Becoming chancellor of the University of Massachusetts Boston is a humbling experience and a great responsibility for me—it is indeed the opportunity of a lifetime. As a kid who emigrated from Argentina to the U.S. to escape political unrest at age 17, with just a few dollars in my pocket, I was one of millions of Americans by-choice arriving over the years, searching for a better life. Settling in California, I was incredibly fortunate to be able to access the public higher education system.
My life journey embodies America’s great public university system and its transformative power.
Marcelo Suárez-Orozco, the new chancellor of UMass Boston, introduces himself to New England at a fraught time … and establishes a scholarship fund in George Floyd’s name, vows to appoint a faculty member as Special Advisor to the Chancellor for Black Life.
As a young immigrant I worked my way up from the very bottom, doing all kinds of jobs—painting apartments, cleaning offices and pumping gas while taking night classes to learn English in our local high school. I am a product of former University of California President Clark Kerr’s great Master Plan for Higher Education. I started my studies in the California Community College System, transferring to the University of California, Berkeley, where I received a bachelor’s degree in psychology and master’s and doctoral degrees in anthropology. That extraordinary public education was the foundation for my scholarly career at universities around the world, including tenure at Harvard, a University Professorship at New York University and, eventually, as the inaugural Wasserman dean of UCLA’s oldest School, the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies.
My experience distills the power of education as a public good, essential for all human beings to flourish and for the formation of engaged and independent citizens capable of self-governance and giving back. Education must also prepare our workforce to thrive in the labor market of the 21st century. At its best, education nourishes the brain, heart and hand, helping to create a dignified and purposeful life. In my case, these were not simply worthy abstract principles. For me, education was a transformational life force. The brilliant scholars at Berkeley who became my mentors (early on I learned how to avoid the tormentors in the faculty!) taught me how to write for a scholarly audience (often inviting me to publish with them), hands-on scaffolded my teaching as I started work as a teaching assistant, and above all, they taught me how to think in the tradition of the great social science disciplines.
But the system that provided opportunity to me and millions of others faces grave threats—from a ravaging pandemic, particularly devastating to communities of color, to unchecked climate change extracting untold suffering in the world’s poorest regions, to the structural racialization of inequality and the intergenerational persistence of anti-blackness, to xenophobia and exclusionary anti-immigrant policies. We must harness the power of higher education to address the growing inequities in our world. These forces work to undermine the principles and practice of democracy in the U.S. and around the world.
In my view, public higher education is the indispensable tool for disrupting and overcoming the malaise of growing inequality, an ominous threat to the practice of democratic citizenship. These times call for an education to nurture that which is true (logic), that which is good (justice/ethics), and that which is beautiful (aesthetics). Creating a more inclusive, just and sustainable world is education’s urgent challenge.
As the head of an institution dedicated to upward mobility—where a majority of students are people of color, where many are the first in their family to attend college, where the number of Pell-eligible students is among the highest anywhere in New England—I have a special responsibility to create the conditions, on and off campus, under which our students can flourish.
Indeed, all of us must extend ourselves to nurture a greater ethic of care and solidarity, an ethic of preference to the least empowered among us, an ethic of dignity and human rights, and an ethic of engagement and service to others. In practice, I endeavor to embody these principles in quotidian practice. Mind what I do, not just what I say. What I learned from Pierre Bourdieu, who was teaching at Berkeley in my graduate student days, is that the habitus comes to define us—how successful we are and how others come to view us: the competencies, sensibilities, skills and dispositions that guide the ethos and eidos in our comportment.
Excellence, equity, diversity and relevance are the four cardinal points to navigate today’s rough waters and unprecedented undertow. To that end, I have established and endowed the George Floyd Honorary Scholarship Fund at UMass Boston to provide financial support to our talented students who otherwise may find it difficult or impossible to pay for a college education. My wife, Carola, and I have seeded this with funds in the amount of $50,000. I am happy to report the fund has already exceeded $100,000 in commitments from generous and visionary members and supporters of the UMass Boston family.
UMass Boston’s students of color—like their peers across the nation—face economic and social barriers to their education exacerbated by COVID-19’s malignancy, placing too many of our students at an educational disadvantage. I firmly believe that equitable access to quality education is a foundational step we must take to see systemic racism dismantled in our country.
This fund is also an investment in future leaders who will fight for social, political and economic justice, drawing from their lived experience as I did, and using the tools forged by the invigorating ideas and experiences shared by students of every age and background in our classrooms.
In addition, as one of my first acts, I intend to appoint a faculty member as Special Advisor to the Chancellor for Black Life at UMass Boston. The Special Advisor will advise me on matters of importance to our Black faculty, students and staff. The Special Advisor will work with me and my leadership team as we commit to create new structures and to develop new codified and customary practices purposefully designed to put our university at the forefront of excellence, engagement and relevance on racial justice, equity, diversity and inclusion.
As scholars in education dedicated to the practice of democratic citizenship and committed to social justice, we must reflect on our privileges and act in all that we do against the systemic racism that impacts our community and the children and families and communities who we serve.
Marcelo Suárez-Orozco became the ninth chancellor of UMass Boston on Aug. 1, 2020. He previously served as the inaugural UCLA Wasserman Dean at UCLA’s Graduate School of Education & Information Studies. His research focuses on cultural psychology and psychological anthropology, with an emphasis on education, globalization and migration. His award-winning books have been published by Harvard University Press, Stanford University Press, University of California Press and others. He serves as trustee of the Carnegie Foundation for Advancement of Teaching, the Executive Council of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, and on the Governance Board of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.