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Brian McGrory

Patrick’s UMass mess

By Brian McGrory
Globe Columnist / December 10, 2010

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If Marty Meehan were a retired US congressman from San Francisco who went on to distinguish himself in the University of California system, Deval Patrick would be drooling at the thought of him running UMass.

But Meehan is not. He’s from here, and we eat our own. So what happened when his name leaked into public view as one of three or four finalists for the job as president of the entire University of Massachusetts system? He got bulldozed by a governor looking to score some cheap points, a flashback to the Romney era. Amid a swirl of headlines over patronage at the Probation Department, Patrick left tire tracks on Meehan’s back.

Patrick’s people say that it was the perception of the process they were concerned about.

“We never commented on Marty Meehan’s candidacy, per se,’’ Paul Reville, Patrick’s education secretary and a member of the UMass board, said yesterday.

Privately, Patrick officials painted a hypothetical picture of other possible finalists dropping out if their names were revealed, leaving Meehan as the only option in a process that would appear fixed.

OK, but amid a critique of the process, Patrick couldn’t help take a barely veiled shot at Meehan, saying, “I think we have to get somebody with broad wings, if you know what I mean, who has lived in that world, who has worked in the world.’’

I do know what you mean, governor. You’re here to protect us.

But let’s be clear. Meehan is not a political hack. He is not Marian Walsh, the state senator Patrick tried to gift with a $175,000-a-year state job. He is not someone’s brother-in-law looking for work in Probation. He is not Bill Bulger, carrying a bushel of controversy across his career.

Meehan was one of the two most successful and resourceful members of the Massachusetts congressional delegation for a decade running, a politician who coauthored the most significant piece of campaign finance legislation of his generation, a bold voice on ethics reform, and a congressman cited by a president as being one of the most effective players in Washington on tobacco reform.

He did much of this while working in a Republican-controlled Congress and proving to be one of the most successful fund-raisers in the nation.

And since he retired after 14 years to become the chancellor of the University of Massachusetts Lowell, he has used his three years there to improve retention rates, increase enrollment, expand the campus, diversify the student body, all while turning deficits into surpluses.

The result of Patrick’s cynical tactics: Meehan pulled out of consideration, his accomplishments in Lowell diminished. The respected chairman of the UMass board of trustees, Robert Manning, abruptly resigned. The process, which involved a national search firm, dozens of reviews, and 16 interviews, is in chaos.

And Charlie Baker was supposed to be the undiplomatic one.

So, on to Patrick’s point about attracting candidates with deep roots in academia. We just had that in current president Jack Wilson, a nice man who has done a perfectly fine job but leaves behind a decidedly second-tier system.

That’s not Wilson’s fault. The state doesn’t fund it. We live in a landscape dominated by private colleges and universities, and a Legislature chock full of Suffolk and BC grads who aren’t up nights worrying about UMass.

And I hate to break this news, but the best and most promising academic leaders around the country aren’t banging down the door to lead an underfunded system that is a perennial afterthought.

What UMass needs is a prodigious fund-raiser with high name recognition, a politically skilled leader who understands the innumerable quirks of Beacon Hill, and a person capable of enlivening an alumni corps too often made to feel second class. There isn’t a PhD in any field that prepares anyone for that.

Patrick may have scored some political points. But his ham-handedness has created one miserable mess.

Brian McGrory is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at mcgrory@globe.com.