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UMass leader to step down

Wilson reshaped 5 campuses as ‘one university’

By Tracy Jan
Globe Staff / March 1, 2010

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Jack Wilson, president of the University of Massachusetts, plans to announce today that he will leave the post in June 2011 after nearly eight years, a tenure in which he knit together the previously disparate five-campus system, fostered research collaboration among faculty from different schools, and oversaw the creation of the state’s first public law school.

The 64-year-old physicist said he intends to remain in Massachusetts and work more closely with students, through teaching or research in an as-yet-undetermined capacity. And he looks forward to speaking more freely about higher education reform and the need to better prepare students in math and science.

“I feel that I’ve accomplished the work I set out to do, and now is the time for a change,’’ said Wilson, during an interview in his corner office on the 33d floor of a downtown tower overlooking Boston Harbor.

Facing multiple rounds of state budget cuts during his tenure, Wilson focused on finding alternative financial support for UMass. During his time in office, the university generated more federal research funding, intellectual property income, and donations that more than tripled its endowment to $454 million.

In coming weeks, a search committee will be assembled and a consultant hired to begin a national hunt for the next president, UMass officials said. The committee, to include faculty, staff, students, and alumni, would identify several finalists by early 2011. UMass trustees would make the final selection.

While UMass still has not managed to break into the ranks of the nation’s top university systems, a goal Wilson set, he has positioned it on the right course, said two trustees who have been informed of his departure. He spurred a flurry of construction projects on all five campuses, deteriorating from decades of neglect. And he has kept UMass relatively affordable, despite steady tuition and fee increases, by expanding its pool of financial aid to $138 million a year.

“The main mission of the university is to create futures for students and for our communities,’’ Wilson said.

His announcement comes one month after the state approved the controversial plan to acquire the private Southern New England School of Law, which has donated itself to UMass Dartmouth. Wilson said he will work hard over the next year to integrate the law school into the system, a longtime UMass goal that the state had initially rejected in 2005.

Robert Manning, chairman of the UMass board of trustees, praised Wilson for moving the system forward by “doing the right thing, not just what’s popular.’’ He said the president made difficult personnel decisions, easing out UMass Amherst chancellor John Lombardi in 2007 amid the flagship leader’s unwillingness to buy into Wilson’s “one university’’ vision. He withstood votes of no confidence by faculty on the Amherst and Boston campuses for orchestrating - with no faculty input - the administrative shakeup that also included moving UMass Boston chancellor Michael Collins to the Worcester medical school campus.

“Jack’s greatest accomplishment was his strategic vision of what the whole university system should look like, while preserving each campus’s autonomy,’’ Manning said. “He has really created a powerful team of people working together and rowing in the same direction.’’

Wilson came to UMass as an outsider in 2001, a Pittsburgh native who had spent a decade at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., as a physics professor, interim provost, and dean of the engineering school. He also brought a business background, having started a company selling training software to corporations.

Here, Wilson became the founding chief executive of UMassOnline, the system’s online education program. He built the venture into a profitable university branch that now generates $47 million a year.

UMass trustees appointed Wilson as interim president in August 2003 to replace William M. Bulger, who resigned under pressure from former governor Mitt Romney and other critics over his loyalty to his fugitive brother, James “Whitey’’ Bulger.

Wilson won the permanent presidency in March 2004 in a hasty board vote after he became a finalist to lead Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and quickly had to prove himself to skeptics convinced that UMass could not be improved without an infusion of state money.

“There was a reluctance to move outside of the traditional way of doing things,’’ Wilson said. “But I was not willing to accept that certain things were impossible.’’

Early in his term, he recalled, one chancellor said it was not his job to worry whether other campuses were successful. Now, the five chancellors work closely together, a partnership that has helped the system land federal research grants. And Collins, as the university’s senior vice president for health sciences, also is responsible for orchestrating life sciences collaborations between the medical school and the others.

“Each year, I ask [Collins], ‘What have you done for the other campuses?’ ’’ Wilson said. “Before, there wasn’t a tradition of this kind of cross-campus collaboration, so students weren’t having the opportunities they have today.’’

Some professors, though, have in the past criticized Wilson’s “one university’’ plan for focusing too much on the need for research grants in science and income from technology licensing in UMass’s aspiration for greater prominence, at the expense of the liberal arts.

In addition to bringing greater cohesion within the UMass system, Wilson has forged partnerships with research universities outside the system. UMass Lowell, Northeastern, and the University of New Hampshire have established a nanotechnology center. UMass Dartmouth and Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine work together researching botulinum, the toxin that causes botulism.

And UMass is working with MIT, Boston University, and others on building a high-technology computing center in Holyoke, which will provide the research infrastructure universities need to attract funding, Wilson said.

Wilson has also shifted rhetoric away from blaming the lack of state funding for UMass’s woes to speaking about the university as a wise economic investment, to the chagrin of some unions and faculty who don’t like the image of UMass as a business.

“We shouldn’t sit around and wait for the state to solve our problems,’’ Wilson said.

UMass, goes Wilson’s mantra, is the “path to economic and social development in Massachusetts,’’ generating a workforce and ideas that will strengthen the region. It’s a more palatable argument to legislators than constantly whining for money, he said, and one he pitched to Deval Patrick over lunch at the UMass Club when during Patrick’s run for governor.

During Wilson’s tenure, student enrollment grew by 14 percent, to 65,923, helping buffer the university’s bottom line. And during this time, Wilson made the decision to raise tuition and fees in order to funnel more money into financial aid. While the sticker price for a UMass education runs about $20,000 a year (including tuition, fees, room, and board), the average family making between $50,000 and $75,000 pays $7,273 per year, according to a UMass spreadsheet.

“The enterprise is really becoming more self sufficient in a number of ways,’’ said James Karam, vice chairman of the board. “Our next president needs to understand the importance of maintaining affordability while improving the quality, making UMass internationally competitive.’’

Tracy Jan can be reached at tjan@globe.com.