Rewriting the history of public higher education

For sheer political drama, it would be hard to top the current face-off between Gov. Mitt Romney and former Senate president William Bulger over the University of Massachusetts president’s office. It features, in one version of the dramatis personae, a self-styled Republican reformer with no allegiance to the bureaucratic status quo out to streamline the state’s public university system by ousting a legendary politician from his end-of-career sinecure. Or, in an alternative casting, it pits a privileged venture capitalist-turned-politician bent on reducing public higher education to job training against the son of an impoverished South Boston family using his hard-won political and academic prominence to preserve educational opportunities for the less privileged.

For Romney, eliminating the University of Massachusetts president’s office is part of a sweeping reorganization of the state’s higher education system, which is, in turn, one component of the most comprehensive restructuring of state government proposed since Gov. Frank Sargent’s shakeup in 1971–though even Sargent did not intrude on the sacred groves of academe. In his State of the State address on February 25, Romney proclaimed his higher-education restructuring proposal a singular assault on politics as usual. “This is my opportunity to be bold,” Romney declared.

The combatants may be new but the clash is old.

Bold Romney’s plan is. But it’s not as novel as he suggests. Rather, his is the latest salvo in a long battle over public higher education in Massachusetts. The current standoff echoes past conflicts over consolidation versus decentralization, institutional independence versus executive authority, and fiscal autonomy versus financial accountability. The combatants may be new but the clash is age old. And the ramifications of this skirmish, however it is resolved, will be felt long after Romney and Bulger have retired from the field of battle.

Romney’s blueprint for change

The Romney plan was crafted by his educational adviser and cabinet designee, Peter Nessen, and the governor’s former colleagues at Bain & Co., a management consulting firm. Neither Nessen, who was secretary of administration and finance under Gov. William Weld and a former dean for resources at Harvard Medical School, nor the team from Bain consulted any officials of the public higher-education system. But in the context of a major state fiscal crisis, they concluded that a major transformation of the system is required. “This is a billion-dollar system out of control,” Nessen told The Boston Globe. “Anyone who can come up with a better idea, I’ll listen.”

The idea Romney and Nessen have proposed would cut $150 million from public higher education, at the same time increasing student tuition 5 to 28 percent. In the past, tuition money has gone into the state’s general fund, from which it was redistributed to the institutions through the budget process, but under the Romney plan these funds would stay on campus, with tuition hikes totaling $94 million offset by $44 million in additional financial aid. In addition, the administration’s plan projects savings of $100 million by administrative reorganization.

Romney calls for grouping the 29 public university campuses and colleges into seven regions. The region would act as a single unit, delivering academic services from community-college job training to UMass post-graduate degrees. Each region would have an unpaid “coordinating council” made up of local business leaders, campus trustees, and others from nearby communities, and each campus would have its own board of trustees, which would work with the councils. The entire system would be overseen by a revamped state Board of Higher Education and accountable to a new Executive Office of Education.

Former University of California
president David Saxon pushed
a UC structure for UMass.

Beyond that, there are five specific features to the plan. First, the UMass-Amherst campus would be set apart from the other UMass campuses and expanded in size and scope into a world-class research university. Second, the UMass campuses in Boston, Dartmouth, and Lowell would be incorporated into three of the seven regional alignments that also include state and community colleges. Third, the UMass board of trustees and the president’s office would be eliminated, their functions of oversight and leadership transferred to the individual campuses. Fourth, six state and community colleges would be merged into three blended institutions: Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts melding with Berkshire Community College; Greenfield and Holyoke community colleges combining into one; and Fitchburg State College meshing with Mount Wachusett Community College. Fifth, three specialized institutions–the medical school in Worcester, Massachusetts College of Art, and the Massachusetts Maritime Academy–would be privatized over a period of four years, continuing to occupy state buildings but gradually losing their state subsidies.

In Romney’s attempt to bring the public higher education system to heel, there’s nothing new. At the level of central governance, the state has passed through the successive stages of a Board of Higher Education (1965-81), a Board of Regents (1981-91), a Higher Education Coordinating Council (1991-96), and back again full cycle to a Board of Higher Education (1996), over 40 years. At every point, these name changes were meant to signify increasing authority of a central governing board over local trustees, but very little change ever actually took place.

The result is a system of public higher education today that is highly fragmented and (some would say) unwieldy, comprising five UMass campuses, nine state colleges, and 15 community colleges. These 29 schools, which are spread across the Commonwealth, deliver academic services to more than 250,000 students from the state’s 351 cities and towns and from out of state.

It is also a system with a long and contentious history. Shortly after Congress passed the Morrill Act of 1862, a small agricultural school was started at Amherst. Overshadowed and hemmed in by older and more illustrious private colleges, this land-grant institution did not prosper and grow in size and stature comparable to its Midwestern and Western counterparts. “Mass Aggie,” as it was commonly known, did not become a state college until 1931, and did not achieve university status until 1947, when its enrollment reached slightly more than 3,000 students. With the return of military veterans from World War II, who were eager to obtain a college education with their GI benefits, UMass-Amherst grew right through the 1950s and 1960s, reaching a combined graduate and undergraduate enrollment of 23,000. In these years, 70 new dormitory and classroom buildings were constructed on the Amherst campus.

In 1965, UMass opened a non-residential branch campus in downtown Boston and bestowed upon it a distinctive urban mission. A state medical school was created in Worcester in 1968. In 1970, the UMass trustees restructured the state university into a system of three co-equal campuses. The university system was further enlarged in September 1991, from three campuses to five, by incorporating two previously separate public universities in Dartmouth and Lowell.

The state colleges evolved from the “teaching academies” Horace Mann established before the Civil War. Over the years, these so-called “normal” schools trained teachers for grammar and secondary education. In 1959, the state Department of Education recommended that teachers colleges offer more comprehensive education. A year later, they were reorganized into the state college system.

In the late 1950s, Gov. Foster Furcolo established a rudimentary community college system, with modest funding from the Legislature. First to open was Berkshire Community College, in downtown Pittsfield, in 1960. Subsequently, 14 other community colleges appeared on the scene, scattered across the state.

Reversing course

The five-campus University of Massachusetts, the state colleges, and the community colleges are what they are today as a result of a series of decisions, and occasional struggles, over organization, money, and control. At UMass, the trend, with some ups and downs, has been toward consolidation of a single university system. In 1969, the trustees commissioned Joseph Marcus, associate dean of engineering, to study patterns of organization among the nation’s multi-campus universities. Marcus found that, whatever their initial mode of organization, such universities tended to evolve toward a common model–a strong president, under a single board, supervising the work of relatively autonomous campuses. This pattern generally superseded the main-campus/branch-campus model because it gave each unit the opportunity to flourish. It was this arrangement that the university adopted the next year, elevating the Boston and Worcester medical-school branches into full-fledged UMass campuses. In 1981, the Board of Regents further bolstered UMass-Boston by merging Boston State College into it. The merger was psychologically damaging to faculty morale and also seemed to realize few economies at the time, but resulted in a more robust and cost-effective UMass campus in the long run.

But the biggest move toward UMass unification came later in the decade. In 1988, the trustees of UMass, in conjunction with its 125th anniversary, appointed a special blue-ribbon commission on the future of the university. David Saxon, former president of the University of California and chairman of the MIT Corporation, headed this 19-member panel. The Saxon Commission called for bringing Southeastern Massachusetts University, in Dartmouth, and the University of Lowell into the UMass system under a new board of trustees with representatives from each of the campuses. Growing competition between the campuses for limited state funds provided additional rationale for a unitary system. (Given Saxon’s background, it is hardly surprising that the UMass system he envisioned, and which has largely come about, is based on the California model. Similarities between the two systems are striking, except that California has 10 campuses and its president is paid an annual salary of $316,000–$7,000 more than Bulger is paid.)

As UMass has grown into an integrated multi-campus system, the university’s center of political gravity has also moved to the top. The president’s office moved from Amherst to Boston in 1970 to make the president more of a player on Beacon Hill, the source of the university’s financial support. More than anything else, the appointment of Bulger as president, in 1995, was recognition that, after a series of lackluster academics at the helm, what the university needed was more of an institutional leader–someone with clout in the political and business worlds –than an academic one.

The Romney plan would take apart the consolidated UMass system, making it a decentralized network of campuses that are only loosely related. The Amherst flagship would be spun off on its own and substantially enlarged. This growth is expected to add some 15,000 students to its current enrollment of 24,000, along with additional faculty, new dorms, and classrooms. In Romney’s view, UMass-Amherst could become a magnet for federal research dollars, as well as out-of-state students paying full tuition, just as they do at Michigan, Virginia, and other high profile schools. Keeping the tuition it collects would give the institution an additional long-term incentive to enhance its national stature.

What would happen to the Boston, Lowell, and Dartmouth campuses is less clear. If UMass now follows the California model, Romney’s plan would make Massachusetts more like New Jersey. Rutgers, in New Brunswick, is the main state university, with lesser satellite campuses in Newark and Camden. This scheme would revert to the main-campus/branch-campus pattern that existed prior to 1970, raising questions about how much of a downgrade would be in store for the three satellites. Incorporating them into regional systems, along with nearby state and community colleges, also suggests more of an orientation toward local job opportunities. In this, Romney wants to give business leaders a hand in shaping campus curricula, an idea that has become popular in Arizona and Kentucky. But critics charge that this would be treating the campuses like worker-training centers rather than academic institutions.

If the Romney approach to UMass is decentralization, his scheme for state and community colleges moves in the opposite direction, tempering the current local control with regional organization and making institutions more accountable to central state authority under a stronger Board of Higher Education. He takes the consolidation approach–the reverse of what’s proposed for UMass–furthest in the proposed mergers.

But the Romney plan reserves the most extreme form of decentralization–privatization–for certain specialty colleges, namely the medical school at Worcester, Mass. College of Art in Boston, and Mass. Maritime Academy, in Buzzards Bay. These would become “state-assisted schools,” in Romney’s parlance, though the goal seems to be reducing state assistance to a minimum. The idea seems to be that these professionally oriented institutions ought to be able to support themselves largely on their own. That prospect disturbs the current leaders of these institutions. Rear Admiral Maurice Bresnahan, head of Mass. Maritime, worries that, with the loss of $10 million in state funding, tuition at the school would skyrocket from $3,700 to $15,000 a year, making his school unaffordable for students and an unreliable partner for the US Navy, which provides ships on loan.

Curtailing autonomy

The Romney plan also tries to roll back history on command and control. In 1962, state Sen. Maurice Donahue of Holyoke, then majority leader but soon to become Senate president, led the fight for fiscal autonomy for the state university. Donohue’s legislation allowed the trustees and campus administrators to make independent financial decisions without having to get permission from the state bureaucracy. In 1964, state Sen. Kevin Harrington of Salem, who later succeeded Donahue as Senate president, sponsored similar legislation for the state colleges. No longer did expenditures of appropriated funds and transfers among accounts require the prior approval of the comptroller. Nor did new positions–faculty and staff–have to be specifically authorized by the Legislature.

Governors have been challenging this campus privilege ever since, none more than Gov. Michael Dukakis. In the mid-1970s, Dukakis tried to oust UMass President Robert C. Wood, an aggressive and outspoken leader, first from his high-cost headquarters at One Washington Mall and finally out of his post altogether. (Wood resigned in 1977, just before the governor gained majority control of the board of trustees.) Because of a fiscal crisis not unlike the current one, Dukakis also tried to impose a moratorium on new construction at UMass-Boston, but the courts ruled in favor of the university, upholding its fiscal sovereignty.

Former UMass president Robert Wood:
a Dukakis target in the 1970’s.

Now, Gov. Romney and his aides are taking another run at it. On March 5, they held up a $371 million bond package for construction projects on four UMass campuses, claiming that university officials did not provide adequate explanation of the projects. The Romney administration has also taken aim at what they call “fee abuse” in the setting of student charges by institutional boards of trustees, looking to shift this power to the state Board of Higher Education.

But fiscal affairs are not the only matters on which higher-education institutions have fought for independence–and governors pushed for greater control. Stories abound of governors trying to claim greater jurisdiction over higher education. Perhaps there is no better illustration of this phenomenon than Dukakis’s firing of James Collins as chancellor of the Board of Regents in 1986. Offended by a search process that seemed politically wired for the former state representative from Amherst, Dukakis demoted the board chairman and packed the board with three new members, who voted to remove Collins from office and replace him with Franklyn Jenifer, a professional educator from New Jersey.

At the height of this donnybrook, Dukakis declared, “We aren’t California, we’re not Texas, and we’re not Michigan. We’re a different state. We do happen to have some of the finest [private] institutions in the world. And I don’t think it makes sense for us to try to duplicate that.” Words like these remind campus leaders why they need some independence from elected officials, most of whom never sat in a state college or university classroom.

Meet the Author
Through his proposed reorganization of public higher education, Romney is trying to reverse historical course on consolidation, fiscal autonomy, and institutional independence. Whether that represents a bold, new vision or the undoing of higher education for those who cannot afford a pricey private education remains to be seen–as does whether he has any chance to pull it off.

The real question ought to be how to depoliticize the management of higher education and provide leadership that is knowledgeable about academic quality and devoted to its advocacy. For all its flaws, this public enterprise involves a substantial investment vital to the prosperity and quality of life in the state. As two of my former colleagues and I have argued elsewhere, “The enterprise has come too far, struggled against too many odds, provided too many vital public services, engaged too many bright and creative minds, and shaped decisively the futures of too many students to hunker down now in a siege mentality. Neither can it be content with doing more of the same, in a business-as-usual style while the economic life and the social structure of Massachusetts are significantly changing.”

Richard A. Hogarty is emeritus professor of political science at UMass-Boston, and co-author of Turnabout Time: Public Higher Education in the Commonwealth.