The Hunt is on for New UMass President

Carl Brooks

The University of Massachusetts Board of Trustees has finished picking out a search committee to find a permanent replacement for William Bulger and hired a prestigious executive search firm, Korn/Ferry Intl., to help. The University of Massachusetts Presidential Search Committee includes UMass Boston’s Winston Langley and a bevy of business and educational powerhouses.

Bulger stepped down after giving testimony about his mobster brother, James, “Whitey” Bulger, and an intense political battle with Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney.

Bulger tendered his resignation August 6th, and the Board of Trustees installed interim president Jack Wilson and announced the formation of the search committee September 1. Last week, the Board announced that headhunter giant Korn/Ferry Intl. would assist the committee in finding a suitable replacement for Bulger.

Korn/Ferry is one of the largest firms of its kind in the United States. The executive search firm is hired by a company to fill a position; the company devotes its resources to matching talents and experience with the needs of the vacant slot. Korn/Ferry specializes in placing high-level educational administrators. Boston area residents will recognize it from its ubiquitous presence as a sponsor of NPR.

The committee is made up of several prominent UMass alumni and Massachusetts citizens, and filling it was a diplomatic minefield for the Board of Trustees, which faces a good deal of political pressure from Romney. The most prominent UMass alums on board are former GE honcho Jack Welch, ’57, and former GM boss Jack Smith, Jr., ’60.The Committee is chaired by Diane Bissonette Moes, ’74 and Dennis Austin, ’72. Moes is a lawyer downtown and Austin is a high up the food chain at Raytheon Co., one of the state’s leading employers and one of the nation’s leading manufacturers of military weaponry.

The trustees needed to tread a fine line selecting committee members. Mitt Romney, as the state governor, has the power to select members of the board of trustees and during his fight with Bulger vowed that he would make appointees pass a “litmus test” in order to make sure they would vote Bulger out. Romney’s appointees will gain a majority on the Board in three years, and the current board members are taking the threat seriously. If Romney fulfills his promise to stack the board with yes-men, the independence of the university system could be greatly compromised. Romney faces a collapsing state budget and has set his eye on the university system as a potential source of revenue and cost cutting.

Romney’s plans include spinning off the UMass Amherst campus and raising its tuition drastically, eliminating the central president’s office, and turning the other campuses into large community colleges under state control. Since Bulger’s resignation, Romney has backed off his extreme plans for the university, and has indicated he’ll be pleased to see the next university president, but has not made clear his future plans for the university system.

Members of the committee were chosen with a special eye toward placating Romney, with a careful mix of business leaders and educators, although Romney has said he was more interested in seeing Bulger out the door than seeing a ringer in the presidential office, “I don’t care if he’s a republican or a democrat, I don’t care if he’s voted recently.”

President of Northeastern University Richard M. Freeland has taken a seat with the committee as well; Freeland worked for UMass for 22 years and retains strong ties to the university. The 22-member committee also includes Grace Fey, Chairwoman of the Board of Trustees, President of United Way of Massachusetts Bay Marian Heard, Vice Chairman of Citizens Financial Group Robert Mahoney, Chairman of the Board of Higher Education Steve Tocco, and a representative sampling of educators and administrators from the UMass system

Dr. Winston Langley, professor of Political Science and Associate Provost for academic affairs is holding up the UMB flag on the search committee. Dr. Langley holds a PhD from Brown and is a long-time member of the UMass Boston community.

The Presidential Search Committee hopes to find suitable candidates within twelve months. Brian O’Connor, a bio professor at UMass Amherst and a member of the committee, was quoted as saying “It’s a goal.

“Is it an attainable goal? I don’t know.”

One thing is certain. Whoever is selected will have a delicate situation to cope with; Romney still wants to break up the university system, and he has proved himself a formidable antagonist.