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Chancellor Meehan on familiar turf at UMass

Newly appointed UMass-Lowell chancellor Martin T. Meehan addressed an audience on campus yesterday with his sons Daniel, 4, and Robert, 7, and wife, Ellen Murphy, by his side. Newly appointed UMass-Lowell chancellor Martin T. Meehan addressed an audience on campus yesterday with his sons Daniel, 4, and Robert, 7, and wife, Ellen Murphy, by his side. (MARK WILSON/GLOBE STAFF)

LOWELL -- Roughly 250 students, professors, and community leaders packed a sweltering library room yesterday to welcome US Representative Martin T. Meehan back to his alma mater, the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, as its just-appointed chancellor.

Meehan smiled as students, who had interrupted their spring break to greet him, jokingly referred to him as a river hawk, the university's mascot. They presented him with an assortment of gifts bearing the UMass-Lowell name, a sweatshirt, a book bag, a visor, a tie, and an official university identification card.

In all the applause, laughter, and handshakes, Meehan offered hints of what the future of UMass-Lowell would be like with him at the helm. He talked of a larger endowment, more federal grants, new academic and research buildings, and greater harmony at a school that has locations on both sides of the Merrimack River.

"I'm so committed and enthusiastic," Meehan, 50, told the crowd. Later in an interview, he added: "I love being on campus. This is where I got my roots and the foundation I needed to excel in whatever I chose to do."

Meehan came to the campus, where he studied politics as an undergraduate working-class youth from Lowell in the 1970s, less than two hours after University of Massachusetts Board of Trustees approved Meehan's appointment at a meeting in Worcester.

He will start his new job July 1, replacing William T. Hogan, who retired last year after 25 years in the post.

Chairman Stephen P. Tocco said Meehan's energy and passion for Lowell enabled him to beat out two other finalists.

"There is no one I know who has a greater sense of the future and the challenges at Lowell," Tocco said.

Throughout the morning and afternoon, Meehan repeatedly fielded questions from the press about leaving Washington when Democrats have gained power in Congress and the public is anxious for the Iraqi war to end. Meehan is a member of the Armed Services committee and has traveled to the Middle East to check on troops.

Meehan drew parallels to another former congressman from Lowell, the late Paul Tsongas.

"You can argue Paul Tsongas did more for the region after he left Congress," Meehan said. "I believe an individual can have a profound impact on a hometown and the region."

Meehan said he is working with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on various measures he has sponsored, hoping to get them passed by spring's end.

Meehan hasn't decided what he will do with his $5.1 million campaign chest, one of the richest in Congress, but said he is done with politics. He said he wouldn't endorse any candidate vying for his congressional seat, although he did not rule out giving campaign contributions.

The governor will schedule a special election within 140 to 165 days of when Meehan resigns.

"I will enjoy watching it from the sidelines," he said.

Meehan, who lives in Lowell, said he's looking forward to a 10-minute drive to work, as opposed to flying to and from Washington, and spending more time with his wife and two children.

But Meehan may not be leaving politics far behind. Joseph Walsh, an adjunct education professor, said Meehan's political skills could help unite a splintered campus. Technology and other hard sciences, he said, often get the limelight. The chancellor's office is located on the north campus with those programs, while humanities is on the south side of campus, where Meehan spent much of his time as an undergraduate.

"I think he's a great person to bridge that gap," he said. "It takes a skilled manager to deal with groups of people in a large institution that has a lot of political ins and outs."

James Vaznis can be reached at jvaznis@globe.com.

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