AT PRECISELY the moment that the University of Massachusetts should be developing a clear plan of action and choosing the best leader to accomplish it, the resignation of Robert J. Manning, chairman of the UMass Board of Trustees, raises unfortunate questions about the system’s governance. Manning, a financial services CEO, chafed at the interference of Governor Patrick and his secretary of education, Paul Reville, who, thanks to a new structure inaugurated in 2007, now sits on the UMass board.
It’s reasonable to ask whether that structure is working. Patrick and Reville clearly have their own ideas about UMass, from the openness of its presidential search to the level of student fees, and aren’t willing to defer quietly to the board. At the same time, Manning’s decision to take his cookies and go home rather than complete a presidential search process that’s supposedly in its final stages is hardly an act of leadership.
The university is the worse for all these machinations. All the parties involved have reason to feel embarrassed and chagrined.
What’s most distressing about this smash-up is that it seems so unnecessary. Much of the tension stems from a meeting that Manning and James Karam, the head of the presidential-search committee, requested with Patrick. The three met after the Globe reported that the board was leaning toward UMass-Lowell Chancellor Martin Meehan, a former congressman. Patrick, by all accounts, expressed concern that giving the job to a prominent politician without an open consideration of other candidates could create a bad impression. Patrick insists he wasn’t out to torpedo Meehan, and Karam insists the skids weren’t greased for Meehan, but somehow the meeting ended with a loss of confidence all around. Once again, a university that has struggled with presidential succession in the past got caught in an undertow of resentment.
Tensions between governors and UMass leaders have been more the norm than the exception. The 2007 governance changes were supposed to foster a more productive relationship by putting the governor’s top educational adviser in the board meetings. While that hasn’t happened, the structure arguably did expose the tensions before a president was actually chosen. Yet the board can’t function properly if its decisions are constantly subjected to back-channel review by the governor and his team.
Though Patrick’s comments in his fateful meeting with Manning and Karam may have been benign, the failure of this process can justifiably be laid at his door. He, after all, appointed Manning. The governor either chose the wrong chairman or chose the right one and then undermined him.