In a potential watershed moment for a struggling region, US Representative Martin T. Meehan was chosen yesterday to become the next chancellor of the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, buoying local officials who believe the high-profile Democrat can revitalize the small campus and the Merrimack Valley with his political and fund-raising skills.
Meehan emerged from an initial field of nearly 80 candidates, dominated by out-of-state academics, by promising university leaders that he would devote much of his time to raising money, particularly to fund teaching and scholarship on nanotechnology, biomanufacturing, and several other new sciences that are the focus of UMass-Lowell's development plans, according to university and local officials.
"Obviously, over a period of time, I've become one of the more prolific fund-raisers in Congress," said Meehan, whose campaign chest is one of the richest in Congress. "The ability to meet with people, to get them enthusiastic, the ability to identify people who would be willing to contribute -- these are all things I bring."
Officials in the Merrimack Valley, which has struggled with a steady loss of manufacturing jobs, said they hoped a galvanized UMass-Lowell would translate into economic benefits for the region by attracting high-tech businesses.
"The fact that he sees the university's role as, certainly, educating students, but also as developing programs that are going to put the university -- and by default the entire region -- at the forefront of this technology, is promising," said Lowell's mayor, William F. Martin Jr., who was on the 21-member search committee that selected Meehan as one of three finalists last month.
Jack M. Wilson, UMass president, called Meehan yesterday morning to inform him that he had been selected for the post. The university's board of trustees is expected to ratify Wilson's choice at a meeting scheduled for today. Meehan, born and raised in Lowell, plans to leave his position on Capitol Hill in July, ending a career that spawned historic legislation on campaign finance reform and tobacco control.
"The decision to leave the House has been the most difficult professional decision of my life," the seven-term congressman said. "But I believe ultimately that education and a technology-driven, highly literate workforce will determine the fate of my region, the region where I grew up."
Wilson said that throughout the selection process, he repeatedly asked Meehan whether he was sure he wanted to give up his political career for the chancellorship.
"He has never been more passionate about the university than now," Wilson said. "We are very fortunate to have someone with Marty Meehan's talents and expertise and that he is an alum."
Meehan will leave behind a new Democratic majority in Congress, where he recently took over as leader of a key House Armed Services subcommittee.
Before heading to Washington, Meehan, 50, served in the Middlesex district attorney's office and as a deputy secretary of state. He and his wife, Ellen T. Murphy, have two sons.
Salary and benefits still have to be negotiated, but Wilson said Meehan would probably earn slightly more than the previous chancellor, William T. Hogan. Hogan's salary was $235,800, and he also received a $28,000 housing allowance. As a representative, Meehan earns $165,200 a year.
Meehan's interest in the job initially drew skepticism from some professors and members of the search committee, who were concerned that a politician might not have the necessary skills to lead the 11,000-student university. Meehan graduated from UMass-Lowell in 1978; he also has a master's degree in public policy and a law degree from Suffolk University,
"Like most academics, one is always worried that someone coming from a political background will not understand the academic needs of a university," said Julie Chen, a professor of mechanical engineering and a member of the search committee. "But I think he can turn this into a top-tier education and research institution."
The two other finalists for the position were David C. Chang, chancellor of Polytechnic University in Brooklyn, and Nabil A. Ibrahim, vice chancellor of academic affairs at Purdue University's campus in Calumet, Ind.
According to search committee members, Meehan converted skeptics during interviews and in a meeting with faculty, staff, and students on campus last week, when he shared his personal story as a son of working-class parents who earned a degree at Lowell and later secured millions of dollars in federal grants for his alma mater.
"He has been a real champion for this campus in Washington, and losing him there will be one downside," said Stephen McCarthy, director of the university's Biodegradable Polymer Research Center, " but I think he will be able to do more on campus."
During his campus visit last week, Meehan said he intends to spend half his time fund raising. In the past four years, budget cuts have shrunk the university's fund-raising operation from 22 full-time employees to 15. Despite the cuts, the university has met or slightly exceeded its goals for the three previous years and has raised $5.4 million, or 60 percent of its target goal, this fiscal year.
"We've been doing pretty good, fund-raising-wise," said John Davis, vice chancellor for university advancement, "but what we really need is a chancellor who will push us over the finish line."
The university has set an ambitious goal of doubling its endowment to $40 million by 2009; with Meehan's fund-raising prowess, Davis said he believes the goal can be raised even higher.
Meehan was well known on Capitol Hill for his tenacious fund-raising. As of Dec. 31, Meehan had $5.1 million left in his political coffers. Federal laws require him to spend the money on his political operation or give it to political parties or charities.
Since Meehan won office in 1993, UMass-Lowell has received more than $200 million in federal funds, much of it for scientific programs championed by the congressman.
Meehan will arrive just as the fruits of his legislative efforts are becoming apparent on campus. The university is planning the construction of an $80 million bio- and nanotechnology research center, part of a broader $266 million initiative to renovate dozens of buildings, classrooms, and laboratories.
Education specialists said the timing is optimal for UMass-Lowell to sharpen its focus on engineering and technology, given the demand for well-trained workers in those fields.
"We haven't done a good job preparing our students for those fields, and other countries have," said Paul Lingenfelter, president of State Higher Education Executive Officers, an association based in Colorado that represents public higher education systems. "We can't rely on foreign engineering talent."
Chris Anderson, president of the Massachusetts High Technology Council, said it would be smart for UMass-Lowell to expand its role in the region's technology sector. He said he believes the university should produce more engineers and more research that leads to local start-up firms. The university has a business incubator program that has produced a few strong companies in the region, but local officials said they hoped its booster effect would be far greater under Meehan.
"Marty's awareness of the strategies to foster university-based research and emerging technologies will position UMass-Lowell to be a leader" in the state's economic fortunes, said Anderson, who is also chairman of the state Board of Education.
The Merrimack Valley's textile-manufacturing base all but disappeared in the latter half of the 20th century. Major employers like Wang and Digital either left the area or went under in the 1990s, leaving parts of the region with high unemployment and declining incomes. Lowell has begun reinventing itself as a low-cost housing alternative for Boston-area workers, and technology start-ups have begun locating in the region; however, local officials say the economy is far from robust.
Martin, the mayor of Lowell, said a Meehan-led renaissance at UMass-Lowell could be the catalyst that the Merrimack Valley has needed: "This could replace the manufacturing jobs we've lost."
A small sample of students and faculty interviewed yesterday had few reservations about having a political figure run the university.
"If he can increase the value of a UMass-Lowell degree, that's what matters to me," said Alos Diallo, 25, a senior biology and philosophy major. "Do we need a PhD to run the university? Probably not."
Charles Thompson, a professor of electrical engineering for the past 20 years, said he was not concerned that Meehan has spent most of his professional life in the rough and tumble political world of Washington, D.C.
"Maybe that makes him more qualified," Thompson said with a chuckle.
Globe correspondent Charles Russo contributed to this report.