On a Monday evening in early March, University of Massachusetts president Martin T. Meehan took the stage in a darkened ballroom at the UMass Club on the 32nd floor of a downtown office building.
He gripped the glass lectern and launched into his “state of the university” speech, touting the individual accomplishments of the five campuses that make up UMass but also the cohesiveness of the system.
“We are five campuses, but one community in service to the Commonwealth, the nation, and the world,” Meehan said.
For Meehan, a veteran politician who served 14 years as a US representative, the speech seemed straight out of Washington, with an anecdote about his childhood and call-outs to students with compelling personal stories who had been asked to sit in the audience.
For all his political savvy, though, just three months later Meehan finds himself mired in controversies that threaten his record as system leader. UMass’s successes have been overshadowed by chaos and acrimony, especially on the Boston campus, where faculty recently took a vote of no confidence in Meehan and then dramatically torpedoed the search for a new chancellor.
“It’s surprising, because Marty Meehan is such an astute politician,” said Paul Reville, who served five years as secretary of education under Governor Deval Patrick and now teaches at Harvard.
But to some extent, he said, Meehan faces problems he didn’t create.
“I see a lot of this as symptomatic of that frustration over the financial woes [at UMass Boston] that in turn gets targeted somewhat unfairly toward Marty Meehan,” he said in an interview with the Globe.
Observers say some of the blame for Meehan’s fraught relationship with UMass Boston comes from his inattention to communicating with the faculty there. But they also say the friction is exacerbated by the state’s long history of underfunding the university system.
Much of the controversy erupted a month after Meehan’s unifying speech. On April 6, UMass trustees — with Meehan’s blessing — announced they had approved a deal for UMass Amherst to buy the 72-acre Newton campus of Mount Ida College, a struggling private school that closed this month.
The surprise announcement infuriated students and professors on the Boston campus, who asked why UMass Amherst was allowed to spend $75 million on a new campus, while their own, just 12 miles from Newton, faces a serious budget crisis and sorely needs repair.
“Marty Meehan is obviously a very skillful politician, and I would have thought that it would be obvious to him that this Mount Ida thing . . . would be a big issue for the folks at UMass Boston,” said Richard Freeland, a former state higher education commissioner and former longtime president of Northeastern University who still teaches there.
The Mount Ida purchase prompted the faculty’s no-confidence vote, but tensions have been high on the UMass Boston campus for more than a year. Last spring, Meehan’s office forced out longtime chancellor J. Keith Motley amid accusations of financial mismanagement.
Over the past year, interim chancellor Barry Mills and a new team of administrators have cut the budget and tried to work to get long unfinished construction projects on track.
But many of the cuts have been controversial and have given rise to regular protests by students and faculty on campus and at trustee meetings.
Meanwhile, as the search for a new chancellor drew to a close, UMass Boston faculty said they felt ignored by the committee conducting the search. In the days before Meehan and the university trustees were set to announce a new campus leader, a group of faculty blasted the three finalists as unqualified — and all three withdrew from consideration. In announcing the news, Meehan criticized the faculty and said he was “mortified” by their actions.
With the search for a permanent new leader failed, yet another interim chancellor will take over this fall.
“All of this, taken together, means that [Meehan and the board] think it would be OK if UMass Boston sank into the sea under the weight of its own crumbling infrastructure,” Heike Schotten, an associate professor of political science, said last week after the vote of no confidence.
Freeland called the failure of the chancellor search avoidable.
“It saddened me very much, because it showed me how off the rails this relationship has gone between the Boston campus and president Meehan. That just should not have happened,” he said.
Meehan became UMass system president in 2015 after eight years as chancellor of UMass Lowell. He was also in the running to be president of Suffolk University, but he took the UMass job instead, saying he felt he had spent his whole life preparing for it.
He pledged to stay at the post for 10 years, and he currently has a five-year contract that expires June 30, 2020.
Meehan, 61, is paid a $562,000 base salary plus benefits, including a $60,000 per year housing allowance, $12,500 per year car allowance, and retirement contributions of up to 18 percent of his salary. He is eligible for a performance bonus of up to 11 percent of his salary, according to his contract. His pay increases each year and is set to rise to $582,000 in July.
Asked about the recent turmoil, Meehan said his job is to promote the system as a whole, but also to help individual campuses achieve their own goals.
“I’m an advocate for change, for pushing the envelope. Change is hard. It’s not always popular,” he said.
At Boston, Meehan said he was victorious in bringing the first dormitories to campus, which will open this fall. He said he persuaded the state to commit a record $78 million last year toward fixing the crumbling underground garage at UMass Boston, and he has asked US Representative Stephen Lynch’s office if federal money is available. Enrollment at Boston is also up, he said.
Meehan said Amherst’s purchase of the Mount Ida campus is an example of his advocacy for the longtime goal of one campus. He said he will make sure nothing happens there that hurts UMass Boston.
“The Louisiana Purchase was pretty unpopular in the press for the six months afterward, but it turned out to be a pretty good deal for the United States of America,” he said.
Despite the controversy, Meehan has the backing of his board, which hires and reviews the president. Trustee chairman Robert Manning, in a prepared statement, said Meehan is doing an excellent job. Meehan has made key personnel changes on the campuses and in the president’s office, implemented better financial health and accountability measures, and fought to keep UMass competitive in the higher education landscape, he said.
“He was hired to effect change and seize on opportunities, and he is doing just that,” Manning wrote in a text message.
These controversies are as much political as they are academic. Jay Gonzalez, a Democrat running for governor this fall, said he met with students on the Boston campus and he has concerns that Meehan and Governor Charlie Baker are not doing all they can to help.
“It’s a real problem when the governor and the president of the UMass system are saying their top priority is the kids at Mount Ida,” Gonzalez said, referring to statements that both made about wanting to help Mount Ida students find places to finish their degrees after their school closed.
Asked about Meehan’s leadership, the governor said he is pleased.
“Governor Baker has great respect for the job president Meehan is doing to lead UMass as the system expands online learning and offers alternative degree pathways to more students, and the administration is pleased to see positive trends in graduation rates and other student success measures,” said a statement from Baker spokesman Brendan Moss.
Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh has also waded into the UMass Boston controversy, entertaining the idea of the city taking over the university and volunteering to sit on the next search committee for a chancellor.
In a recent interview with the Globe, Walsh attributed the discord between the faculty and Meehan to a lack of communication. He said Meehan should not lose the support of the faculty, because they are vital to that university.
Reville, the Harvard professor, said to actually fix the problems at UMass Boston, Meehan will have to convince Beacon Hill leaders that the Boston campus is the system’s top priority, he said.
As it turns out, Meehan has been on Beacon Hill lately, but not to advocate for more state funding. He testified two weeks ago in a Senate hearing that lawmakers held to probe officials about the Mount Ida deal.
Senator Kathleen O’Connor Ives, who chaired the oversight committee, said the state public higher education system is already rife with inequities. The last thing the Mount Ida purchase should do, she said, is exacerbate them.
Meehan’s record, she said, will hang on how he allows that property to be used. It should be a resource for the entire system, she said, not just Amherst.
“[This purchase] is either going to be an opportunity for UMass to be a system, or a mistake where a message is sent that there are going to be winners and losers in the UMass system. So it’s up to him,” she said.Laura Krantz can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @laurakrantz.