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Meehan gets UML opinions

By From the Lowell Sun

By Matt Murphy
Lowell Sun

LOWELL -- One student wasn't sure what to call the familiar man standing on the stage in front of him.

"What do we call you? Congressman, or chancellor?" he asked bluntly.

"Well, Marty will be fine," said U.S. Rep. Marty Meehan, who plans to take over as chancellor of UMass Lowell on July 1.

But even before he officially starts, Meehan held an open meeting yesterday afternoon at the O'Leary Library on South campus, drawing more than 200 faculty, students and staff from the university.

He started by announcing that U.S. Rep. John Lewis, a Democrat from Georgia and a civil-rights leader who participated in the infamous voting-rights march in Selma, Ala., would speak at this year's commencement ceremony.

The audience peppered the new chancellor with questions on everything from the aging state of facilities at the university to how he would handle the rivalry between the science disciplines located on the North campus -- thought to be favored over the years -- and the humanities on the South campus.

Meehan responded by thinking out loud about some of his many ideas for the future of the university, and encouraging those who work and study at UMass Lowell to share theirs.

To start, he said he is thinking of locating his office on the South campus, instead of Cumnock Hall on the other side of the river, to send a message that the arts and humanities are just as important as scientific research.

He also spoke of finding ways to physically bridge the gap between both campuses over the Merrimack River.

Among his top priorities, Meehan said he hopes to break ground on at least one, if not two, new academic buildings on campus within his first 18 months on the job, including the planned nanotechnology manufacturing center slated to open by 2010.

"I just think it's unconscionable to not have a new academic building on a campus like this in almost 40 years," he said.

Meehan said he envisions another tall, glass building overlooking the Merrimack River, with classrooms and laboratories equipped with the best technology available.

New buildings, technology and improvements to current facilities will come at a price, however, to the public university strapped for cash at a time when the state budget is equally tight.

That is why Meehan said it will be crucial to be entrepreneurial in seeking private funding from alumni and other wealthy donors, foundations and corporate sponsors.

He said he cannot fathom a new building that wouldn't be named after someone or a corporation, or have rooms inside that weren't named after alumni or other donors.

He suggested that such companies as Reebok or Puma might jump at the chance to have their brand attached to the new recreation center next to LeLachuer Park.

In more than 14 years in Congress, Meehan built a reputation for being a prolific fundraiser, amassing a $5.1 million campaign account, larger than any other member of the House of Representatives.

Meehan also spoke yesterday of the importance of branding and raising the profile, both nationally and internationally, of UMass Lowell, while integrating its renowned research efforts with the business interests of local companies.

Before the end of his first three years, Meehan said, he hopes to raise the university's ranking with U.S. News and World Report from a third-tier school to a second-tier institution.

"Because I'm going to have the same degree as you, I want it to mean as much as possible," said Meehan, himself a UML graduate. "But we still need to stay true to our mission, which is to provide a quality, affordable education."

Students should be treated like valued customers, Meehan said, adding that he hopes to harness technology to improve communication on campus and address the lack of campus life outside the classroom.

As for the future of Division I hockey, Meehan said he will be calling upon students in the coming months to tell him whether they will support the team and the Tsongas Arena if he can successfully fight to keep the River Hawks in Hockey East.