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UMass trustees chairman quits

Board colleagues say Manning thought governor was interfering

Robert Manning was appointed UMass board chairman in 2008. Robert Manning was appointed UMass board chairman in 2008.
By Tracy Jan and Frank Phillips
Globe Staff / December 9, 2010

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Robert Manning, the chairman of the University of Massachusetts Board of Trustees, abruptly resigned from the board yesterday over what colleagues said was his view that Governor Deval Patrick was increasingly interfering in oversight of the university.

Manning’s sudden move — he gave no advance warning even to Patrick, who appointed him chairman in 2008 — is a jolt to the five-campus university system, which is about to choose a new president.

It follows a decision last week by UMass Lowell chancellor Martin T. Meehan to drop out of the running for the presidency, after Patrick and his staff raised concerns about the selection process.

The governor’s questioning of the presidential search and the subsequent loss of Meehan, who search committee members said was a top contender, was the last straw for Manning, who had expressed mounting frustration with what he felt was political encroachment on the board’s job, said four UMass officials and trustees who have spoken directly to him about his concerns.

“The governor has politicized the university and that wasn’t what Rob signed up for,’’ said a one trustee who, like others interviewed, insisted on anonymity to share private conversations. “He’s a very strong, smart businessman, and he was frustrated with how this thing played out.’’

Manning did not return several requests for comment.

Patrick, speaking to reporters in his office yesterday afternoon, said Manning’s resignation was a surprise to him. The governor dismissed suggestions that it was linked to Meehan’s withdrawal.

“No, that’s wrong,’’ Patrick said when asked if he had inserted himself into the search process, with the aim of blocking Meehan.

The departure of Manning, a longtime UMass booster respected by colleagues for his independence, is a blow to the university as it struggles to improve its national standing and increase its endowment as state support declines.

Manning announced his decision at the end of a trustees meeting at UMass Amherst yesterday morning, stunning many in attendance. His five-year term was to expire in September 2011.

“We are embarking on a transition phase that is significant for the university,’’ Manning said at the meeting, according to a UMass statement. “I cannot sign up for another five years, so I’m here to tell you all today that I have decided to step down as chairman and let the governor appoint someone new who can move the organization into its next phase.’’

He told his colleagues that his work as chief executive of MFS Investment Management required him to travel overseas frequently, not allowing him to spend the time needed to help a new president take over. He made no mention of the recent controversy involving Patrick’s involvement in the search.

“People were surprised and deeply disappointed he is leaving,’’ said Philip Johnston, another trustee.

Colleagues said Manning has bristled at other instances of what he perceived as political interference, including Patrick’s staff urging the board to keep tuition and fee increases low despite year after year of state budget cuts and the corner office weighing in on personnel decisions.

Manning, they said, felt that his authority to help chart the course for the university’s future has been usurped by Paul Reville, who, as Patrick’s secretary of education, has a seat on the UMass board of trustees and is seen by some as a “stealth chairman.’’

“Rob feels the administration is holding the reins too tightly, and he didn’t feel like he could make a difference anymore,’’ said one UMass official.

Manning and James Karam, chairman of the presidential search committee, met with Patrick last month after the governor’s staff expressed concern that the group appeared leaning heavily toward Meehan. Meehan withdrew as a candidate a week later, and Manning, according to a colleague on the board, was upset at losing him.

Patrick’s chief of staff, Arthur Bernard, had told Karam during a dinner meeting that the governor had concerns over the search process and the perception that Meehan was the heavy favorite to get the position after he had made a strong impression in his interview with the trustees.

Patrick’s reservations with the search process, people close to him said, were born of concern that the selection of a politician as the next president would be seen as insider favoritism.

Patrick in response to a question yesterday that he is perceived as having blocked Meehan’s candidacy, said, “I think Marty has been great and has done a terrific job as chancellor. . . . I don’t have a candidate.’’ He reiterated that the presidential search process “must be fair and open, and look fair and open.’’

Manning, a UMass Lowell graduate who has given $500,000 in scholarships to the university and plans to leave a substantial portion of his and his wife’s estate to UMass, was appointed to the 22-member board in 2006 by Governor Mitt Romney and was first elected chairman by his colleagues in 2007. His fellow trustees credit him with knitting together a once-fractious board. Patrick kept him in the role in 2008 after the governor lobbied the Legislature to give him the power to appoint the board chairman.

Reville said in a statement: “We thank Chairman Manning for his years of dedicated service and deep commitment to improving the educational opportunities and outcomes for the students of the University of Massachusetts system. We have great confidence in the university and look forward to continuing our efforts in partnership with the next chair to ensure that the students and staff across the UMass system have every opportunity to achieve and succeed.’’

Karam will take on Manning’s duties as chairman until a new chairman is named. He said he, too, was caught by surprise by Manning’s announcement. He praised Manning for his leadership, but strongly defended the governor, saying Patrick has been very supportive of the university.

“The guy is committed to higher education,’’ said Karam, noting in particular that Patrick had used some of the state’s federal stimulus money to shore up the university’s budget.

Tracy Jan can be reached at tjan@globe.com. Frank Phillips can be reached at phillips@globe.com.