you, we have great momentum.

Two years ago, I told you that I would be dedicating myself to the development of the student-centered, urban public research university. In my first speech to you as chancellor, I discussed what it means to be student-centered. Last year, I reflected with you on the special importance of our role as a public university. Today, I would like us to reflect on another word in that title, and, as you may have guessed, the word is “urban.”

In exploring the concept of that word, I also want to invite us to ponder how the special qualities of “urban” can help us understand and shape our urban mission.

For a long time, the urban was viewed not for what it is, but for what it was not. Compared to the rural or the pastoral, the urban was something to decry, not celebrate.1  In the last century, especially in America, writers and artists used it as a foil. Against it, they could mourn the passing of a bucolic, more contemplative life in the face of the destructive march of the industrial revolution.

But the world has changed, the paradigm has shifted, and we have come to understand that the word urban has many dimensions.2

Conceptually “urban” begins as a term of demography or geography, frequently a measure of population density.

To urban planners, it means the organization of physical space. To social scientists, the focus is on group and personal interrelationships in clusters of economic, social, and political activities.

And, as any ardent sports fan from Rio to Amsterdam to Tokyo can tell you, urban connections evoke fiercely “complex loyalties and loathings.”3 I can personally attest to the complex loyalties part. I have smiled with every Boston championship since I arrived here from Pittsburgh at the age of 17. But I remain a proud supporter of the Super Bowl Champion Pittsburgh Steelers!

We should also remember that, back when many writers penned their wistful odes to a pastoral life, most of our country—and indeed most of the world—actually lived outside of cities.

It was only two years ago, for the first time ever, that a majority lived within cities. By 2050, almost three quarters of the world will live in urban communities, and in communities far denser than you or I usually experience.

When you think about it, the dramatic growth and crowding are staggering. It is estimated that, of all the world’s cities in 1800, only London and Beijing had populations of one million. Even in 1900, only Great Britain could be called an urbanized society. By 1960, all industrialized nations were urbanized, and there were 111 cities with more than a million residents. Now the number is over 300, almost triple what it was fifty years ago.

We’re also witnessing a burgeoning number of so-called megacities, with populations over 10 million. There were five such cities in 1975, fourteen in 1995, and there will likely be 26 by 2015!

Most of this new urban growth is centered in the developing countries of the Global South—places like Brazil, Indonesia, India, and Nigeria—which in less than two decades will be home to nearly three of every five people.

This growth has consequences. A recent report warned that the unplanned growth of urban slums, and overburdened housing and infrastructure, could make hundreds of millions vulnerable to health and environmental threats. Citing UN Habitat, it warned that within the next thirty years a third of the world’s population could “live in near total squalor—lacking sanitation and clean water, fueling the spread of disease and possibly igniting the next global pandemic.”4 Consider the implications! Just think about this year’s swine flu scare and how quickly the illness contaminated people worldwide. Think about other problems—and our concerns multiply exponentially.

Remember Lewis Mumford writing in 1968 about the “progressive dissolution” of cities. Many of the social and structural pathologies he identified still exist.5

So, you wonder, how can it possibly be a good thing that the University of Massachusetts Boston is committed to being an urban university with an urban mission?

Clearly an urban research university can better respond to its urban mission when it more fully understands what, today, “urban” really is!

Urban is much, much more than population density, deteriorating conditions, and social pathology. Urban is where the power and culture of a community come together. Cities are where the goods of civilization are multiplied.6

Urban areas are the generators of hopes and dreams. They are the engines for stimulating intellectual capital, the magnets for thinkers and innovators, and the laboratories of new ideas, experimentation, products, and processes.

It is on urban turf where democratic principles are often put to their toughest tests.

Urban areas are a haven for newcomers large and small, weak and powerful, rich and poor. A meeting ground for multiple cultures, races, and ethnicities. Even when they fall short in meeting dreams, they remain the preferred choice for opportunities, the land of hope.

Plato saw the urban as subject to the laws of nature, with engineering, architecture, and economics reflecting the natural, physical terrain. In contrast, the Egyptians and Babylonians largely emphasized culture transcending nature.

Modern urban thinkers understand the urban center as an organic system, combining both nature and culture.

From my point of view, all the preceding are parts of the urban, but they don’t fully capture it. Let’s dig a little deeper. Let’s focus on four attributes of urban and see how they inform and can ultimately drive a university’s sense of urban mission.

First, let’s look at the attribute of transitivity. This is all about transition from one activity, outlook, place, or status, to another. Joseph Grange, in The City: An Urban Cosmology, writes: “From the physical to the cultural the city is active and alive, always in motion. It transfers information and emotions related to past, present and future. It encourages debates between the actual and the possible, contrasting what is, with what could, what should or what might be.”7

Today’s cities offer labor variety and job mobility unimaginable to those who came before us. And beyond the divisions of labor, many colors—from our clothing to our faces—and tones—from our modes of speech to our artistic expressions—are central to the urban.

The new immigrant—today poor and uncertain—might, with your guidance, become the graduating senior, in transit to becoming a physician, lawyer, nurse, or teacher. The drug addict, with treatment and community support, might be in transit to becoming an integrated personality and a productive member of society.

This transitivity of the urban holds true whether you’re in Lagos or Lima, Mumbai or Manila, Brussels or Boston.

The second important attribute of the urban is complexity. Opposites reside together and include extreme disparities in wealth, enlightenment, aesthetic sensibilities, and levels of social refinement. Wealthy mansion dwellers live not far from those who sleep in cardboard cartons on warm grates.

Once, community decision-making relied on the collective behavior of elites engaging face- to-face. Today, we depend on the cultivation of civic culture responsibilities mediated by many layers of people, positions, and technologies. All this has profound implications.

This vibrant complexity of the urban mosaic resonates with what our university, our urban university, is today.

Which brings us to the third attribute of the urban, falsifiability. The provisional nature of things urban mirrors the nature of all knowledge. We never prove scientific theories with finality; we only confirm them provisionally or disconfirm those that are clearly false. This is fundamental to critical thinking and rational analysis. It speaks to the power of intellectual diversity, openness to inquiry, and respect for scientific methods. It suggests that it is intellectual laziness to think there are only two sides to an issue. Indeed, the urban teaches that there are many, many sides, and each is capable of being disproven.

Trial and error in the marketplace of ideas is routine in the urban, often confounding stereotypes and discouraging the false comfort of the conclusive. The hallmark of a great university is that everything is open to debate and experimentation. Nothing is ever final. Hopes may hinge on the new, which may, in turn, be superseded by still newer information—until the next successful challenge.

And what is more productive of openness and humility, of scholarship and civility, than the understanding that our most strongly held views could, in effect, be falsified?

Against this backdrop, we can grapple with many values. Remember the courage of Emile Zola and the brave student who stood up to tanks in Tiananmen Square. Remember the timeless teaching of John Stuart Mill on liberty.8 If all humankind minus one holds a particular opinion, and that one person holds a contrary one, humankind is no more justified in silencing that one person than that person would be justified in silencing humankind.

Silencing one person undermines chances to exchange truth for error. Silencing subverts sharpening the outlines of claims being asserted. Silencing chokes opportunities that arise from inclusiveness. The urban is inclusive—in ideas, outlooks, orientations, styles, and persons.

So, while Stanford, Harvard, Yale, or Oxford might seek and gain their standing as “great universities” by how many students they exclude, the urban takes its measure from the many it includes.

So you can see that urban isn’t just a measure of population, noise, or diversity. Urban is also a state of mind. Understanding that, there is for our urban mission no single approach to teaching and learning, no single approach to inquiry and discovery, no single approach to the production of ideas and knowledge.

Theory-led inquiry and experimentation may be no more effective—and could be less effective—than a practice-based emphasis. And experiential, comparative, interdisciplinary, and trans-disciplinary emphases in teaching and learning may better express the urban than traditional approaches.

Let us take this idea of trans-disciplinarity.

Using a single discipline to pursue knowledge can lead to compartmentalization and unhelpful isolation. Consider, for example, our current great recession. Sub-prime lending initially was treated in isolation, but it really was connected with many other areas of social, economic, and political life. Without the urban perspective I’m talking about, people came late to understand and respond to its role in creating economic chaos worldwide.

I had a wonderful experience during this past year visiting the classroom of biology professor Garrison Wilkes. I expected to stop in for 15 minutes, but I stayed for the full class, transfixed by the power of his teaching and the complex linkages in the chain of nutrition he made compellingly clear.

The urban state of mind knows about the ecology of being. So, when we find people claiming to have simple solutions to complex phenomena, we should be skeptical. We alone, regardless of how brilliant we are, cannot deal with issues in isolation. Banks are interlinked globally; workers’ jobs are linked globally; the carbon contents of the air we breathe are linked globally, all in complicated ways.

Interdisciplinarity improves on the focus on a single discipline, but even it sometimes does not go far enough. Why? Things do not exist simply in network relationships. They engage in co-creating. Things work together to produce something else. This is embodied in the concept of transdisciplinarity, which speaks to the complexity of life and of knowledge. Just as it describes the life of our city, it also describes how we function as a university.

So, how does all this inform the special mission of a student-centered, urban public research university? Just what is our urban mission? It is something we have grappled with from the days of our very founding.

I would suggest we can better understand our urban mission by understanding the features of transitivity, complexity, falsifiability, and the urban state of mind.

Our urban mission reflects the complexity we speak about, whether we focus on the vulnerability of new immigrants in Greater Boston, the ordeal of a mother unable to care for her child, or the state’s failure to protect its marine resources and foster a sustainable food supply.

I strongly believe, however, that we must find in the urban mission of the University of Massachusetts Boston something more expansive than the unquestionably significant work we do on social pathologies here at home. This work has been an important part of our roots and our history. What I am proposing is an urban mission with a global perspective.

It must help deal on local, national, and international levels with social disparities, exclusion, marginalization, and their consequences. It must also address issues of sustainability on many levels, from ecological integrity to economic viability and social responsibility.9

Our urban mission must also be found in the transformative process that we constantly engage in as a civil society. We must prepare to transform societies by first helping to transform individuals through an education focused not only on job skills, but also on human development.

This is a development that sees no predefined end to human possibilities, but a continuous unfolding and becoming. It is from this human transformation that we can better deal with issues from climate change to nuclear proliferation.

Furthermore, as more and more lives throughout the world are increasingly defined by the urban, our university must play a key role in understanding and helping to shape institutions and practices across the spectrum of human activity. Part of our mission must be to mediate and resolve disputes and define creative responses.

Throughout our campus, there are many disciplines in which faculty and students alike are already animating the themes I’ve laid out and furthering our overall urban mission. It’s happening in green chemistry and its focus on the environment. It’s happening in gerontology, criminology, and molecular biology. Professor David Levy is making new connections between environmental sustainability and bottom-line business. And our creative writing faculty is nurturing the urban sensibilities of our next generation of novelists, able to explore and animate the complexities of urban life.

Note, by the way, that our evolving urban state of mind seeks to restore to our physical environment some enduring positive characteristics of rural life. Our new approach to campus design calls for continuing links to nature, neighborliness, and renewal of the self and others.

The ecological nature of the urban, its continuing evolution—including the best of the rural —should be at the core of how we behave as a student-centered, urban public research university. We must lead with values expressive of humankind’s common future. And we must engage our students’ search for connectivity to further the process.

How do we do that? We need to move away from fixed modes of teaching and learning to a rich body of approaches, to work across urban communities nationally and abroad, to use the main centers of thought—cities—to broaden education and link it to human self-realization and development.

I speak not of some credentialing process, which leaves its students with little to help them interact with the complexity they face.

Our goal is to teach in ways that involve students in all things urban. We must engage them to fight conditions that grind people down. We must prepare students to cope successfully with risk and disaster, in their many forms. We must encourage students to preserve and expand the heritage of the urban—for the urban is the fountainhead of ideas and practices that are creative, imaginative, and unafraid of constructive conflict.

In my inaugural address I noted that our campus looks out to its neighbors in Boston and surrounding communities, to the state and region, the nation and the world.

While nation states remain important, the primary building blocks of the new global economy, indeed the future of the world, will be driven by dynamic urban areas anchored by great cities.10

What we do here matters greatly. We have been called to lead, and we must respond to the call. In this intensely competitive global engagement, the University of Massachusetts Boston has a vital and indispensable role to play. And I call each of you to leadership in your own way.

We already have some outstanding examples.

Consider the role of Padraig O’Malley, who holds the Moakley Chair of Peace and Reconciliation. Last spring he hosted, here on campus, a forum on divided cities, with delegations from four such riven areas. He actually got the leaders of the divided cities in Serbia and Kosovo to agree to co-host next year’s inaugural meeting of the Forum for Cities in Transition. Padraig received the Liberal International Freedom award at the European Parliament in Brussels, recognizing his contribution to peace and democracy throughout the world. This is indeed our urban mission with a global perspective!

Closer to home, but again looking to expand our international role, we have established an Office of Global Programs under Professor Eunsook Hyun. She and her staff will help enrich the international elements of our teaching, research, and service.

Part of our mission must continue to be the historic outreach and indispensable connections we have made for years with our immediate neighbors in Boston communities and in surrounding cities and towns. Another part is helping Boston become one of the premier urban centers. In size, Boston is just 61st in the world, but we must help it become one of the top tier of world capitals, an innovator in health care, life sciences, education, financial services, and green technologies—all of which have leaders right here on our campus.

Think about our work in the vital area of water security and our ever-widening partnership projects with universities in New Delhi, Tel Aviv, Glasgow, and beyond. Collaborations can inform and enrich us and our partners alike. We can benchmark what we’re doing with best practices elsewhere and set stretch goals to pursue, remembering always that pioneering insights, experience, and knowledge can flow in both directions. In this and other ways, we can be a driving force to help our city and its region become a preeminent laboratory for programs and projects. Faculty and students working with colleagues here and abroad on locally-driven solutions to shared challenges is an essential part of our urban mission.

The motto of the Atlantic Rim Network, a 1990’s initiative in Boston for international collaboration, was “global problems, local solutions, regional connections.” This is what I mean by an urban mission with a global perspective.

How large is our vision? Consider as a symbol of that vision the From Earth to the Universe exhibit that just opened here at our university. It should help us understand the breadth of experience that awaits us and the range of scientific skills that can help us tap that experience.

The challenges before us at the University of Massachusetts Boston are significant and the needs, compelling. But the advancement of technology and knowledge now permits us to make connections and find solutions impossible to imagine a decade ago.

This is the blossoming of the urban character and the essence of the experience of the urban university. The assembled talent, energy, and focused commitment we have here today is the greatest in our history. We cannot waste this moment.

I challenge each and every one of us here to embrace the mission, transcend the day-to-day, and exceed the customary. I urge each of you to understand the linkages, make the connections, and live the dream.

Our time is now. We will rise to the challenges. It is an essential part of our urban mission to be a major player, to make a difference, to change outcomes for the better on fields near and far.

Standing on this majestic promontory, we look upward and outward, always with empathy and humility, ready to lead the way.

We can, we must, and we will make a difference, not just for ourselves, but for all of humanity.


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 14, 2009.

1. See Oliver Goldmith, “The Village,” in Louis Untermeyer ed., A Concise Treasury of Great Poems (New York: Permabooks, 1958) 180; Jacques Ellul, The Meaning of the City (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1970) 5.

2. See Simon Parker, Urban Theory and the Urban Experience: Encountering the City (London, Routledge, 2004); Witold Rybczynski, City Life: Urban Expectations in the New World (New York, Scribner’s, 1995); Peter Sellers Hall, The World Cities (New York, St. Martin’s, 1984); Tony Hiss, The Experience of Place (New York: Random House, 1990).

3. Robert Riddell, Sustainable Urban Planning: Tipping the Balance (Malden, Wiley-Blackwell, 2004) p. xvii.

4. See Neal R. Peirce and Curtis W. Johnson, Century of the City: No Time to Lose (New York, The Rockefeller Foundation, 2008). The quoted material appears on page 7.

5. See Lewis Mumford, The Urban Prospect, (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1968); Lewis Mumford, The City in History: Its Origins, Its Transformations and Its Prospects, New York: Harcourt Brace and World, 1961);); Donald L. Miller, Lewis Mumford: A Life (New York: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1989).

6. See Joel Kotkin, The City: A Global History (New York: Modern Library, 2005); Lewis Mumford, The Culture of Cities (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1938) 3; Charles Abrams, The City is the Frontier (New York: Harper & Row, 1965) 16-17; Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (New York: Modern Library, 1961).

7. Joseph Grange, The City: A Cosmology (Albany, State University of New York Press, 1999) xxiv.

8. See John Stuart Mill, On Liberty (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1921).

9. See John Ikerd, Sustaining Communities Through Urban Agriculture, presented at the 22nd Annual Conference of the American Community Gardening Association, Salt Lake City, UT. September 8, 2001,

10. See James Barron, “Time for Us to Rediscover the Atlantic Rim,” in The European, (March 16-17, 1994), and the Declaration on the Atlantic Rim cited in James H. Barron and Jessica C. McWade, “Towards a New ‘New Atlanticism,’” in Parallax: Journal of International Perspectives, Vol. 1, No. 1 (Fall 2003), 80.