Interim chancellor moves to boost morale at UMass Boston as transition looms

Barry Mills, interim chancellor of UMass Boston, will leave his post this year when a new permanent chancellor is expected to take over on the Dorchester campus.
UMB photos

UMass Boston’s interim chancellor, Barry Mills, has moved to ease anxieties and boost morale on the Dorchester campus as a controversy over UMass Amherst’s planned acquisition of Mount Ida College embroiled the statewide university system. Mills, who arrived last March and expects to end his tenure by this summer, exhorted students and staff to “keep their eye on the ball,” pointing to a punch-list of major milestones that counters a running narrative that the Dorchester campus has been neglected by the wider UMass system.

Mills’s “chins-up” argument is a tough sell to a community already wounded by austerity measures that Mills himself implemented with a goal of stabilizing the Boston campus’s lopsided budget, which by some estimates was $30 million in the red last year. Dozens of employees were laid off. Entire programs— like the William Joiner Institute of the Study of War and Social Consequences— have been chopped to the bone. And student fees for parking – stagnant for years— will be boosted.

And now the specter of a rival school under the same UMass banner swooping into the metro Boston market has outraged deans, student leaders, and political figures on Beacon Hill.

Mills is forthright about how his argument has been received on campus: “Skeptically. There are folks who say you got it exactly right. But this is a campus… that has a long history and that history hasn’t always been a history where [people] were looking to enhance this campus.”

The Amherst-Mount Ida deal re-animates “scars” of past indignities— some of which are impossible to ignore because they are still encountered daily on the Boston campus. Exhibit A is the cordoned-off parking garage that has burdened the campus for decades and presents, in Mills’s words, an “existential threat” to the campus’s future.

“Symbolically and physically this garage project has held this campus back for years,” he says. “Everyone is burdened by it. It hangs over all the conversations.”

Decades-old resentments enhanced by present-day budget cuts are hard to counter, even when clear evidence of the system’s renewed attention to the Dorchester Bay campus is rising all around the weathered bricks of the original, fortress-like inner ring.

It’s left to Mills, though, to try. And his letter— posted last week on the UMass Boston website and circulated to the community via email— makes a valiant and, at times, compelling attempt. The Dorchester campus, disrupted for several years by building projects and a complicated, infrastructure project fraught with cost overruns, is on the verge of a breakthrough. The first-ever on-campus dormitory— with beds for 1,000 students— will open for its first residents later this summer. A new eight-deck parking garage with room for 1,400 vehicles on the edge of the BC High property will go online in a few months, alleviating some of the access burdens for those who drive in daily. The tall dirt piles associated with the non-stop construction— some from earlier builds, like the $183 million Integrated Sciences Complex that opened in 2015 and now greets visitors from Morrissey Boulevard— will gradually disappear.

The grand reveal, Mills believes, will help propel UMass Boston in new ways. He views the Amherst arrangement with Mount Ida College as an annoyance at best.

“I want people to keep their eye on the ball,” Mills told the Reporter last Friday during an interview in his sparsely decorated office space in the Quinn building. “We have a ton of competition. There are a gazillion schools in the Boston area. Okay, so Amherst is going to have a sign in Newton and it could be good for them. Maybe. But does it really up the competition for us significantly? I don’t want to diminish the fact that they are nearby, in Newton. But I don’t think it actually has a significant effect on us.”

For Barry Mills, the final approach

Mills’s stirring rhetoric about UMass Boston’s imminent butterfly moment is checked by more than just institutional skepticism. Like the airliners bound for Logan Airport that stream over his office every 30 seconds, Mills is on the final approach as the campus leader. Hired to “right the ship” and bring fiscal discipline to the chancellor’s suite, Mills has essentially completed his mission.

A 15-member search committee, chaired by former UMass trustee chairman Henry M. Thomas III and led by the private executive search firm Issacson, Miller, is assembling a list of finalists for the chancellorship, a position that Mills agreed to accept on an interim basis after the April 2017 departure of Dr. Keith Motley.

Mills is not a member of the search committee— by design— and knows virtually nothing about the timing, but he says he has “a strong vested interest in having them move this along. The current plan is to bring candidates to campus at some point in the near future. Beyond that I don’t know and I don’t know who they’re talking to. I am told that they have some strong candidates. I’m optimistic that sometime in the next number of weeks this will be a whole lot more public and people will have an opportunity to see, hear, feel out the folks and decisions will get made.

“The good news is there are very talented people interested in the job,” he said.

UMass officials have said they would like the new chancellor to start by July 1; for his part, Mills has indicated that he will stay on until a successor is in place.

When he or she arrives, Mills says, the new leader will have some big decisions to make about UMass Boston’s future growth. One big call will be how the campus might grow on the 20-acre Bayside Expo Center property that it acquired in 2007. The prime waterfront space, now an expansive parking lot for students who board buses for a quick ride to the main campus, has long been considered the next— and possibly final— frontier for UMass Boston’s steady expansion on the Columbia Point peninsula.

Today, its future is murky. Instead of new dorms and academic buildings, the UMass Building Authority (UMBA), which technically owns the land, has entertained other private uses as a way to bank millions for the cash-strapped Boston campus. After a dalliance with the ill-fated Boston 2024 committee— which eyed the property for a potential athlete’s village – Robert Kraft’s sports empire spent nearly two years probing it as a possible home for a 20,000 soccer and concert venue. That interlude ended inharmoniously last year amid criticism that such opaque negotiations with a single business entity were well outside the bounds of public efforts to reclaim the site for a mix of community and university uses.

Last fall, in a move aimed at advancing the site’s eventual re-use, the UMBA issued a “Request for Ideas” to private developers, a pitch that drew a response from 16 potential partners. The Bayside parcels are now being marketed for potential leases— or even an outright sale if the price is right— by a real estate marketing firm hired by UMass.

Mills said that UMass President Marty Meehan, a former congressman, wants to see the UMass Boston campus utilize the Bayside site in some way, even in a long-term lease with a private partner.

“It’s hard to know until you get a sense of what the marketplace thinks works out there,” said Mills. “I think he clearly thinks this is an important opportunity for UMass Boston to expand and solve some of its real estate needs.”

One need that the Bayside campus could satiate in part is on-campus housing. The new dorm intended for first-year students nearing completion on the main campus is already nearing 50 percent occupancy for fall registration. Mills expects there will be “no problem” in filling it, given the level of interest expressed by students, including many who already live within commuting distance from campus.

“Students want that college, residential experience, and they deserve it if they want it, from very nearby. The question will be how much housing going forward. That’s a strategic question that the university needs to consider. I think there’s a need for more housing. Where that gets built is an open question.”

The Bayside lease or sale discussion is an open-ended process, Mills says, and one that would benefit from having a permanent UMass Boston chancellor central to the conversation.

“One of the judgments that I made is that whoever leads those strategic decisions needs to be here to implement them over the next ten years,” Mills told the Reporter. “We’ve been able, through a lot of pain and heartache and tough actions, to get ourselves relatively stable financially. It’s okay for me to leave to allow the school to be able to make those decisions with the next leader.”

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