For Motley, A Last Hurrah

As 2,600 students last Friday lifted their tassels from one side of their caps to the other, waving goodbye to the university, J. Keith Motley had his own unsaid farewell, capping nearly a year in the interim chancellor position.

“I think it is an extra special graduation because it is Motley’s first and only graduation as chancellor,” said junior Eliza Wilson, who sat with Motley’s family in the front row. Wilson, a student senator and an assistant in the chancellor’s office, was among the group of students, faculty, and staff who voiced strong support for installing the popular Motley as permanent chancellor, setting up a website and lobbying the Board of Trustees.

Previously the head of Student Affairs, Motley quickly became the center of controversy in late March when his name almost didn’t make it onto the list of finalists that included Marvin Krislov, vice president at the University of Michigan, and Dr. Michael F. Collins, a former healthcare executive, Tufts University professor, and the eventual pick.

Charges of racism followed in May after UMass President Jack Wilson picked Collins over Motley, who is black. Tensions were slightly eased days later after Motley accepted Wilson’s offer to become vice president of business and public affairs at the UMass system level – a promotion university officials say was on the table since last July, when Wilson chose Motley to temporarily replace Jo Ann Gora, who left for Ball State University in August.

At the end of the chancellor search, Motley was going to be either the chancellor or a senior leader at UMass, university officials said. “There was always that understanding,” said Bob Connolly, spokesman for the President’s Office.

“The loyalty to Dr. Motley is well deserved,” said Charlie Titus, whom Motley appointed interim vice chancellor of Student Affairs. “We wanted to support him, and it didn’t work out the way we wanted, but now we are moving on.”

There was never an “anti-Collins movement,” Titus added. “I think it is important that Collins is here for the transition.”

Collins, wearing a blue baseball cap with UMASS in white letters across its front, played it low-key, sitting offstage with his wife Maryellen, and briefly standing up when Motley formally introduced him during the ceremonies.

“I am excited to be here,” he said before the ceremonies. “It was gracious of Motley to invite me and I think it is a great opportunity to see the university before undertaking this responsibility.”

No firm start dates are yet set for either Motley or Collins, who has already started holding meetings on campus with faculty and administrators since the Board of Trustees near-unanimously voted for him on May 25, as both get ready for their new respective jobs.

“That is something that will take place over the next several weeks,” Connolly said. Motley’s new job, which includes acting as a liaison to Boston’s various communities, will come with at least the $185,000 salary both he and Gora made as chancellor. The hammering out of Collins’ contract is in the final stages, and a small salary increase, keeping it within the current range, is expected, according to Connolly.

The controversy, though largely unmentioned during graduation, must have been on the minds of faculty and administrators up on the stage and among a few of the 10,000 students and relatives seated on the Campus Center lawn.

Only broadcast journalist Emily Rooney, the commencement speaker, spoke of it, taking students to task in her speech for not taking a deeper look at other candidates for chancellor.

“Only a handful of people, mostly academics and news people, bothered to inform themselves about the other choices,” she said. “If you did, then you discovered that not every decision in life is black and white, there are shades of gray. If you tuned in to this very important public debate, you were among the elite who were aware of what the choices were, and how difficult that choice was for your president, Jack Wilson – and the Board of Trustees of your university.”

Asked for comment on Rooney’s speech, Collins said he didn’t focus on any particular part of it, but it was “very well-done.” Motley could not be reached for comment.

In his own speech, President Wilson thanked Motley for an “outstanding job.” “I might say UMass Boston’s loss is the university’s gain,” he said.

Said Student Trustee-elect Fritz Hyppolite: “Motley gave a lot to the university and will continue to do so in his new position. I think that Wilson recognizing that is good for the university morale.”

Write to Gintautas Dumcius at [email protected].