Newly named Chancellor Robert C. Holub vowed yesterday to vault UMass-Amherst into the ranks of the nation's elite public universities, saying the state's flagship campus holds great potential but cannot be content with the status quo.
Holub, the chief academic officer at the University of Tennessee, promised to be assertive and analytical in charting plans for improvements. He alluded to such top-tier public schools as the University of Wisconsin and the University of Michigan as models to which UMass-Amherst should aspire.
"UMass-Amherst is the best public research university in New England, but that distinction is not enough," he told University of Massachusetts trustees after they unanimously approved his appointment as chancellor. "We can make UMass-Amherst the peer of the best public universities in the country."
Holub, a 58-year-old German scholar, went to Knoxville after nearly three decades at the University of California at Berkeley. Colleagues at both schools described Holub as a capable and energetic leader with a passion for public education, a demanding approach, and a track record of working closely with faculty members to improve research and the classroom experience.
"At his core, he's a faculty member," said Tom Milligan, vice chancellor for communications at UT-Knox ville.
Holub arrives this summer to a campus of 26,000 students that many say stands at a crossroads. UMass is striving to attract more prominent professors and better-qualified students, and to increase fund-raising among alumni to elevate its regional and national profile.
At a special Board of Trustees meeting in Boston yesterday, University of Massachusetts at Amherst officials cited Holub's experience as a top administrator at Berkeley, a fixture among the nation's best public universities, and at Tennessee as pivotal.
"He's a renowned scholar and a proven administrator," said UMass President Jack M. Wilson. "I am confident he has the intelligence, vision, and skills to be an outstanding leader."
Confronted with low retention rates among freshmen and sophomores at Knoxville, Holub instituted freshman seminars designed to strengthen students' ties with faculty and the college as a whole. Combined with efforts to improve advising and identify students at risk of falling behind or dropping out, retention rates have risen from 74 percent to 84 percent, Milligan said.
"The secret to his success is that he focuses his energies on improving the experience of students and faculty," Milligan said. "Those are the two things he cares about the most."
Holub's appointment comes close to a year after the UMass-Amherst faculty delivered a no-confidence vote against Wilson and the Board of Trustees following a controversial shake-up of university leadership. Holub, who is expected to begin Aug. 1, succeeds interim Chancellor Thomas W. Cole Jr., who took over for John Lombardi when he departed last year to become president at Louisiana State University.
He will likely sign a three-year contract and earn at least $350,000 a year.
Trustees said a national search, which lasted several months, helped unify an unsettled campus, and Holub thanked Cole for "stewarding the campus through a very difficult period in its history."
A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Wisconsin at Madison, Holub said he would seek to bolster the quality of teaching and research, and create benchmarks to determine whether specific departments are pulling their weight and justifying their budgets.
"We need to be sure resources are being wisely invested," he said.
A New Jersey native who was the first in his family to attend college, he told the board that he believes public education can be a springboard to a better life.
"I'm convinced public higher education provides a pathway of opportunity to prosperity and eminence," especially to students who would not otherwise continue their studies, he said. "It's a very important part of the American dream."
After the meeting, Holub told reporters he would seek to expand financial aid to help the neediest students.
At Berkeley, he oversaw 18,000 undergraduates and introduced reforms in general education, undergraduate advising, and educational policy.
Ralph Hexter, president of Hampshire College who worked closely with Holub at Berkeley, said he is "very focused on the undergraduate experience."
"He's enormously capable and very energetic," he said. "He has the highest standards and the highest respect for students and faculty. I'm sure he's going to be a forceful leader at UMass-Amherst."
Holub specializes in German intellectual, cultural, and literary history, and has written extensively on poet Heinrich Heine and philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.
Holub said his first year would largely be devoted to assembling a team around him, and acknowledged that improvement would likely be hard-won. But he said he would state his goals clearly and demand results.
"You want to do what you say you're going to do," he said. "You have to be accountable."
Max Page, a UMass-Amherst professor who was on the chancellor search committee, said Holub has a strong record of supporting faculty scholarship while improving the student experience. Yet he cautioned that broad changes need broad support.
"A chancellor is one individual," he said. "We could be on the cusp of something potentially great, but it's certainly not guaranteed."
Peter Schworm can be reached at email@example.com