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Turmoil at UMass

WHAT HAPPENS at the intersection of brute politics and public higher education? For a case study, review the past year at the University of Massachusetts.

Last fall, outgoing Governor Mitt Romney stacked the UMass board with new trustees, guaranteeing the selection of a new chairman, Stephen P. Tocco, a pharmacist turned lobbyist and Romney ally. Next, when US Representative Martin T. Meehan decided he was done with Washington, a nationwide search of highly credentialed candidates ended with Meehan as chancellor of UMass-Lowell.

Last week, the retirement of John V. Lombardi, the nationally recognized chancellor of UMass-Amherst, was announced, along with plans for Jack M. Wilson, president of the entire UMass system, to play a more prominent role in managing the flagship Amherst campus. Eventually, the jobs of president and chancellor could be combined.

One trustee quit in disgust. "I resigned because the proposal brought forth was absolutely ill-thought out and probably unworkable," said John A. Armstrong, a retired IBM vice president from Amherst. "In addition to my concern that this is a completely unworkable plan, I objected vehemently to the way the board of trustees was being manipulated and the process by which the board was being brought on board, without proper public concern and comment."

In Amherst, faculty and local political leaders decried the news about Lombardi. "We believe he is being forced out," Senator Stanley Rosenberg of Amherst said bluntly during a tense meeting last week between Wilson and the UMass faculty senate.

Yesterday, the faculty senate website posted a document titled "University of Massachusetts: A Vision for One University." It bears Wilson's name and is stamped "confidential." Wilson delivered the PowerPoint presentation during a May 3 dinner at the UMass club at 225 Federal St. At least a dozen trustees were briefed over beef and red wine. A spokesman for Wilson contends the session did not violate open meeting laws.

"I don't feel this is a power play or palace coup," said Wilson in a telephone interview yesterday. He said his plans add up to "management decisions" that are "all about making this a world-class university."

He is scheduled to meet today with the Amherst faculty.

A world-class university may be the goal but the path taken to achieve it is so secretive, it only feeds the cynicism that already serves as a backdrop for UMass.

This management shake-up is billed as an effort to streamline and consolidate the five UMass campuses. One trustee who backs the plan calls it "a bold but risky move." If it works, it will help mesh the separate campuses. But it may not work, acknowledged the trustee, who added: "This is going to be a crossroads and turning point for UMass."

Initial press accounts suggested that Wilson would end up as president and chancellor. However, he now insists "that is off the table." A task force, which will include Lombardi, will review several governance options. "If at the end of the process, there is a decision to merge the chancellor and president positions, I am committed to a search and I will not be a candidate for that search," said Wilson. What if the board, headed by a certain former pharmacist, asks him to take the job? "I will say no," he pledged.

There may be legitimate reasons for change at the top of UMass-Amherst. Amherst faculty leaders praise Lombardi for boosting private fund-raising, encouraging scholarly work, and renovating campus facilities. But, in the president's office, he is viewed as "Silberesque. . . . brilliant, irascible, cantankerous, not so collegial."

Lombardi's resume includes a stint as president of the University of Florida. When he resigned from that job in 1999, one press account referenced his "often obstreperous management style."

But Lombardi isn't the main issue; it's the sneaky way Tocco and Wilson are proceeding. While a "vision for one university" may be worthy of consideration, shouldn't the public get acquainted with the vision, too? After all, this is a public university.

And what about Governor Deval Patrick? He, like every governor before him, promised to restore faith in the University of Massachusetts.

Armstrong, the unhappy trustee, e-mailed his resignation to the board, and also mailed a formal letter of resignation to Patrick. He is trying to meet with the governor to express his concerns in person. So far, he is unable to arrange such a meeting.

Let's hope Patrick doesn't let politics as usual define the agenda for UMass. The intersection of brute politics and public higher education is one ugly intersection.

Joan Vennochi's e-mail address is