Big Man On Campus

Here he is at the State House, it’s that time of year, and he just can’t help himself. After quoting the Roman statesman Seneca-“Loyalty is the holiest good in the human heart”-threatening to sing, actually singing a little, recognizing the pols in the audience (“I saw Stan Rosenberg a few minutes ago, where is he?”), and saying some grand things about the nature of institutions, William M. Bulger, president of the University of Massachusetts, mentions the budget.

“The Legislature has been splendid to us!” he proclaims to those gathered in the Great Hall for the UMass-Amherst Alumni Association’s annual awards luncheon this spring. “There is a wonderful budget sent by the House of Representatives!”

Wonderful, of course, because it includes the largest increase anyone can remember that body proposing for the University of Massachusetts-an increase of 7.6 percent. The Senate is to consider its funding proposal next. And Bulger-who for 17 years presided over that body before passing the mantle to Sen. Thomas Birmingham (D-Chelsea), son of the late Jackie Birmingham, an old and loyal Bulger friend-wants to be sure everyone is in line.

“The Senate has a history of being the most generous of the three branches that deal with the budget,” he announces. “And we’re hoping they might be as generous in the year 2000!”

The words tumble forth so naturally from his lips that although his 35-year career in the Legislature has ended, he hardly seems to have left politics. Perhaps it is the force of being in this building. Or perhaps it is the near-patriotic fervor stirred by hearing the voices of the University of Massachusetts Chamber Choir rise among the flags of the state’s 351 cities and towns. More likely, it just seems natural to lobby a bit while you’ve got the floor and Birmingham and a bevy of other legislators in the room. And the effort, it seems, is not wasted: The Senate comes through with $494.7 million, $700,000 more than the House and $35.5 million more than in fiscal 2000.

For the alumni who are here, dining on chicken tortellini salad and vanilla ice cream swans swimming in red berry sauce (note the school colors), the 66-year-old Bulger is doing something nearly magical: He is making their school matter. He has brought the University of Massachusetts, long the public stepchild in a state of world-class private universities, to public, corporate-and legislative-attention. And, much to the surprise of critics who feared he would run UMass the way he ran the Senate, he has done it not by being tough, but by playing nice. As one pleased alum says of Bulger this day: “Whatever baggage he had, I’m happy to carry it for him.”

Bulger makes an unlikely hero for the University of Massachusetts. He has come to his comfortable role “in the academy,” as he puts it, from the gritty world of Massachusetts politics-a world so identified with him that it stretched public imagination to envision him as anything other than the iron-fisted legislative leader who controlled the state Senate down to the paper clips. The product of Roman Catholic education through law school, he never spent a day studying in the public classrooms and lecture halls he now extolls. Still, he wears the mantle of state university president as if it were the most natural thing in the world.

What is so compelling about his story today, some four years into the job, is that even as he draws on his power-broker connections to grapple with university issues, Bulger reveals another side to the man everyone thought they knew. The harsh image of Billy Bulger that dominated press coverage for decades is, at this late date, being remade. Make no mistake: He is still a politician. But he is showing a softer side, one that even has cranky UMass faculty dishing compliments. And it’s not just that the university president is not the tyrant they feared, but that he’s succeeding where others have failed-in earning the state university some respect. The story here is about the resurrection of public images-Bulger’s and Umass’s-in a state where history has a long run. The question is, to paraphrase the title of Bulger’s autobiography: How long will the music last?

Raising Standards and Expectations

Bill Bulger is seated at a polished double-pedestal table in an office whose picture window provides a view of, among other scenic points of interest, the golden dome of the State House. The 26th floor in a downtown office building is UMass headquarters, a place whose detachment from the campuses might offer a metaphor for deeper issues facing the university system. For Bulger, though, it offers another metaphor: The university, set here between the State House and Boston’s bustling business district, is in the thick of things.

Dressed as ever in a crisp white shirt, suspenders, and tie, Bulger speaks gently, politely. A practiced but always wary interviewee, he doesn’t so much answer questions as speak on topics. He can be stubborn when he perceives questions as likely to, as he says, “get me into trouble.” And on many topics, Bulger is sketchy on details, leaving the particulars to others. When asked how much he, personally, has donated to UMass, he dispatches an aide to find out. A few moments later, a slip of paper is slid in front of him: $102,000.

But when it comes to his stewardship of the long-beleaguered state university, even the tough questions are not very tough to answer. He has raised the endowment, boosted academic standards, and made alumni proud to display stickers from their alma mater on their cars’ rear windshields.

It has, in fact, become tough to find critics of Bulger’s presidency-a far cry from his legislative days, when critics were omnipresent. Credit a strong economy for some of the progress; flush times have enabled Bulger to raise professors’ salaries and cut tuition. For Bulger, the ride to date has been smooth. As if not to tempt fate, he is careful not to take too much credit for the university’s rising stock.

“I have said over and over [that] the story of the university, the reality, has not been properly appreciated,” he says. “I’m not being foolish about this, but the tribute goes to those who have worked quietly, season in and season out, making it a great place with enormous potential. I feel as if we came along and told people about it.”

If Bulger sounds a little like a cheerleader, that’s because he is. More than anything else, Bulger has become a goodwill ambassador for the university, if not for all of higher education.

Not only is he there in his (well-starched) shirtsleeves surrounded by eager young learners on those ubiquitous feel-good University of Massachusetts TV commercials, sharing the screen with stars like Bill Cosby, Julius Erving, General Electric head Jack Welch, General Motors chief executive Jack Smith, and Celtics coach Rick Pitino, but he’s coming to your town. Bulger is on a crusade to speak personally with the high school juniors of this state about the importance of a college education‹not a college degree, mind you, but a full-fledged education. Anyone he meets is liable to get the pitch. A toll collector on the Mass Pike credits Bulger’s persuasive powers during a stop at his booth for his enrolling at UMass-Boston.

It’s almost like running for office, only with UMass, not Bulger, on the ballot. And, to judge by early returns, the campaign is working. During Bulger’s tenure, the university has increased its endowment from $40 million to $138 million, multiplied its partnerships with government and industry, and seen its annual state appropriation rise from $354 million to an expected $494-plus million for fiscal 2001. (The university budget is $1.2 billion).

During Bulger’s tenure, UMass has increased its endowment from $40 million to $138 million.

The Legislature now offers a 50 percent match to donations made to the university endowment, a program that has added $14.5 million to the UMass kitty. Bulger has also increased from four to 22 the number of endowed chairs, those prestigious (and higher-paid) professorships aimed at attracting and keeping star faculty. And the University of Massachusetts Foundation, the 50-year-old nonprofit arm that under Bulger has acquired a fund-raising mission, aims to add 15 more chairs over the next year. Once again, the Legislature is helping out, providing $10 million to serve as a 75-percent match for private donations toward the endowed posts.

Bulger says he wants UMass to be what Boston College was for people of his generation: an affordable means to a high-quality education. In an era when some colleges are doing more to accommodate poorly prepared freshmen, however, Bulger is making UMass harder-not easier-to get into. He has raised admission requirements, a move he says is not at odds with making it accessible. “It doesn’t make it more exclusive,” he says. “It can’t justify its continued existence unless it is a place of higher learning. It has to be higher. It’s not as if we don’t have a community college system.”

He has also offered scholarships to the top two graduating seniors at every Massachusetts high school. The University Scholars program, targeting those students referred to as “val-sals,” has attracted more students each year since its inception. “The numbers aren’t large,” says Bulger, who handed out 153 this spring. “But, boy, the symbolism!”

It’s more than symbolic when students from the state’s top high schools, like those in Duxbury and Newton, are rejected. Nine from the Duxbury High Class of 2000 received rejection letters from the Amherst campus; the previous year four were rejected and, in 1998, nine were turned down.

“It was a shocker for me,” says Diane Zoccolante, guidance counselor at Duxbury High, where average combined SAT scores are 1099 and 84 percent of graduates go on to a four-year college. She-as most others-used to consider UMass a safety school for her students. So did Newton kids. Jack Leader, an insurance and investment broker with Phoenix Financial who served on the UMass-Amherst alumni association board of directors for 17 years, received phone calls this spring from his Newton neighbors. “I’m having to deal with people in Newton who say, ‘My kid didn’t get in,'” he says. “This is now a tough school to get into, which increases the value of my degree.”

Opening Doors for UMass

In many ways, Bulger is turning out to be the right man at the right time. Bulger’s predecessor, Michael Hooker, a bright and ambitious academic, earned praise for his drive for academic excellence and his early work at uniting five disparate and formerly independent campuses (Lowell, Dartmouth, Boston, Amherst, and the medical school in Worcester) into a single system. But when he left after just two years to become chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Hooker also got the label of opportunist. (Hooker died last year following a six-month battle with lymphoma.)

In contrast, Bulger offered the fledgling system a sense of security and a hometown face. For Bulger, the post of UMass president was not a steppingstone but a capstone to a career in Massachusetts public life. At a time when he could be converting a lifetime of political and business connections into ready cash for himself, Bulger is instead stumping for UMass.

While he has yet to energize the typical UMass grad (only 13 percent of alumni give to the school), he is able to do what many other public university presidents can’t, which is pick up the phone and get major players-inside and outside Massachusetts-to join the cause. It was Bulger’s personal connection, for example, that drew Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams to speak at UMass-Lowell campus commencement, certainly a notable prize in the annual battle for prestigious graduation speakers.

Bulger’s power has been felt keenly by Tom Chmura, vice president for economic development at UMass, who was hired by Hooker to build alliances with Massachusetts businesses. “His coming on board fundamentally changed what we are able to do,” Chmura says of Bulger. “Up until then it was a bottom-up approach, where we would meet with someone three levels down in the company, meet with an alumnus. Now you are starting the conversation at the highest level of the company.”

Fidelity Investments is one example. As Senate president, Bulger worked on streamlining the state’s business regulations with Fidelity executives, including chief of administration David Weinstein. (Bulger can take no credit for the 1996 tax break benefiting the mutual fund industry, however, since it passed the Legislature six months after he departed.) As UMass president, Bulger has turned that relationship into a scholarship and mentoring program for information-technology students. “Bill Bulger has made a tremendous difference,” says Weinstein. “These kinds of programs happen because of personal leadership.”

In important ways, Bulger has brought UMass into circles it could never previously penetrate. In the past, Chmura complained, when business leaders and legislators needed expertise they’d turn to the same sources. “Surprise, surprise, they’d call on Harvard and MIT,” says Chmura. Harvard and MIT are not about to lose their dominance, but what’s important is that UMass is now getting a seat at the table. In 1996, then-Gov. William Weld’s Council on Economic Growth and Technology-a place UMass previously barely had a Presence-was looking for a way to track the state’s economy. Bulger left the meeting and cut a deal with Federal Reserve Bank president and CEO Cathy Minehan that resulted in UMass economists and the Fed collaborating on Massachusetts Benchmarks, a quarterly publication on the state’s economy.

This same pick-up-the-phone power has translated into increased private gifts and relationships with high-powered alumni like Welch of GE and Smith of GM. Alan Solomont, the Democratic Party fundraiser and UMass alum, was among a half dozen prominent business leaders who recently agreed to serve on the UMass Foundation’s investment committee, which will be chaired by another powerhouse: former Goldman Sachs vice chairman Roy J. Zuckerberg (Class of ’58).

Joseph Cofield, executive vice president and CEO of the Foundation, is nearly beside himself with excitement at tapping Bulger’s connections for the university’s financial benefit. Cofield raised money for Brandeis, Babson, and Bulger’s alma mater, Boston College, before coming to UMass last year. “The only reason I’m here is because of William Bulger,” he says bluntly. “The opportunity to work with someone of his stature in my business of fundraising is almost like a dream come true.”

A Non-Traditional President

It is classic political strategy to lower expectations of a candidate’s performance. But in 1996, when the Board of Trustees named Bulger president of the five-campus university system, no professional spinners had to talk down his prospects. Even those with open minds wondered about his reputation. “He can’t be as bad as the newspapers make him out to be,” Robert Karam, chairman of the Board of Trustees, thought at the time of Bulger’s nomination.

Bulger’s name was first proposed by James O’Leary, former general manager of the MBTA and a UMass trustee since 1990. O’Leary felt previous presidents had lacked “political acumen.” Though O’Leary “felt instinctively Bulger was the right person for the job,” he says, not everyone had the same feeling. “There were some trustees who didn’t know him as well as I did who may have had some misgivings.”

Among those was Ogretta V. McNeil, former psychology professor at the College of the Holy Cross, who voted against Bulger’s appointment. She wondered about his qualifications‹and still does. “I don’t see him as an educational leader,” says McNeil. “I see him as a leader, but not an educational leader with the kind of vision one looks for in someone who leads a university.”

McNeil has a point. According to the National Presidents Study, conducted by the American Council on Education, Bulger hardly fits the profile. The typical college or university president has spent 16.3 years as a full-time faculty member. Only 8.6 percent of college and university presidents come from outside higher education and only six-tenths of one percent from local, state, or federal government.

Not only did Bulger lack academic credentials (80 percent of presidents have PhDs, while Bulger’s highest degree is a JD from Boston College), some viewed him as precisely the sort of old-school politician who should never be trusted with a college presidency. In Massachusetts, academia is serious business, with the standard set by Harvard and MIT, Smith and Amherst. Was UMass, in contrast, to become a retired politician’s personal patronage haven? And then there is Bulger’s reputation as an autocrat with no tolerance for opposition and a taste for revenge. In the Senate, Bulger deprived then-Sen. George Bachrach of a committee chairmanship (the only Democrat not to get one) in retaliation for a mid-1980s challenge and tried to defund the Boston Housing Court because the chief justice balked at a Bulger patronage request. Is that how he would run the state university?

Besides being a lifelong politician, Bulger carried with him heavy political baggage. His conservative social agenda and steadfast loyalty to his South Boston roots had for years drawn the ire of liberals, Republicans, and reformers. He led the charge against busing in the 1970s. He lobbied for public aid to private schools and railed against term limits in the 1980s and ’90s. At times, he seemed to start fights for the fun of it, as when he proposed siting an incinerator in Weston (as an alternative to Boston’s South Bay, upwind from his beloved Southie). And he jeered at the media; until he attended a discussion with editors as the new president of UMass, Bulger hadn¹t set foot in the offices of The Boston Globe for 25 years. How could this be good for UMass?

To some on campus, Bulger’s candidacy was anathema for still other reasons. In the early 1990s, when the state’s economy was foundering, Bulger presided over budget cuts that forced spending freezes on campuses and major cuts in academic programs. At the time, Charles Knight, an English professor at UMass-Boston and former faculty representative to the Board of Trustees, said that choosing Bulger was “like making the fox president of Chicken U.”

But the choice had a logic that was apparent to many on campus. The university was badly in need of a champion-not somebody with fancy academic credentials, but someone who could carry the university’s water with the Legislature, the business community, and the public. “The term we used was ‘non-traditional candidate,'” recalls Karam. And Bulger was nothing if not non-traditional. He came loaded with baggage, to be sure, but also charm, wit, and connections. He was just what trustees were looking for.

Even those thought to have been aghast at Bulger’s selection as president claim that was never the case. Former Harvard president Derek Bok, for instance, was conspicuously absent from the Board of Trustees vote on Bulger’s appointment and resigned shortly after Bulger became president. But Bok says he was simply spending the semester in Washington, DC, and that he had only served on the UMass board as a favor to Hooker, who lived in his Cambridge apartment building. “When Mr. Hooker left, I felt my reason for being on the board disappeared with him,” says Bok. “There was certainly no disapproval of Mr. Bulger.”

Which is not to say he was an obvious candidate, even to Bulger himself. If Peter Lewenberg, member of the board and chair of the search committee, Hadn’t broached the idea (Bulger says he found it “intriguing”), “I think I would have ended up in this whole business of lobbying,” he says. Today, Bulger doesn’t see what the fuss about academic credentials was all about. “I don’t know how much academic experience you have to have to know what is expected of an institution like this,” he says.

Much Boosterism, Little Cronyism

Bulger’s tenure has not been without bumps. He drew criticism, for instance, for moving the president’s headquarters into prime office space with rent that runs nearly $1 million a year; some blanched at his salary, which is now $251,999. But around the five UMass campuses, students, faculty, and alumni acknowledge that he has scored many a success. So fulsome is the praise that it’s almost disconcerting. Imagine hearing professors in the African American Studies department at UMass-Amherst say they consider Bulger an important ally?

Despite his reputation for placing friends in state jobs, campus observers say Bulger has exerted surprisingly little influence on personnel decisions at the university. Of course, he has his hand-picked personal staff and there is Joseph Brady, former chief counsel to the Senate, whom he installed as executive director of the University Building Authority. And there’s Selma Botman, vice president of academic affairs. Botman, who is married to Senate President Birmingham, replaced Ron Story, the UMass-Amherst history professor who served under Bulger’s predecessor. Appearances notwithstanding, members of the faculty praise Botman and say that Bulger deserves to have someone he trusts in that position. (Still pending are rumors that Botman will replace exiting UMass-Boston Chancellor Sherry Penney.) Even the displaced Story says Botman has been “pretty good,” and that he likes Bulger. “I haven’t seen very much cronyism,” Story adds.

Bulger is also showing a prettier face in public. He seems to go out of his way not to pick fights and he works harder today at turning on the charm and turning down the tongue. To a large degree, he has done that by making the University of Massachusetts-and not himself or his political views-the center of attention. Unlike his predecessor Hooker, for example, who infuriated faculty by publicly grading them as C-plus, Bulger doesn’t criticize. He seems more starry-eyed groupie than boss.

“It turns out he’s a good listener. . .a true servant of the people.”

“I would say he’s a fan,” says Brian O’Connor, professor of biology at UMass-Amherst and a faculty representative to the Board of Trustees. “You just get the feeling he feels we are doing tremendous things. And we never got that before.”

O’Connor recalls Bulger’s first trip to meet members of the UMass-Amherst faculty senate. They gathered at the Faculty Club, an old clapboard house on campus. “We went around and everyone introduced themselves,” recalls O’Connor. “Then he said, ‘Well, what can I do for you?'” The room fell silent. Bulger grew uneasy. “Did I say something wrong?” he asked. O’Connor explained: They weren’t used to thinking about how the president could help them.

The exchange signaled something else, too: In contrast to Hooker, Bulger wasn’t going to micromanage UMass. Bulger is the door-opener, the cheering section; he is not a dictator and he is not a details man. “We wondered if he was going to bring the model of the head of the [state] Senate to the university,” says Masha Rudman, professor in the school of education at UMass-Amherst and former member of the faculty senate. “It turns out he is a good listener. He considers himself a true servant of the people.”

Rebuilding UMass for the Future

Certainly, much is going right for the University of Massachusetts. But That’s not to say there aren’t challenges. There are. Bulger got his first taste this spring when a review committee report that wasn’t supposed to be made public recommended the ouster of UMass-Boston Chancellor Penney after 12 years at the helm for, among other shortcomings, presiding over high turnover rates among top administrators and allowing the school’s academic focus to drift. Official statements have said only that Penney “has requested that she return to the full-time faculty.” But sources familiar with negotiations between Penney and Bulger say she lobbied-and he agreed-to stay on until January 2001 so that she could preside over the groundbreaking for a new $60 million campus center and the presidential debate scheduled for October 3.

Bulger won’t talk about the situation, other than to wince when it comes up, and to offer some awkward regrets. “I’m sorry as I can be that any of it found its way into the public domain,” he says. “She [Penney] has my respect, and I feel bad about that.”

A search committee is to be appointed in the fall. Ultimately, the Board of Trustees will name the new chancellor, though Bulger may weigh in. And while Botman is rumored to be a contender, it remains to be seen how much influence Bulger will exert in choosing a replacement for Penney. Does he want to build his own team of chancellors? Or will he leave it up to the trustees?

The university faces other issues, too. While faculty are for the moment pretty high on Bulger, some say the poor state of the UMass physical plant is a source of some bitterness. “What is really destructive of morale for students, faculty, and staff is the ghastliness of the facilities,” says Story, the history professor and former vice president for academic affairs. “If President Bulger is at all interested in lifting the level of the campuses, that has to be addressed.”

An April report by the UMass-Amherst faculty senate charges that over the past decade the financial drain of repairing leaky roofs and fixing problems with heating and air conditioning has forced more than 250 faculty positions to be kept vacant. At other campuses, too, retiring professors are not replaced and programs are seeing cuts. The Amherst report estimates there is some $393 million in deferred maintenance on that campus alone. Joseph Larson, secretary of the faculty senate and professor in the department of Natural Resources Conservation, says faculty are at “a turning point” and are looking to Bulger to heed these concerns.

“At this point, the university is operating by essentially bleeding its teaching budget to maintain its physical facilities. This cannot go on for much longer,” says Larson, who has sent groups of professors to meet with legislators to press the issue. “Our sense is that level of urgency is not shared by the trustees or the president’s office and that is where the concern comes and the disappointment, if you will.”

Bulger’s response? “It won’t all be done in a day.”

Much of what Bulger has done so far is make people in Massachusetts feel good about the University of Massachusetts. And that needed doing. But if he truly wants to elevate the system-as he says he does-to the level of top public systems like the University of Michigan and the University of Wisconsin, then he will need to address a host of issues in what is a complicated and changing landscape. Even as fiscal problems rooted in the collapse of the Massachusetts Miracle haunt the campuses, they face challenges from technology. Distance education, changing and varied learning styles among an increasingly diverse student body, the rise of the Internet, and even the increasing tendency of students not to attend class. As one professor wonders, “Is there a place for the old-fashioned lecture?”

Bulger acknowledges these challenges, though he doesn’t offer any detailed plans. When he talks about his educational vision, he speaks in the most general terms. “I would like us to get to the task of defining education,” he says. “What do we seek to achieve? I’m not sure everyone sees it as the same things. I see it as the human abilities to read, and to write, and to think.”

He talks about work underway to build connections with the public schools. UMass is also getting into the adult education field in a big way, with its I-495 Center for Professional Education in Westborough, which features a high-tech MBA program. But the vision Bulger keeps coming back to is about achieving recognition and support in the broadest sense from the state and the people who live here.

“This requires a cultural change,” he says. “There has not been the support from private sources that other public universities have. If you are the only game in town-in Michigan or California or Florida-then surely the whole state should be in your cheering section. Here in Massachusetts, we’re not.”

The presidency of UMass, Derek Bok observes, “requires two different kinds of skills,” someone who understands how to craft a first-rate academic institution and someone who can deal with the Legislature. “You had to take a gamble either way,” says Bok. “You had to take someone light on the academic side or light on understanding the rather complicated system of government and network of influence. You should not evaluate Mr. Bulger’s experience and tenure as if it were possible to get both.”

For now, Bulger will play to his strength. Certainly, he appreciates the trappings of the academic life. Helen Vendler’s book on Shakespeare’s sonnets sits on his desk, underneath a copy of Michael Lewis’s The New New Thing. He hasn’t read them yet. But what Bulger does best is connect with people. On his trips to high schools, he quotes John Adams and narrates his own wondrous experience of having the world opened to him through education.

As he stands at the podium one chilly April morning in the Duxbury High School auditorium, gold velvet curtains behind him, Bulger tells of being a boy who thought he couldn’t afford college. He tells how one Jesuit priest singled him out and offered to pay his first year at Boston College. “Lucky me, that I said yes,” he tells the students. Listening, you get the sense he believes that encounter changed his life-and that through his encounters he can change lives, too.

“I can’t do it on an individual basis,” he says to the students. “But I want to say to you, consider carefully how important this time is for you.”

Meet the Author
These outings are a pleasure for Bulger. He comes early to chat with guidance counselors and administrators. He lingers over coffee in the student-run snack bar afterwards. There is no controversy on this campaign trail, just small talk and pleasantries. The awkwardness that seems endemic to gatherings in orange-carpeted high school offices is an awkwardness Bill Bulger dispels masterfully. In one moment, he finds himself in front of Peg Gibson, a secretary who rises from behind her desk to greet him. Once again, Bill Bulger can’t help himself. He reaches for her hand and quips: “Be sure to vote for me on Tuesday.”

Contributing writer Laura Pappano becomes a visiting scholar at Northeastern University’s Women’s Studies Program this fall.