boston.com Business your connection to The Boston Globe
DOWNTOWN

Nothing says it like cash

Congratulations to the University of Massachusetts at Lowell and its new chancellor, Marty Meehan.

The congressman is a smart guy, but the university didn't hire him for his academic credentials. (B.S., University of Massachusetts, Lowell, 1978; M.P.A., Suffolk University, 1981; J.D., Suffolk University School of Law, 1983.) If the university was looking for an academic, it would have hired either of the other two finalists, both of whom have held top posts at national universities.

No, Meehan was hired for one special skill: The man knows how to raise dough, and lots of it. Even by congressional standards, where money rules, Meehan is famed as a champion fund-raiser. And now he is being asked to put those world-class talents to work for his alma mater.

Here is where the congressman should start: by putting his money where his job is -- all $5.1 million of it.

Meehan had about $5.1 million in his campaign account at year-end, the largest stash of any congressman. Under federal campaign laws, Meehan must spend those millions on his political operation, give it to political parties or to charities. If charity begins at home, chancellor Meehan, why not UMass-Lowell students?

What better way to set an example for all the alumni and other potential donors you will be putting the arm on in the next few years? Do as I do, right?

Writing the big check would accomplish two important things:

It would show your commitment to raising private money for the school, which is why you are being hired in the first place. Match other donors dollar for dollar, and turn your $5 million for UMass-Lowell into $10 million -- or equal to about half the school's endowment at the start of the current fund-raising drive.

And it would also make it clear that you are in this for the long haul, and not simply parking yourself in Lowell until a US Senate seat becomes available. You once, after all, famously changed your mind about term limits. Think about this as removing temptation.

UMass-Lowell's website puts it well: "When you give to the University of Massachusetts Lowell, you help us in so many ways. Whether your support is for continued operations, or designated for a particular program or scholarship, it helps the university fulfill its mission to educate the next generation of students, support world-class research and innovation, and serve the people of Merrimack Valley."

Isn't service what it's all about? With higher education taking big state cuts over the past few years, the school can use the money. And there is no doubt Lowell, the technology campus of the UMass system, is doing important work for the students and the economy. The school is planning an $80 million bio- and nanotechnology research center, part of a $266 million campus renovation. It is also trying to double its endowment to $40 million in the next two years.

Meehan says he is unsure what he will do with his campaign war chest. "We are looking at the federal rules and regulations and what you can spend it on," he says. But he does say this: "Higher education in Massachusetts will determine our economic destiny."

If Meehan is serious about his new life, finding a way to give the money in some form to help college students makes more sense than giving it to Democratic politicians. A spokeswoman for the Federal Election Commission, Michelle Ryan, says there is precedent for politicians giving campaign funds to higher education. She said decisions are made case by case, and suggested Meehan could ask for an advisory opinion to determine whether there are limits on giving to an institution where he works.

Chancellor Meehan is a creative guy. If he wants to make it happen, one way or another he can find a way.

Steve Bailey is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at bailey@globe.com or at 617-929-2902.

SEARCH THE ARCHIVES