Chancellor Meehan's ambitious to-do list

09/04/2007
By From the Lowell Sun

By Hillary Chabot

LOWELL --- Elissa Surabian's question struck a nerve.
Chancellor Marty Meehan grimaced as he stood in front of the crowd of about 90 students at the University of Massachusetts Lowell Thursday.

"You guys know all the points that have been driving me insane," Meehan admitted to the residential aides. Surabian, a senior, asked about recycling, or the lack thereof, on campus.

"You have no idea how much it upsets me to finish a Diet Pepsi and not know what to do with the can. I refuse to throw it in the trash," Meehan said. "I want to bring Al Gore to this campus. Imagine if I brought Al Gore to this campus and he saw we weren't recycling?"

Celebrity speakers are another item crowding former U.S. Rep. Meehan's to-do list as he gears up for the first day of classes this week. Meehan, who took over as chancellor in July, has been packing his days with meetings while trying to reach out to students.

"The first two weeks you try and limit the chaos, but the chaos always ends up permeating anyway," Meehan said.

Even before he started the job, Meehan had big ideas. He wants to start a women's crew team. He wants to improve the art department. He knows exactly where a new building should go on the South Campus, and he's got a pretty good idea of changes he'd like to make to the North Campus.

People working under him note the energy.

"I've been here for 22 years, and I don't think I've been this excited since I started," said Larry Siegel, dean of Student Services. "He really is all about the students."

Between Meehan's ideas and reality is a sobering truth. UMass Lowell in the red. The university has been operating at a deficit for the last four years. It is currently $3 million in the hole.

"That's why we need to develop a plan to increase the revenue here," Meehan said. "The state can't dramatically increase funding, so we need to depend more on private fundraising."

Meehan's been working on that, too. He secured a $139,000 donation to the Plastics Engineering department from an alumnus and $100,000 toward the university's hockey team just last week. Meehan is also gearing up to announce "the most significant gift in the history of the university for scholarships."

Meehan's quick action to keep the River Hawks a Division I Hockey East team proved to UMass President Jack Wilson the new chancellor was committed to his job. By creating club seats in the Tsongas Arena, of which he plans to sell out all 860, Meehan raised $300,000 alone.

"He jumped in on this and began helping from day one," Wilson said. "I teased him a lot about that. I said, 'You've really made my life difficult. I set a list of goals for the year, and here I have to revise them because you've accomplished so many of them.' "

Meehan sees hidden revenue everywhere. He's outraged that students are getting a cup of coffee from a Dunkin' Donuts across the street.

"A lot of campuses make money from having those on campus. They should be buying it here!" Meehan said.

Students themselves are future donors, so Meehan's been asking staffers to treat them like customers.

"We want to make sure they feel a connection to their university and the city it's in," Meehan said.

He also has been meeting with City Manager Bernie Lynch, local deans and with Gov. Deval Patrick to make the university a better place.

"I believe Gov. Patrick is the most pro-public higher education governor in my lifetime," Meehan said. "He gets the fact that the Massachusetts economy is tied to UMass."

Sen. Steven Panagiotakos of Lowell, the Senate Ways and Means chairman and a longtime Meehan friend, said the chancellor's biggest challenge will be finding a provost.

"(Acting Provost) Don Pierson has been there for many years, but he does need to get someone in there permanently so they move on from there," Panagiotkos said.

Meehan shook up the staff before he even started, and he plans on launching a "world-class search," to fill the provost position. He's already enlisted community leader and Lowell businessman George Behrakis and faculty representative Julie Chen to help with the search.

He is still reviewing an internal audit of the staff and wants to have an entirely new management team in place within a year.
Senior Brenda Philips, 21, thinks all the change is a good thing. She watched and nodded silently as Meehan pointed out selling points of the university, such as the nearby Merrimack River, the faculty and the surrounding city.

"I think he's a breath of fresh air for the university," Philips said. "I think it's needed. This university needs some big improvements."

Meehan knows the changes are going to take time, but he hopes to make the university a player in the nation and the world, instantly recognized for what it can offer.

"This is a situation where I can make a contribution which will matter long after I'm gone," Meehan said. "This is a place where people can reach their potential. I hope to help them do that."