Meehan: 2020 doesn’t feel like just another year

Education remains a torch eliminating darkness

A NEW YEAR HAS DAWNED and for me, and I think for many, 2020 doesn’t feel like “just another year.”

It seems like a time when daunting challenges swirl all around us.

In Washington, the president has been impeached and partisan animosity has soared to new heights. Around the world – from Australia’s fires to floods in India that killed 1,900 people to hurricanes that rage with new ferocity — our environment is expressing dramatic distress. And poverty, conflict, and inequality continue to haunt us at home and abroad.

In times like this, I think it’s good to have heroes.

I came to public life inspired by great leaders. My eldest son is named for Robert F. Kennedy, who during his all-too-brief life urged us to send “ripples of hope” into the world. In eulogizing his brother, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy famously said that some saw things as they were and asked why, but Robert Kennedy dreamed things that never were and said … why not?

I met another of my heroes shortly after arriving in the US House – Congressman John Lewis, who made an awestruck freshman feel like a lifelong partner and friend. This great icon of our times suggested that we work together on projects that would benefit our constituents and the nation. Brimming with passion, John believed – as he does to this day — that bringing people together and appealing to reason would ultimately solve the problems we were elected to confront. While I was still unpacking boxes and settling in to my new role, I learned lessons from this congressional giant that have never left me.

Another hero whose work has endured for more than two centuries: John Adams, the second president of the United States and the author of the Massachusetts Constitution.

Drafting our constitution, Adams did something extraordinary – he said Massachusetts needed to provide its citizens with access to education, “wisdom and knowledge … being necessary for the preservation of their liberties.”

In my current role as president of the University of Massachusetts, and as a citizen of the Commonwealth, that guarantee motivates and inspires me every day.

The 1780 Massachusetts Constitution crafted by John Adams stands as the world’s oldest functioning written constitution. Although UMass was created eight decades later, after President Abraham Lincoln signed Justin Morrill’s Land Grant Act into law, I like to think that the University of Massachusetts completes Adams’ vision of a public educational system that creates an informed citizenry and provides citizens with the knowledge and skills they need to be successful in life.

For many reasons – including our special inheritance derived from the vision of the Commonwealth’s founders – we at the University of Massachusetts take our role seriously. We work hard not only to advance our mission of education, research, and public service, but to provide solutions to the problems that surround us.

As Mary Sue Coleman, president of the Association of American Universities has said: Public universities matter.

“Public universities are the workhorses of American teaching and research. And the benefits to society are powerful,” said Coleman, who set a high bar for public university presidents everywhere during her presidencies at the University of Michigan and the University of Iowa.

As this new year begins, I choose to see hope rather than despair — to see things as they can be. Public universities were created, after all, to bring opportunity and possibility to the people.

The University of Massachusetts — and public education writ large — need and deserve as much support as possible because of the importance of our mission — and because the stakes are so high.

As president and as a graduate, I know that UMass exists to open doors. It seeks to provide hope, keep dreams alive, and give every student the chance to make the most of his or her talents. Systemwide, enrollment at UMass is up 30 percent over the past two decades – and our goal is to continue to do more for Massachusetts.

Meet the Author

Marty Meehan

President, University of Massachusetts
Education is the torch that leads us out of darkness. John Adams understood that more than 200 years ago – and we know that today. Let’s hold the torch high and work for better and brighter days in 2020.

Marty Meehan is president of the five-campus University of Massachusetts system.