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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Trusted Academics Behind the Curtain

Recent publicity surrounding UMass President William Bulger–mainly for refusing to testify before a congressional committee–has also gained a higher profile for the UMass Board of Trustees, though not necessarily a positive one.

With many in the Commonwealth demanding Bulger’s resignation, and his refusal to tender it, attention is turning toward the board that theoretically oversees Bulger. The attention is often critical of the UMass Board of Trustees for its very friendly demeanor toward Bulger, and for being heavily laden with political appointees, while being light on academic strengths.

The board of 22 members, 17 of whom are appointed by the governor, is increasingly being attacked. A recent article in the Valley Advocate characterized the relationship between the board and Bulger as a “Mutual Admiration Society: Bulger thanks the trustees for their hard work. They thank him for his hard work. Bulger presents a report. They praise the report. And so it goes.”

The article focuses on a bill filed by Worthington State Representative Stephen Kulik that would create a 15-member commission to evaluate how UMass trustees are chosen. Amherst State Representative Ellen Story has also signed onto the bill, and commented on the current board: “Right now, they’re all in love with Bill Bulger. It’s a very cozy relationship. It would be interesting to have a diversity of opinion.”

The sponsors of the bill are also critical of the lack of geographic diversity in the membership, primarily because the flagship campus is in western Massachusetts–the 17 appointed UMass trustees reside east of Route 495.

State Rep. Stephen Kulik, who filed the legislation that would establish a commission to study trustee appointments, has said, “I think we need a thorough legislative review of the manner in which trustees are chosen.” Gordon Oakes, who chaired the board from 1985 to 1995, has commented, “I don’t care what anyone says, you need to have people who reside in western Massachusetts.”

John Hoey, a spokesman for Bulger and the Board of Trustees, quoted in the Valley Advocate, defended the Board of Trustees. “Every single one of its members, be they businessmen or alumni, brings a lot of energy and dedication to the job.”

Bulger and the Board of Trustees have also weathered criticism from labor unions for failing to persuade former Governor Swift and House Speaker Finneran to fund recent pay contracts.

Meanwhile, a recent $1 million donation by FleetBoston Financial Foundation–for a professorship at UMass Amherst’s Commonwealth College honors program–was widely viewed as a vote of confidence in President William M. Bulger. The donation, however, highlights Bulger’s strong ties to Massachusetts’ financial industry, evident in the number of financial executives among the admiring Board of Trustees.

While Bulger’s ties to business garner criticism, those same ties also have garnered him praise. While Bulger has been at the helm, donations to UMass have risen from $35 million a year to about $100 million.

Trustees, highlighted in a Boston Herald article by Joe Battenfeld, who have garnered criticism recently for their obvious political and business ties include:

* Stacey Rainey, a former senior adviser to Acting Governor Jane Swift, who used to baby-sit the governor’s daughter at the State House, is reportedly very loyal to Swift;

* The chairman of the board, Grace K. Fey, is reportedly close to John Moffitt, a former aide to ex-Gov. William F. Weld and now a prominent State House lobbyist;

* Robert K. Sheridan, a life insurance executive, donated thousands of dollars last year to legislative leaders including House Speaker Tom Finneran, Thomas F. Birmingham (D-Chelsea), Senate President Robert Travaglini (D-East Boston) and House Majority Leader Sal DiMasi (D-North End);

* Lawrence Boyle, appointed by Swift, is the brother of a Republican State Committee member John Boyle and a fund-raiser for Swift;

* Robert B. McCarthy is head of the Professional Firefighters of Massachusetts, which gave a huge boost to Cellucci in 1998 by endorsing his candidacy;

* James E. Mahoney, appointed to the UMass board by Cellucci, is a former aide to Kennedy and is now director of corporate communications at FleetBank;

* Karl E. White, of Grecian Capital Management;

* James J. Karam, a real estate developer who is the brother of insurance executive Robert S. Karam, who served as chairman of the UMass board.

* William F. Kennedy, former chief of staff and legal counsel to Finneran;

* Michael J. Agganis, the nephew of the late Red Sox legend, is the owner of a minor league baseball team in Ohio.

* Diane Bissonnette Moes, the widow of the late WRKO talk show host, was appointed by Cellucci and is close to Senate Minority Leader Brian Lees, a Swift ally. Moes is an attorney.