By Ed Brennen
The unanimous approval of Julie Chen as UMass Lowell’s next chancellor by the UMass Board of Trustees was met by equally unanimous approval — and cheers — from students, faculty, staff and alumni.
Chen, who joined UML’s mechanical engineering faculty 25 years ago and has served as vice chancellor for research and innovation since 2016, will succeed Jacquie Moloney ’75, ’92, who is stepping down next month after seven years at the helm.
“I’m very excited to be named the next UMass Lowell chancellor. The trust and confidence in me to lead the university’s next chapter is an amazing honor,” said Chen, who emerged from a field of three finalists. She was greeted by applause and hugs from members of UML’s executive cabinet gathered in the Chancellor’s Office following the announcement.
“As an alum, I couldn’t be more proud to have her as our new leader,” said Board of Trustees Chairman Rob Manning ’84, ’11 (H), who presided over the virtual board meeting on Zoom. “I’ve known Julie for a long, long time. She’s a wonderful person who possesses all the values and attributes that we as board members care about: She is humble, has a mutual respect for everyone and is very collaborative and team-oriented.”
UMass President Marty Meehan ’78 said Chen is “the right person at this moment” to lead the university. As UML chancellor in 2009, Meehan appointed Chen as vice provost for research. He lauded her expertise and leadership in growing the university’s research and development enterprise, which reached a record $95 million this year, as well as her commitment to student success and diversity, equity and inclusion.
“In addition to having three degrees from MIT, she was also an outstanding student-athlete, so she’s competitive,” Meehan said of Chen, who was an Academic All-American in softball and field hockey while studying mechanical engineering at MIT. “We feel confident about her ability to be competitive with other universities across the state and across the country.”
Meehan added that he received a text message from Gov. Charlie Baker on the morning of the announcement in enthusiastic support of Chen’s selection.
Student Trustee Derek Houle, a senior electrical engineering major from Bellingham, Massachusetts, said he “heard nothing but positive things” about Chen from fellow students and was “very glad this is the direction we’re heading.”
Student Government Association President Neyder Fernandez has worked with Chen on various initiatives and praised her as “a consistent advocate for students and our needs.”
“Dr. Chen embodies the culture of innovation and solidarity at the university,” said Fernandez, a junior political science major from Lowell. “I’m excited to continue our work and help elevate UMass Lowell to new heights.”
Michael Graves, president of the UMass Lowell Faculty Senate, said he fully supports Chen’s appointment and also looks forward to working with her.
“Dr. Chen’s commitment to diversity, student success, innovation and collaboration will serve our university community well,” said Graves, associate professor and acting chair of biological sciences.
The daughter of Taiwanese immigrants, Chen was born in Michigan and raised in Webster, New York, a suburb of Rochester. After graduating from MIT, Chen spent seven years as an assistant professor at Boston University before joining UML in 1997.
Chen said she was “proud” to see Moloney become the first woman to serve as UML chancellor in 2015 — a move that inspired Chen to blaze a few trails of her own.
“Being the second woman chancellor — and the first Asian-American chancellor and the first LGBTQ chancellor — I recognize that being visible in that way helps our young people see that they too can strive toward leadership roles where they can have an impact,” said Chen, who credited the support of her spouse, Susu Wong.
Sophomore chemical engineering major Catherine Nkwantah, co-president of UML’s chapter of the Society of Women Engineers, applauded Chen’s “historic” appointment.
“As the first Asian-American woman to be named chancellor of the university and as a mechanical engineer by training, she continues to be an outstanding role model for not just aspiring women engineers, but all women of color,” the Pepperell, Massachusetts, resident said.
Reggie Walker, a first-year graduate student of higher education administration, said Chen seemed like the “obvious choice” after watching her open forum the previous week.
“I love her approach to tackling staff diversity. That’s very important going forward for the university,” said Walker, a native of Sacramento, California. “Her being a woman and a minority, I think that’s a great step for the university.”
From an initial pool of 127 applicants, a search committee co-chaired by UML alumni Mary Burns ’84 and Jerry Colella ’78 conducted 37 interviews before narrowing the field down to three finalists.
“We were charged by President Meehan and Chairman Manning to lead a search process that attracted the best possible candidates to lead a truly world-class university and were pleased by the interest we received from higher education leaders across the country,” said Burns.
Chen said her top priority this summer is to advance the university’s next strategic plan, which has been stalled during the COVID-19 pandemic. Part of that, she added, requires getting “people in their own areas and expertise and networks” to think about how the world has changed and how it will continue to change.
“We have to respond to those changes and figure out how we need to evolve as a university,” she said.
Her colleagues across campus are confident that she will succeed.
“Julie is a visionary and proven leader uniquely qualified for this moment,” said Dean of Academic Services Kerry Donohoe. “She knows our history and has a strong vision for our future. She invites the voices of many to the table and is not afraid to roll her sleeves up or to have difficult conversations.”
“Julie is the whole package,” added Director of Cooperative Education Rae Perry, who heard cheers erupt around the Career and Co-op Center when Chen’s appointment was made official on Zoom. “She is a wonderful champion for UML and is a strong advocate for all members of our community.”
Moloney, meanwhile, said she could not be more pleased to see Chen taking the reins of a university that they both love and have dedicated so much of their lives to building.
“Julie is a tremendous administrator and an even better person,” Moloney said. “She is unquestionably the dynamic visionary that our students, faculty, staff and alumni deserve as their next leader.”