Appraising the Profit and Loss of Black Leadership

Black leadership is an asset to every community.  It is particularly important in Boston, with its tortured history of race relations and recent national spotlight on our race problem, courtesy of Michael Che on “Saturday Night Live.”  A heated debate has followed the claim lodged that Boston is the most racist city in the country.  Locals were offended, and defended our fair city.  And then, as if on cue, we get the story of Dr. Keith Motley, who resigned as Chancellor from the University of Massachusetts Boston on Wednesday.

The questions swirling around Dr. Motley’s resignation are just another example of the fact that we do not take stock of the assets that Black leaders bring to our region.  Sadly, it’s part of our history and apparently part of our foreseeable future.  We recently have witnessed attacks on our Black leaders at an alarming rate.  While constructive criticism is welcomed for individuals in leadership positions, the past coverage of Dr. Beverly Scott and the coverage in recent weeks of Rev. Raymond Hammond and Dr. Motley feel more like unmerited character attacks – seemingly for sport. 

Leadership of color is hard won here.  And when Black leaders rise up, there is a sense that it will only be a matter of time until they are knocked down for one reason or another.  It’s an insidious paradox.  You can almost hear the power structure quietly saying: “How dare you purport to know your community so well, and worse yet, to empower them.  Must we remind you, you’re only a figurehead?”  

Take Dr. Motley. In all of the verbosity on the topic, there is little mention of the assets that he has built in our community over a 10-year legacy.  There is no mention of just how complex it is to keep a university, especially a public institution, relevant in an increasingly competitive environment – a challenge facing all university leaders in the global higher-education market.  Yet, he has successfully managed to do just that.  Under Chancellor Motley’s leadership and entrepreneurial guidance, enrollments grew by 25% and the budget grew by 60% to a $132 million increase in operating growth.

No one is talking about how during his tenure graduation rates increased, particularly among students of color.  Or, of the Edward M. Kennedy Institute, which was created under his watch… Of the construction of University Hall, where numerous community events are held… Of the $1.1 billion in economic activity generated in FY 2015… Of the school’s first on-campus dorm …  Of the elevation of the stature of UMass Boston from a small commuter school to a respected research university.  

No. We’re not talking about any of that.  The only thing we can focus on is the current debt – the operative word being “current” – to differentiate from the surplus that Dr. Motley created a few short years ago.  While it stands to reason that management should focus on finances, we have yet to see a construction job that has not run over budget – from my kitchen make-over to the Big Dig.  Which is why it’s both astonishing and shortsighted to juxtapose a 10-year legacy of building long-term assets with short-term management of current liabilities as in the case of Dr. Motley.

Leaders are praised – in fact often defined – by getting things done in the absence of resources.  Yet, this definition doesn’t seem to apply to Black leadership in Boston.  Instead, we only see a failure to manage short-term capital constraints.

I hope that we’re not witnessing the end of UMass Boston’s revival.  As a community, we need to remain vigilant about the social and educational well-being of our citizens and about strengthening academic and cultural resources like UMass Boston, while being mindful of the tremendous assets our leaders have built thus far.

Dr. Motley’s resignation is another blemish on Boston’s record on race.  His leadership will be missed at UMass Boston and throughout the community.  I hope that as a community we can come together and act to strengthen and support each other, nurture our next generation of leaders, and work to create a region that values the assets they bring.  However, the question for now remains: Who’s next? 

As Submitted to Viewpoint: Boston Business Journal, April 7, 2017