Head of the Class

04/05/2008
By From the Lowell Sun

By Matt Murphy

LOWELL -- To hear it told, Marty Meehan's life is the story of a son of Lowell who never strayed too far from his roots.

A boy from the Sacred Heart neighborhood who grew up playing baseball on the city's diamonds where he learned from his father that everyone, no matter how good, deserves a chance to play.

A young man who made the most of his education at UMass Lowell, taking the lessons he learned on campus to the halls of the Capitol where he won a national settlement from tobacco companies, successfully pushed for campaign-finance reform, and challenged the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy.

"It was here in Lowell that Marty became a champion of the little guy. That was the hallmark of his work in Congress," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who delivered the keynote address at Meehan's inauguration as chancellor of UMass Lowell yesterday.

"He was a star in Washington. He was always a son of Lowell. Marty Meehan has come home," Pelosi said.

Meehan, 51, was formally installed as just the second chancellor of the university yesterday morning, hailed as an innovative thinker who will bring the passion that made him successful in Congress back home to his alma mater.

The inauguration ceremony featured a host of dignitaries, friends and family marking the culmination of a week of festivities that helped raise $1 million for an endowed student scholarship.

The first recipient of the chancellor's new scholarship was Rachel Carnes, the Haverhill senior who was critically injured in January when she was struck by a truck while waiting for a bus on University Avenue. The award will cover her tuition and outstanding debt until she graduates next fall.

More than 1,000 faculty, students, staff and guests packed the university Recreation Center on Aiken Street, next to LeLacheur Park, to celebrate the occasion at a time when Meehan said he believes the campus is more united than ever.

Meehan officially took over for former Chancellor William Hogan last July, giving up his seat in Congress after 15 years in Washington, D.C., to become only the second chancellor since the school joined the University of Massachusetts system in 1991.

He beat out a field of candidates that state Sen. Steve Panagiotakos joked came from a national search spanning "sea to shining sea," but ending between the shores of the Merrimack and Concord Rivers.

His transition to academia ended a 15-year career in Congress. He was first elected by the people in the 5th Congressional district in 1992 after serving as assistant district attorney of Middlesex County.

"It is with deep humility and a sense of great responsibility that I accept the honor of becoming the second chancellor of this great institution," Meehan said.

A host of dignitaries, family and friends honored Meehan yesterday, including Gov. Deval Patrick, UMass President Jack Wilson, Congresswoman Niki Tsongas, Lowell Vice Mayor Rita Mercier and Suffolk University President David Sargent.

Former Lowell police chief and now Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis came for the event, as did Massachusetts Congressmen Ed Markey and Stephen Lynch.

Patrick said UMass Lowell has been at the forefront of the state's effort to partner higher education with business innovation, playing a key role in helping to develop the state's economy in biomedical science and emerging technologies.

Meehan has fought to secure funding for the new emerging-technology center, which when built will become the first new academic building on campus in 30 years.

The state also came through with $4 million to help build the new M2D2 research building on east campus, an "innovation center" that will partner with small medical-device companies to develop new products.

Meehan said one of his goals will be to increase student enrollment by 2 1/2 percent every year, building a more diverse student body that will propel UMass Lowell forward.

"When I walk this campus, I see myself in the students I meet. They come from modest backgrounds and stand on the brink of unlocking their potential," Meehan said. "They will leave UMass Lowell ready to be decision-makers, entrepreneurs and leaders."

UMass Board of Trustees Chairman Robert Manning, himself a UMass Lowell alumnus, said he first met Meehan during the chancellor-search process.

Over dinner, Manning asked Meehan why he would ever want to leave Congress to return to UMass Lowell.

Meehan's answer, Manning said, made it clear that he was the right choice to take the reins of the university.

"I love Lowell," Meehan told Manning. "It gave me everything I have, and I have to go back to create opportunities for people like me."