The mess at UMass

Picking up the pieces in the wake of a destructive power play. Plus, the immigration debate.
By EDITORIAL  |  June 13, 2007

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Before he terminated his do-little term as governor to kick off his presidential campaign, Mitt Romney planted a ticking time bomb at the University of Massachusetts — one that recently exploded.

The trustees and university administrators themselves lit the match when — after the students were safely off campus and the faculty was assumed to be dozing — they unveiled a reorganization plan of questionable merit that was hatched behind closed doors. This sort of power play, while not unheard of in academia, is more typical of what the public gets from the backroom on Beacon Hill. The difference is that, when competent politicians play hardball, they are usually ready for the consequences. That was far from the case here.

The faculty at the Amherst and Boston campuses was outraged and, in a highly unusual move, voted no-confidence in UMass president Jack Wilson. The internal damage was so severe that a special committee was named to clean up the mess. It is a measure of just how severe the toll is that a certified educational heavyweight, recently retired Northeastern University president Richard Freeland (who, as a young academic, cut his teeth as an administrator at UMass Boston) was tapped to lead the rescue mission.

The roots of this disaster are simple and disturbing. Because Massachusetts is rich in private colleges and universities, it lacks the ingrained tradition of and respect for public higher education that is customary in the Midwest, New York State, and California. At best, UMass suffers from benign neglect. Too often, it becomes a political football.

And that is what it was during the Romney years. Romney at one point suggested that the university’s flagship Amherst campus be severed from the Worcester Medical School and the working-class campuses in Dartmouth, Lowell, and Boston.

When that idea fizzled, thankfully, Romney waged a successful campaign to force the resignation of former state Senate president William Bulger, who was named UMass president in 1996. Bulger was a controversial and problematic political figure, but as UMass president he was an outstanding success, restoring energy and a sense of élan not seen at UMass since Robert C. Wood, the MIT urban scholar and former US Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, led the school in the 1970s.

Bulger’s problem, like Wood’s, was that he was good at his job. By every quantifiable measure — from applicants’ SAT scores to money raised — Bulger was a success. But for some reason, high-powered, successful educational leaders threaten governors, and Bulger was squeezed out.

Romney may now be history, at least as governor, but before his exit he packed the UMass board of trustees with politically pliant appointees who wasted no time electing lobbyist Stephen Tocco chair. Tocco, a highly regarded Republican apparatchik, served the previous Republican administrations of William Weld and Paul Cellucci before he served Romney. Whether the impression is accurate or not, UMass president Wilson is seen as Tocco’s guy.

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