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UML Must Embrace its Niche Role

By From the Lowell Sun

By Matt Murphy

BOSTON -- It was a tough crowd, wearing the weight of a morning full of gloomy forecasts of rising energy costs and a plummeting housing market.

By the time UMass Lowell Chancellor Marty Meehan took the podium to deliver a speech on higher education's role in driving the regional economy, attendees of the Economic Outlook Conference, organized by the New England Economic Partnership, had already heard enough bad news.

"Maybe I should talk about the Red Sox, or the Patriots, or the Celtics instead," joked Meehan, who delivered the conference's keynote address.

But the new chancellor spoke more about possibility, particularly in terms of leveraging the strength of institutions like UMass Lowell to provide the research and skilled workforce needed to feed an economy built on innovation.

"If a company comes to UMass Lowell with a challenge, we can design a curriculum to meet the needs of that company. Isn't that the role higher education should playing?" Meehan said.

Economic analysts and business leaders heard from experts throughout New England yesterday presenting a dour outlook for Massachusetts' economy for the next six months, dragged down by a slumping housing market and national credit crisis.

Massachusetts' economic growth -- tracked by a measure known as gross regional product -- is expected to lag behind both the national and New England averages at 1.7 percent, compared to 2.6 percent nationally and 2.2 percent in New England.

Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody's, also pointed to 30-year trends in the price of crude oil compared with gasoline, arguing that gas prices should be approaching $4 per gallon now.

Only tight margins at refineries are keeping the cost closer to $3 per gallon now, he said.

"We're half of New England, and southern New England tends to grow slower than Vermont and New Hampshire especially," said Alan Clayton-Matthews, associate professor of public policy at UMass Boston.

Still, Clayton-Matthews said there is reason to expect Massachusetts to emerge from its economic slump stronger than neighboring states, pointing to employment growth picking up over the past several years.

"We could be having a recession, but it doesn't look like that's going to happen," said Clayton-Matthews, who doesn't expect a complete crash of the housing market. "The long-term outlook for the state is pretty good because we stand to benefit from globalization trends."

Meehan said UMass Lowell, much like the state, must embrace its niche in the economy. Though large-scale manufacturing might always be cheaper in other parts of the country, he said Massachusetts could thrive if it embraces its role developing cutting-edge technologies and helping companies initially bring those products to market.

For UMass Lowell, Meehan said that means investing in new research facilities and laboratories to conduct the research and train students for professions in engineering, biomanufacturing and pharmaceuticals. That will lead to small, spin-off companies such as those already thriving in the area, like Konarka and Metabolix.

"We are always focused on the research that has the possibility of commercialization," Meehan said.

UMass Lowell helped create 2,831 jobs in fiscal 2006, according to Meehan.

The university is collaborating with many UMass campuses and businesses, including UMass Worcester Medical Center in a program called M2D2 seeking to develop and produce new, innovative medical devices.

"That's not a bad niche to have as long as we keep the research and development dollars flowing," Meehan said.