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UMass official demands inquiry

Amherst leader assails leaking of negative report

By Frank Phillips
Globe Staff / June 13, 2011

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The UMass Amherst chancellor, who is probably facing termination after a negative evaluation report, is demanding an attorney general’s investigation into leaks from a university committee.

In a highly unusual three-page letter to the University of Massachusetts president, Robert Holub uses strong language to denounce the evaluation committee’s failure to keep its work confidential, according to two people who have seen the letter. In the letter, he argues that he has become a victim of a poisonous political atmosphere that plagues the university system.

The Globe, citing confidential sources, reported in late May that the committee — which is made up of trustees, alumni, and faculty — is recommending that Holub’s contract not be renewed because of missteps he made during his three-year tenure.

In the letter sent last week, Holub asks UMass president Jack Wilson to call on Attorney General Martha Coakley to investigate whether the committee violated university regulations that require confidentiality on personnel matters that deal with job performance evaluations.

Holub, whose three-year $375,000-a-year contract expires next month, asserts his career is being used as a “political football’’ and the leaks to the Globe last month reflect “politics as usual’’ in the administration of the university, according to the sources, who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to reveal the contents of the letter.

Wilson declined to release the letter, saying in a statement yesterday that he “shares Chancellor Holub’s view that the performance evaluation process should be confidential.’’

Holub is out of the country on vacation and unavailable for comment, his spokesman said. His lawyer, Howard M. Cooper, said Holub did not want to make the letter public. A spokesman for Coakley’s office declined to comment yesterday.

The Globe’s story on Holub’s evaluation said that the panel had concluded that the chancellor, whom critics say is politically tone deaf, struggles to communicate and build relationships with important factions at the Amherst campus, including faculty, legislators, and trustees.

Holub’s call for Coakley to investigate could give him leverage as he negotiates what some university officials are convinced will be his departure. Any potential finding of violations of university regulations would lay the groundwork for a possible legal suit against the university.

But acting so aggressively could also backfire and harden the negotiations with Wilson over his future with the university and his potential severance package. The decision to renew or terminate a chancellor’s contract lies with the university president.

When the committee’s recommendation was reported, Holub strongly defended his record, saying that the university’s flagship campus is “going in the right direction’’ and he wanted to remain to complete his work.

Holub’s letter marks yet another in a series of controversies that have shaken the university system in recent months. Last week the trustees approved a big hike in tuitions after recently approving wage increases for university employees.

Last December, the chairman of the board of trustees, Robert Manning, abruptly resigned over concerns that Governor Deval Patrick had become too involved in the process of selecting a new president and triggered the withdrawal of the leading candidate, Martin T. Meehan, the UMass Lowell chancellor.

The incoming UMass president, Robert Caret, has had experience running colleges and universities but is new to Massachusetts politics and the internal politics of the public university system.

When he takes office July 1, succeeding Wilson, he will be faced with this most recent flare-up and the task of finding a new chancellor in a system that has a reputation for churning through Amherst campus leaders.

Holub, a scholar of 19th and 20th century German intellectual, cultural, and literary history, was appointed chancellor at the Amherst campus in 2008. The flagship campus has seen high turnover in its leadership, with four chancellors filling the post over the past decade. Two of those were interim chancellors who oversaw the campus while searches were underway for permanent leaders.

Holub’s most recent troubles came when he initiated a study of the feasibility of opening a medical school in Springfield, a facility he hoped would increase UMass Amherst’s research profile.

But after spending $119,000 on consulting fees, he was forced to abandon the plan in March in the face of strong political opposition as well as anger from trustees and university leaders who felt he had not consulted them on his moves. The university has a medical school in Worcester.

Frank Phillips can be reached at phillips@globe.com.