STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
CONCLUDING AN EXTENSIVE search process that floated dozens of candidates and two finalists from other states, University of Massachusetts Lowell overseers decided once again Monday that the right person to lead the campus already works there.
The UMass Board of Trustees voted unanimously to name Dr. Julie Chen, a 25-year veteran of UMass Lowell who today serves as the school’s vice chancellor for research and economic development, as the next chancellor in the Mill City.
Chen will succeed Jacquie Moloney, who plans to step down in June, nearly seven years after she ascended from her post as UMass Lowell’s executive vice chancellor to become its first-ever female chancellor.
“With her vast experience in all those areas that will determine the success of the university in the years ahead, and with her deep commitment to empowering students and communities through education and innovation, Dr. Chen is the right person at this moment to lead UMass Lowell,” said UMass President Marty Meehan, who recommended Chen over two other finalists.
Chen beat out Alan Dorsey, dean of the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Georgia, and Paul Tikalsky, dean of the Oklahoma State University College of Engineering, Architecture, and Technology.
Meehan, himself a former UMass Lowell chancellor, will now engage in contract negotiations with Chen following the board’s vote.
Chen is set to take the reins at UMass Lowell as the school continues to expand its footprint with a focus on research and as, like so many others across the country, it works to rebound from the COVID-19 pandemic. UMass Lowell has nearly 18,000 students enrolled currently, up from about 15,400 in fall 2011.
She set her sights on an early goal: securing an upgrade to UMass Lowell’s rating in the Carnegie Classification of Institutions. Lowell most recently earned Research 2 status for a doctoral university, which connotes “high research activity.”
The UMass system’s flagship Amherst campus is the only public university in Massachusetts with Research 1 status, the highest level awarded. Seven other private schools in Massachusetts were also R1 in the most recent listing: Boston College, Boston University, Brandeis University, Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Northeastern University and Tufts University.
In an interview, Chen likened the R1 designation to Division I athletics, pitching it as a way to cement a “sense of quality and competitiveness” at UMass Lowell while attracting more partnerships and investments.
“That reputational piece is important because as we talk to especially the larger companies, a lot of them limit, frankly, where they hire students from. They say, ‘We only recruit from these 10 or 15 schools,’ and oftentimes, those 10 or 15 schools are Research 1 universities,” Chen said. “Being Research 1 actually makes it easier for the students to get hired, it makes it easier for our faculty and staff to oftentimes get grants and get other resources because of being in that top-tier category.”
Chen said she believes it is “very attainable” for UMass Lowell to bump up its Carnegie research rating by awarding “a handful more doctoral degrees per year” and hiring some additional research staff.
Many higher education institutes are facing economic and demographic headwinds fueled by rapid inflation and fluctuating enrollment, but Chen said she believes UMass Lowell can evolve into a “destination university.”
“Lots of students pick a college in Boston just because it’s in Boston. They know nothing about the college itself,” Chen said. “I believe that we can make a case for — you’re going to want to come to UMass Lowell because it’s in Lowell, because we can attract a lot of companies to move to this region who will provide really great, well-paying jobs for our graduates as well as for the region around us.”
Chen received her bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees, all in mechanical engineering, from MIT. She spent six years as an assistant professor at Boston University before joining the UMass Lowell faculty in 1997. From 2002 to 2004, she served as program director for the National Science Foundation’s materials processing and manufacturing and nanomanufacturing programs.
She became UMass Lowell’s vice provost for research in 2009 and she was promoted to vice chancellor in 2016, at which point she also began focusing on external and outreach matters. Chen remains a professor of mechanical engineering today and, according to UMass Lowell student trustee Derek Houle, is a well-known figure on campus.
“In the days since the finalists were announced, I have heard nothing but positive things and a lot of students encouraging and supporting Dr. Chen,” Houle said during the board’s meeting. “In their experiences with her, they’ve been first-class. She’s really student-focused and she’s passionate about her students.”
As vice chancellor, Chen serves as UMass Lowell’s chief research officer and oversees its nearly $95 million in research enterprises, including industry partnerships and innovation efforts.
Her official UMass Lowell biography touts her as playing a key role in the school’s Innovation Hub, which serves as an incubator for medical device, biotech, and technology startups; the Raytheon-UMass Lowell Research Institute, and several other collaborations with business and government interests.
Chen is also a member of UMass Lowell’s Executive Cabinet, where she has helped implement the 2020 Strategic Plan, and she co-leads its Council on Social Justice and Inclusion. She helped elevate women faculty in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields as a co-principal investigator on a $3.5 million NSF grant.
Outside UMass Lowell, she serves on the boards of the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center, MassTech Collaborative, Massachusetts Advanced Manufacturing Collaborative, and the Massachusetts Military Asset and Security Strategy Task Force.
Moloney announced last year she plans to step down from the chancellor role at the end of the 2021-2022 academic year and rejoin the faculty. In 2015, she became the first woman to lead UMass Lowell when university officials — much like they did with Chen — promoted her from within following a wide-ranging search.
Praising Moloney’s tenure, UMass Board Chair Robert Manning said the Lowell campus “punches way above its weight.”
“The challenges going forward are going to be significant around enrollment, the budget, keeping that in line, as well as the inflationary environment that we’re facing and probably will continue to face, which all the campuses are going to have to deal with,” Manning said. “But today’s about a new moment in time for a new leader, new ideas, new energy.”
The firm tapped to help find Moloney’s successor communicated with 127 prospective candidates, according to Mary Burns, who co-chaired the UMass search committee. The panel ultimately interviewed eight candidates before narrowing the field to three finalists.
Chen becomes the latest in a line of UMass Lowell chancellors with roots in the Mill City.
The first person to serve as UMass Lowell chancellor was William Hogan, who had led the school back when it was known as the University of Lowell and was not yet part of the UMass system. Hogan’s successor was Meehan, a Lowell native who resigned his seat in Congress representing the Mill City and surrounding communities to become chancellor. And then when Meehan became UMass president, the university system’s board followed his recommendation to elevate Moloney to the top post.
Chen said she believes her familiarity will help her hit the ground running and avoid a transition period other candidates might have experienced.
“If you’re doing a big turnaround, then maybe you want someone from outside. UMass Lowell is an institution that has been doing amazingly well over the last 15 years, and so it’s a momentum that we want to continue,” she said.