Majoring in Power Struggles

UMass chairman Stephen Tocco’s plan for fixing the school deserves a better hearing than it’s received. But then, where our public university is concerned, politics always trumps common sense.

The first reminder of how differently things operate out in Amherst came even before I got to the UMass campus, as I was driving down a local road and found myself stuck behind a farm tractor. The second occurred moments into the meeting that had occasioned my visit, when the anger that had been building toward Stephen Tocco, the politically connected chairman of the school’s board of trustees, was unleashed upon him from all sides.

Seven weeks earlier, on May 3, at a dinner at the tony UMass Club—the downtown symbol of the university’s lofty aspirations—Tocco and UMass president Jack Wilson had walked board members through a Power-Point presentation outlining a set of changes they hoped to enact, the most significant of which was getting the UMass branches in Dartmouth, Lowell, and Boston and the medical school in Worcester to work more closely with the flagship campus. Later, it became clear there’d be some personnel moves as well: The university would transfer UMass-Boston chancellor Michael Collins to the med school and fill his former post with the system’s VP of marking and public affairs, J. Keith Motley, while easing Amherst chancellor John Lombardi out the door. The school would also form a task force to recommend further reforms to help it compete with the nation’s leading public universities.

On the surface, it was all pretty ho-hum stuff. But when word of it got out—via a May 16 page-one Globe story, curiously co-bylined by powerhouse business columnist Steve Bailey—many at UMass (not to mention a number of the 215,000 alumni living in the state) went ballistic.

Now, at this early-morning session in Amherst, Tocco was trying to quell the fracas. To those who charged the May 3 gathering had violated the state’s open-meeting law, he declared, “Nothing was done that was wrong or that people need to apologize for.” This was followed by a lengthy oration from the board’s legal counsel, Lawrence Bench, repeating that nothing untoward had taken place; a hectoring speech from the head of the grad student association; a disruption by demonstrators holding hand-scrawled signs; and charges and counter-charges from other board members.

In their proposal to give Motley the top job at UMass-Boston, Tocco and Wilson were honoring a popular figure whose failure to get the spot two years earlier had sparked a minor uproar. Ousting Lombardi (who has subsequently decamped to Louisiana State University) would get rid of a polarizing chancellor. And tying the five campuses more closely together would only bring greater clout and prestige to Amherst. But Tocco and Wilson had not followed the capital-P Process, something for which UMass faculty members and students evince a sometimes histrionic concern.

And that’s just one lesson learned from the furor that has doomed the latest effort to bring badly needed improvements to UMass, an institution governed by a dizzying array of political sensitivities—none of which seem to have the broader system’s best interests in mind.

The Puritans did revolutionary things, not the least of which was founding, in Harvard, a university that could hold its own against the likes of Oxford and Cambridge. But they didn’t do public higher education. When the University of Massachusetts was formed in 1947 out of a sleepy land-grant agricultural college, it was already far behind the competition—schools like UC Berkeley (founded in 1868) and the University of North Carolina (1789).

State leaders, hoping to catch up, in 1960 recruited a highly respected Michigan administrator named John Lederle to be UMass’s president. In taking the job, the story goes, he made it clear that for the university to flourish, it would need prominent schools of law, medicine, dentistry, and veterinary medicine, all located on the main campus. During his tenure, Lederle managed to build out the Amherst campus, adding nearly 800 professors to the 366 he’d started with, but his broader vision remained stymied: For example, Worcester, not Amherst, got the medical school when Springfield’s bishop reportedly nixed it to protect that city’s Catholic hospital.

It wasn’t until the Weld administration that the UMass system came into its present incarnation by folding existing state schools in Lowell and Dartmouth under its umbrella. The university’s five-campus setup might not be so problematic if funding were abundant. But it isn’t. According to an Illinois State University study, the commonwealth places 49th nationally in spending on public higher education per $1,000 of personal income, and 46th if that is calculated per capita. Those are numbers we in enlightened Massachusetts expect from someplace like Arkansas or Alabama—which in fact come in 11th and 14th, and 5th and 6th, by the same measures.

With support that anemic, it’s inevitable that individual campuses wind up pitted against one another. “We don’t have a system—we have warring factions right now,” says state Senator Stanley Rosenberg, who represents Amherst. “There is so much jealousy and so much infighting. Every legislator who represents a campus is under pressure to fulfill the ambitions of their campus even if it comes at the expense of another.”

Tocco, whose day job is president and CEO of the lobbying and public affairs firm ML Strategies, surely understands as well as anyone that Beacon Hill isn’t soon going to give UMass a huge infusion of state funds. Since assuming his chairmanship a year ago, he’s focused instead on moving the needle through branding and reorganization.

One big part of that strategy—Tocco’s white whale, if you will—involves a small, arcane, but influential invitation-only group called the Association of American Universities, or AAU. Its 62 members include the country’s premier research colleges, among them MIT and Harvard, and 34 elite public universities. UMass is not a member, and Tocco wants in. While some experts caution against investing too much in any association’s blessing, this one certainly couldn’t hurt. There’s a trend in public higher ed toward seeking private funding, which, the prevailing wisdom has it, flows more readily to universities that can claim the credentials AAU membership vouches for. And the bump in stature could also attract more faculty of the caliber of Craig Mello, the UMass prof who won a 2006 Nobel Prize for his RNA research—who in turn can bring in more research dollars of their own. To that end, recognition by a group like AAU, says Tocco, “is a real stamp of excellence.”

To win it, UMass would have to pool its research efforts—which is where Tocco’s push to more strongly unify the campuses comes in. That goal is backed by new UMass-Lowell chancellor Marty Meehan, who comes to the job after 14 years in Congress: “One of the things I know about federal funding,” he says, “is that UMass will get more federal research dollars if it collaborates.” But the integration plan also happens to fit Tocco’s style.

A member of the local power firmament since Governor William Weld tapped him as chairman of his government-downsizing task force—which was followed by stints as state secretary of economic development and director of Massport—Tocco sees himself as a “change agent.” It’s the view of the born-again management wonk he is. After earning a bachelor’s from the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy, Tocco added a management certificate from the Harvard Extension School in 1990, and has a noted penchant for business‑school-think. Massport insiders remember the zeal with which he implemented a study of Logan that had airport staffers spending hours devising performance-measuring “metrics” and working up org-charts (research then abandoned after Tocco departed). During our conversation after the UMass meeting in June, he pulled a few buzzwords out of the consultant handbook, saying of the university system, “We need to break down the silos.”

Of course, describing his goals in those terms only ensures they will raise hackles in UMass’s more touchy-feely academic community. And indeed, it’s been almost as if the Tocco-backed reform plan were designed for maximum campus agitation. It started with the leak to Bailey. Whoever gave the information to the columnist—rather than to one of the Globe’s higher-ed reporters—no doubt knew that would curry favor with the single most influential writer in town. But it also gave would-be opponents an invitation to see some sort of conspiracy afoot—an invitation UMass partisans will seldom refuse.

Maybe it’s all the 1960s architecture, but on the Amherst campus there’s a general Cold-War-era-Communist-bloc feel that is matched neatly by the paranoia of its inhabitants. Even if the plan would elevate the flagship, its Boston origins fed skepticism. Though it can be hard for Bostonians to appreciate, out in Hampshire County ill will toward the capital runs deep, dating back to the flooding of four of its towns in the 1930s to create the Quabbin Reservoir. (Or, if you want to go way back, all the way to Shays’s Rebellion.) It’s no surprise, then, that even the moderate-minded head of the Massachusetts Society of Professors, Max Page, came to refer to the package of changes Tocco and Wilson were floating as the “midnight coup.”

Somehow, Tocco has taken few personal hits from the bad press the UMass administration has suffered. The same can’t be said for Jack Wilson. Chastened, the university president now admits mistakes. “You can never communicate enough, you can never consult enough,” he says. That’s putting the blame in the right place. Instead of allowing the announcement to come out via Bailey, the university brass could have opted for a more overt—if tedious—community “conversation” about the future of UMass: Imagine town meetings staged on each campus, giving every activist and random yahoo a chance to express their views. As that defused the opposition, the leadership could have concentrated its fire on the most important initiatives, rather than trying to sell a sweeping, and therefore inherently suspect, transformation. Here, it seems, Tocco’s penchant for grand planning got in the way. In the public and academic realms—and UMass straddles both—emulating the top-to-bottom marketing initiatives that business bigshots get to trot out can backfire as easily as succeed.

On June 19, at the height of the UMass brouhaha, Governor Deval Patrick announced he was convening a task force to examine ways to improve the state’s public higher education, superseding the study group the university leadership had envisioned. Next month, Patrick will get to fill five of UMass’s 17 nonstudent trustee slots with new appointees, giving him considerable influence over the board, if not outright control. A few weeks later, the trustees are likely to vote for a new chairman. Tocco is eligible for reelection, but don’t be surprised if he is replaced by a candidate more to the governor’s liking.

Whatever recommendations his task force makes, Patrick has already signaled that some of his $1 billion biotech stimulus package will be steered toward UMass, in part through the creation of a stem cell bank there. While the governor is at it, he’d do well to push through the consolidation that Tocco and company would now appear too tainted to pull off. Though over the near term that would mean more politics for our state university, not less, for once UMass might come out the better for it.