Joan Vennochi

Is Meehan the right pick for UMass?

By Joan Vennochi
Globe Columnist / November 25, 2010

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WANT A world class university? Then, hire a world class educator to lead it.

That’s what America’s top public universities do.

Here in Massachusetts, political connections often take precedence over professional credentials, whether the job opening is for state probation officer or university leader. The Bay State’s weakness for the politically wired explains why a nationwide search for the next president of the University of Massachusetts snaked its way to Lowell.

Martin T. Meehan, an ex-congressman whose political ties landed him a job three years ago as chancellor of UMass Lowell, might have the inside track for a job heading the entire state university system. Meehan — a graduate of UMass/Lowell, with degrees in public administration and law from Suffolk University — has done good things as chancellor. He doesn’t have the baggage carried by William Bulger, the last politician-turned-president of the University of Massachusetts. But his resume lacks the experience and heft of those who lead the most elite public universities.

The 2010 edition of US News & World Report ranks the University of California at Berkeley and Los Angeles as the top two public universities in the country. Presiding over them, along with eight other campuses, is Mark G. Yudof. Before this appointment, Yudof held a wide range of administrative positions in higher education, including chancellor of the University of Texas system, law school dean, executive vice president, and provost. Yudoff is also considered an authority on constitutional law, freedom of expression, and education. A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania Law School, he has edited numerous publications on free speech and gender discrimination.

The University of Virginia — number 3, according to US News & World Report — is headed by Teresa A. Sullivan. Before becoming UVa. president, she was executive vice president for academic affairs at the University of Michigan. She also held administrative positions at the University of Texas, and taught sociology at the University of Chicago, from which she received her doctoral degree. She has co-authored six books and produced dozens of scholarly articles.

At the University of Michigan — number 4 on the US News & World Report list — Mary Sue Coleman has a doctorate in biochemistry and a distinguished research career to go with it. Her work in the sciences led to administrative appointments at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of New Mexico, where she served as provost and vice president for academic affairs. She was also president of the University of Iowa.

For those who believe political, not academic, connections are vital for fundraising, consider this: At the University of Michigan, Coleman launched a campaign to raise $2.5 billion. When it was over, the campaign raised $3.2 billion — the most ever by a public university.

Some public university presidents do have more political roots. In 2005, the University of North Carolina chose Erskine Bowles, a former top White House aide with no prior higher education experience to be its president. His recently named successor, Thomas W. Ross, was president of Davidson College, but also comes to the job with deep ties to North Carolina’s political establishment.

However, the academic reputation of UNC’s Chapel Hill campus is already secure; it is ranked number 5 by US News & World Report.

The University of Massachusetts is still trying to make the leap to more elite academic status. The Bay State’s top high school graduates have yet to be convinced that Amherst is equal to Ann Arbor or Chapel Hill. And, as the Globe recently reported, Massachusetts students are not just fleeing to elite flagships. They are choosing public universities in Connecticut, Vermont, and New Hampshire.

True leadership takes more than academic degrees. But what is the best way to rebrand the University of Massachusetts as a place that puts a premium on serious learning? That is an important question for Governor Deval Patrick and the university’s board of trustees.

Of course, serious learning goes on there now. But choosing a new president is an opportunity to send a message about priorities.

Picking an ex-politician sends the message that higher education is more about button-pushing on Beacon Hill than scholarship and love of learning.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at