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Interview: New UMass Head After Week 1

BOSTON — Friday marks the end of Robert Caret’s first week on the job as the new president of the University of Massachusetts.

UMass President Robert Caret (Courtesy)

UMass President Robert Caret (Courtesy)

A relative unknown in Massachusetts, Caret came as a surprise pick by the UMass Board of Trustees, who chose him from 300 candidates after a drawn-out, often politically charged search. He has New England roots — he went to the University of New Hampshire and Suffolk University — but he’s spent much of his career in Maryland, as president of Towson University, a mid-sized public university.

When we spoke with Caret, we asked him about the role of public universities and what he might do to change the perception of the UMass system as an underdog in Massachusetts, a state renowned for private institutions like Harvard and MIT:

Robert Caret: Well, I don’t really want to do anything about it, because I think to some extent it’s true in that we are not the privates, we are the public sector and the public sector does have a different mission than the private sector and a big part of our mission has to do with providing broader access, particularly to the citizens of Massachusetts.

And if you look at the numbers, you’ll see that. If you look at the University of Massachusetts, for example, where we’re graduating 13,000 to 14,000 new graduates a year, most of whom come from Massachusetts and most of whom stay in Massachusetts, that’s a very different mix than you’ll find at the private schools.

Deb Becker: Last fall, we did a story about UMass Amherst and talked with now-departing Chancellor Robert Holub and he said that one of his plans to increase funding was to increase enrollment of out-of-state students, who pay higher tuition than in-state students. Many professors told us that’s not a good idea, they said it runs counter to the mission of a public higher-education institution. How do you feel?

I disagree that it runs counter to our mission. What you find is that institutions, particularly public institutions, serve as magnets for brain power. You don’t want all of your brain power to come from your same family, so you don’t want 100 percent of your brain power to come from Massachusetts.

So, if we attract 5, 10, 15 or 20 percent of the students from out of state or out of country to our campuses, that does a couple of things: It attracts a whole new cohort of individuals to the state — we know from past practice that 80-plus percent of them will also stay in Massachusetts, so we’re serving as a magnet for future citizens and workers and leaders here in Massachusetts — and it also provides a different educational environment, where you’re not all coming from similar or identical backgrounds and I think it provides a more real-world education.

So it is a mix. The financial piece is there, also. If we are going to have to become more self-sufficient, we, like the privates, are going to have to figure out how we generate revenues, and having some of the students come from out of state, where, of course, the cost is much more expensive for them, does provide significant revenues to the campus and help really subsidize the in-state students.

So it is a balance. I do believe state institutions who are receiving state support should be majority state students and we will continue that.

Let’s talk about the affordability of higher education issue. There are a lot of folks who say the bubble is going to bust, people can’t afford it anymore, and there is a particular strain on public institutions because, on the one hand, they’re trying to keep costs down, but they’ve got an increased demand from students now who can’t afford some of the other options because of the economy. So you can be more selective in your admissions and obviously you can bring in more money. How do you balance that?

Again, it’s a challenge. You have to be true to your mission, so what we will do is maintain a variety of programs that maintain access. But like any other organization, if we get five times as many students as we can handle, one of the things you’re going to do in selecting those students is take the ones that are best qualified, the ones that are going to be most successful and the ones that are going to have the best learning experience on your campus.

But that doesn’t mean you shut the doors to the others. You have to find pathways for those who are capable but not yet at a level where they’re as competitive. But when you take in those students, you’re going to also have to set up support structures to ensure that they graduate.

We can all become more and more and more elite as we become more and more and more restrictive, and that’s going to happen by natural consequence — to some extent it already has — but we also want to maintain access and we’re going to be true to both of those.

Do you agree with those folks who say there’s going to be a bust here?

I’ve been doing this for over 30 years and I think we are at the most dangerous point in higher ed from a financial perspective in my history in education. I think there’s a distinct possibility that if state dollars continue to be more and more restricted, despite the desires of the states to do better, they may not be in a position to do better and we may all become more and more privatized. And I think if that happens, that’s going to be an unfortunate thing for the country.

Your selection here — your hiring, really — was a 10-month search process and there were some nasty things that happened. A board member left because he said that he didn’t like the interference on the part of the governor’s office in terms of trying to select another president. You have a chancellor leaving. It seems, at least from an outsider’s perspective, that you’re kind of walking into a bit of a political fight here.

It looks that way sometimes, yeah. As far as the search process, I was just, to some extent, a participant and a bystander — I was just running for cover every time I read an article in the Globe or the Herald and trying to decide where my best path was.

And it’s unfortunate because I think when those kinds of things go public the way they did, you will lose a lot of candidates. I could have dropped out at any moment. I had a couple of people pushing me to stay in, so I did, but at a different point in life I might not have done that.

What I have found is that, yeah, these jobs are in many ways political, because you’re dealing with the political establishment of the state, in terms of how you’re funded, and you have a whole series of other people in the private sector involved in lobbying those efforts.

There’s nothing wrong with that as long as it’s done at a professional level and that you have a voice in it, and I believe from my many visits to the State House already that we will have plenty of voice and plenty of opportunity to give our opinion and to get our position in play.

So, yeah, it is political, and that can be unfortunate, but it is a reality, and I feel like I can work in that environment quite well and that we will make it as apolitical as we can as we move it forward and make it as logical as possible.

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