Sunday, May 29, 2011

Negotiating a minefield

It's safe to say the working relationship between UMass/Amherst and the town of Amherst, colloquially known as town/gown, has never been better.

Perhaps best reflected in the workings of the Campus and Community Coalition--a large committee of concerned public officials who live and work in the shadow of UMass, or the partnership forged recently to bring about the dream of a new Gateway Corridor to revitalize the physical link between UMass and downtown Amherst.

And these important initiatives--especially the Gateway Project--have flourished under the reign of Robert Holub, an academic (German literature no less) who seems to understand entrepreneurship, as evidenced by the significant increase in out-of-state enrollments that brings in higher profit margins per head to the flagship trying to negotiate turbulent economic waters.

Naturally I first welcomed him to town by pointing out his children attend the Amherst public schools while he lives in a tax exempt home on campus. One of my readers responded that it was a good thing: unlike some highly paid administrators in the Amherst School system, Chancellor Holub demonstrates confidence in our all-important institution by sending us his most prized treasure.

Last Sunday--seemingly out of nowhere--The Boston Globe detonated a major bombshell all but declaring Chancellor Holub a lame duck. Why? Spending $60,000 in consulting fees for an ill fated attempt to establish a medical school in Springfield, less than stellar ratings from an anonymous survey of classroom professors and an alleged cavalier attitude about affirmative action when it comes to attracting black students.

Overall, however, UMass/Amherst has a higher percentage of minority students under Holub's tenure--but unfortunately for him they are of the wrong target demographic; and when the Governor is black, I guess it's not hard to figure out what quota needs to command attention.

Last year, Amherst's interim (now permanent) Superintendent Maria Geryk--without telling the Regional School Committee--signed a $96,000 consulting contract with UMass School of Education for services some would consider mutually beneficial and therefor should have been to better teach high school students.

So I'm trying to figure out what's the big deal with Mr. Holub--in command of a overall budget seven times higher than the Amherst Regional High School--spending a lousy $60,000 to perform due diligence on the possibility of establishing a medical school in Springfield?

Congressman Ritchie Neal seemed very supportive--and since he was instrumental in the Pioneer Valley Chinese Immersion Charter School acquiring a $1.5 million federal grant, safe bet he could have done the same for UMass.

UMass President Jack Wilson fought hard to found a law school at UMass/Dartmouth and probably spent a fair amount in consulting fees leading up to it. And if I had to choose what the state could use more of--lawyers or doctors--it would be an easy call.

And the fact that employees under Holub as measured by Mass Society of Professors don't particularly like him strikes me as a good thing. If employees love their boss, chances are the boss is not pushing them very hard to perform.

Interestingly, only 220 union members bothered to submit the survey on Holub's evaluation but a week later over 700 weighed in on the "Exceptional Merit Proposal". Kind of like Amherst's last local election that garnered under a 10% turnout vs. an Override election attracting 30%. Pocketbook issues seem to get everyone's attention.

UMass/Amherst has suffered budget cut after budget cut, yet it's still ranked in the top 20 universites in the world. And last I looked the world is a pretty BIG place.

The endowment is at an all time high indicating strong approval from alumni, the incoming class is the largest in history with the highest average SATs and GPAs so their retention rate will also be stellar as well (and safe to bet none of them will win my "Party House of the Weekend" award).

This is not the time for a change in command. As President Lincoln once said, "best not to swap horses while crossing the river."


Ed said...

Larry, I am closer to this than you are to the CN-Charter School -- and I have had to largely stay out of it for reasons that would be clear were you to know everything that is going on.

It is almost identical to when I saw the marriage of a couple of my friends break up -- you want to sit both of them down and tell them what they need to stop doing and what the other is misunderstanding but you can't.

However, I will say this -- when you have as many students who hate that university as you do, word gets back to legislators. And it has...

Anonymous said...

Hi Larry

First, I agree with you.

Second, I am a UMass faculty union member, who rated Chancellor Holub "excellent" in the survey.

Third, I don't think the Boston Globe should be conducting our chancellor's evaluation. (Who reads the Globe out here any way?)

I hope that President Wilson and the Trustees will "fail" the evaluation process, give Dr. Holub another year, and do the process again.

Anonymous said...

I, for one, read the Globe daily online. And we do not hate the University (I and my whole family are alumni.)

However, many of us do not like the "noblesse oblige" attitude of previous and current University administrators. Change traffic patterns to better suit the University? Sure. Offer the students everything on campus from food to clothing, but make sure they drink to excess off campus ... not friendly neighbor behavior.

No, I think the Chancellor has more political problems than we know, and if he has been doing a good job, I'm sorry that he's on his way out. I think it's a great idea to explore having a medical school here in Western Mass. Lord knows, we need something to jump start the economy out here. And a law school would be just too darned competitive with WNEC.

So the question remains -- why the flap about a measly $60,000 study?

LarryK4 said...

I was a little quick on the publish button last week to praise the venerable Boston Globe.

Indeed as one of my Anons pointed out, nobody--especially the AP--follow up on it; which tells you something, as the media still travels in packs.

And I had forgotten that silly Front Page story they did in December about in-state student application being down slightly, even though UMass/Amherst turned away the highest number of potential students in history.

Protect our Ponziville! said...

The Amherst mob after another trophy?

Anonymous said...

Larry, your link to the top 20 universities places UMass 19th in "reputation". They are 56th overall.

LarryK4 said...

Oh...well, in that case: "Off with his head!"

Anonymous said...

Holub has absolutely no people skills. He comes off as arrogant and self-absorbed. He's the wrong person for the job for an institution that needs to make more friends not lose them.

LarryK4 said...

Then we should bring back Billy Bulger, eh? He certainly had people skills.

DaveMB said...

The Globe article gave three reasons for Holub's being canned (from what I hear, the firing is a done deal despite the lack of public follow-up last week):

1) the faculty hate him
2) he tried to explore a new med school in Worcester
3) UMA is getting fewer black undergrads

I have trouble believing that the trustees or the president's office really care about (1) or (3). (The new president might care about (3) but is not likely in the loop yet.) That leaves (2) -- along with faculty toes he seems to have stepped on some more dangerous ones.

Larry, some of your commenters (along with most of the Globe's) seem to be taking the mention of (3) in the article much too seriously. It is true that Deval Patrick is black and that Amherst is a very liberal town. Neither of those two facts, I think, are particularly relevant to this decision-making process. UMass-Worcester and Tufts being offended, and the president's office perceiving insubordination, are much more likely theories.

DaveMB said...

One more thing -- leaking an attack article to the state's newspaper is not the way a big-league public university fires someone. The crappy way this was handled is going to make it harder to get a good successor to Holub.

LarryK4 said...

Yeah, a good journalist should always ask (at least in the back of their own mind) why are these people giving me this? What do they have to gain?

Perhaps the Globe Spotlight team should shine a light on those "unnamed sources" who leaked the story.

Anonymous said...

"Then we should bring back Billy Bulger, eh? He certainly had people skills.

Why would you bring him back? He was never chancelor?

LarryK4 said...

Yeah, even worse; he was President of the entire system. Yikes!

Anonymous said...

Well, the current president of UMass was picked by him.

LarryK4 said...

And little did Mr. Bulger know that Jack Wilson would soon replace him. Sometimes the cream rises to the top--even in Massachusetts politics.

Anonymous said...

The faculty union survey surely does not affect the trustees and the president's review. But, it does explain why there is not an outpouring of support.

Connecting to the chamber of commerce, Town of Amherst, and friends at other universities (see editorial) is the easy part. Connecting to faculty, students, staff on the ground in Amherst is the hard part.

LarryK4 said...

The chamber of commerce and town officials will be happy to hear you consider them "easy".

Anonymous said...

Faculty support (or lack thereof), aborted Medical School consulting project, and diversity quota were noted as reasons by Dave MB, and these make good fodder. How about fundraising?

Shaking hands, slapping backs and picking pockets is one of a Chancellor's very top prerequisite skills. Do we know how well Holub has managed with this important metric? I believe that during interim Chancellor Cole's year (2007-08), UMass announced they were readying a huge Alumni campaign ($350 MM?); this either never launched or never found traction. Yes, Holub's arrival coincided with the 2008 financial crash - but as with our President Obama, there is only so long that one can get by blaming the economy and blaming one's predecessor. Sooner or later, one must perform, and deliver.

Remember, after being challenged by Lombardi and ousting him, system President Jack Wilson directed a search that ensured five final candidates none of whom had previous experience as a Chancellor. Holub did not and does not have the experience wresting $$ from Alumni.

After three years in office, what are this new Chancellor's results with fundraising?

LarryK4 said...

Last year UMass/Amherst raised a record $57.2 million.

Anonymous said...

Great news on the $57M! "Go UMass!"

Fundraising gets measured July-to-June. If this year closes with a similar high-water mark, then I guess we can eliminate fundraising as a factor in the system's discomfort.

Ed said...

Perhaps the Globe Spotlight team should shine a light on those "unnamed sources" who leaked the story.

Perhaps Ed already knows who these sources are, and why the Globe might not want to do this...

Folks, there is a LOT more going on here than it appears, this is much more complicated than you might think and actually is fairly interesting.

It su**s that I have to keep my mouth shut....