What we should we ask of the new UMass president?

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With former Congressman and current chancellor of the University of Massachusetts at Lowell Marty Meehan having pulled out of the running for the presidency of the overall UMass system, we are left with three finalists:

  • Charles Bantz, the chancellor of Indiana University-Purdue University in Indianapolis,
  • Robert Caret, the president of Towson University in Maryland, and
  • Phillip Clay, chancellor of MIT

IUPUI’s website trumpets that it is

one of the top five “up and coming” American universities that U.S. News and World Report says people should be watching, and the 8th best public college in the Midwest according to Forbes magazine.

IUPUI has a strong mix of undergraduate (22,000) and graduate and professional students (8,000). Its progress in raising the quality of students is not at first glance clear though it has made an effort to recruit many high school valedictorians. Dr. Bantz’ own background includes the following formation:

He holds a bachelor’s degree in English education from the University of Minnesota, a master’s degree in speech communication from the University of Minnesota, and a Ph.D. from Ohio State University in communication. He is an accomplished scholar who has published on subjects such as organizational communication, television news, and social conflict.

Towson University is a suburban college outside of Baltimore with 22,000 students and a number of advanced degree programs, though only one doctoral program (in Education). Dr. Caret’s biographical page includes this formation:

Caret received his Ph.D. in organic chemistry from the University of New Hampshire in 1974 and his Bachelor of Science degree in chemistry and mathematics from Suffolk University in 1969. His honorary degrees include a Doctor of Humane Letters from San Jose State University (2004) and National Hispanic University (1997) and a Doctor of Science degree from Suffolk University (1996).

MIT, well, we know what that school is like. Undergrad enrollment of 4,300 and graduate enrollment of 6,300. As Chancellor, Phillip Clay played a role in “oversight for graduate and undergraduate education…, student life, student services, international initiatives, and the management of certain of MIT’s large-scale institutional partnerships.” He also played a role in “strategic planning, faculty appointments, resource development, and Institute resources and buildings.” Dr. Clay’s formation:

He received the AB degree with Honors from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1968 and his Ph.D. in City Planning in 1975 from MIT.

So what questions should Jim Karam, the new chairman (installed after Robert Manning’s resignation) of the UMass Presidential Search Committee, ask each of these candidates?

(1) Is the candidate a genuine academic leader? That is, will the candidate ensure that the academic health and integrity of the institution trump politics? This is, after all, a very political position with lots of political pressures to hire favored individuals — or expand the system in ways that may not make sense academically or for the overall system.

(2) Is the candidate capable of seeing the uniqueness of the Massachusetts system of public higher education? With our rich heritage of private institutions, the majority of students attend private colleges. That has to have an impact on the mission of the public system. We aren’t after all Ohio or Michigan, which had to build a higher education system from scratch — and frankly did it in reaction to the highly private heritage of the East Coast. So, dear candidate, does that mean head on competition with the private institutions or filling niches? Does it mean serving specific needs within communities that are not being met or does it mean ensuring that colleges provide the widest possible array of programs?

(3) Given that Richard Freeland, as commissioner of the Board of Higher Education, is making a valiant effort to bring accountability to the state college system, will the candidate commit to transparency of information and collaboration with Dr. Freeland? It’s pretty clear from state budget decisions the past few years that our public institutions of higher education will continue to take a hit in funding because we are not sure how great their value is. The only way to convince legislators and the public to re-invest in a significant way, many think (include me here), is to provide the kind of clarity about achievement and outcomes that we have insisted upon in our K-12 system. Such a view drives Dr. Freeland’s current work, and we need the next UMass president to embrace the push for performance, transparency and accountability.

Finally, (4) how will the candidate improve graduation rates across the system? On this last question, we would urge the candidates to study the work of UMass Lowell Chancellor Meehan, who, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education, has overseen significant improvement in graduation rates. The increase over recent years in the UMass Lowell graduation rate was the highest in the region for any public research university in the region. Their 8% gain was not as great as some elsewhere in the country, but higher than anyone else’s in New England. (UConn clocked in with a 7% gain, while UMass Amherst had a positive showing of 5%. UMass Boston declined by 1%. UMass Dartmouth reports a 4% decline.)

Such metrics as the graduation rate are important in the accountability discussion. Meehan is making good progress at U-Mass Lowell, and now has an overall graduation rate of over 50%. He still has work to do, but he is well ahead of most of the other public institutions of higher education in Massachusetts.