Brian McGrory

Some spark for UMass

By Brian McGrory
Globe Columnist / July 6, 2011

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

Your article has been sent.

Text size +

BIDDEFORD, Maine - I realized he was not going to be another relentlessly vanilla university president the moment I stepped out of the car and saw the place he picked for breakfast: Palace Diner, in the heart of an old mill town where the mills are not operating anymore.

Think of a mahogany-accented faculty dining room. Think of a self-indulgent alumni club on the top floor of a Boston skyscraper.

This was every inch the opposite.

“My father used to work here,’’ Bob Caret said, taking a seat at the long counter amid the buckets of homemade soups and the signs for the house hash. That was before Caret’s father bought the York Restaurant a block or so away and young Bob worked odd hours and all hours doing anything that would help the cause.

“I’d be in there in my white uniform making the french fries, one potato at a time,’’ Caret said. “My dad would go in at 4 a.m. to catch the third shift coming out of the mills and the first shift going in.

“He’d take a nap from 12 to 3 or so while my mother was there, then work the dinner crowd until 8 or 9 p.m.’’

Last week Bob Caret took over as president of the University of Massachusetts, an oddly unknown official in a state and a system where familiarity trumps just about everything else. When I asked the nice people at UMass who exactly this guy was, I expected to get an earful about the dissertations he wrote, the degrees he received, the scholarly books he published. Instead, I got an invitation to Maine to see where he grew up.

Which is how Caret and I ended up driving past Rapid Ray’s restaurant in neighboring Saco, where he casually declared, “I spent my formative years in this circle trying to pick up women.’’

Which is how he dryly admitted, “I was top 10 percent of my high school class, but only because the other 90 percent screwed around more than I did.’’ Which is how, when he describes his academic pedigree, he shrugs and says, “I don’t have blue-ribbon credentials. I have Suffolk and UNH. They’re solid, but it’s not Harvard.’’

All of which explains why I am sending an urgent warning to all of Massachusetts: Underestimate Bob Caret at your own peril. This guy has taken the role of the underdog and turned it into art. He may be exactly what UMass needs.

He is a fireplug of a man who seems neither bothered nor hindered by the relatively low expectations that have blanketed pretty much his entire life. He emerged from Biddeford to go to Suffolk. He emerged from Suffolk to go to the University of New Hampshire. He emerged from UNH with a doctorate in chemistry.

He has been president of two state schools, underdogs, if you will. At San José State in California, he oversaw the construction of a $189 million, 500,000-square-foot library done in an unusual partnership with the city. At Towson in Maryland, he ratcheted up the graduation rates of black and Hispanic students to that of their white peers.

At UMass, he will push for more respect for the schools. He will push for more funding to freeze tuition and fees and hire more faculty. He will push to improve the student experience, to create stronger, more durable bonds. The trick, as he knows, is to raise quality without inhibiting the accessibility.

“We’re not here to compete with Harvard, MIT, and Tufts,’’ he said. “We’re here to complement them. We want to be a high-quality alternative, not a default school.’’

Lunch, by the way, did not lead to any more glamorous fare. Actually, it led us to another institution, George’s Sandwich Shop, where a boyhood friend of Caret’s still makes the sandwiches out back.

“Best sub you’ll ever have,’’ Caret told me. I said nothing. “How is it?’’ he asked.

It was good. All right, it was really good. OK, great.

Seriously, this guy knows what he’s doing.

Brian McGrory is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at