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Editorial: A new chancellor builds on storied past

Though he started work nearly 10 months ago, Kumble R. Subbaswamy was installed as University of Massachusetts Amherst chancellor just last weekend. By letting time pass, the community got to know the man many hope will lead the campus for the next decade in its quest to earn recognition as one of the country’s top public research universities.

The timing of Saturday’s inauguration enabled UMass to connect the occasion to its founding as well as its future. Subbaswamy’s big day followed a week that kicked off programming marking the school’s 150th anniversary.

And then this week came news from UMass Robert L. Caret that the institution may have even more to celebrate. Caret said that with new commitments of state financial support, UMass may be able to set student fees and tuition for 2013-14 at this year’s levels. That is blessed relief as many students struggle to pay for higher education.

At the same time, the university is driving to secure its success by tackling an ambitious fundraising campaign. “UMass Rising” is designed to let the school adapt and innovate. Already, $183 million has been raised toward a $300 million goal. The drive continues for three years and will help UMass strengthen its institutes and research centers ($97 million), aid students through scholarships and other support ($55 million), recruit and retain faculty ($54 million) and improve buildings ($54 million).

And now into this revived campus steps Subbaswami, the physicist and former University of Kentucky provost whose mother in India sacrificed her education to aid her son’s. He is the school’s 11th chancellor and, going back before that title came into use, its 30th leader. The big names who came Saturday to salute and welcome the man they call Swami were able to describe nearly a year of work already under this leader’s belt. That’s a good thing about waiting to mark a new chancellor’s arrival: People at the podium can speak not only of the leader they hope he will be, but the one they’ve seen in action.

From what many said, the chancellor’s first name is Kumble, as in “humble.” A former president of the Student Government Association, Ashkay Kapoor, described Subbaswamy’s ease and accessibility. Kapoor said the chancellor turned out not to be an intimidating figure, as he’d feared, but “a friend, someone I could relate to.” Others spoke of a leader who rolls up his sleeves, listens, takes notes and asks lots of questions.

Caret told those gathered Saturday that in his first months, Subbaswami worked to improve the ties that bind the thousands of people able to move the university forward.

Able, that is, under leadership that fosters and rewards teamwork, rather than letting the many walls in a place as big as UMass divide people. With renewed state support and remarkable improvements in its facilities, we believe UMass stands closer than ever in its history to realizing its mission of teaching and public service.

On Saturday, Subbaswami made clear that though his ambitions and dreams came true here in the United States, he is guided by lessons learned in India. He shared this passage from the Bhagavad Gita, a Hindu text: “It is only through unselfish action that we can fulfill our destiny.” We like that rallying cry and hope it echoes for years through the halls of this essential institution.

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