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A slam-dunk at UMass

IN THE aftermath of the rushed coronation of Bulger dauphin Jack Wilson as the new University of Massachusetts president, let's state the obvious: Trustee Robert McCarthy is an embarrassment to the UMass board of trustees.


It was perhaps 10 minutes into Wednesday's meeting that McCarthy offered a motion which set those steeped in the true spirit of the UMass board to squirming. Before they selected a new UMass president, McCarthy said, shouldn't the full board at least interview the two finalists? After all, he himself had only passing acquaintance with Wilson, the interim president, and he knew almost nothing at all of Alan Solomont, the search committee's other finalist.

Now, McCarthy is the rough-hewn state head of the firefighters, and perhaps the damn-the-dangers ethic of the profession has robbed him of that most essential of political skills: The ability to recognize when the fix is in.

So it was that McCarthy continued on in the most off-putting of fashions, bruiting about silly, romantic notions concerning the importance of UMass to the state and the responsibility the trustees had to the students, faculty, and the community.

Why, even back when he was a trustee of Fitchburg State, the college trustees had insisted on interviewing the finalists for the college presidency, McCarthy said. And last year, he had had a promise that the UMass trustees would do the same, a promise, he noted dubiously, that now seemed to have slipped through the cracks.

Stony looks flooded the faces of most of the other trustees. One could almost hear their thoughts. Interview the finalists? Why, there were two. That would take . . . several hours. And some independent judgment.

In a university where Bill Bulger kept the board like so many geldings, the very idea appeared troubling. After all, everybody knew the Wilson faction had the votes, that they had lined up the governor, and that Bulger -- ah, UMass -- press impresarios were ready to usher Wilson in to accept his new job. And suddenly bumptious Bob McCarthy wanted them to waste valuable time actually delving into the finalists' qualifications and vision? Why, they had just heard trustee Diane Bissonette Moes read a glowing account of the work the search committee had done. Many on the committee favored Wilson, the search committee co-chair said. What more, really, did a true UMass trustee need know?

Besides, had McCarthy forgotten that the Wilson faction had claimed that their man had an offer of the presidency from Worcester Polytechnic Institute? Yes, an intrepid thinker wise in the ways of the world might have questioned the notion that the board had to rush its decision or lose Wilson to WPI. After all, if Wilson was actually such a favorite in a WPI selection process aimed at having a new president in place by July 1, did he really need to give the technical college an immediate yes or no? And yes, that same sort of doughty iconoclast might have wondered why yet another "national" search had ended right where it began.

But who wants that kind of independent thinking on the UMass board?

Still, there were some questions. In language so diplomatic it would have done credit to Talleyrand, trustee James Mahoney suggested that, in light of the search committee's underwhelming results, it might make sense to look awhile longer. Trustee Lawrence Boyle added that he, like McCarthy, really didn't know enough about the candidates to assess them fairly. And in the voice of a polite but plucky pupil nervously questioning professorial authority, student trustee Carolina Marcalo offered that she, too, would like at least a little more information.

Interviews? Assessments? Basic information, like, say, both finalists' resumes? Why, those notions smacked of the sort of values that one associates with . . . well, with a real university board.

But on the UMass board, as everyone knows, politics always carries the day. And so the other trustees shuffled their pencils and studied their hands. Down went McCarthy's motion. There followed an excruciating several minutes in which McCarthy asked for a copy of Solomont's resume and had the temerity to read it aloud.

That endured, the board, in the sort of lightning vote that would have done Bulger proud, rammed Wilson through as the new president. After all, as Bulger himself would say, when you've got the votes, get it done and get out.

Who but a hopeless idealist -- or someone like Bob McCarthy -- could possibly expect more?

Scot Lehigh's e-mail address is

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