By Ben Silverman and Tyler Manoukian
Jack M. Wilson’s presidency has attracted controversy since he took office back in 2003. After President William Bulger resigned, Jack M. Wilson was a prominent candidate for the UMass presidency, but was also offered the job as president of Worcester Polytechnic Institute. The Board of Trustees had to act fast, so in order to get Wilson before WPI did, they hired him quickly. While the tug of war between the two schools over Jack Wilson certainly demonstrates his popularity and demand, many UMass professors and Board of Trustee members believe that his appointment as president was rash and premature.
The Student Government Association (SGA) praised the Board’s decision to hire Wilson – Dave Carr, the SGA president at the time called him “down to Earth,” and 2003 student senate president, Jared Nokes called Wilson “extremely intelligent,” with an “outstanding” resume. During Wilson’s first few months, he increased the budget of the university, particularly the Commonwealth College, and founded UMassOnline, which generates $47 million each year. However, Wilson attracted harsh criticism as well – In 2007, Wilson planned to have the former UMass Amherst chancellor, John Lombardi leave UMass to become president of Louisiana State University. Many faculty have criticized Wilson’s decision to get rid of Lombardi because he was a staunch opponent of Wilson’s plan to mold the five UMass campuses more tightly into one.
Since the beginning of his presidency, Jack Wilson set out to close the gap between all five UMass campuses in a idealized effort to transform each entity into one singular, fluent powerhouse in which the entire Commonwealth as well as surrounding New England states could enjoy. His pursuit of a single working entity may have run its course and actually caused more drama than acceptance.
Many opponents of Wilson have argued that he has lacked the aggressive approach necessary to secure state funds for the popular state system. The state budget has dwindled to $456 million, which is less than it spent just ten years ago; the budget will also include $40 million in one-time stimulus money from the federal budget. However, state funding is a primary source of revenue for the system – UMass Amherst’s revenue has decreased to a lackluster 25 percent, compared to 40 percent in 2000. These cuts have forced officials of the university to raise tuition and fees to be among the highest in the country for a public university. Tuition from in-state students go into a pool, which is distributed throughout all five campuses, and only out-of-state tuition is kept by the individual school.
The President’s most important responsibility is to secure funding from the state and boost the system’s endowment fund on a yearly basis – the system’s endowment has sat at $454 million, among that is a $350 million endowment for the Amherst campus. Unsurprisingly, that number is near the bottom of the pack when talking about more well funded universities such as the University of Michigan, which has a $6 billion endowment fund. While some believe Wilson to be a clear-headed educationalist, his loyalty seems to lie more along the lines of a privatized model and away from the current reliance as a state funded institution.
Numbers have shown that over the past two decades, the Amherst campus has lost almost a fifth of its tenure-track faculty as a result of the state’s miserable financial situation. There are now just 972 tenure-track faculty at the university compared to the 1,286 at competing state school University of Connecticut, a 17,000 undergraduate campus – about 3,000 fewer than Amherst. More specifically, the English department at Amherst has shrunk from 100 professors, to just 43. No wonder faculty at the UMass Amherst campus have begun to cringe when they hear of Wilson’s supposed presidential success.
While his tenure has been rattled by numerous rounds of budget cuts, Wilson has focused on finding alternative financial support for UMass. The university has generated more federal research funding, intellectual property income and donations than former President Bulger had secured. However, Wilson’s decision to move UMass Boston Chancellor Michael Collins to the Worcester medical school without any faculty input caused a gigantic raucous on both the Boston and Amherst campuses. Consequently, while the five chancellors have begun to work together, some professors have still criticized Wilson’s “one university” plan for focusing more on research grants and income from technology, than liberal arts.
The disconnect among professors and the President have caused a certain level of distaste between faculty and the UMass system’s administration, leading to a negative impact on the campus and less faculty satisfaction. While the disconnect may not be obvious to Wilson and his staff, the faculty had some aggressive words surrounding his whirlwind presidency.
According to architecture and history professor Max Page, “four fifths of what a student pays are fees, and these go back into the entire UMass system,” rather than stay on the Amherst campus, where they were generated.
While all other UMass campuses need money for renovations and building projects like the new medical center, library etc, many UMass Amherst faculty and professors believe that the Amherst campus needs funding to make similar improvements, and to maintain our role as the flagship campus. “If we had a president who believed that all the campuses should be treated equally, that it was not important to emphasize a ‘flagship’ campus, that would be dangerous for UMass Amherst,” said communication disorders professor, Richard Freyman.
“No one loves Wilson,” says professor Page, who also added that faculty opinions of Wilson dropped especially low after he “forced Lombardi out of his position. The next president’s primary concern should be getting the commonwealth to reinvest in public education.” This has become one of the most popular opinions for faculty, especially in light of Tracy Jan’s Boston Globe article from September, which reported, “The school’s endowment is one of the lowest in the country for a public flagship school.”
Page also brought up another point that Jan mentioned, which is that the number of tenured faculty has dropped severely. “If I could write a check to pay for something at UMass [Amherst], I’d create a fund to hire 250 permanent faculty for the long term.” This plan is part of the Amherst 250 Plan, which according to its official website, seeks to “increase the Amherst campus’ tenure and tenure track faculty by 250 to create a faculty capable of sustaining the high level of teaching and research performance expected of the state’s nationally competitive flagship campus.” After all, what good is it to pump hundreds of millions of dollars into new buildings, if there aren’t enough tenured professors to fill them?
Razvan Sibii, of the journalism department believes that UMass must hire more quality faculty because “that is going to attract better students.” As a member of the General Education Council, Sibii said that he would come up with a strategy for a “coordinated effort from [president, students, and faculty] for determining what an ‘A’ should be,” because after all, this university works as a “civic mission – not a professional mission.”
Page also added that he would divide his hypothetical check in half, and direct the other half toward covering financial aid for students, another massive issue, whose funding is also in jeopardy. Financial aid funding, as well as other student-related funding issues, have proven to be hot-button topics, and many professors also mention that they would like to see more funding for students to study abroad. Linda Roney, the coordinator of UMass’ BDIC program said, “There needs to be some motivating factor to bring departments closer together so there isn’t all the economic competition.” She added, “There isn’t an attitude right now on campus of ‘let’s help the students and do the best together for them’ – It is more a question of ‘how can we get more resources for our department?’ I don’t think I have ever seen such a divided school.”
Ata Moharreri, of the UMass English department, believes that Americans are running out of ideas, original thoughts, and skills. “To counterbalance the strengths that the sciences bring to UMass,” he said, “I would put some time and money into the humanities.” As Moharreri said, perhaps this will help remind the next president “how good this place is,” and “how we can make the students, the people who work here, and the community proud to be here.”
Professor Sibii believes that the next president should be aware that the purpose of the state flagship campus is more than to just produce skilled workers for the state. “UMass is UMass because it produces citizens – Arts and Humanities should not be neglected [because] hard sciences will not produce citizens.” With that, Razvan Sibii concluded, “There is nothing a student shouldn’t be curious about.”