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Chancellor at UMass may face ax

Holub, trustees to meet on terms of departure; panel’s report follows medical school flap

UMass Amherst chancellor Robert Holub UMass Amherst chancellor Robert Holub
By Tracy Jan
Globe Staff / May 22, 2011

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A committee evaluating UMass Amherst chancellor Robert Holub is recommending that his contract not be renewed following a series of missteps that critics say reflect a politically tone deaf leadership style, the latest example being a thwarted plan to open a medical school in Springfield, according to several people connected with the university who have direct knowledge of the situation.

Holub, whose three-year contract expires July 31, is expected to meet this week with University of Massachusetts president Jack Wilson and key trustees to negotiate the terms of his departure.

The evaluation committee’s recommendation probably marks the beginning of the end for a tenure that began with great promise and hope that the German literature scholar from the University of California, Berkeley, would boost the national stature of the state’s flagship campus. If Holub’s tenure is cut short, UMass will have churned through four chancellors in the past decade.

“The fact that we have this revolving door — parents and educators are going to figure: ‘What the heck is going on here? Why can’t they keep a chancellor?’ ’’ said biology professor Brian O’Connor, who has taught at UMass Amherst for 43 years. “In the long run, this does not help us.’’

Holub would not directly comment on his status, but defended his record in an interview.

“In my view, things are all going in the right direction,’’ he said. “I have every academic indicator on my side. I have so much of a stake in things that are going on here. So much of what I started, I want to see them through.’’

The evaluation committee — which represents trustees, alumni, and faculty — spent the past two months examining Holub’s record and hearing from students, professors, senior administrators, community and political leaders, donors, and staff.

Repeatedly, a portrait emerged of a leader who struggles to communicate and build relationships with important allies such as faculty, legislators, and trustees and who bristles at criticism, said those familiar with the evaluation, who were willing to speak only with a promise of anonymity because they were discussing a personnel matter.

The results of a union survey of faculty were also less than stellar, finding that at least half of the respondents lacked confidence in Holub’s ability to forge unity on campus and build morale. They also doubted his ability to promote affirmative action in admissions and hiring, according to results posted by the Massachusetts Society of Professors.

One of the most troubling findings for some members of the evaluation committee was Holub’s seemingly cavalier attitude toward the goal of increasing diversity on campus, said two people who know about the results.

The number of African-American undergraduates enrolled at the flagship campus has dropped 24 percent during his tenure, a concern among system officials that did not appear to alarm Holub, they said. Instead, they said, he responded to the committee’s concerns by pointing out the increase in minority students overall, including a 33 percent jump in Latino students, but did not articulate a plan for recruitment of black students.

John Kennedy, a spokesman for Holub, pointed to a UMass Amherst initiative, launched in March, to recruit transfer students from community colleges, which is meant to increase the number of black and other minority students.

While the evaluation committee regards him highly as a scholar who has written a dozen books on 19th- and 20th-century German intellectual, cultural, and literary history, the sources said it became clear Holub was miscast as chancellor.

Holub taught at Berkeley for 27 years and served as an undergraduate dean there before becoming provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs at the University of Tennessee’s flagship campus in Knoxville.

But some trustees said those academic credentials did not prepare the 61-year-old chancellor to navigate the minefield of Massachusetts politics. They described him as overly confident in his decision-making, unwilling sometimes to consult with others in the UMass system and, in the process, alienating some key system officials.

The most recent example: With no input from UMass trustees, Holub hired consulting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers in January to explore the feasibility of opening a medical school in Springfield affiliated with the parent of Baystate Medical Center. Early estimates from consultants suggested it could cost $30 million to $40 million to start a new medical school, not including construction.

Holub and administrators from the large Springfield hospital believed that a new medical school would burnish the standing of UMass Amherst and inject promise into Springfield. But Holub soon ran into the buzz saw of Massachusetts politics, and the embryonic plan was torpedoed in March.

The problem: The university system already has a medical school in Worcester, a prized institution that caused its own share of political upheaval when it opened nearly 50 years ago. Baystate Medical serves as a teaching hospital for Tufts University School of Medicine, a politically connected force in Boston.

“It was a mess in that he jumped the gun,’’ said a trustee who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss personnel issues. “People were very surprised, and people don’t like surprises. I don’t think anybody really understands what Bob was thinking.’’

The gaffe cost the university nearly $119,000 in consulting fees, of which half will be reimbursed to UMass by Baystate, according to a PricewaterhouseCoopers bill and memorandum of understanding between the university and hospital obtained by the Globe through a public records request.

Holub said in an interview that he was just doing his homework before presenting the medical school idea to trustees.

“I am an academic at heart,’’ he said. “The way I do things is I gather facts. When I present things to someone, I want to have the facts so I can present a reasoned argument and answer any questions.’’

Mark Tolosky, president and chief executive of Baystate Health, said in a written statement that the consultant’s study, which was never completed, would have “provided an assessment of the long-term possibilities and resources needed to develop new models of medical education in Springfield.’’

US Representative Richard E. Neal praised Holub for floating the medical school idea.

“Anytime you can bring UMass to a city like Springfield, it would be welcome,’’ the Springfield Democrat said. “All you have to do is see what UMass Medical School did for Worcester.’’

Tapped three years ago to lead UMass Amherst to greater heights, Holub quickly formed ambitious plans to raise the 26,000-student university’s stature. He recruited more out-of-state students whose higher tuition payments help the university generate revenue at a time of declining state support.

He moved the university to Division 1 football, oversaw an ambitious campus construction program, and strengthened the honors college to attract higher caliber scholars. During his tenure, the academic quality of incoming freshmen as measured by SAT scores and grade-point averages also rose, and the university became more selective.

“He has put the focus on not letting UMass hover as a second-tier institution, but pushing UMass up, and we feel it,’’ said Robert Pollin, an economics professor at UMass Amherst.

Holub’s ultimate goal: to secure membership in the prestigious Association of American Universities, made up of the nation’s top 62 research universities. Opening a medical school in nearby Springfield, he figured, was one avenue to increasing UMass Amherst’s research profile.

“It’s the job of the chancellor to see what makes sense and what doesn’t make sense, but unfortunately, the premature discussions for a new medical school got on the street,’’ said James Karam, chairman of the UMass board of trustees. “I didn’t think that it was a particularly good idea, and it wasn’t going to get too far.’’

While supporters praised Holub as a visionary, they conceded he was not adept at communicating his ideas or getting buy-in from interest groups.

Biology professor O’Connor, while acknowledging that the medical school idea was a poor political move, said, “I will defend him for trying to do that because that’s the only way I think that we’re going to get into the Association of American Universities.’’

“His style doesn’t necessarily help his ultimate goals,’’ said O’Connor. “His head is in the right place. But his methods of trying to do it just didn’t work.’’

Following its meeting last week, the evaluation committee verbally delivered the overwhelmingly negative review of Holub to Wilson and recommended Holub’s contract not be renewed, according to UMass sources with direct knowledge of the process. A formal written report has not yet been issued.

Wilson, who makes the ultimate decision on Holub’s contract and whose eight-year presidency draws to a close at the end of June, could present a summary of Holub’s evaluation as early as June 8, the next time the university system’s trustees meet. Wilson said through a spokesman that he would not comment until he has an opportunity to study the committee’s findings.

Holub’s departure would allow Robert Caret, who will succeed Wilson as president of the five-campus university system, to appoint his own chancellor.

Holub’s contract stipulates that he be given six months’ notice if he is not going to be renewed, so his term could stretch beyond the end of July, when his contract expires. Holub, who earns $375,000 annually, could receive a severance payment, but such discussions have yet to occur, according to UMass officials.

“We can’t build momentum at the university if we get rid of chancellors every three years,’’ Pollin said. “To change now, when the guy is really just getting started, it would be . . . a devastating blow to forward progress at the university.’’

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

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