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No Place Like Home

BOSTON It seems everyone in Boston knows Dr. J. Keith Motley. The list of schools and civic organizations he helps run or founded himself, like the Roxbury Preparatory Charter School and Concerned Black Men of Massachusetts Inc., is extensive. Hearing a former student talk about how Motley, though responsible for thousands, made him feel like the only one is a clue into why many erupted in outrage in 2005 when University of Massachusetts President Jack M. Wilson declined to appoint Motley as chancellor of UMass Boston after he had been serving in an interim role for two years.

When Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino heard Motley was being passed over for the permanent UMass Boston post, he turned his back on his alma mater in protest, refusing to attend an awards breakfast at which he was slated to be honored. City council members and state lawmakers issued harsh denunciations of Wilson’s decision. Leonard Atkins, president of the NAACP’s Boston chapter, said the decision had set back race relations in Boston 100 years. Atkins, state and city lawmakers, UMass Boston students and faculty staged a protest rally outside of Wilson’s office, calling for Wilson to choose Motley for the UMass Boston chancellorship.

Wilson stood firm however, pointing out the substantial executive experience and fund-raising prowess of his choice to lead UMass Boston, Dr. Michael F. Collins, a medical doctor who was the CEO of Caritas Christi Health Care and formerly a professor at Tufts University School of Medicine.

Through it all, Motley remained dignified, calling for calm, and ended up accepting an offer from Wilson to be vice president for business and public affairs for the entire UMass system. Gracefully, Motley showed Collins around campus, made sure he was settled into his new office — Motley even affixed a gold UMass pin to Collins’ jacket after his appointment was official.

“Keith Motley and Michael Collins were both very gracious in a politically difficult situation,” says Dr. Celia Moore, chair of UMass Boston’s psychology department and head of the faculty council at that time. Moore adds that in particular, Motley’s “demeanor and behavior under these trying circumstances really helped us with the community, because he has so many local connections.”

Motley says the irony was that “Mike and I became closer than close because of that whole experience. We were able to work together, forge relationships — our families like each other. So the blessing is our relationship that came out that whole piece. That’s what’s so strange and funny about it, because I guess the story would have been for me to dislike him and his family and all those kind of things.”

Though Collins says he did not know Motley before he was named UMass Boston chancellor, they had a heart-toheart at the announcment ceremony and eventually became good friends.

“What we modeled for everybody else was that we could become very close, we could focus on the university, and we could develop a friendship, despite all the other stuff that swirled on around us, because neither one of us were caught up with it at that moment. We were victims of circumstance,” says Collins.

During his two years as UMass system vice president, Motley says he went from managing a $300 million budget at UMass Boston to a $2.4 billion systemwide budget. Though many of Motley’s responsibilities revolved around managing the financial health of the system, he still had the opportunity to interact with students on all five UMass campuses, crisscrossing the state extensively.

Then, remarkably, as part of a major UMass system administrative shakeup this year, Wilson asked Motley to come back to UMass Boston as chancellor as of July 1 and moved Collins to the Worcester medical campus to serve as interim chancellor and senior vice president for health sciences for the UMass system.

In announcing Motley’s appointment in May, Wilson said he is “a leader who inspires all around him — students, faculty and staff — to reach for new heights and to convert potential into accomplishment. Keith Motley is a proven leader who is committed to making UMass Boston one of the finest urban public universities in the nation.”

Says Motley: “The learning opportunities that [Wilson] provided for me prepared me to be president anywhere else, and I knew that, and I was very fortunate when he asked me to come home, that all I had to do is come up the street. I stayed because Boston had indicated to me that they really wanted me to stay, in the sense that that outpouring of support for me made me finally admit that Boston has truly become that home away from home for me.”

Upward Bound

Motley says that all of his life he has had the opportunity to lead. “If I don’t lead this, I’ll lead that — I could be leading from the back. Just being part of something and helping it flourish is enough for me.”

And those values were forged while growing up in Pittsburgh, the second of five children being raised by a single mother. Yet, Motley was driven to succeed and had help from numerous mentors along the way. He recalls that professional athletes like baseball hall-of-famers Willie Stargell and Roberto Clement lived in the neighborhood when he was growing up, lending words of advice.

Motley says sometimes it would be a police officer that would take him fishing as a kid. “I was fortunate that when I was standing on the corner, there were men that would ride by and tell me ‘get off the corner.’ Or, some of my friends’ fathers who happened to be in their lives, even if it was momentarily, they would see us out doing something wrong and they would check you about it — the whole community was your family.” Motley says the federal Upward Bound program gave him an early feel for college life at the University of Pittsburgh. Upward Bound pairs disadvantaged high-schoolers with participating colleges, exposing them to higher education opportunities.

Though funding for Upward Bound and other TRIO college-access programs has been zeroed out in the last several budget proposals by President Bush, Motley says he has fought in concert with legislators like Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., to restore TRIO funding. A TRIO success story, Motley received a national 2007 TRIO Achievers Award in September.

“Upward Bound was clearly an opportunity for me to live in a college environment and sort of reinforce what folk had been telling me most of my life, which was ‘you’re going to college,’” Motley says. He adds that Upward Bound also exposed him “to what campus life was like. That made me understand that I could both have the opportunity to stay home in Pittsburgh but also I could go away and feel comfortable doing that as well.”

And go away he did, earning a bachelor’s and master’s in higher education administration from Boston’s Northeastern University and later a Ph.D. in educational administration from Boston College. Also, Motley’s 6-foot-8 frame helped him win basketball scholarships to help pay his way through school.

Subsequently, Motley spent more than 20 years working in a student affairs capacity at Northeastern University, and he was dean of student services for 10 of those years. Motley says he was drawn to the urban mission of UMass Boston when he signed on to be vice chancellor for student affairs in 2003, feeling UMass Boston fit well with his communityoriented civic life.

“I came here as an outsider. I was here for 10 months, built relationships on this campus. Many others were here — connected. The people chose me to be interim chancellor,” Motley says.

Motley adds he was primed to get the interim tag taken off his chancellor’s title in 2005, and when he didn’t get the job, he was more disappointed than his graceful public maneuvers indicated. So when Wilson offered the job to Motley two years later, he and his wife were taken aback by the emotional roller coaster that ensued.

“Our return to campus, as my wife says it to me, was so emotional; it was scary for us. They always tease me about tears and things like that, but it was just so emotional that it just sort of made you go, ‘wow,’” Motley says. And numerous faculty members, even some who had grown comfortable with Collins, welcomed him back. UMass Boston professor of history Julie Winch says she “liked Chancellor Collins’ style,” and was “a little taken aback by the change” initially, which came without a deliberative search process, as was done in 2005.

“I was actually asked to have breakfast with Chancellor Motley. I’ve been at UMass Boston for 22 years. This was the first time in 22 years I’ve been in the chancellor’s office. Nobody has ever done that. I was really impressed that he started to reach out to the faculty,” Winch says.

Moore says she has been impressed by the way Motley has organized his leadership team in his first few months on the job. “He has great talents in getting disparate groups to work together, and he also has a great talent of knowing where he needs to get complimentary strength,” she says. “He’s shown himself to be a good organizational leader as well as an inspirational leader, and furthermore, he’s continued to work closely with the president’s office and chancellors on other campuses as well. I’m very optimistic.”

The Issue of Race

Clearly, the issue of race has driven much of the debate over Motley not initially being selected for the UMass Boston chancellorship. Now that he is in the job, now that Massachusetts has elected its first Black governor, the dynamics of minority leadership in Boston and across Massachusetts have shifted a bit, many say.

Dr. Dana Mohler-Faria, president of Bridgewater State College and the newly appointed special advisor for education in Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick’s cabinet, says he’s seen quite a few changes in his 37 years working in Massachusetts higher education.

“I think there’s been no conscious effort to keep people of color, people from diverse backgrounds out of leadership positions, but I also think there’s been not much in the way of a real conscious effort to bring them in. And I think that conscious effort is more noticeable now, and it is significant,” Mohler- Faria says.

He adds that Motley’s installation as UMass Boston chancellor represents a “great move forward for the commonwealth … Keith has a great relationship with the city, campus and is he’s well respected. I think he’ll provide great leadership for the university, so I was very thrilled about his appointment.”

Though UMass Boston Africana Studies Department Chairperson Jemadari Kamara was a leading critic of Wilson’s initial decision to pass over Motley, he says “what’s most important is the fact that he’s the chancellor now.

“It’s certainly very important for our campus to have a leader who is reflective of the community that we are serving, both by virtue of his ethnicity, his urban background, and his sensitivity to student-centered issues, which is a priority and I think a hallmark of his leadership orientation.”

 “Plain old experience” is why Collins was initially selected over Motley, Moore says, adding “I don’t think race was an issue. And I don’t think race was an issue in this recent decision — I think race was a factor. We are a very diverse campus, and we think it’s very appropriate to have an African-American leader.”

Prior to Motley’s inauguration earlier this month, Collins had stated he was looking forward to returning to campus for the event with his wife. “We miss the campus, because we developed wonderful relationships when we were there, but we’re so excited to be going back to celebrate with the Motleys, because it is going to be a very important moment for them, it’s an important moment for the university, it’s an important moment for Boston.”

For his part, Motley calls the historic achievement of being the first African-American to helm UMass Boston “very significant.” He recalls that there was a time when he couldn’t retrieve his clothing from a local storage facility due to the city’s racial tensions.

“I travel through South Boston and other places that were known nationally for race issues years ago. And now I sit over here as the first African-American person chosen to lead this institution by the community,” says Motley, adding that he’s been told that school children and their teachers Google him, looking to see how he handled the uproar over him being passed over in favor of Collins in 2005.

Motley says there are too many people checking up on him to “not show them an example of what it’s supposed to look like. And if I didn’t do anything else, that for me has been the joy in all this, that even at the worst hour, I could stand with dignity and treat someone the way that I would hope I would be treated.”

–David Pluviose

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