Worcester Telegram - Next up, scholarly politics

Worcester Telegram - Next up, scholarly politics

Wilson leaving behind a UMass that is much different

By Jacqueline Reis

Come Friday, Jack M. Wilson will have a different place in the University of Massachusetts hierarchy and a longer job title: Instead of president, he will be president emeritus and distinguished university professor of higher education, emerging technologies and innovation at UMass at Lowell. He’ll also be interim president of the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate.

The UMass Mr. Wilson will leave behind has more students, more research money and a larger endowment than the system he inherited from William M. Bulger in 2003. It also has a law school that opened in 2010 and a host of new and renovated buildings.

The university system also has less state aid than in 2003; 645 fewer faculty, staff and administrative positions than in 2008 and is facing the possible loss of another 370 positions, all while administrators collect hundreds of thousands of dollars in salaries. Student fees will go up 7.5 percent for the fall, and a Boston Globe series found the five-campus university system was falling short of its potential.

From where Mr. Wilson sits, which is sometimes in his office in Boston and sometimes in his office in Shrewsbury, the university is constrained by two things: inadequate state aid ($429 million this year versus $436 million in 2003) and a spirit of entrepreneurialism that is on the rise but not playing as big a role as it could.

While Mr. Wilson pledged to the Legislature that he would keep fee increases no higher than inflation if the state funding was stable, he had to break that pledge last year in light of state cuts.

But state money isn’t everything, he said.

“Stable funding is important for a university to be successful, but they have to recognize there are so many things that have to be done. The reason we’ve been successful is because we’ve been pretty entrepreneurial, and the places that have been the most entrepreneurial have been the most successful. The medical school … has been the most entrepreneurial,” he said, adding that the Worcester-based medical school was forced into innovation because it receives the least state funding: About 4 percent of the medical school’s budget is from the state, while the system as a whole averages around 15 percent, Mr. Wilson said.

Even if the economy and state aid improve, he said, “We will still have the vast majority of our budget coming from the entrepreneurial activities of the University of Massachusetts.” Those include Commonwealth Medicine, the medical school’s Shrewsbury-based health care consulting division, which brings in approximately $500 million a year in revenue; UMassOnline, also based in Shrewsbury, which brought in $56 million in revenue in fiscal 2010, the most recent data available; and intellectual property, which brought in $41 million in fiscal 2010.

Mr. Wilson, 65, an entrepreneur and academic, encouraged entrepreneurialism with three funds that give faculty members incentives to seek more external research money. He has also encouraged fundraising.

“Fundraising is something that we were not particularly adept at 10 years ago,” he said. “I guarantee you that all of our chancellors know that that’s part of their duties, and guess what? All of their vice chancellors know that that’s part of their duties.”

Mr. Wilson has replaced four out of five chancellors during his tenure. Those appointments include Robert C. Holub, the embattled UMass at Amherst chancellor who spent $119,000 on a study to determine whether to open a medical school in Springfield. Mr. Wilson never supported opening a medical school there, he said, but would discuss neither whether Mr. Holub will be staying nor whether Mr. Holub’s future will be decided by Mr. Wilson or his successor, Robert L. Caret.

UMass Medical School Chancellor Michael F. Collins, who Mr. Wilson initially appointed UMass at Boston chancellor, praised Mr. Wilson for fostering collaboration among the campuses, for being a likable guy (“He still says gosh,” Dr. Collins said), for his work raising the system’s international profile, for Mr. Wilson’s wife, Judi’s, steadfast support and for Mr. Wilson’s interest in research.

“He’s a physicist, so he took pride in science and accomplishments,” Dr. Collins said. “I think one of the happiest days in his presidency was the day Craig (Mello) got the Nobel Prize” in 2006.

Mr. Wilson has also organized a smooth exit, Dr. Collins said. “Our university, we don’t have a lot of orderly transitions,” he said. “This time with the presidency, we’re having a very orderly transition.”

Mr. Caret will probably use the Shrewsbury office frequently, given that much of the system’s staff is based there, said university spokesman Robert P. Connolly.

Mr. Wilson said he has great faith in Mr. Caret, who comes from the higher education field as he did. Mr. Wilson relishes a story from his own early days as interim president when a reporter called the president’s office wanting to know whether Mr. Wilson was a Democrat or Republican. A spokesman, flustered, said, “I think he’s a physicist.”

“I absolutely love that,” said Mr. Wilson, a registered Democrat. “Because I don’t want to be perceived as a politician … I am there to advocate for the students and the faculty and the communities that we serve, and I think Bob Caret will be that same kind of a person.”

Mr. Wilson will combine scholarship and politics in his new roles. At the Kennedy Institute, for instance, he will help oversee the development of a near-replica of the Senate. The senators’ desktops, however, will be large tablet computers that can display the name and history of the senators who have sat there. The idea is visitors will be able to follow historic debates as they unfold, or research the history of a particular seat.

Mr. Wilson said he plans to stay in Westboro, where he takes out any professional frustrations by strangling poison ivy and invasive Asian honeysuckle in his yard.

Date: 06/27/11