Patrick: a UMass theater major?

Gov. Deval Patrick was a lonely voice calling on UMass trustees not to approve a 4.9 percent fee hike for the coming school year.  Though he seemed  to be playing the part of champion of debt-burdened college students, an alternate view is that the governor was playing to the crowd in a way that might prove politically popular, but isn’t necessarily backed by sound reasoning or a budget  strategy.

The Globe editorial page seemed to advance that view yesterday by coming to the defense of UMass President Robert Caret and the school’s board of trustees, who approved the fee hike on a 15-2 to vote.  The editorial calls Patrick out for insisting that the university do more to eliminate waste and inefficiency before tapping students for more money, saying the governor “has not pointed to specific areas where the university system might make further cuts without undermining education quality.”

In an op-ed in yesterday’s Springfield Republican, Caret says there was “zero enthusiasm” for the fee increase on the part of university leaders.  But the university can’t continue to provide the level of education it does or support initiatives that will spur economic development like the Green High Performance Computing Center in Holyoke if its budget woes continue, he writes. State funding for UMass during the just completed school year was $30 million lower than a decade ago — and the system has 12,000 more students today than it did then, Caret says. State spending will account for 43 percent of the UMass budget in the coming year; a decade ago, the state covered 61 percent of the system’s budget.

As Caret outlined in this CommonWealth Conversation interview last summer, his goal is to get the state back to at least supporting 50 percent of the university’s costs. He says today that he’ll happily agree to a freeze on tuition and fees through 2014-15 if that target can be met. Yesterday’s Globe editorial calls it “a specific proposal that deserves analysis by the Legislature and the governor.”  

Caret’s proposal may not prove realistic given the tough budget times.  But neither is just waving off fee increases because they’re unpopular, an approach that seems to be more of a posture than a plan. 

                                                                                                                                                            –MICHAEL JONAS


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