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Public reeducation

Jack Wilson, the president of the University of Massachusetts, has probably had better months.

The faculty at the system's flagship, UMass-Amherst, has voted "no confidence" in his leadership. Their colleagues at UMass-Boston might soon follow suit.

The fury has been sparked by management changes made without consulting faculty members, most of whom found out what was going on when they read it in the newspaper. "People don't like to read about major actions in the newspaper," Wilson conceded. "And the way this came out, many people did."

The changes include moving one chancellor, Dr. Michael Collins, from UMass-Boston to the Worcester medical center campus; replacing him in Boston with J. Keith Motley, now a vice president of the system; and eventually replacing the retiring chancellor of UMass-Amherst, John Lombardi.

Like many campus disputes, moves of this sort would barely cause a ripple in other workplaces, where employees don't expect to have a big say in selecting the management team. But colleges are different, which a college president might have anticipated. Process matters.

"People do have concern about process; there's no question about that," Wilson said. "But sometimes process becomes a proxy for individual interests."

This controversy has erupted at what should be a heady time for the system. Governor Deval Patrick has unveiled plans for a billion-dollar biotechnology program, one of the most ambitious undertakings in the university's history.

Overshadowed in Massachusetts by some of America's greatest private universities, UMass has tended to be treated as a stepchild. Patrick has insisted that he plans to invest in the public system, not that he is sitting on a pile of free cash. Wilson said that even before he was inaugurated, Patrick had spent more time on UMass campuses than Mitt Romney ever did. "Governor Patrick has been very supportive, but he has set a high bar for us," Wilson said. "He wants us to deliver."

Wilson admitted that the revolt had been driven partly by the suspicion that he planned essentially to take over the Amherst campus, perhaps by combining the president and chancellor's jobs. He took pains yesterday to insist that he had no such intention, partly, perhaps, because the governor has made it clear that he thinks it's a terrible idea.

"I've taken that off the table," Wilson said. "This is not about governance. I said if the board [of trustees] decides at some point to merge the positions, I would conduct a search for that person."

Faculty members are upset for at least one other reason: Collins and Motley were reassigned without a search committee. The president's justification is that both already went through a search process two years ago when Collins won the UMass-Boston job and Motley was promoted to vice president.

Both had been validated at that time, Wilson told me. "What a search does is name a list of fully qualified outstanding candidates," Wilson said. "Based on that search, I felt that we had met both the letter and the spirit of a search."

The decision has gone down especially badly in Amherst, a campus with a proud history of independence from the rest of the system. Its faculty members are clearly unhappy with the indication that they need to get with Wilson's "one university" program.

Said one longtime UMass professor: "I think in most universities there's this culture where some parts of the system just have more autonomy and more say. Just look at Harvard; everyone has always complained that every academic unit is its own club."

The vote of no confidence is meaningless in terms of whether the personnel moves will happen. However, it will probably make the president think twice about launching major initiatives with no faculty input.

There's no indication the board will scuttle the moves, and no good reason it should. The whole episode is proving to be something of a lesson, a chapter in the continuing education of Jack Wilson.

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at