Mysterious budget language suggests rift

Is there a feud going on between Senate budget chief, UMass?

A correction has been added to this story.

TUCKED INSIDE the state budget proposal passed unanimously last week by the Senate is an odd provision directing the chair of the University of Massachusetts board of trustees to invite members of the Legislature “to appear on the agenda for a regular or special meeting of the board.”

The budget language is unusual because lawmakers with control over the purse strings of a public institution rarely have trouble getting a meeting with the institution. No such provision is contained in the line items for the nine other state universities or the 15 community colleges.

A spokesman for Sen. Michael Rodrigues of Westport, the chair of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, which inserted the language into the budget, declined to provide any explanation.

UMass officials issued a statement that shed little light on what was going on, but took umbrage at the budget language.

“The Senate Ways and Means Committee’s proposed language singles out UMass with an unprecedented requirement that is unnecessary and redundant,” said the statement, which referred to the “present and historical best practices of governing boards.”

In a followup statement, UMass said the reference to best practices came from a document dealing with external influences issued by the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges. UMass noted that the document states: “The stakes are too high for boards to cede their policy authority, for which they bear ultimate fiduciary responsibility, to governmental control or self-serving political, economic, or personal interests external to the institution.”

In response to a public records request seeking copies of documents related to UMass interactions with Rodrigues, the university produced emails, letters, and logs of dealings with Rodrigues. Some of the documents were redacted based on a claim of attorney-client privilege, which indicates that the situation had reached the point that UMass officials felt that their lawyers needed to become involved.

Based on a review of the records, the language in the Senate budget appears to have surfaced after UMass board chair Robert Manning snubbed a March request from Rodrigues and the other members of the South Coast legislative delegation to meet with the entire board to discuss the search for a new chancellor for the UMass Dartmouth campus. (CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story mistakenly said the campus is in Rodrigues’s district.)

A few days later, instead of a meeting with the full board, Manning offered Rodrigues and his legislative colleagues the opportunity to speak with him and the chairs of two relevant subcommittees.

That worked for several members of the delegation, according to email correspondence. But the arrangement did not work for Rodrigues. “I was expecting to meet with the entire board of trustees, not a select subgroup,” he said in an email to Manning. The meeting never took place apparently.

According to a UMass log entry regarding a Zoom meeting held last December between UMass President Marty Meehan and the South Coast delegation, Rodrigues recommended installing as Dartmouth chancellor John Quinn, a former colleague with whom he had served for many years in the Legislature. An assistant dean at the UMass Law School, which is part of UMass Dartmouth,  Quinn has consistently donated to Rodrigues’ political campaigns through the years.

Other records provided by UMass indicate that Rodrigues threatened UMass with financial consequences if certain high-ranking individuals at UMass Dartmouth were not fired. The list included Divina Grossman, who resigned (some reports said she was dismissed) as chancellor in 2015 and is now president of the University of Saint Augustine for Health Sciences; Randy Helm, who took over from Grossman on an interim basis and is now an educational consultant; and Mohammad Karim, who stepped down as provost in 2020 but remains a Dartmouth professor.

 One partially redacted log entry by an unnamed UMass official states that in 2018, when the institution was in the process of buying the Mount Ida campus in Newton for $75 million, Rodrigues told a university official that the school has two options — one that gets UMass praise and another that gets a Senate vote of no confidence in Meehan. The log entry said: “The praise would come if UMass withdraws from the Mount Ida deal.  The no confidence vote of the Senate would come if the deal went through.”

UMass proceeded with the purchase of the Mount Ida campus, and a no confidence vote was never taken against Meehan.