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New dawn for UMass

THE AWARD of a Nobel prize in October to University of Massachusetts Medical School researcher Craig Mello served as a massive mood elevator across the state university system. It wasn't long, however, before the crash came, courtesy of Governor Romney's $23 million cut for retroactive pay increases, research, and programs across the system's five campuses. UMass deserves better.

Like all university officials, those at UMass like to cite their impact on the local economy. And they make a strong case. UMass generates more than $4 billion annually in jobs, goods, services, and grants, according to university president Jack Wilson. That contribution to the state's economy easily outstrips its $524 million in operating funds from the state budget. Wilson can't square the rising reputation of UMass scientists who are transforming biology through gene-splicing with the deteriorating conditions of university parking garages and classrooms. In the field of higher education, where competing colleges sweep down like cormorants to pluck faculty headliners, UMass can't afford to sit still.

Governor-elect Deval Patrick, who promised to champion higher education at a Friday gathering at the flagship campus in Amherst, holds out hope of stable financing and a sound state investment strategy for UMass. That is certainly not happening under Governor Romney, who cut nearly $15 million in retroactive pay raises for UMass personnel as part of a $425 million budget slashing. But, says Wilson, UMass officials already disbursed the retroactive pay in October and November in accordance with the terms of an earlier legislative act. Now Wilson and university chancellors are fearful that the funds will be taken out of the next operating budget and might even lead to layoffs.

The governor's so-called 9C emergency budget-cutting powers are normally limited to agencies under his direct control. UMass doesn't match that description. It's worth pursuing whether Governor Romney has exceeded his powers. But the greater goal is to lift Massachusetts from its position near the bottom of the list that measures states' per-capita contributions to higher education.

UMass is aiming to make a $2 billion capital investment in the system over the next five years. The need for a new academic building on the UMass-Boston campus is particularly acute. Stephen Tocco, who chairs the UMass board of directors, is also signaling that middle class families can't absorb significant increases in tuition and fees. Yet UMass is still challenging elite private universities, largely with funds generated through research. UMass is preparing to soar. The least the next governor and Legislature can do is not clip its wings.

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