Foundation laid, Motley turns to year 2 at UMass

Brian Wright O’Connor | 1/30/2009, 5:47 a.m.

Whether hauling down rebounds as a man-mountain defender or coaxing arpeggios from the upper register of the violin, J. Keith Motley learned early on how months and years of private practice set the stage for public performance.

As he rounds the final turn of his first full year at the helm of the University of Massachusetts-Boston, Motley looks back on a two-year absence from the harborside campus as essential preparation for the job of chancellor.

“It was a two-year learning experience,” says Motley of going from interim chancellor to vice president of the sprawling University of Massachusetts system under Jack Wilson. “I developed a different perspective on finance, development, investment, endowment, marketing and branding. I spent the time putting more arrows in my quiver.”

At the time of the transfer, a number of community supporters criticized the system’s central administration for passing over the popular Motley in favor of a medical chief executive to run the Boston campus. The man who seemed the perfect candidate — possessing a Ph.D. in organizational development, more than 25 years in academia and deep ties to Boston — had been rejected in his bid to become the first African American to lead the school.

Last July, Dr. Michael Collins left the campus to head up the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester, opening the door to Motley’s return to preside over 13,500 students, 800 faculty, and a $254 million annual budget.

Since coming back to the peninsula on Dorchester Bay, Motley has launched an ambitious agenda for improving the school’s facilities, attracting and retaining world-class faculty, and investing in new undergraduate and graduate programs.

Sitting at a conference table in his campus office, Motley points out the window toward students leaning against the chilly spring wind on the plaza below.

“This university was established to allow the students of this city to receive an education equal to or better than offered by the private institutions,” he says.

With record-setting admissions, the school is just 2,000 students shy of achieving its original goal of enrolling 15,000 students. The most ethnically diverse public university in New England, the UMass-Boston campus boasts students from 140 countries who speak over 90 different languages. Students of color form a third of the student body, and over half of the undergraduates are the first in their family to attend college.

Motley understands the dominant demographic of his school — he comes from it.

Raised in Pittsburgh among the extended families from Alabama and Georgia who traveled north for work in the mills, “I grew up,” he says, “with a yard full of apple trees and strawberries. You went from house to house and felt at home. I remember as a little boy being a little angry because my mother used to cook all this food and come dinnertime, somebody else would end up sitting down and eating at our table.”

By the time he hit high school, coaches were beginning to notice that the 5-foot-7 kid hauling the violin through the hallways wore size 13 sneakers. Soon he was mastering both “Rhapsody in Blue” and the pick-and-roll, and thanks to his mother’s diligent supervision, completing all his school assignments.

When he showed up on the Northeastern University campus out of Peabody High in the fall of 1973, Motley had grown to 6-foot-8 — a dominant presence both on and off the court. While leading Northeastern toward entry in Division I as a record-setting rebounder and team captain, he came to see Boston as his new home and made a career of helping students, as a coach and administrator, after graduation.

Motley spent over 20 years at Northeastern, rising to dean of student services before making the move to the University of Massachusetts.

“After leaving Northeastern, I thought I could never find a work environment that was like family again, but as it turns out I’ve extended that family,” says Motley, who easily fit into the campus culture. His work on numerous community boards, including the Freedom House, the Roxbury Preparatory Charter School, the United Way and Dimock Community Health Center, had already made him a familiar figure around the city.

Motley, whose grandfather was a minister, speaks at times in Biblical terms. His inaugural address last November centered on the themes of “return and renewal,” echoing the travails of Moses in bringing the Hebrews back to the Promised Land.

But many of his colleagues in the academic community saw little promise when he went from Northeastern to the University of Massachusetts and little hope of renewal in his return to the harbor campus.

Motley chuckles, a deep bass rising from his massive frame.

“When I left private education, a lot of my friends said they weren’t sure whether to offer congratulations or condolences for going over to the Titanic of public education,” he says. “A few years later, those same people are calling me for jobs.”