Politician & UMass President Meehan on Politics, the Crisis & Education

This year’s guest of honor and honorary degree recipient at the Deree Commencement Ceremony was Martin T. Meehan, JD, President of the University of Massachusetts. Born and raised in Lowell, MA, Meehan graduated cum laude from UMass Lowell with a degree in education and political science. He later earned a master’s degree in public administration from Suffolk University, and a juris doctor from Suffolk University Law School.

During his career, Meehan has served as Deputy Secretary of State for securities and corporations, First Assistant District Attorney for Middlesex County, and has represented the 5th congressional district of Massachusetts in the U.S. House of Representatives for 14 years. Meehan was then elected Chancellor of UMass Lowell and, after 8 successful years of leading the campus on its rise to top-tier national university status, he was elected to the presidency of the 73,000-student University of Massachusetts system in 2015.

We met the renowned politician and educator just a few minutes before the 2016 Commencement Ceremony and talked with him about the recession and its impact on education, the global political crisis, as well as the role of universities as initiators of social change.

Q.: As this year’s honorary degree recipient at the Deree 2016 Commencement Ceremony, what is the most important message you wish to convey to the graduating class?

First of all, congratulations on a job well done!

I think it’s important that graduates have a sense of how difficult these times are, economically. These times require determination, and for them to be open-minded. I would encourage graduates to try to get Greece engaged and involved in innovation, entrepreneurship, to think outside the box, and to see how Greece can keep making the difficult decisions it needs to make, but also think toward a 21st century economy, and what that means.

Q.: The public education system in Greece has been severely impacted by the financial crisis. Having served both as a politician and an educator in the United States, are there any lessons learned in recent US history that can benefit Greece?

I think most countries in the world have gone through difficult economic times over the last decade or so. For example, in 2008, in the United States we had a crisis and a near-collapse of our financial institutions that jeopardized economic prosperity. The federal government had to get involved in saving financial institutions and it was an unpopular thing to do, leaving many Americans frustrated and angry. But, good economic policy ended up saving the country from financial collapse and, in the long run, it was able to slowly but surely built its way back.

During that period of time though, public and private education in the United States went through a very, very difficult time. Based on that, I think that good federal policies are important in order to sustain long-term economic stability. Sometimes, that means that governments need to make decisions that in the short term are not popular but in the long term are in the best interest of the country.

I think universities are places where people need to be thoughtful and innovative; places to conduct research, and by using that research, the decisions a government makes can be informed decisions.

Q.: In your most optimistic views, what is the next step in the evolution of education?

I think education needs to constantly be looking to change itself. I think educational institutions should pay attention to economic indicators – what jobs are likely to be available. And while it’s important to educate people from a liberal arts point of view, education needs to stay in touch, through its research, with what society’s needs are going to be ten, twenty, thirty years down the road.

I passionately believe that education is the only way that generations of people around the world can do better, and can find solutions to complex problems. I think it is really important, particularly degrees in subjects that are truly needed around the world.

One of the things about being on a college campus is that I’m surrounded by young people, and I’m optimistic because these young people are smart and innovative. I thought it was really interesting that in Britain those who didn’t want to leave the EU were the younger people, whereas the older people might be more frustrated that the economy isn’t the same as it was fifty years ago. But this is an ever-changing world, and only through a high-quality education system can people be prepared to meet its challenges.

Q.: Do you agree that global politics is in crisis? If so, how is education threatened?

Yes, I do believe it’s in crisis… even in my own country, in the United States. I mean, I’m witnessing a presidential campaign like I have never seen, where you have a major party candidate saying all kinds of things that in some cases aren’t true, in other cases only serve to try to bring out the worst in people. But I think it’s true around the world, like ISIS in the Middle East… I’ve had the opportunity to visit places like Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan many times, and the opportunities for women in many of those countries are appalling!

So, I think the unrest, uncertainty, and crises around the world threaten societies all over the world, and I think that only those societies that embrace education, at all levels, are sustainable.

Q.: With the ongoing crisis in Greece, youth unemployment has climbed to over 51% and the country is now experiencing the brain-drain phenomenon more prominently than ever. Is there anything that can truly combat this, or do you think that going abroad to “wait the crisis out” is a necessary evil at this point?

No country wants to lose its talented people. The challenge is to keep as many as possible here to help solve the problems, you don’t want to lose your best and brightest. Brain drain has been an issue in countries all over the world; in my own state of Massachusetts, we have some of the greatest colleges in the world, but because there aren’t enough jobs to sustain the graduates, many of them leave.

I wouldn’t want any country, specifically Greece, to give up on the notion that they can keep people here… You can’t afford to lose the young people. You can’t develop a 21st century economy if you don’t have young college graduates who tend to be more entrepreneurial, more innovative, understand how technology works… The future economy is going to require people to be competent and up to date with technology.

Q.: June is Pride month. Do you believe universities can, and should, do more to promote LGBT rights? Is activism “active” in the 73,000-strong student body of UMass?

I have been a big advocate of gay and lesbian rights in the course of my career. In fact, the very first amendment that I offered as a member of congress in 1993 was an amendment to go against the Clinton administration’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy; I wanted to lift the ban completely.

I come from a big Irish Catholic family in Lowell, and my father said to me at the time: “Why does that have to be your first amendment?” and I said, “Well, because I’m on a committee of jurisdiction, and if someone is going to offer the amendment it’s going to have to come from my committee, and that’s where I serve, and… you know, it’s the right thing to do.”

So, I explained the issue to him, and he said “I’m sure you’re right but, can’t someone else do that?” and I said, “You know Dad? No…” and I said that part of the job of being a leader, in my view, is that sometimes you have to be ahead of your time. I said, “Some day I’m going to have children, and I don’t want them to look back at my record and say, ‘He was on the wrong side of history’.”

Universities are filled with young people; people who don’t have the same bigoted sense of what someone ought to be but rather who they are. For this reason, I think universities are places that literally can change societies. I’m proud of the University of Massachusetts and my students for the way they engage in matters and that they’re not afraid to speak their mind. They have been so embracive of the rights of all, regardless of sexual identity or orientation.

I look forward to a world where, because of young people, because of education, there will no longer be any bigotry or biases. I guess, in my most optimistic view, I believe that the only way we can begin to solve the world’s problems is through young people and education… I think that young people represent our best hope.

For more on the 2016 Deree Commencement and Marty Meehan’s commencement speech, click here.

To read about LGBT+ awareness at Deree, click here.