Wilson appointed interim president; faces uphill funding battle

Interim President Jack M. Wilson - Photo courtesy www.jackmwilson.com

Interim President Jack M. Wilson – Photo courtesy www.jackmwilson.com

Carl Brooks

Jack M. Wilson has been appointed interim president of the University of Massachusetts, replacing embattled William Bulger, who officially stepped down Monday, Sept. 1.

Last Thursday, the UMass Board of Trustees emerged from a special afternoon meeting at the State House to announce Dr. Wilson had swept the Board at 13-1. They also announced the formation of a committee to search for a new president of the university, which includes several prominent UMass graduates.

UMass Boston Chancellor Jo Ann Gora said, “I’m delighted that Jack Wilson was appointed. I think he will be a very strong spokesman for the university.”

Grace Fey, Chairman of the Board of Trustees, said “We believe that Dr. Wilson has the vision and managerial skill needed to lead the university through what we hope is the final stage of this very difficult period,” Wilson was objective about his new job: “I will be devoting a good deal of my time to friend-raising and fund-raising,”

Dr. Wilson beat out a short list of other candidates for the politically sensitive position as interim UMass president. The lone dissenting vote on the Board of Trustees was for Stephen Lenhardt, the vice president of management and fiscal affairs in the president’s office. Recommendations for suitable candidates included UMB Vice Chancellor David MacKenzie and several Chancellors from other campuses. Trustee Lawrence Boyle recommended UMass Boston Chancellor Gora for the job, but she declined, saying she wanted to concentrate on her job at UMass Boston.

Wilson is the founder and CEO of UMassOnline, and was appointed Vice President of Student Affairs little over a month ago. This was seen by some as a signal from then-president Bulger that Wilson was an appropriate candidate for the presidency.

Dr. Wilson’s close ties with businesses in the state and his commitment to entrepreneurship in higher education make Wilson a non-threatening figure for Governor Mitt Romney, who tried to dismantle the current University system earlier this year and is very much in favor of reducing the University’s dependence on state money. Wilson’s credentials as an academic, and his ability to forge ties between business and academia will be seen as comforting to many UMass faculty and administration.

UMassOnline was founded by Wilson in 2001 and is his highest-visibility project to date. It has grown to 11,000 students and 39 degree programs. It pulls in large amounts of revenue for the UMass system.

Wilson holds a PhD in physics from Kent State and is a popular lecturer and consultant. Before coming to UMass, he was the J. Erik Jonsson Distinguished Professor of Physics, Engineering Science, Information Technology, and Management at Rennsaeler Polytechnic, where he spent 11 years, garnering a reputation as an able fixer. He held several interim positions as Provost and Dean of Faculty at Rennsaeler before becoming the Dean of Undergraduate and Professional Education. He also founded the LearnLinc Corporation in 1993, which was later merged with Mentergy, where Dr. Wilson was the Chief Scientist. He is CEO of his own corporation, Jack M. Wilson, Inc. Among his various awards, he is the winner of a Boeing Prize and the Jack Pew Charitable Trust Prize. He is also a tenured Professor of Management at UMass Amherst.

As interim president, Dr. Wilson’s job will not be any easy one. The State Legislature has made deep cuts in funding to the University system and he may not have the political acumen that Bulger possessed to recruit funds. Governor Romney has declared his intention to reduce the impact of public higher education on the state budget, and is apparently looking past Wilson to the next president. After the Board of Trustees made their announcement, a spokesperson said, “Governor Romney is pleased that the search for the new UMass president is well under way.”

For Wilson to have an impact, he will have to hold the line against funding cuts and manage a university in turmoil from harsh budget cuts.

The search committee for the next president of UMass includes many prominent business figures possibly intended to assuage Governor Romney. Retired GE superstar Jack Welch will be on the committee as well as former GM honcho John Smith. Both are UMass alumni.

The Board of Trustees is treading lightly around Governor Romney after his win over Bulger. Romney has the power to appoint trustees, and has promised that his appointees will have to pass a “litmus test” to make sure they will follow his political direction.