What Does a Great Commissioner Look Like?

Excerpted from 2015 Spring Newsletter

Richard Freeland is stepping down as Massachusetts Commissioner of Higher Education after 6 years. PHENOM saw him as an ally in the quest for increased recognition and funding for public higher education, while disagreeing with aspects of his “Vision Project” which emphasize excessive measurement and performance funding. The Boston Globe (October 21, 2014) summed up his tenure this way:

“Freeland’s crowning achievement as commissioner has been the Vision Project, a strategic agenda that outlines ways to improve the academic standing of public colleges and universities in Massachusetts, a system that falls in the middle of the pack when compared with other states. Freeland has stressed that average is not good enough. ‘I consider public higher education to be a greatly undervalued, underappreciated, and under-supported resource in a state that lives by its brains,’ he said.”

A replacement has not yet been selected, and PHENOM asked a range of people what qualities they would like to see in the next Commissioner.

  • Max Page, faculty member at UMass Amherst and PHENOM Board member:

I simply want a leader who, while dealing with a million issues in public higher education, will focus intently and passionately on making some public higher education free, and, at the same time, working to achieve the most important investment to advance the quality of all our institutions: hiring full-time faculty and staff to teach and serve our students, to do research, and serve the Commonwealth. All the rest, as Hillel said, is commentary.”

  • Juhi Dasrath, student organizer at Springfield Technical Community College:

He or she needs to understand that one half of higher education students attend Community College; therefore we feel it is important for the Commissioner to find more funding not only for State universities but for our Community Colleges as well. All of the goals left by Richard Freeland will not be successful without the financial resources needed to carry out each idea. We need a Commissioner ready and willing to battle and advocate for more funding for higher education students and institutions. Our society cannot flourish without the students who will later build our state after earning their degrees.

  • Ruthie Liberman, Vice President of Policy, Crittenton Women’s Union:

We are looking for someone who understands the needs of non-traditional students: parents, older people, the first to attend college in their family, teen parents, the disabled. Someone who really understands the value and the challenges of the public higher education system. Someone who is committed to continuing the Vision Project and who would like to see Massachusetts offer at least two years of free higher education.

  • Alexander Armand Ribeiro Nally, Student Trustee, Massachusetts College of Art and Design and PHENOM Board Member:

We need a Commissioner who understands the potential of all students from every background and across all disciplines in this Commonwealth. We need someone who understands that the successes of each individual campus across Massachusetts—the community colleges, state universities and UMass—are integral to the success of the system as a whole. Equity and social justice must be integrated into their practice as a leader, and their understanding of educational assets should include the great value of interdisciplinary programs that integrate the Arts in STEM programs (STEAM). And most of all, we need someone who understands that higher education needs to be affordable—and beneficial to the communities and families surrounding the institutions.

  • Carlos Rojas-Alvarez, organizer with the Student Immigrant Movement:

We need a Commissioner of Higher Education who is committed to the immigrant communities that comprise the fabric of our state and who generate billions of dollars every year in tax and business revenue, and that means championing the right of immigrant youth to access and afford higher education. We know this can happen if we support our high schools, colleges and universities to become fully supportive and inclusive of undocumented students, and if we address the unjust and impractical higher education policies that force deserving students to pay out-of-state tuition rates and bar them from competing for essential financial aid.