By Trea Lavery
LOWELL — As UMass Lowell Chancellor Jacquie Moloney prepares to step down at the end of June, she has plenty of accomplishments to look back on from her nearly four-decade career at the university.
In that time, Moloney cites some of her biggest achievements as improving campus culture, rebuilding the university’s infrastructure, increasing diversity, engaging alumni and building a relationship with the city.
“This is a great time for me to pass the baton on to the next leader,” Moloney said in a meeting with The Sun editorial board Tuesday. “I obviously couldn’t leave in the middle of the pandemic. Right now is a great time because we’re right in the middle of a rebuild of the momentum we had going into it. … The culture is stronger than it’s ever been.”
Moloney, who grew up in Tewksbury, was the first of her family to attend college. She completed her bachelor’s degree in sociology at UMass Lowell and after attending Goddard College for a master’s in social psychology, she returned to Lowell for her doctorate in education.
Her professional career at the university has included roles as a professor, researcher and dean, and she has been a pioneer of programs like the River Hawk Scholars Academy, which supports first-generation college students, the Office of Entrepreneurship and Economic Development and the DifferenceMaker competition.
Moloney served as executive vice chancellor under then-Chancellor Marty Meehan for eight years before being appointed chancellor in 2015, the first woman to serve in the role.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Moloney was faced with the challenge of leading UMass Lowell into remote learning and later back to in-person activities. While the university was lucky in that about half of its faculty already had experience teaching online, the other half did not and had to adjust quickly, she said. Moloney recalled watching IT staff handing out laptops, headsets and other technology to staff in parking lots after the school shut down so they would be able to make the transition.
The difficulties were not limited to staff: students, too, were unaccustomed to taking classes over Zoom.
“Everybody assumed the students would be great at it, but they weren’t,” Moloney said. “They didn’t know how to learn online, so they had to make a lot of transitions. They helped each other through it.”
Moloney and her administration made sure to consult with students on all decisions regarding the return to campus and later relaxing mask requirements and other protocols, she said. Despite concerns around the country that college students would transmit the virus around frequently through partying and other social activities, Moloney trusted her students to be responsible. That trust, along with weekly testing, paid off, and the university never went above a 1% positivity rate.
She attributed that success to the student culture at UMass Lowell.
“They’re very careful, cautious and respectful, because they want to be together,” she said.
Before the pandemic was even on the horizon, Moloney had weathered other challenges in her tenure in the chancellor’s office, starting when Meehan entered the position. She said the first obstacle to overcome was UMass Lowell’s campus culture.
“We had to develop a culture where we believed in ourselves,” Moloney said. “This was a place that hadn’t had a new building in 30 years. Enrollment was absolutely stagnant. The budget resources weren’t there to meet what we wanted to do. So (we had) to develop the confidence to say, ‘We can do this, we’re going to turn it around.’”
Part of that process included developing UMass Lowell’s first strategic plan in 2010, laying out 25 benchmarks for enrollment, including retention and graduation rates, diversity, accessibility, research and development.
Under Moloney’s leadership, the school reached its goal of raising $125 million by 2020 two years earlier than expected, and eventually raised $165 million. Between fall 2010 and fall 2020, the one-year retention rate of first-year students went from 78% to 84%, and the six-year graduation rate rose from 51% to 69%.
The university also opened 19 brand-new or renovated buildings, adding 1.8 million square feet to its footprint. The crown jewel of this expansion was the reopening of Coburn Hall, the school’s oldest building, in fall of 2021.
“We’re one of the top producers of engineers in Massachusetts, yet our engineers were learning in facilities designed in the 1950s,” Moloney said, referring to facilities like Perry Hall. “Now there are facilities that reflect the kind of places they’re going to work.”
The development also made 96% of campus buildings accessible to people with disabilities, and made the university more eco-friendly, earning the title of No. 1 green campus in the state by the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education.
Moloney also pointed out that all of this new development made it possible for UMass Lowell to be ready for the pandemic.
“If we hadn’t done what we had done, I dread to think what it would’ve been like going through the pandemic,” she said. “Many of the buildings, the way they were pre-this transformation, we couldn’t open today because of the poor ventilation that used to exist. A lot of the things we addressed were modernizing the infrastructure of the university.”
Development isn’t ending at the school with Moloney’s departure. The school recently announced a major planned redesign of its East Campus, and Moloney said they had also received a new donation upwards of $1 million to renovate Durgin Hall, the music performance center.
For Moloney, the future holds more great things, as she isn’t really leaving UMass Lowell behind. This year, a pilot program was launched for the Moloney Student Fellowship, giving students the opportunity to participate in paid internships, and she will be helping shape that program going forward. She will also continue to be involved in the establishment of an Innovative Leadership Institute at the university.
Meanwhile, Moloney went back to the classroom this semester, teaching a class on the future of work in the school’s Master of Business Administration program, and plans to continue teaching.
“I really trust our students. I really do believe in them, and that’s why I follow their direction and their lead a lot,” she said. “They’re different here.”