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JOAN VENNOCHI

It's Romney's move on UMass

MITT ROMNEY doesn't have Bill Bulger to kick around anymore. Now what?

Bulger's departure as president of the University of Massachusetts hands the new Massachusetts governor a significant political victory. But it is more symbolic than substantive. It also reveals the underlying dishonesty in Romney's push to force Bulger out of a job.

Eliminating the office of university president never had anything to do with cost-cutting or improved management, as Romney initially claimed. It was all about eliminating Bulger, an icon of old-style Massachusetts politics. Romney was never quite straightforward about that goal, always striving to make the attack on Bulger sound more high-minded than personal.

At any rate, Bulger is gone, undone not by loyalty to a brother but by evasiveness under oath about that loyalty. The controversy over his relationship with his fugitive brother, James "Whitey" Bulger, should not obscure the good things that Bill Bulger accomplished at UMass. He put a spotlight on public higher education in a state that is too bedazzled by its private institutions to value a strong public university system. He used his considerable influence to raise money from the ever-shrinking Boston business base. And he deserves credit for knowing when to leave. He did not drag the state university system down with him, and he could have. There is recent, local precedent for that kind of selfishness: Cardinal Bernard Law took the Boston Catholic Church down with him. As for the severance package that has everyone so outraged, perhaps the anger should be turned on the UMass board of trustees. They gave Bulger a long-term contract, and he enforced what he could, as any one of us would have tried to do.

Now Romney is promoting a "full worldwide search" for a new president who will make people say "wow," as he put it during a press conference. While Romney did not rule out the possibility of a politician to replace Bulger, that outcome would more likely make people say "ow."

There is considerable pressure on Romney to deliver on his commitment to replace Bulger with a "dedicated leader in the academic world." The first three trustees he gets to appoint as governor this September will also demonstrate just how dedicated he is to education over raw politics.

Romney has much to prove when it comes to figuring out what is next for the University of Massachusetts. And the same is true for the broader issue, what is next for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts?

On its own, the forcing out of a university president means little. It is symbolism, not coherent policy. Romney's actual accomplishments since election last November are scant. He garnered the biggest headlines for using a jet ski to rescue boaters in Lake Winnepesaukee, which is laudable as an act of personal kindness and heroics. But where is the kindness or heroics when it comes to rescuing the school children of Massachusetts, the families who need affordable housing, or the citizens who can't afford prescription drugs?

The Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation's most recent bulletin presents the fiscal reality Romney and state legislators still must confront. "Although the budget makes great strides in closing a potential gap of $2.5 billion, it fails to eliminate fully the state's structural deficit," the August report states. "The task of balancing the 2005 budget will be exacerbated by 2004's reliance on approximately $400 million of one-time resources. The need to replace those nonrecurring revenues, combined with expectations of only modest revenue growth and continued escalation of health care costs, will produce a shortfall of more than $1 billion in 2005."

The Taxpayers Foundation's report concludes by noting that state leaders will face "much starker" choices in 2005, having already cut basic programs by almost $3 billion and largely exhausted the opportunities for fee and other nontax revenue increases. "It is clearly time for a thoughtful and honest debate about what levels of annual spending -- and spending growth -- are in the best long-term interest of the citizens of the Commonwealth and what levels of revenue are needed to support that spending."

Thoughtful, honest debate about levels of spending and revenue.

That's not as much fun as leading the charge to kick Bill Bulger out of UMass, is it, Governor Romney?

Joan Vennochi's e-mail address is vennochi@globe.com.

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