Ex-UMass trustees: Senate provision misguided
Call budget measure an attempt to usurp board’s authority
IN 1988, in observance of the University of Massachusetts’ 125th anniversary, the board of trustees established a commission with a charge “to examine and make recommendations on the future role of the university in the Commonwealth, its governance, and financing.”
The concern in the Commonwealth at the time was that Massachusetts was not responding vigorously enough to meet the growing challenges of an economy that had prospered in the decades following World War II. There were challenges from within and without — with a united Europe on track to become the largest economic force in the world. It made sense that the trustees would pose the question of what role UMass should play in the economic health of the Commonwealth and the ongoing health of the nation.
The Trustees established a blue ribbon commission chaired by David Saxon, president emeritus of the University of California, to examine the question. The commission’s work would come to be known as the Saxon Report. Its formal title was Learning to Lead: Building a World Class University in Massachusetts.
The report made 12 recommendations, the first of which was the impetus for the formation of the five-campus UMass system in 1991, adding to the three campuses that had constituted the system from the 1960s – Amherst, Boston, and the Medical School – the other two public institutions in the Commonwealth that could statutorily award doctoral degrees – the University of Lowell and Southeastern Massachusetts University.
“The University operates at the leading edge of knowledge, and must be able to respond to rapid change,” the report said. “It is, therefore, important that authority reside as close to the point of action as possible. If the structure permits decision-making to become too far removed, the management becomes tentative and accountability diffuse.”
Over the last 30 years, under this independent governance structure, UMass has thrived. The university now educates 75,000 students, including 56,000 Massachusetts residents. It is the second-largest employer in the state, and generates more than $6 billion in annual economic impact in Massachusetts. Its $650 million in annual R&D trails only Harvard and MIT in the state and is fourth in New England. All four of the UMass undergraduate campuses are Carnegie-designated research universities and are ranked national universities by U.S. News & World Report. The Medical School is tops in New England for primary care education and the mission-driven UMass School of Law is third in the state for bar pass rates.
The university’s strong fiscal management and oversight has been recognized by the bond rating agencies, and its ratings exceed the higher education sector overall. The university since 2014 has managed to hold tuition increases below 3 percent on average, despite declining support from the Commonwealth. This year, as has been the case for several years, the university again posted record enrollment and graduated the largest class in its history. The demand for a UMass education is as strong as it has ever been.
As former trustees, we believe that the university is fulfilling both the goals of the Saxon report and the intention of the Legislature when it codified its recommendations in Chapter 75.
The Commonwealth is better as a result of the now-thriving University of Massachusetts, and opportunities for students of all backgrounds are better as a result of the efforts made over the last 30 years by the UMass Board of Trustees and the UMass administration.The Senate’s recent decision to usurp the authority of the Board and restrict its ability to meet its fiduciary responsibilities is therefore misguided.
We urge the Legislature to adopt the House of Representatives’ version of the fiscal year 2020 budget that preserves the authority of the board of trustees to manage the finances of the university independently, which has been a successful formula for decades.