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Chancellor Meehan's challenge

Much will be expected of Martin Meehan when he takes office as chancellor of the University of Massachusetts at Lowell. It is likely that no one will demand more than Meehan himself.

As a tough Middlesex County prosecutor, and then as a congressional reformer who battled the leaders of both parties when they were in charge of the House -- and still managed to get a great deal accomplished -- Meehan has repeatedly beat expectations.

The skills he brings to the job do not include the academic prowess usually favored in university leaders, but are considerable nonetheless. He eagerly pursues ambitious goals: as a low-ranking congressman, he took on the tobacco companies, campaign finance reform, and aspects of the Iraq war, and became a leader in each cause. He is a successful fund-raiser, having amassed $5 million in his campaign reserve. He has also helped steer some $200 million in federal research money to UMass Lowell, his alma mater, over the past decade.

But perhaps the two strongest attributes for this job are his record of creating and nurturing partnerships among the businesses, schools, government agencies, civic groups, and others that have stimulated the local economy, and his roots in Lowell, where he was born. Indeed, if a roadway didn't already have the name, Meehan might be christened the Lowell Connector.

In truth, the challenge is formidable. Lowell is frequently mentioned, with Worcester, as an older city outside of Boston that has shown some economic vitality in recent years. Meehan attributes much of this to the work of Paul Tsongas, but not all to the late senator's political clout. "He did more for the region economically after he left office than when he was in the Senate," Meehan said late yesterday in an interview.

Similarly, Meehan has an opportunity to build on relationships already established. Middlesex Community College President Carole Cowan said yesterday she agreed with the sentiment of community groups that met during the search process; they "made very clear they were looking for somebody who knew their way around."

Meehan, who broke a term-limit pledge to stay in Congress for more than seven terms, is now leaving just when his party has taken control. But he repeated yesterday his belief that "UMass is the engine that drives the state's innovation economy," and that helping UMass Lowell grow is an important job for the region and the state.

On a campus without a new building in 35 years, relying heavily on nanotechnology research and manufacturing that are still in their infancy, in a city that still has a long way to go from the economic depths when the mills shut down, it is a big job. Meehan should be expected to get off to a fast start.