Students, alumni, and community leaders rallied on the State House steps Saturday afternoon demanding that officials reject the resignation of University of Massachusetts Boston Chancellor J. Keith Motley.
Speakers at the rally, including City Councilors Tito Jackson and Ayanna Pressley, state Representative Russell Holmes, and former state Representative Dianne Wilkerson, asserted that Motley was being unfairly blamed for UMass Boston’s financial woes. Before a few dozen protesters, the speakers called on Governor Charlie Baker and UMass president Martin Meehan to not accept Motley’s resignation.
Motley, who has served as the UMass Boston chancellor since 2007, is regarded as an important leader in the black community, and speakers said Motley’s resignation was emblematic of systemic racism within the university system.
“This is starting to feel like a systemic attack against black leadership,” Boston NAACP President Tanisha Sullivan said through a megaphone. “And we need to take a stand.”
UMass Boston officials announced Wednesday evening that Motley would step down at the end of the academic year as the university faces a deficit of up to $30 million and overdue construction projects. He will take a one-year sabbatical and then return as a tenured faculty member.
Protesters also called for a more diverse board of trustees and for Baker and Meehan to meet with residents in Roxbury to discuss the issue of racism in academia.
“We want this decision reversed,” Pressley said. “We want a board that is representative of the student body.”
Several speakers, including Jackson, Sullivan, and the Rev. Liz Walker, criticized the Globe’s coverage of Motley’s resignation.
“We will not allow The Boston Globe to be the judge, jury, and executor on this one,” Jackson said to cheers in the crowd.
Jackson told a Globe reporter later that he did not think the paper’s stories fully accounted for how a university is run, including that the buildings on campus are funded through the UMass Building Authority and that the board of trustees has to approve every capital expenditure.
The UMass Building Authority issues bonds and oversees some capital projects on the UMass Boston campus, and the campus is responsible for servicing the debt. The board of trustees sees and approves high-level budgets for each campus.
Jackson praised Motley’s leadership during challenging times at the university.
“I believe that Keith Motley is an amazing leader,” Jackson said. “Public institutions go through difficulties; that’s actually part of why we need great leaders.”
Sullivan said she felt the media coverage in general did not highlight Motley’s accomplishments at UMass Boston.
“We’re hearing about the financial woes of UMass Boston, but we’re not hearing about the financial reserves that UMass Boston has,” Sullivan said.
“We’re hearing massive expansion in a negative light, but we’re not hearing about the incredible advancements in technology and innovation that have happened at UMass Boston under the leadership of Keith Motley, and that’s troubling.”
One UMass Boston student and two former students spoke to the crowd about how Motley had inspired them during their time at the university.
“Chancellor Motley was a huge, instrumental part of my educational experience and my growth and my accomplishments to this day,” said Eliza Wilson, who graduated in 2009 and has gone on to earn her master’s in business administration. “I know that I would not have accomplished everything I have without Chancellor Motley.”
Speaking through a megaphone before the protesters, Jackson remarked that the gathering came just four days after the 49th anniversary of the assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.
“We will not allow you to assassinate our brother Keith’s character,” Jackson said to the crowd. “We will not allow you to assassinate his record. We will not allow you to assassinate his leadership.”