Like many an interim chancellor, J. Keith Motley had some cleaning up to do when he took the post at the University of Massachusetts at Boston last August.
The previous chancellor, Jo Ann Gora, had faced declining support among civic leaders and in some quarters on the urban, largely commuter campus before leaving to become president of Ball State University. Motley, the university's vice president for student affairs, had restoration work to do. By most accounts, he succeeded admirably, and many professors, students and community leaders supported his selection for the permanent post.
So when UMass President Jack Wilson instead recommended last week that the system's Board of Regents choose Michael F. Collins, a former hospital president and Tufts University medical professor to head UMass Boston, Motley's supporters condemned the selection. (The third finalist was Marvin Krislov, vice president general counsel at the University of Michigan.)
Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino boycotted a breakfast ceremony at which he was supposed to receive an award, and on Friday, several state legislators and Boston city council members vowed to fight the appointment, saying the system had passed over an exceedingly qualified, proven leader for someone with little or no higher education administrative experience. Collins was president and chief executive officer of Caritas Christi Health Care System, a nonprofit medical institution.
''When do we fire somebody for doing a good job?" State Rep. Marie P. St. Fleur, a Democrat, said at the news conference.
As is often the case in Boston, race played a major role in reactions to the search. At Friday's news conference, several Hispanic and black legislators said they believed Motley had been overlooked, in part, because he is black. Eileen McNamara, a Boston Globe columnist, summed up this line of thinking Sunday when she wrote: "Surprise: After a nationwide search and the usual lip service to diversity, the job went to a local, well-connected, white Irish guy."
In an interview Saturday, Robert Connolly, a spokesman for the UMass system, called the charge that race had played a role in the selection a "distressing" accusation that is "unwarranted by the facts." He said Wilson "had to make a tough call" among three qualified candidates, but that Collins "stood out" with an "established track record of success in many areas."
Connolly said that Wilson has great respect for Motley, and noted that the president, meeting with the interim chancellor Wednesday to tell him that he was not being chosen, offered to create a vice presidency for Motley within the system office.
Motley could not be reached for comment. At the breakfast that Menino boycotted, Motley told local reporters, "I'd be lying to you if I didn't tell you I was disappointed," and said he had not decided whether to stay at UMass or pursue other options.
The UMass trustees are scheduled to meet Wednesday to vote on the recommendation, and while Motley's supporters promise a fight, the board's chairman, James J. Karam, praised Collins, strongly defended Wilson, and predicted a smooth ride for the president's choice in an interview with The Boston Globe in Monday's edition.
''The outlandish innuendos that somehow racism has played a role in this decision have upset me quite a bit," Karam, a real estate developer, told the Globe. ''If you look at Collins, he's managed a very intricate system. He's worked in hospitals that service Dorchester and Brighton, and he's served the underinsured and uninsured. He's an academic, he's a physician, and he's been a CEO running a multibillion-dollar organization."
He added: ''Keith didn't have that resume. He came from student affairs, and he did a good job, but, in a lot of ways, he didn't have the full spectrum of experience."