After serving for over 5 years as commissioner of higher education for the state of Massachusetts, Richard Freeland is stepping down at the end of the academic year.
The 73-year-old Freeland will end his 6-year tenure this June, with the intention of returning to Northeastern University as a history professor.
“It’s been tremendously rewarding to do this,” Freeland said at his downtown Boston office on Monday morning. “I’ll miss the sense of being able to make that contribution. But in 45 years, I’ve probably done all I can do to move that needle. I think we’ve made good progress, and I feel comfortable about where public higher education is in Massachusetts.”
Freeland is most proud of his Vision Project, an agenda outlining how to raise the academic standings of the public colleges and universities in the state. Massachusetts has historically fallen in the middle when compared to other states. According to Freeland, the state should not settle for average. “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.
He has continued to work to open the eyes of business leaders, residents and legislators to his view on creating a top-performing education system within the state. He has successfully gained their support by holding campuses more accountable, including using data to closely monitor the institutions.
Legislators recently approved his plan to hold community colleges accountable by linking funding to the school’s individual performance, including graduation rates. A similar plan for public colleges may soon be enacted.
Despite being met with resistance on a few occasions, Freeland is widely respected, and has been called “a true champion of our public colleges and universities,” by Governor Deval Patrick.
“He took on a really challenging role during some of the worst economic times we’ve seen,” said Mary Grant, president of the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts since 2002, who in January will become chancellor of the University of North Carolina Asheville. “I don’t think there was ever any disagreement that we should have the best public education, but like anything the devil is in the details.”
Carol Geary Schneider, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, spoke highly of Freeland’s pilot program he initiated last year to measure what students have learned upon graduation without using standardized exams. The program will be tested in 8 other states this fall.
“Richard is recognized everywhere as a transformative leader for public higher education,” Schneider said. “He’s been a powerful force to work with.”
But what Freeland truly wants to do is teach. “I’ve sort of had an upside-down career in higher education,” Freeland said. “I’d like to be a really good teacher before I retire.”
He will return to Northeastern University as a history professor.