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Confusion creeps in over plan for UMass

E-mail from Wilson hints of 2d thoughts

Jack M. Wilson, with Marcellette G. Williams Sr., a UMass vice president, told the Globe that little about his plan has changed. (EVAN RICHMAN/GLOBE STAFF)

A simmering controversy over the future of the University of Massachusetts took a turn toward the bizarre yesterday when an e-mail authored by UMass president Jack M. Wilson surfaced, indicating that his sweeping reorganization plan "should be deferred indefinitely."

The note, sent to an influential faculty member at UMass-Amherst, was cheered by some of the plan's many critics for its seemingly direct language. Among other things, the e-mail said that the governance proposal "should also be taken off the table" and "should only be brought up again if the initiative should come out of campus-based constituencies."

But Wilson and Stephen Tocco, the chairman of the university's board of trustees, insisted in separate interviews that they have no plans whatsoever to change their proposal. The only difference, they said, is their intention to drop the phrase "one university" in talking about their proposed overhaul.

"The phrase 'One University' has become a flash point, and I'd rather focus on the collaborations we will continue," Wilson said, referring to his efforts to have the system's five campuses work more closely together. "It is a very large, very complex university with many voices, and that can lead to some confusion. I am just trying to speak very clearly."

Still, questions abounded about how clear Wilson has been. Two weeks ago, university officials disclosed plans to pursue the one- university strategy, at the same time reshuffling senior leadership and easing out John Lombardi, chancellor at the Amherst campus. The strategy calls for improving collaboration in many areas, including scientific research, admissions, and office administration.

Several trustees and many professors immediately and vigorously questioned why they were not consulted on the plans. A trustee resigned, the UMass-Amherst faculty rendered a vote of no confidence in Wilson, and UMass- Boston faculty plan to meet next week, perhaps for a vote of their own.

And then came Wilson's e-mail. Max Page, president of the UMass-Amherst faculty union, said he e-mailed Wilson earlier this week asking if there were any developments that Wilson wanted him to share with union members at a meeting on Tuesday, May 29.

In his reply, Wilson wrote that the one-university vision "should be put aside at this time." Page provided the e-mail to the Globe. It was first reported in the Daily Hampshire Gazette yesterday.

Wilson told the Globe that what he meant was that all decisions about the new strategy would go through "the normal structures of the university." That will include a task force of professors, trustees, and higher education officials charged with examining creative approaches to making the university one of the best in the country.

But he said that that had been the intention all along.

Wilson told the Globe that when he wrote in his e-mail about taking discussion about governance "off the table," he meant only the idea of having one person, perhaps himself, serve as both president of the system and chancellor of UMass- Amherst. UMass officials initially floated the idea, but Wilson has said repeatedly that he is not interested in that hybrid job.

Tocco, however, suggested yesterday that the idea might not be dead forever, because the task force he is setting up could recommend it.

"Jack is not ready to recommend" the hybrid leadership post, Tocco said, but "the board wants to see what the task force comes up with."

Wilson also hinted in his e-mail to Page that he would be taking guidance from Governor Deval Patrick.

"The governor will have his own plans for governance changes in all of higher education, and I will defer to his lead on that process and hope to work together with you to shape that to be good for the university," Wilson wrote.

Page said he gave Wilson credit for responding to the concerns of faculty and students. Ernest May, faculty senate secretary, said he was also pleased, but very wary.

"There are so many contradictory promises coming fast and furious, it's hard to imagine they can keep them all," May said.

"There's an old saying in academia that all promises expire at the end of the year," he said. "In this case it may be the end of the week."