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Spring 2001












Feature story






Coaxing the cats
A ’60s kid relates to the system

by Mary Carey

Judith Gill

“I WASNT" A RADICAL, I was an activist – I didn’t wear a shawl!” Massachusetts chancellor of higher education Judith Gill ’72 in her Beacon Hill office. (Patrick Whittemore photo)

For someone whose job requires leading a system of strong-minded individuals who don’t necessarily want to be led, Judith Gill cuts an unintimidating figure. Sworn in as acting state chancellor of higher education in January 2000 after the unexpected death of her predecessor, the softspoken alumna was permanently appointed in August to a position that’s been described as CEO of the state’s 29 publicly funded colleges and universities. On behalf of the 11-member, politically appointed board, Gill coordinates activity, oversees budgets, and sets system-wide policies for 29 campuses with a workforce of tens of thousands and state appropriations of over $1 billion a year. She works directly with the president and five chancellors of the UMass system, the presidents of the nine state colleges and 15 community colleges, and all of their boards of trustees.


In the ’90s catch-phrase, getting that many high poobahs to work together is like herding cats. Gill, however, prefers to collaborate with the cats. That was her preference even as a student at UMass during the politically turbulent Vietnam era, when she was trying in her determined but nonconfrontational way to change the system.

     As a sophomore during the student strike of 1969-70, which protested the war and other things students saw as unjust, Gill chaired the University and State Communications Council, which she’d founded in an effort to give students a voice with the powers that be. The council’s big event was Legislators’ Day, scheduled for May 8, 1970, and Gill had worked hard on the logistics of bringing dozens of members of the legislature to campus. She’d also been sending as many students as possible to Boston to lobby.

     As the day grew nearer, however, events conspired to increase tension. On April 30, President Nixon announced the bombing of Cambodia, triggering massive protests nationwide. On May 2, after the burning of the R.O.T.C. building at Kent State University in Ohio, National Guardsmen were called onto that campus. On May 4, four students were killed and nine wounded when guardsmen opened fire during a demonstration.

     “I was told I needed to cancel the event, because if I didn’t, legislators would be harmed,” Judith Gill told Sarah Buchholz of the UMass Campus Chronicle last fall. “It was the scariest day of my life to that point.” Gill met with the dean of students and director of student activities, “fully expecting them” to tell her to call off the event. To her surprise they said the decision was hers.

     “I decided to go forward,” Gill says. “I worked with the student strike force. We got bodyguards for the legislators, students from their districts. We called all of them and told them they needed to wear casual clothes to fit in.”

     Eighty-four members of the General Court came to campus that May 8 for what Gill calls “an incredibly successful” day. Indeed, she says, it marked the beginning of her commitment to a career in public higher education.

At a recent event at Greenfield Community College, Senator Stan Rosenberg ’77 introduced Judith Gill to students as “a former ’60s radical” whom they could recognize in old photos by her granny gown and shawl.

     Gill goes along with the description for the most part, but clarifies a couple of points. “I wasn’t a radical, I was an activist,” she says. The difference? “I didn’t wear a shawl.” She’s joking, of course. The difference had nothing to do with shawls. “Radicals in those days believed the system couldn’t work and had to be destroyed,” says Gill. “Activists believed it could work, but you had to work through the system to change it.”

     Yet she vividly recalls an incident that showed the limits of her conciliation. As a member of SWAP (Students With A Purpose) and of the Central Area Student Government, Gill spent a good part of her time at Mills House, where the groups had office space. In February of 1970, a fight broke out between black and white students outside Mills. That night, when a meeting in Mills was taken over by angry black students who seized the furniture, “it became clear to me that there was going to be a major disruption,” says Gill. The next night saw “the first race riot” on the UMass campus. Almost comical, in comparison – not that Gill would have found it so – was the pelting of former presidential candidate Hubert Humphrey, who happened to be speaking on campus, with marshmallows and jellybeans. “I sometimes wonder how we got through that week,” says Gill.

     Gill says that when people ask her father what she majored in, he tells them “student activities.” And though strictly speaking she studied history, that’s not far off. As a high school student in Brookline she’d desperately wanted to go to Regis College, a Catholic women’s school in Weston. Her parents insisted on the more affordable UMass.

     Now she remarks on how much she’d have missed had she gotten her way: “Everything I’ve done in my life points back to what I did at UMass.”


SYMBOL OF TURBULENT TIMES: In the 1970 Index, even Metawampe sported the strike fist.

The past year has provided ample opportunity for Gill to reflect on the turbulence of her college days as preparation for her later career. She assumed the acting chancellorship under painful circumstances; the death of her well-regarded predecessor, Stanley Koplik, was a personal loss for her. “I lost my friend,” she says. Worse, her own mother died two weeks later. And although she and Koplik had worked closely, Gill told the Chronicle last fall that she’d been surprised by the emotional demands of her new job.

     “I sat next to Stan for four years, and I had no idea the kind of pressure and stress and responsibility I would feel,” she said. “It’s a hard job; it’s a tough job; it’s a lonely job.” The discovery gave her pause, and, although she was a formal candidate for the chancellorship, she wasn’t sure she wanted the job. During a trip to her alma mater, she made up her mind.

     Her epiphany came on the morning of Commencement. Gill recalls thinking, as she sat looking out across Metawampe lawn from her room in the Campus Center Hotel, that “If we could really have a system – if we could tie it all together – God, this would be great!” Later that day, waiting in the pouring rain to enter Alumni Stadium with the rest of the platform party, Gill told chairman of the board of higher education Steve Tocco that she wanted the job.

     In Tocco’s estimation, Gill was “an outstanding” candidate. She’d been with the board since 1995, first as associate vice chancellor, then as vice chancellor. She’d worked in higher education in Washington State, where she earned her master’s in public policy from the University of Washington. (Her Ph.D. is from Michigan.) With the exception of former state legislator (now Juvenile Court justice) Jim Collins ’68, who served briefly as chancellor of higher education in the 1980s, she is the only UMass graduate to have risen to the top position in the state system. And she is passionate about it, according to Tocco.

     “She sort of burns,” he says. Praising her as both “a great lady” and “a dogged worker,” Tocco says Gill “brings the same level of skill and understanding to the table” as any of the 40 or so candidates considered in a national search after Koplik’s death.

     What gave her the edge? “She was just more committed to making the system great,” says Tocco.

Gill says she hasn’t had time yet to change much in the 14th floor office on Beacon Hill, with its panoramic view of the Charles River, that she occupies as chancellor. She says she thinks of it as “still Stanley’s office,” although her own presence is evident in the pair of Beany Babies – a bear and a duck – that flank the computer, and the delicate pink-and-white running shoes stowed neatly beneath the desk.

     With the board, and with Koplik before he died, Gill has established ambitious goals for the state system, all of them based on the principal of strengthening the whole without weakening any of the parts. Building an integrated state public higher education system is at the top of her list. “That will always be on the forefront,” she says. “The system I want to build has to be built on relationships.” Thus she wants to spend as much time as possible on the 29 campuses, “talking about how you create a system.” The appointment of former Greenfield Community College president Charles Wall as deputy chancellor is giving her more freedom to do that. “I needed to be out on the campuses, and I knew Charlie would be wonderful in the office,” she says.

     Her other priorities include teacher education, technology, and accountability. She says she hopes that solid accountability, and an effort to communicate the benefits of strong public higher education to citizens and legislators, will result in increased support. The concept of higher education as a necessary public investment “is not widely accepted in Massachusetts,” she acknowledges.

     “That’s what we’ve got to be able to demonstrate,” she says. “Once we’ve demonstrated that the investment pays off, there’ll be more money.”

     More money, in particular, to address aging physical plants and new construction needs. The board voted last fall to develop a capital plan for the 29 campuses that could provide as much as $393 million for new construction and deferred maintenance over the next five years. The project is based on a proposal written by UMass that was adapted to include the state and community colleges.

     She doesn’t fool herself that there won’t be resistance, especially when hard financial times force hard choices. The most controversial, but arguably the most important, charge of the board is to work with the 29 boards of trustees to define missions and authorize programs – a process which can include “consolidating, discontinuing or transferring existing functions, colleges, branches or institutions.”

     Gill points to the elimination of 52 college-level programs statewide in the past several years. The cuts were mostly through “relatively painless” processes of attrition and reallocation, but “it could have been a bloodbath.” In good times or bad, she says, it will be easiest to reach consensus on such changes if each institution has a clearly defined role. “We have many campuses and we need to become more focused,” says Gill. “Not everyplace can be everything to everybody.”

     To coax us toward this common goal, Gill asks that partisans of each campus try a simple exercise.

     “Close your eyes, and in three to five years, what is it you want the commonwealth to know about your institution? What do you want the nation to know?”

     And that is how she proposes to herd the cats.

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