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Former Penn. official hired as Higher Education Commissioner of Mass.

A former Pennsylvania education secretary is on course to become Massachusetts’ next higher education commissioner after overtaking three other finalists to win the backing of a state panel on Tuesday.

The Board of Higher Education chose Noe Ortega, who is also a former University of Michigan civil servant and spent nearly a decade working in Texas, as its choice for the top job after a five-month search. which attracted two dozen candidates.

The Massachusetts Board of Higher Education chose Noe Ortega as its choice for the top position after a five-month search that attracted two dozen applicants. (Courtesy of MBHE)

Ortega defeated two in-state candidates, Northern Essex Community College President Lane Glenn and Associate Dean of Boston University’s Wheelock College of Education and Human Development Mary Churchill, and another candidate from outside of State, Marty Alvarado, who serves as Executive Vice Chancellor for the Office of Equitable Student Learning, Experience, and Impact in the California Community College Chancellor’s Office.

Summarizing the discussions the research team had with Ortega’s references, Academic Research Chair Jay Lemons told the board that Ortega had received praise for “being brilliant in politics and in operations”.

“It was noted that Noe is highly respected and that his real strength lies in diplomacy, leading groups of people around a united cause,” Lemons said of the criticism Ortega received. “He’s soothing in his approach, he’s above the fray, and he’s garnered enormous respect in Pennsylvania through his leadership during, I would point out, a particularly divisive and tumultuous time.”

To make their decision, each BHE member first named two favorite candidates from the list of four who went through lengthy interviews with the panel last week. Ortega and Glenn came out of this pool for a final vote.

Eight board members — Ann Christensen, Veronica Conforme, Alex Cortez, Patty Eppinger, Paul Mattera, Judy Pagliuca, Education Secretary Jim Peyser and Chris Gabrieli — voted for Ortega, one short of the threshold for nine votes required. Four others – Mary Burns, Travis Lawrence, Paul Toner and Bill Walczak – supported Glenn.

Burns, who represents UMass trustees on the board, prefaced her support for Glenn by describing herself as “a strong supporter of promoting from within.”

After the votes were counted, Toner asked the board to make their selection of Ortega unanimous, and all of the members who chose Glenn agreed.

“I want to say that I think President Glenn has done a tremendous job serving the state of Massachusetts and the community colleges,” Toner said. “I’m disappointed that he couldn’t get the votes he needed, but in order to move forward as a strong system, I want to move the motion that we move forward with a unanimous vote.”

Peyser, an appointee by Governor Charlie Baker, will now be tasked with officially confirming the next higher education commissioner. It was not immediately clear on Tuesday when that would take place, although Peyser himself voted in favor of Ortega in the selection process on Tuesday.

Current commissioner Carlos Santiago, who joined in July 2015, announced in January that he planned to leave the position which pays him a salary of $243,734. He was initially targeting June as the departure date, but Gabrieli, the chairman of the board, said on Tuesday that Santiago would remain in his post “until we are fully ready for this next stage of leadership”.

Gabrieli said choosing Santiago’s successor was an “agonizing decision” and described himself as “tinged with sadness” he could not endorse all four candidates.

“I’ve been fortunate to work with Mary Churchill, who I think is just a great member of our community. I really praise what she’s done in the context of Wheelock, the book she’s written and many other service items,” says Gabrieli. “I didn’t know Marty Alvarado before, but I’m super impressed with her and I’m 100% sure we’ll see Marty Alvarado do great things in higher education. And Lane Glenn is just a great guy who’s been a excellent ally on many of the critical things and I think he would be an excellent commissioner.”

“We’ve had a unique situation here – having someone who has served in this job before putting their hat on speaks to the opportunity at hand,” he added of Ortega.

Ortega served for about two years as Pennsylvania’s secretary of education, largely during the COVID-19 pandemic, before stepping down from that position in April. Prior to that, he worked for eight years at the University of Michigan in a range of academic and administrative roles and for nearly a decade at several public and private universities in Texas.

He spoke to the board last week about his work at the Lone Star State improving access to higher education for low-income students and students of color, referring to the satellite centers as “small, small victories that are starting to gain momentum in the idea of ​​​​creating a university culture.”

Ortega is poised to take the reins as Massachusetts colleges and universities move away from the impacts of the pandemic that have dominated the past two years and grapple with declining enrollment, changing demographics and high costs. persistent. He is also on track to begin work with a turnover in the executive branch set to take place once Baker steps down in January.

In his interview last week, Ortega said he wanted to identify “gaps” and ensure that “we are not just providing learning, but services to those who need it most”. He praised the equity agenda and strategic vision the board has set out to drive participation and success for underrepresented populations, especially during what Ortega described as “a time where education, educational attainment and even outcomes associated with higher education are highly contested”.

“For me, this is a very important vision strategy to define,” Ortega said. “I immediately became interested in this, thinking, here I am, I have been blessed to have been able to serve in a number of roles. Can I leverage my leadership to continue the good work that has already been done …and really take the system from good to great to even better?”

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