Though some local leaders have quipped that the city of Lowell should be renamed “Meehanville,” UMass Lowell Chancellor Martin T. Meehan is unapologetically leading the university, and the Merrimack Valley, to new heights.
On a recent Thursday afternoon, the Allen House on the UMass Lowell campus was mortuary quiet. The school, encased in snow, was just waking up from a 24-hour shutdown. And there were problems.
“I got an e-mail this morning from a student who said his bus was late,” school Chancellor Martin T. Meehan said as he scanned his iPad. “I like to know about these things so when I go to a meeting I know what’s going on.”
Lately, a lot has been going on at UMass Lowell.
Graduation rates have risen, the student body is more diverse, fundraising is at an all-time high and two new academic buildings are being built on campus for the first time in 35 years. And that’s just the short list.
The flurry of positives can be traced back to Meehan, the former 5th District U.S. Congressman who traded in the Beltway for the banks of the Merrimack River three and a half years ago.
After graduating from UMass Lowell in 1978 with a degree in education and political science, Meehan made a name for himself as an ambitious reformer on Capital Hill in Washington, D.C. Returning to his alma mater has been like a homecoming for the 54-year-old Lowell native.
“I didn’t want to be a lifer in Congress. If I was going to do something else, I wanted to do it when I was young enough to have the energy and drive,” said Meehan who credits the school for giving him “the skills to accomplish whatever I set out to accomplish in my life.”
Since taking over the reins at the largest university in the Merrimack Valley and third largest in the state, Meehan has led an aggressive agenda. Most visible are the acquisitions of several underperforming urban assets, such as the Tsongas Arena and the DoubleTree Hotel in downtown Lowell.
Even if you haven’t been paying attention, it’s hard not to notice the school’s increasing presence in the city’s center. The UMass Lowell logo is stamped on more buildings every day, colorful banners and billboards display a diverse and smiling student body that seems to say: This is not your cousin’s safety school.
“I think the strategy is pretty ingenious,” said city Councilor Franky Descoteaux, who owns Humanity and the Mambo Grill downtown. “If the university is doing well, is a safe and attractive place that attracts bright students, it contributes to the downtown. We are one community.”
Research shows that cities like Lowell fare better economically if they are home to a large university, which can mean “higher property values, more business opportunities, new startups and an improved image,” said Adam Baacke, Lowell’s director of planning and development.
From backpack-carrying students downtown to a steady stream of UMass Lowell River Hawk Roadster vans careening through the cobblestone streets, the school and the city have never been so closely knit. “The university has changed from just being about academics, to academics and the growth of the city,” said State Rep. Thomas Golden.
According to a recent study the university conducted with The Lowell Plan, a non-profit economic development organization,
the increased presence of UMass Lowell students and faculty downtown has the potential to pump $10 million into the local economy each year. An estimated 400 faculty members live downtown, along with 500 students.
Amid all the progress, Meehan is trying to keep the institution affordable. When he attended UMass the state paid 85 percent of the school’s budget. Today, it provides 22 percent, he said. “In many ways, the university has been privatized. That means we need leadership that’s entrepreneurial,” Meehan said.
One of the first things Meehan did as chancellor was raise $1 million for student scholarships. He is taking a “best practices” approach from business and adopting them to the UMass Lowell brand, which he says “is worth something now.”
“I think any good university president is engaged in attracting good students. The only way you are going to do it is marketing and branding,” he said.
Being on campus instead of in Congress enables Meehan to be more focused. He’s in charge of a $240 million budget, 1,500 employees and 13,000 students. At commencement, he shakes every graduate’s hand. Although he’s not passing groundbreaking legislation, “it’s more rewarding,” he says.
Known as a demanding boss in his former career, the chancellor seems to be transforming along with the school. Newly slimmed down, he runs three and a half miles a day, sometimes at the campus recreation center to interact collegially with “constituents” (students and faculty). “You have to demand in Congress. At a university, you can’t demand, you have to lead.”
Clad in a light blue UMass Lowell shirt that matches his eyes, Meehan doesn’t have the distracted air of the all-important. He looks right at you, answers questions directly and doesn’t seem to wish, or need, to be somewhere else.
“This isn’t for me just another job. I have a passion, obviously, for the institution because I’m an alum,” he said. “I feel like I’m in the prime of my career. Right now.”
He ticks off the accomplishments he’s most proud of: increasing freshman enrollment 34 percent, grossing $24 million annually in online learning, establishing teaching and exchange programs in Ireland, Jordan and Turkey, and the school’s 14-1 student to teacher ratio. “This campus is literally being transformed, by any way you would measure an academic institution,” he said.
To gauge the breadth of what’s happening at the university, it’s helpful to understand the man calling the shots. Those who work closely with Meehan say he expects a lot of them, and even more of himself. “Like any large corporation, you need vision and leadership. If you don’t have an exciting visionary, someone who can energize and lead, it doesn’t work,” said Ahmed Abdelal, the school’s provost.
Abdelal, who left the provost post at Northeastern University to come to UMass Lowell three years ago, calls Meehan an empathetic, smart and quick thinker who relates extremely well to students and faculty. “The only way we can move on a lot of fronts is to have the faculty subscribe to a shared vision and become energized. Marty is a highly effective leader of people” he said.
He is also not afraid to surround himself with intellectual equals. “I want one or two or three people around me who could lead this institute, if, God forbid, I get hit by a bus,” Meehan said.
As UMass Lowell has expanded into the city, controversy has inevitably arisen. One of the most hotly debated issues is the UMass Lowell Inn & Conference Center. The school purchased and renovated the nine-story building, formerly the DoubleTree Hotel, two years ago for $20 million. It houses 500 students, has 31 year-round hotel rooms, 16 meeting rooms and a month-old restaurant called 50 Warren.
The ICC is designed to be a major revenue source for the state university. “If this Inn & Conference Center failed, it would mean that students would have to pay more,” Meehan said.
The revamping of the city’s only downtown hotel caused some to worry that tourism would suffer. Restaurateurs catering to out-of-town guests felt an immediate hit. “We lose a hotel and Cobblestones loses a revenue source,” said Scott Plath of Cobblestones restaurant downtown.
When non-university functions began to be solicited and news of the 26-seat 50 Warren spread, many cried foul. Meehan had previously told a roomful of business owners in a public forum before the ICC opened that the conference center would not compete for local business and that a restaurant was not part of the plan.
“I supported the purchase; I was misled,” said Mike Lenzi, who owns a catering and function facility in Dracut. Because UMass Lowell is partially funded by the state, Lenzi and several other restaurant owners believe taxpayers’ dollars are being used to compete against them.
Meehan says that’s a misconception and that no state money has been used in the project. He says UMass Lowell borrowed from the university’s building authority and will pay back the bond over
30 years. “I think competition is healthy, it just is. There really isn’t an advantage if there is no state money involved,” Meehan said.
Still, some feel duped by what they say is an unlevel playing field. Lenzi, a UMass Lowell alumnus and former Lowell city councilor, said his business, which relies on corporate events and weddings, has shrunk 10 percent since the ICC opened. “You don’t go out and solicit business (away) from people who have supported the university all their working lives.”
The updated facility isn’t viewed as a threat by everyone. Richard Rourke, owner of Tutto Bene wine shop across the canal from the ICC and Ricardo’s Café Trattoria a few blocks away, thinks Meehan “has done a phenomenal, outstanding job by taking a piece of property in downtown Lowell and reutilizing it. This is the start of bringing Lowell into the realm of a college community.”
Meehan says the decision to include a restaurant was left up to Aramark, the Philadelphia-based company he hired to run the center, which includes a 6,000-square-foot ballroom.
“I don’t tell the faculty what to teach. They basically told us, this is what we are doing,” Meehan said. “It would be unconscionable for anyone from the university to say, ‘Hey, wait a minute, you shouldn’t do what we hired you to do,’ which is run an inn and conference center.”
Nancy O’Rourke, director of sales and marketing for the center, said that without a restaurant on the premises, corporations would bypass the ICC. In the year and a half it’s been open, business customers that stopped frequenting the ailing DoubleTree have returned. “We don’t want to take everything. We look at ourselves as a piece of the city. Making us better makes the whole thing better,” O’Rourke said.
Golden, the state representative, chairs the Greater Merrimack Valley Convention & Visitors Bureau board of directors. He said not having a full-fledged hotel downtown initially “presented some challenges to us,” but added the bureau has only lost one booking since the ICC opened. He says the newly renovated Tsongas Center at UMass Lowell has helped the tourism outfit attract high-caliber events such as the Atlantic 10 Women’s Basketball Championship this month.
“It’s bringing more people into the city, more conferences into the city,” Golden said. “In order to make it a premier university, you have to do things the way he is doing it.”
Hard work has been a constant in Meehan’s life. Like many who came of age in a blue-collar city, he developed a strong work ethic by watching his father. The elder Martin Meehan was a compositor for the Lowell Sun for 40 years. But Marty senior wasn’t the only working class hero Meehan looked up to.
Growing up in an Irish Catholic family as one of seven siblings in the ’60s, the Kennedys loomed large. Photos of John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy hung in the Meehan’s South Lowell home. It was the 35th president’s younger brother, the brash Bobby Kennedy, who struck the strongest chord. “I think it was his loyalty to his brother and his support of the underdog that drew me in,” Meehan said.
Meehan was in the sixth grade when the presidential hopeful was gunned down after winning the California Democratic primary on June 5, 1968. “I wanted to stay up and watch the election on television, but it was on late and my mother wouldn’t let me,” Meehan recalled. The next morning, “I was in bed and said, ‘Mom, did Bobby win? Mom, did Bobby win?’ ”
After a long silence, Meehan said, his mother replied: “You are going to have to come out and see for yourself.”
“I remember it like it was yesterday,” said Meehan, who named his oldest son Robert Francis.
Among many keepsakes in the chancellor’s office is a framed Roy Lichtenstein portrait of Robert F. Kennedy on the cover of Time magazine in 1968. It was a gift from the late Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy, who wrote: “To Marty, Bobby would be proud of you and so am I.”
It’s his most cherished artifact.
Also in his office, which has a commanding view of the Merrimack River, is a collection of books on leadership. The most dog-eared is “The Nature of Leadership” by B. Joseph White. “I think there is a lot about leadership that you can learn, read, experience from other people. You constantly have to work at it,” Meehan said.
Being a leader, he says, “is inspiring people to be as great as they can through planning a vision, collaboratively. I think the worst thing anyone can do is think they know enough.”
To lead the school into the next decade, Meehan has a 10-year game plan called UMass Lowell 2020. Included in the school’s blueprint is recruiting more international students, increasing online learning, and expanding global studies. Although he doesn’t currently have a contract with the university, he is as of deadline, close to signing a three-year contract, and wants to see the plan executed.
He cites the transformation of St. Joseph’s Hospital in Lowell to University Crossing, which will house a student center, classrooms, a bookstore and dorms, as a major challenge. The university had been eyeing the property since 2000. In January, the school purchased the mostly vacant network of six buildings for $6.3 million.
“I’m pretty committed to what we are doing here. And I want to see it through,” Meehan said.
Ground was broken last summer for the Emerging Technologies and Innovation Center, which will be a haven for companies in bio and nanomanufacturing and the plastic industries. The next-generation facility is expected to attract startups and established companies to the region. It has the potential, Meehan said, to “transform the economy in the Merrimack Valley.”
The chancellor could bask in the glow of his accomplishments, but complacency is not in Meehan’s DNA. “I’m not satisfied. I think we can do more,” he said, mentioning better graduation rates and adding more beds on campus.
“There isn’t one day that I come into the university thinking that I’m here because of things that I know,” Meehan said. “You have to grow every day.”
( Editor’s Note: Read our Fall 2007 conversation with Chancellor Meehan. It’s now available under the ‘ARCHIVE’ tab or right here. )