THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Brian McGrory

Jackpot for UMass

Jack Welch, the former chief executive officer of General Electric. Jack Welch, the former chief executive officer of General Electric.
By Brian McGrory
Globe Columnist / September 17, 2010

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It’s not often enough that anyone, let alone this correspondent, comes up with an idea so good that it seems like 100 bulbs just illuminated in unison while organ music booms from above.

So without any further adieu, here it is: Jack Welch should be the next president of the University of Massachusetts.

Not that it should be necessary, but allow me to explain. The Globe recently published a terrific story detailing just how neglected the system’s flagship school, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, has been by the members of the Legislature, many of whom, by the way, seem to be Suffolk University graduates.

UMass Amherst, as ace Globe reporter Tracy Jan carefully chronicled, is suffering. Buildings are crumbling, the faculty is shrinking, and the budget is sinking. The school’s freshman-retention rate, average SAT scores, and graduation rates all put it decidedly in the second tier of major public universities, and the result is that Massachusetts kids are flocking to public schools in other states.

Now none of this is to suggest that the kids who attend UMass Amherst are not bright, ambitious students. They are. And for many of them, the school is a ladder to a better place. The state has failed them, though, in terms of giving them the resources they need to get further ahead.

Which gets me to Jack Welch. He is arguably the most prominent graduate in the history of the University of Massachusetts. He is the former chief executive officer of General Electric, the iconic company that has its tentacles in pretty much every aspect of American life.

Some people worship at the feet of Welch. Others are sharply critical of his take-no-prisoners management style. Neutron Jack, they called him, for his willingness to shutter parts of the business and his unwillingness to keep those he deemed as lackluster workers.

Regardless, this is what UMass needs at the moment, someone with gravitas, someone who can, in this exact order, pound the bully pulpit on the importance of a great state university, shame the state Legislature into more support, and raise huge amounts of private money from alumni and private corporations.

Add one more thing to the list of credentials: Someone with nothing left to prove and no desire to move up the academic ladder. Give them one to two years to begin an overhaul, then turn it over to others to maintain. We don’t need, in any order, a careful manager, a prized academician, an innately political creature.

I called Welch in New York to give him the good news about his future. I know he cares about UMass, because he signed a misguided letter from prominent alumni decrying the Globe story. UMass alumni ought to be thanking the paper for calling attention to the school’s situation.

Before I could get to the point, it was Welch who began talking about what UMass needs in its next leader, after Jack Wilson, the current president (regarded as a very capable manager and academician), retires next year.

“We need someone who deals with the Legislature, raises money, and gives it a high profile,’’ Welch said. “It’s managing a conglomerate. You need someone to go out and give UMass a name and make it a presence. You need someone who’s not afraid to break glass.’’

Every word played out like a musical note. So I laid it on him: Jack, that’s you. That’s why I’m calling. You need to be the next president of UMass.

There was a pregnant pause — pregnant like an expectant elephant.

Jack, are you there? Jack?

“That is not my objective in life,’’ he blurted out, adding a few awkward moments later, “I’m very busy doing a lot of other things.’’

In fact, he is, running the Jack Welch Management Institute, an online MBA program, which has given him a taste of academic life. Great; fold it into UMass and already the renaissance begins.

I hope he’ll come around, for the sake of his alma mater and his native state. Meantime, let’s hope the powers that be understand: This is no time for caution.

Brian McGrory is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at mcgrory@globe.com.

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