Romney seeks to restructure UMass system to save funds
By Patrick Healy, Globe Staff, 2/26/2003
Governor Mitt Romney informed University of Massachusetts President William M. Bulger yesterday that he would seek to eliminate Bulger’s job and carve up the 59,000-student UMass system as part of an education overhaul intended to save $200 million, according to UMass officials.
The restructuring plan, which Romney will announce today, is expected to trigger a battle between the governor and the Legislature, whose approval is necessary for the changes. UMass officials promised yesterday to defeat Romney’s plan with the help of allies including House Speaker Thomas M. Finneran and Senate President Robert E. Travaglini. Bulger, who dominated the state Senate as president for 17 years before leaving in 1996 for UMass, has begun trying to convince his former colleagues that Romney’s ideas are bad for the system and its alumni and students.
”President Bulger knows better than anyone that a governor’s budget proposals are just that — proposals,” said UMass spokesman Robert Connolly. While the plan deals chiefly with budgets and bureaucratic structures, UMass officials said it would damage education by laying waste to the ”UMass brand name” that Bulger has cultivated in recent years. This image of UMass, officials say, evokes quality and advanced research and has drawn high-achieving students to the five campuses, raising the overall level of education and competition within the system.
Under Romney’s plan, the flagship UMass-Amherst campus would be spun off largely on its own, receiving the sort of singular attention and nurturing from state government that may help it emulate top-tier public campuses like the University of Michigan or the University of Virginia, according to state higher education officials who were briefed on the plan.
The other four UMass campuses — in Boston, Dartmouth, Lowell, and Worcester — would be ”realigned” to work more closely with the nine state colleges, 15 community colleges, and leading businesses in their regions. For example, UMass-Dartmouth would be expected to collaborate with other Southeastern Massachusetts schools, like Bridgewater State College and Cape Cod Community College, to train workers and assist businesses at the core of that region’s economy.
Replacing Bulger and his 68-member office, meanwhile, would be a new Executive Office of Education that would have broad oversight duties for public education, including the various college campuses, which now have a combined state budget of approximately $1 billion. Romney hopes to reduce state costs by $200 million through administrative savings, including leaner campus bureaucracies and new pacts between schools to share services.
If the UMass president’s office is eliminated, Bulger would in effect lose his job; UMass officials said Bulger has no intention of taking a position on a campus or in the proposed restructuring for higher education.
Connolly described Romney’s proposal as ‘'chopping up” the university, while board of trustees chairwoman Grace Fey said that the governor sought to ‘'dismantle'' it. <br />
''While each of our campuses possesses individual greatness, it is in coming together, as a system, that they achieve a special vibrancy and luster,'' Fey said. <br />
Aides to Romney and his education adviser, Peter Nessen, declined to comment on the plan yesterday. Nessen did not return phone calls seeking comment. <br />
The UMass president's office has become an influential force under Bulger than at any time since it was created in 1970 to coordinate budget planning and administrative functions on the campuses. Bulger has been an enthusiastic fund-raiser and cheerleader for the system, helping build confidence in UMass among the business representatives and politicians with whom he has longstanding ties. And while UMass was damaged by state budget cuts in past economic downturns, Bulger was seen on UMass campuses as having sufficient political connections at the State House to protect university funding in the current recession. <br />
Yet Romney faces an urgent task: Cut as much as $3 billion to balance the state budget while sticking to his pledge to avoid major new taxes. Moreover, as a Republican and a Beacon Hill outsider, Romney has no special ties or allegiances to Bulger. Romney has kept the UMass president at arm's length since he criticized Bulger in December for declining to testify at a congressional hearing about his relationship with his brother, fugitive mobster James ''Whitey'' Bulger. <br />
According to UMass officials, Romney informed Bulger yesterday by telephone about the overhaul plans. Aides to Bulger said the call was brief and cordial: Romney began with pleasantries about the upcoming St. Patrick's Day celebrations in Bulger's hometown of South Boston, then told the UMass president about the overhaul plan and the proposal to eliminate Bulger's office. The president thanked the governor for the information and the call ended, UMass officials said. <br />
Higher education officials said yesterday that they were still seeking answers to questions about the plan, such as: Would the UMass campuses be renamed? Would their research missions be downgraded as the focus on economic development was sharpened? Would UMass-Boston's plan to build its first set of dormitories survive the restructuring and budget reductions? <br />
''No one understands why or how this plan would add value to the UMass system,'' said Jean F. MacCormack, chancellor of UMass-Dartmouth. ''You don't take apart something that appears to work very well. You just cannot cut costs for the sake of cutting costs. You have to think things through.'' <br />
Officials at state and community colleges said that they were bracing for Romney's plan, speculating that the sheer enormity of $200 million in cuts and savings would lead to some campus mergers and academic program cuts. <br />
''We're hopeful that cuts will be left to our discretion, once the dollar amounts are known,'' said Mary Fifield, president of Bunker Hill Community College, where enrollment reached an all-time high of 7,200 this year. <br />
Jenna Russell of the Globe staff contributed to this article. Patrick Healy can be reached at [email protected]. <br />
Copyright Boston Globe</p></td>
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