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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

Another Term For Gora?

Part 1 of a 2-part series

Nearly a thousand days since she first stepped onto campus to become the sixth chancellor of UMass Boston, Jo Ann Gora appears to be settling into her role of leading the state’s second largest public university.

Many chancellors and presidents are staying for shorter and shorter terms-long gone are presidents who serve twenty to thirty years; most nowadays serve six or seven. In the last few years alone, Massachusetts has seen the retirement, forced or otherwise, of several of its college presidents, the most famous being former senate president and UMass President William M. Bulger.

Some wonder what category Gora is in. Brown, where presidents have served for 26 years, or UMass?

“I don’t think of it in those terms,” she said. “I like what I’m doing. I think it’s very challenging. I think the university is a great place. I really enjoy the students and the people who work here. And so, you know, I’m going to keep doing it until it seems right to stop.” She pointed to her record of keeping jobs for long periods of time. “My first job, I was there for seventeen years. I was a provost [at Virginia’s Old Dominion University] for nine years. So I tend to stay and make a difference. That’s what I’d like to do here.”

In the administration, it’s easier to make wide, sweeping changes, she says. “When you’re teaching, you impact the lives of individuals, of individual students. I often say when I talk to faculty that it’s the best job in the world to be a faculty member because individual students would come up to you and say, ‘You made a real difference in my life,'” she said, adding that at her inauguration, one of her former students came and said that to her. “But when you get into administration, what you try to do is impact whole systems and make a difference in the life of an institution.”

That is one reason she does not want to work at the system level, like a UMass president, who is responsible for 60,000 students on and off the five campuses. “I never want to work at the system level. The fun part of my job is talking to students and faculty and trying to make things better on campus. When you’re at system level, you’re dealing with a lot of paper, and a lot of politics, and that’s much less interesting to me. I like to be where the action is, and the action’s on campus,” she said. “They tried to recruit me for a Board of Higher Education job in Virginia, and I said no to that for the same reason.”

Much of Gora’s time is taken up by meetings. Meetings in her office with UMass trustees, with faculty, with various administration officials. Meetings in her Beacon Street home to welcome newcomers like Dean of the Graduate College of Education Lester Goodchild.

On one particular day, she comes out of an executive staff meeting at 10 o’clock for her bi-weekly meeting with Martyne Hallgren. Hallgren is the campus’s first chief information officer, “because the campus needed to develop a more focused IT plan and really function more like one university as opposed to six separate colleges,” said Gora. They discuss the search committee for a computer services director and wireless strategies for the campus, especially for the new Campus Center.

Moving through the morning and into the afternoon, she takes phone calls and a quick moment with her chief-of-staff, Kenneth Lemanski, former associate provost at UMass Lowell and Democratic representative of Chicopee to the state legislature in the early 90’s.

That day Lemanski is working in his natural element, coming in with a list of those who are attending a reception at the Statehouse for UMass alumni who work in the executive and legislative branches of Massachusetts state government.

During one of Gora’s meetings with senate President Robert Travaglini, an alumnus of Boston State University before it merged with UMass Boston, she suggested having such an event, to “reinforce loyalty to the institution.” How would he feel about having it in his office? Travaglini liked the idea.

Lemanski laid out the plan for the evening; Travaglini would make the welcoming remarks, with Gora to follow, introducing Acting UMass President Jack Wilson and UMass Board of Trustees Chair Grace K. Fey. There is a surprise lined up for the night: The three are to present a framed diploma with both the UMass Boston and Boston State seals on it, then the reception will transition into a video featuring alumni and pitching UMass Boston.

A 12:30 with her executive secretary to plot her schedule for the next few weeks is quickly followed by lunch, (consisting of soup, an apple, and a Diet Coke-unless she is meeting with somebody, working through lunch is the only way she can stay on top of the daily paperwork), before a meeting with John Ciccarelli, assistant to the chancellor for economic development. They talk about the College of Management and a proposed seminal manufacturing study.

“Our College of Management has three different centers that work with local businesses, all trying to support their growth,” she said later, stating that they help small businesses, provide consulting services for manufacturers, and aid businesses in becoming more environmentally sensitive. “Now, along the way, that provides good support for this city’s economy. There’s no spotlight being shone on that, but that has always gone on, and the university has always been a big player in that, and that continues to be an important part of what the university does.”

Later in the evening, in the car ride over to the Statehouse, talk turned to Governor Mitt Romney and his failed plans to reorganize public higher education. When asked later if she thought the University of Massachusetts would become a private entity in ten, twenty years, Gora disregarded the notion. “No, I don’t think so,” she said, labeling the scenario “highly unlikely.” “But I sometimes like to use the phrase ‘state-assisted’ as opposed to public to reinforce the notion that right now we get 30% of our support from the state, which is a lot lower than most people realize.” This is happening all across the country, she continued. “But that doesn’t mean we’ll become private. I mean we’ll always be a public or state-assisted institution, but we’ll always have to think creatively about how to increase revenues.”

Public higher education is “very important,” she said. “I think the state needs to recognize the fact that it is UMass Boston and other public institutions that drive this economy.”

What is true in this state is true in other states, she said, “and that is that the students who go to public schools [are the ones] who stay in the state and contribute to the economy of the state, and that is why they are deserving of public money. Because these are the employees and entrepreneurs that drive this economy.”

UMass Boston has tried to tell that story in many ways, to remind the state that while private institutions may be well regarded, “their graduates aren’t the ones who are populating this economy and who are driving this economy. And since Boston is the most important-you know, this campus is in the most important city in this state-we, UMass Boston, are driving this economy more than any other institution,” she said. “That’s an important message, that’s a message I try to reinforce on an everyday basis.”