Thursday, March 13, 2003

Rhetoric and reality at UMass. Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby this morning writes this about UMass president William Bulger, whose job has been targeted for elimination by Governor Mitt Romney:

Would he sacrifice, say, some of his immense $309,000 salary or the lavish benefits that go with it? His personal retinue of -- count 'em -- 68 courtiers? His opulent chambers at One Beacon Street? Bulger's predecessors managed to function without such trappings. Could Bulger? He didn't say.

The notion that Bulger has treated himself far more lavishly than his "predecessors" is a phony proposition, and if Jacoby doesn't understand that, then he should.

The current UMass president's office was created in 1991, when five separate schools -- UMass Amherst, as well as colleges and universities in Boston, Lowell, Dartmouth, and Worcester -- were combined into one massive state university system in an attempt to put Massachusetts on a par with other states.

The plan was approved by Republican governor Bill Weld, and at least until Romney came along, it had been pretty much universally regarded as a success.

Bulger had precisely one predecessor as president of this reorganized system: Michael Hooker, who left after just two and a half years. At the time of his departure, in 1995, Hooker was making $189,000. Bulger was named in late 1995, and was initially granted the same salary. Bulger's annual salary increases amount to an average of just under six and a half percent per year. That's a lot, but it's not as though the Hack God reached down out of the blue and bestowed $300K on Bulger.

The problem with Jacoby's analysis is that it's based on the sort of sneering populism that doesn't depend on facts. Here's what we need to know -- and here's what the Globe and/or the Herald ought to find out and report before this debate devolves any further.

  • How does Bulger's $309,000 salary compare with those of the presidents of similar-size state university systems around the country? Is it too high? Too low? About in the middle?
  • We already know that Bulger lacks the academic qualifications normally found in a major university president, and that his political background -- mainly his long stint as president of the Massachusetts Senate -- was paramount when he was selected. By nearly all accounts, Bulger has done a good job promoting and running UMass. But has his lack of academic credentials hurt in other, unseen ways? Again, a look at other major state university systems would be in order.
  • What do the 68 people who work for the UMass president's office do? The implication put forth by Jacoby is that they're all nothing but pinky-rinked coat-holders whose jobs could be eliminated tomorrow without anyone noticing. Herald columnist Howie Carr recently listed a lot of high salaries, as though that settles the matter. But again, we need a real analysis: what jobs do those 68 people perform? if they were eliminated, would their duties have to be parceled out to the local campuses? how does that compare with other major state universities? is their pay really out of line?

The problem, of course, is that this has turned into a steel-cage death match between the widely disliked Bulger and Romney, the new kid whose reputation as a reformer is likely to survive for at least a few more months.

As the Globe's Joan Vennochi argues this morning, Bulger, having chosen loyalty to his mobster brother over public accountability, needs to get out of the way so that someone without taint can make the case for UMass.

No comments: