Higher Education and the Quest for a Better Tomorrow

In January of 2020, the University of Massachusetts received some distressing news. A student ready to begin a new semester on our Boston campus was displaying symptoms consistent with the virus we were all coming to understand – and fear.

Shortly thereafter, health officials determined that the ailing student was suffering from New England’s first confirmed case of Covid 19.

Covid was no longer a biological phantom in the night. It was here -- literally at our doorstep.

Happily, the student recovered fully – that was the important thing.

But I mention this because we at UMass – probably like many of you – have a very precise recollection of when it all began. We remember the fear … the virus’s rapid escalation … and the questions about whether we were going to be able to complete that Spring 2020 semester.

To say that things have never been the same would be an understatement.

Here in Massachusetts, in one of the healthcare capitals of the world, at least 1 in 4 residents have been infected, resulting in more than 20,000 deaths. Nationally, more than one million people have died. And worldwide, more than six million lives have been claimed. It has been a global tragedy.


This Summit did not take place in 2020 and 2021 because of Covid and the danger it posed.

So, let’s take a moment to celebrate the fact that this year, we are here in Boston to renew ties and talk about the road ahead.


I want to thank Eduventures for including me in this important gathering.

Let me say how delighted and honored I am to be part of a conference that includes luminaries like:

  • Brandon Fleming, the Assistant Debate Coach at Harvard University and the Founder/CEO of the Harvard Diversity Project
  • Allan Golston, President of the U.S. Program at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
  • And Pulitzer Prize winners Jon Meacham and Doris Kearns Goodwin

I also want to thank all of you… for taking part in this conference.

And thank you for all that you do to shape and reshape one of America’s greatest assets – its higher education sector.

You are critically important to the ongoing effort to make our colleges and universities as efficient as creative and as effective as they can possibly be.

We are engaged in a permanent effort to improve our institutions -- not because innovation, progress and high achievement look good on a performance review or in an annual report, but because higher education is so vitally important to our national future and our destiny.

So much of what this nation has achieved socially and economically – in the arts and the sciences -- and in virtually every sphere of activity flows from higher education’s campuses.

I mentioned that this is the first time in three years that this Summit has convened. And one of the key reasons that Eduventures decided to go forward -- and that many of us are comfortable in attending -- relates to the miraculous success of the Covid vaccines.

Vaccines developed by Pfizer and by our hometown heroes, Moderna, located just two-and-a-half miles from here in Kendall Square.

It is clear that discoveries made at the University of Pennsylvania and work conducted at our own UMass Chan Medical School contributed to the success of the mRNA-based vaccines.

And, we know that colleges and universities have played key roles in developing faster, better, cheaper Covid tests, in creating therapies and have developed models and tools that public officials have relied upon in their efforts to contain the virus.

In short, the research and discovery that flowed from our campuses has saved lives in this hour of dire crisis -- and saves lives on many other fronts.

And that’s not unusual. Time and time again, throughout history, America and the world have looked to our universities for answers.

Here in New England, colleges and universities have always been engines of transformation.   

Over the 19th century and into the 20th century, our economy shifted from agricultural,

to industrial to being technology-based. And that’s a shift that occurred in many other parts of the country.

My home city of Lowell is known as the “Cradle of the American Industrial Revolution.”

And part of Lowell’s success was based on its ability to apply new thinking to the design of the textile mills that dotted its horizon … to harnessing the power of the Merrimack River … and to delivering products to market.

Research universities became full partners in the battle against evil during World War II … and helped to develop radar, penicillin, jet propulsion and, of course, the atomic bomb. 

America’s post-World War II economic boom and its emergence as a global leader was driven by its breathtaking display of R&D brilliance.

The laser … MRI systems … the algorithm for Google searches … DNA Fingerprinting … mainframe computers … life-saving safety devices, including seatbelts … and the vaccine that has spared millions of children from the scourge of polio all had their origins at our research universities.

America’s research universities have conquered disease and have brought us to the moon. They allow us to explore the stars and today, even during days of darkness, they give us hope.

They give us hope because we know that our campuses are capable of providing answers for the stark problems that confront us.

Now more than ever, we need an educated citizenry -- and we need innovation and solutions.

So, I thank you -- and celebrate the enormous contributions that you are making to higher education and to America.


I stand before you as the President of a public research university, as the former chancellor of a public campus and as a graduate of a public university – the University of Massachusetts Lowell.

In speaking about my lifetime connection to a public university, it is not my intention to downplay the importance of private colleges and universities.

As is the case for our nation as a whole, a core strength of our higher education system is its great variation and diversity.

Higher education in America is public and private. It includes community colleges, research universities and everything in between. And, increasingly, online education provides students of all ages with unprecedented learning opportunities.

But I am always eager to acknowledge my own educational background, as the success that I have enjoyed in life is directly attributable to the opportunity that was provided me in my hometown public university.

I am very proud of the fact that a young man from a working-class family in Lowell, Massachusetts, I was able to serve in the United States Congress.

As a Congressman from a New England state and as a public university graduate, I felt a special kinship with one of our greatest members of Congress, Justin Morrill of Vermont. I was inspired by the knowledge that individual members of Congress can have an enduring impact.

The poet Robert Frost, from Lawrence, Massachusetts, said there is “No greater name in American education than Justin Morrill.”

Morrill, who served in Congress for 43 years -- first as a member of the House and then as a member of the Senate – and fought hard for what would become the Land Grant Act of 1862.

It is stunning to me that as the Civil War raged not far from where he sat in the White House, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Morrill Land Grant Act creating public colleges that developed into major public research universities, including our system’s flagship, UMass Amherst.

If we look at a list of the major research universities in the United States, we see the institutions created by Lincoln and Morrill alongside Hopkins and Stanford and Harvard.

Higher education made America great, yet we now know that our greatness -- and maybe even our future -- can no longer be taken for granted.


Everyone in this room knows that our sector faces many challenges. I will begin by talking about one area that is fundamental to everything that we do.

Like all of you, we at UMass have spent these recent years working hard to protect and build enrollment.

We all understand the challenges:

  • Declining birth rates
  • The multifaceted impact of Covid -- including the temporary closures of on-campus programs
  • A reduction in the number of international students able to come to the U.S. for college or feeling comfortable coming here
  • An increasing number of young people questioning the value of enrolling and earning a degree

The challenges that we face came into stark relief with the recent release of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center data. Clearly, we have work to do for our institutions, for higher education and for the nation.

We don’t have a magic wand at the University of Massachusetts. In fact, our challenges are particularly severe given the demographic trends in the Northeast.

But, we’re working hard.

  • Last year, as you may have noticed, we formed a partnership that led to the creation of UMass Global, an online education program aimed at adult learners across the nation and around the world. We know that there are 34 million Americans who began college but did not complete a degree -- and we want UMass Global to help them achieve their educational and professional dreams. UMass Global complements our preexisting UMassOnline program -- and we see great opportunities for partnering with employers. We have, in fact, already created an online certificate and degree completion program with Mass General Brigham, the largest employer in Massachusetts.
  • We are working with high schools across the state to significantly expand our Early College program. This program would involve UMass faculty working with teachers in Massachusetts high schools that have a high proportion of economically disadvantaged, first-generation and minority students. We hope this program will lead to higher rates of matriculation at UMass, but the real focus is on closing education gaps by race and income. 
  • We’re taking steps to win back some of the international students we have lost in recent years, which we believe make the university less vibrant, places a significant dent in the state and national talent pool, in addition to sending a message that is at odds with our national ethos. Our flagship campus in Amherst has launched an impressive Electrical and Computer Engineering program in China and we’re planning to do much more in this important area.
  • We are developing closer ties with industry, emphasizing opportunities for internships, co-ops and other forms of experiential learning because we need to increase the value-proposition for families and students who look to us as their gateway into the economy. 
  • I strongly believe that we need to be aware of the needs of the economy and in touch with the business community. For a long time, that was considered to be out of bounds, but I believe that needn’t be the case. We’re not talking about turning over the curriculum or ceding academic decisions to others – far from it – but we need to make the best decisions for our students, for scholarship, for society and for the future. Guarding our core academic concepts and being concerned about social and economic development are not mutually exclusive. Last year, my team held forums with business leaders and everyone found those meetings to be very valuable.
  • And, we’re not afraid to talk about the return on investment a student receives from a UMass education, because, be assured, students and their families want to know. We’re eager to discuss the subject because we believe we have a very good story to tell. And, because students and families deserve to know. Research shows …that students see a direct connection between higher education and their professional futures. And given that this student cohort has witnessed the Great Recession of 2007-2009 and the pandemic disruption to the economy, it makes sense that they would.


As you know, we face so many other pressing concerns. Higher education needs to:

  • Upgrade student mental health services and crisis support systems.
  • Address cost and student debt.
  • Find ways to support faculty and staff, many of whom have performed heroically during these pandemic years.
  • We need continue to keep our campuses and our campus communities safe from Covid and other threats.
  • All while finding ways to cope with the profound financial impact the pandemic has had on our institutions.
  • And, we must play a leadership role in the effort to create a less pugnacious and acrimonious society.


Earlier in my remarks, I said we need colleges and universities more than ever – and I feel like that’s an assertion that can be made with a good deal of confidence.

We need the scientists and policymakers who are going to confront climate change. We need all the expertise we can muster in our long fight with Covid and to address all of the other health care challenges. We need to address inequality and economic disparities here at home and around the world. We need to deal with the scourge of gun violence in all of its forms -- and figure out why we can barely discuss this issue without tempers bubbling over.

And very fundamentally -- critically, I would say -- we need to address the tremendous division and discord that now courses through this nation.

The founding fathers of the American democracy warned that warring factions could someday jeopardize the nation. That day seems to have arrived.

Last year, we all saw the halls of Congress trampled and democracy attacked. For me, this was very personal. The images we saw that day were haunting. Almost unimaginable.

Later this morning, you will have the great privilege of hearing from two of the most eminent historian-biographers of our times: Doris Kearns Goodwin and Jon Meacham.

Doris and Jon have written about presidents and other public leaders and have written about America.

What I admire about their books, beyond their Pulitzer Prize-winning scholarship and writing, is that we can find hope in their work – and see a path to a better future.

In her book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, Doris notes that in defeating three more prominent presidential rivals at the Republican convention in 1860, Abraham Lincoln scored a shocking win.

But perhaps even more shocking was his decision to include all three of his Republican opponents in his Cabinet after he became president.

When asked about that decision, Lincoln said: “We needed the strongest men of the party in the cabinet. These were the very strongest men. Then I had no right to deprive the country of their services.”

Principle over pettiness and politics. What a refreshing idea.

In his 2019 biography of my dear friend and former colleague Congressman John Lewis, Jon Meacham writes that Congressman Lewis “was as important to the founding of a modern and multiethnic America as Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and Samuel Adams were to the creation of the republic.” 

I think that’s so true.

Also from Jon Meacham’s book aptly titled, His Truth is Marching On: “John Robert Lewis embodied the traits of a saint in the classical Christian sense of the term.”

I couldn’t agree more.


If I could be indulged a brief personal story.

I was elected to the United States House of Representatives 30 years ago -- in 1992.

I was a young guy, full of confidence. I was riding high, but it hadn’t always been that way.

I had grown up in a small house in a blue-collar section of Lowell. We lived on London Street – nine of us in a one-bathroom house.

We had the worst public school buildings in my section of Lowell. I went to six different schools before getting to high school because they kept closing our decrepit buildings. My father, who was a compositor at the Lowell Sun newspaper, used to get angry about the battered books we’d bring home.

But now, I was heading to Washington.

As I mentioned, I was pretty confidant.

But, I wasn’t delusional.

Massachusetts had a close-knit congressional delegation, and I had defeated an incumbent in a Democratic primary – so I didn’t expect brass bands to be waiting for me when I got to D.C.

As luck, or as some may say divine plan would have it, John Lewis was one of the first members of Congress I encountered when I nervously made my way into the Capitol Building.

I truly will never forget that golden moment.

Here I was, a poor kid from London Street, in Lowell.

And there he was.  John Lewis, giant of the civil rights movement, the hero of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the Conscience of the Congress. Striding right toward me.

There was a smile on his face, purpose in his step.

Logic took hold,

And I assumed he had spotted an old friend right behind me, given the excited look on his face.

“Marty, how are you? Welcome to Washington!”

To this day, I can’t really explain it. I can only be grateful.

Standing before you this morning in Boston, I’m not sure how John Lewis identified a rookie congressman from Massachusetts. I never asked!

But what he told me during those first minutes – was that he and I were going to work together to accomplish important things for our constituents, for the nation, for the future – that all makes perfect sense.

Because that was quintessential John Lewis.

John wanted me to know what he wanted us all to know: That we were one people and one family. That we all lived in the same house. The American house.

Today, more than ever, that’s the message that we all have to drive -- professionally and personally.

We all live in the same house. The American house.

Amen, John Lewis.

Thank you all very much.