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Changing The World One Student At A Time

A Visit with UMass Lowell Chancellor Jacqueline Moloney

Jacquie Moloney Photo by Adrien Bisson

05/09/2016
Merrimack Valley Magazine
By Liz Michalski

The view from Jacqueline Moloney’s fourth-floor office is dramatic. Dark clouds scud above the roiling Merrimack River, creating a scene worthy of a Dutch landscape. But Moloney, the first female chancellor of UMass Lowell, is more intrigued by the students crossing the bridge below her.

“That’s the most interesting part of the view to me,” she says.

Moloney, who in 2015 was appointed to the leadership post by a unanimous vote of the school’s board of trustees, understands firsthand that students often come to class by a circuitous route, one that doesn’t allow for a long view. That’s because it’s the same route she traveled.

“I was very, very lucky,” she says. One of nine children in her family, she was discouraged from taking college-prep classes in high school. Her parents saw it as a waste of time for a girl. But two of her teachers — including Bill Coughlin, who later taught at UMass Lowell — advocated for her. “So you can imagine how strongly I feel about doing the same,” Moloney says.

In a sense, Moloney and UMass Lowell have grown up together. When she started at Lowell State College after high school, it was a commuter school with a tight community and a strong teaching faculty that emphasized interaction between professors and students. In her senior year, Moloney sat on the committee that discussed merging Lowell State College and Lowell Tech. By the time she returned to UMass Lowell — after graduating with a degree in sociology and then continuing at Goddard College in Vermont for a master’s degree in social psychology — things had changed. But Moloney had, too.

By then, she’d successfully headed two social relief organizations, the Lowell Association for Retarded Citizens (today, The Arc of Greater Lowell) and the Indochinese Refugees Foundation. She’d kept a hand in at UMass Lowell, as well, teaching as an adjunct and running a women’s conference. So when the call came to take over UMass Lowell’s college prep program in 1985, Moloney was ready. It was a mission that was close to her heart: Take students who come from tough backgrounds, who weren’t prepared or encouraged academically, and get them ready for college.

“It was one of the high points of my career,” Moloney says. The program matched Lawrence High School students with mentors from UMass Lowell. “We gave the [Lawrence] students a chance to find themselves and to find hope. The program changed lives and set me on the path toward becoming an administrator.”

It’s a role she’s never stopped embracing. “We have students who have overcome every odd to get here. We want them when they graduate to have the confidence to go out and make a difference in the world. We have hundreds of ways to do that,” she says.

A View to the Future

Moloney and UMass Lowell are working to increase student aid and scholarships so students can work less and study more. They are hoping to increase the number of students who live on campus, so they can immerse themselves in “living-learning communities” — houses where students with similar academic interests and goals can support each other — and to expand opportunities for students to take on leadership roles through the more than 200 clubs and organizations the college offers.

Jacquie Moloney with students
As someone who struggled to find support for her own educational ambitions, Moloney understands how important role models, mentors and advisors can be. She strives to attend as many student functions as possible. Her presence serves as both encouragement and, for those who know her history, a reminder of what is possible.
Perhaps the most important step is reducing class size, Moloney says. “We used to have freshmen come in with three [large] lecture classes. I saw over and over again early in my career what a negative impact that has. So we’ve reduced class size, and students aren’t just surviving, they’re thriving, and connecting with faculty in a way they never could have before,” she says.

The changes are anything but serendipitous. Under Moloney’s predecessor, former Chancellor Marty Meehan, the school put together a 10-year plan designed to make UMass Lowell an academic powerhouse and to boost the success of its students’ college experience. The plan, which was developed in 2010, covers everything from class size to new buildings, including University Crossing, which in 2014 became the 10th building opened in five years by the school, and is where Moloney has her office. It’s also, not coincidentally, a center for student services and a place where student clubs meet. The location gives Moloney plenty of student contact.

“We’re telling our students: You will graduate knowing how to make a difference in an innovative way,” she says. She points to a program called “DifferenceMaker,” in which students are taught how to identify a problem, examine it and come up with a creative solution, with teams competing across UMass Lowell for cash prizes.

A few years ago, a team of sophomores in the program decided to study ways to create affordable, flexible prosthetics for children in developing nations. Today they are graduate students with a team in India distributing their prototypes. Moloney says, “One of them recently told me: ‘We thought this was a good idea, but when I went to India, and the first person came into my office after spending six hours getting there, it changes you forever.’ ”

Partners in Success

The changes at UMass Lowell wouldn’t be possible without Meehan’s work, Moloney says, and his devotion to both the school and the city. “He had great passion for both of them, and always encouraged everyone to be brave and take risks, to set ambitious goals and do what is needed to reach them,” Moloney says.

Today, the two players — the city of Lowell and the university — are lifting each other above the tide. Symbiotic strategies, such as the school’s “Innovation Hub,” bring business ideas to life and jobs to Lowell. Booking more events at the Tsongas Center provides business for downtown shops and restaurants, and marketing organizations designed to expand local economic activity are responding to an increasing number of parents, tourists and other visitors coming to the city.

Moloney makes it a point to visit many of Lowell’s events and locations, including the new Mill No. 5 shopping arcade and Western Avenue Studios. But the best place to spot her is on campus, even on her days off.

On a recent Sunday, she’d planned to spend the day with her husband, two daughters and four grandchildren. But the school’s gospel choir, which had sung at her inauguration, invited her to a sing-off.

“I knew they wanted me to go to it,” she says. So she convinced her family to come into the city, where they did a tour of the mills and rode a trolley before having dinner at the UMass Lowell Inn & Conference Center.

Then Moloney went to the sing-off as a grandmother, not as chancellor, standing in the background with her granddaughter so she wouldn’t be noticed and steal attention from the performers.

“About two weeks later I got an email from one of the singers, a student I didn’t know very well, who thanked me for coming to the event. She said, ‘I saw you in the audience, and now I know you’re not like everyone else, you really do care.’ ”

The chancellor pauses. “So yes, I do go to a lot of events, as many as I can physically get to. Because in the end, it’s all about them — they are the future.