By Steve Urbon
New UMass President Robert L. Caret’s four-day bus tour of the various state campuses last week didn’t even stop in Dartmouth, a clear sign that the university is aggressively seeking ways to expand and connect with the communities in Massachusetts rather than simply stay on those campuses.
Instead, Caret (pronounced car-ETT) started with a meeting over coffee at New Bedford’s Green Bean with two dozen local business and civic leaders, Mayor Scott W. Lang the only politician among them. The busy coffee shop is diagonally across the street from the UMass Center for Visual and Performing Arts, which significantly is marking its 10th anniversary.
City economic development director Matthew Morrissey forcefully pointed out that UMass locating in the former Star Store was the spark plug behind an explosion of economic activity downtown. A long political struggle before 2001 ended with a decision to spend $24 million, significantly more than an on-campus building would cost, all based on the expectation that downtown it would be worth it many times over.
Now that the optimists seem to have been vindicated, Caret is making it clear across the state that such ambitious projects and partnerships — even with other colleges and universities — are what he expects to do. The direction UMass Dartmouth has taken under retiring Chancellor Jean F. MacCormack is clearly the direction that the entire system is going to take under Caret.
Underlying his objectives, however, is a determination to stop internal infighting and set the five UMass campuses on individual missions to make it into the Top 25 for whatever category of school they are in, Caret said.
“I am going to send a report card every year to the whole state,” he said.
Caret, who holds a Ph.D. in organic chemistry and who spent eight years in Maryland and eight in California in college administration, is aware of the nature of politics in Massachusetts. He said he intends to connect with all 48 members of the Legislature who are UMass alums and enlist them in the cause of financially supporting the institution.
“They’re all well educated. Let’s get them more involved,” he said.
Caret shares with many other college administrators a frustration about shrinking state support even as the demands and opportunities expand. “They haven’t faced the realities of what we’re spending on. The Legislature is in a box. They don’t have the money to meet the demands. We’re spending more on prisons than on UMass, but they don’t know how to stop. They have to get out of it slowly,” he said.
Today state support accounts for 18 percent of the UMass budget, down from 40 percent less than a decade ago, pointed out UMass Trustees Chairman James Karam, a Fall River developer.
Caret, then, is trying to enlist business leaders in particular to pressure the Legislature and the governor for more help educating tomorrow’s business and civic leaders. Eighty percent of UMass graduates stay in Massachusetts, Caret pointed out. That means investing in them will likely lead straight back to the local communities in this state.
Thousands of UMass grads will begin their careers in Massachusetts. “In 20 years they will be your executive team,” Caret said to the group.
With shrinking revenues, public higher education institutions are forced to find sources of funds elsewhere, mainly research grants and increased fees, pushing the annual cost to around $25,000. “We’re becoming more and more like a private school, and that’s not the way it should be,” he said.
Rather, he said, UMass and other higher education institutions need to offer a less expensive public option for students in high demand areas, such as the law school, where the private institutions delayed a merger for years with the Southern New England School of Law.
“For the privates to hold up progress just to have a stranglehold doesn’t make sense from a societal point of view,” he told The Standard-Times.
Caret would also like to form partnerships with private universities, to establish UMass as a serious player in higher education.
His most significant example was the Holyoke High Performance Computing Center. There, the Connecticut River is supplying hydro power to a super computer center that can be accessed via the Internet from anywhere in the state and beyond. It’s a joint venture between UMass, Harvard, MIT and Northeastern.
Building projects are another objective for Caret. Some $3.1 billion is slated to be spent system-wide on building projects, including the just-concluded negotiations with New Bedford over expansion of the School of Marine Science and Technology at Fort Taber in the South End.
To manage all the construction, UMass has hired Katherine P. Craven away from the Massachusetts School Building Authority and named her head of the UMass Building Authority. In her prior post since 2004, Craven is credited with bringing efficiency and sound business practices to that once-struggling agency.
Caret said that the state needs to be more supportive of UMass building projects: 80 percent of the debt service on capital projects is being paid from the UMass operating budget, starving other line items such as student aid.
Lobbying the Legislature may come more naturally to Caret than his predecessor, Dr. Jack Wilson, who was much more low-key. Caret is gregarious and speaks rapidly.
“He has tremendous energy,” said Karam.
Asked whether Caret can stop the slide in state support, Karam said, “There has to be a public outcry and there has to be a change in public policy. Right now we’re just drifting, treated like another line item.
“I understand that the Legislature is faced with limited resources. But we need knowledge-based industries. If you look at Route 128, it’s a different world than the rest of the country, and it’s all based on knowledge.
“We can’t continue to sell ourselves with low water rates, low electricity costs, low labor costs. That’s not what the world is buying,” he said. “What the world is buying is creative minds.”
October 16, 2011 12:00 AM
By Steve Urbon