Embattled University of Massachusetts board chairman Stephen P. Tocco, yielding to intense pressure from Governor Deval Patrick, agreed yesterday to step down at the end of the year, ending a high-stakes battle that was creating tension and uncertainty throughout the public university system.
Tocco, an appointee of former Governor Mitt Romney, informed Patrick that he would agree to step aside after the board's December meeting and clear the way for Patrick's choice, vice-chairman Robert J. Manning, to assume the chairmanship.
The move was a political victory for Patrick, who had failed in an attempt to remove Tocco in September. Yesterday, Tocco's close allies said the chairman, whose term expires in June, felt he still had a chance to keep a majority of the Republican-appointed board members on his side. But Patrick, after weeks of lobbying, was ready to present a letter signed by a majority of trustees committing to force Tocco out at a board meeting Dec. 14, according to university board sources.
In a letter he sent to trustees last night, Tocco said he was backing down in the face of Patrick's move against him because the increasingly bitter battle was hurting the university.
"The ongoing discussion and related anxiety over the Chairman question has been a distraction long enough," he wrote. "We cannot lose our focus or our energy if we are to succeed as a Board." He said that he will keep his seat on the board.
The governor's office declined to comment. Tocco yesterday declined to speak in detail about his decision, saying only that he wanted to avoid an escalating fight and a nasty and divisive showdown at the December meeting.
"Winner and losers don't really matter to me," Tocco said in a brief statement. "We need to all work together to get Massachusetts back on its feet."
Tocco had outmaneuvered Patrick's attempts to remove him for months. The governor, who appointed five trustees on the board of 19 voting members, first challenged Tocco's reelection as chairman in September. In a close vote, Tocco won a second one-year term.
Since then Patrick and his chief of staff, Doug Rubin have lobbied Republican appointed board members to back an effort to remove Tocco. Administration officials were convinced the governor had a majority to oust him, but Tocco, chief executive of ML Strategies, the lobbying arm of the Boston law firm Mintz Levin, had been telling close associates that he felt that he still held a slim majority.
The power play reflects other attempts by Patrick and his aides to take control of boards and commissions. Since his election last year, Patrick has complained that he needs to control the authorities and other boards in order to govern effectively. Patrick is the first Democrat to appoint UMass trustees since Michael Dukakis left office in 1991.
Patrick and his staff have declined to talk about the move against Tocco and explain why they wanted to remove him and replace him with another Romney appointee.