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Retired UMass President Sees Rising School System

This article is more than 11 years old.

For most people, retirement means down time. For Jack Wilson, who left his post as president of the University of Massachusetts at the end of of June, not so much.

"I left on the 30th, on the 1st I worked here, for the July 4th four-day weekend I went mountain biking in Colorado, went to an Education Commission of the States meeting and now I'm back," he told WBUR, sitting in his new waterfront office. "So not too much of a break, but a little one."

Wilson is enjoying his retirement by showing up for work every day as the interim head of the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the U.S. Senate. His energy is fitting for a person who ran an institution like the UMass system, with its five campuses, 68,000 students and almost $3 billion budget.

We sat down with his Wilson to reflect on his tenure as president and asked what looks different from when he first came on the job eight years ago:

Jack Wilson: One of the things that I identified early on that we needed to do was really rebuild the way everybody talks about and thinks of the University of Massachusetts.

I came here from out of state. I'd worked with UMass folks when I was in Washington, when I was in New York, and I had a tremendous appreciation for what a great institution it was and what great alumni we had and so on. When it came to Massachusetts, I realized that brand identity that I knew as an outsider was not really the same brand identity that people saw here in Massachusetts.

Bob Oakes: What do you think accounts for the different views, the very different views of UMass, from largely I think inside the state and then outside the state, as you pointed out. Highly regarded in international rankings, widely regarded in the research community and yet still thought of as the place where, 'okay, it's my safety school' for a lot of people inside the commonwealth?

I don't meet many students anymore that think of it as a safety school and, in fact, just the opposite. When I moved here, I did have people in my neighborhood that would say, 'Oh, it's wonderful, you're at the University of Massachusetts, it's a wonderful university, it's a great thing to have a university where other kids can go that are not my kids, that are going to go to the wonderful privates.'

That has changed dramatically in the 10 years that I've lived in that town. Now they come up to me at parties and they say, 'Hey, do you think Johnny or Janey can get in to University of Massachusetts?'

But you ask why, why did it kind of have that reputation? Well, we do share this state with some really outstanding private universities. And that's a good thing and in fact I have embraced that as president of University of Massachusetts and struck all sorts of collaborative efforts with Harvard, with MIT, with Tufts, with BU, with Northeastern.

But the fact is that we compete with all of them on a variety of levels for research, for endowment and it's partly kind of our own fault for not standing up and being proud of University of Massachusetts and we've allowed this perception to remain for whatever reason and I think it has to change. We've made progress on that and I'm cheering on the next president to continue that progress.

You describe a system that's on the rise. But I wonder if you fear that it could, if not taken care of properly, be on the decline in the future. State aid to the UMass system is shrinking, the cost of attending the university by a student rose 58 percent during your time on the job, there are 600 fewer faculty, staff and administrative positions than there were just three years ago — where's the system headed?

Well I think the numbers that you cite in terms of the state funding and the number of faculty are not unusual all across the United States. As you know, this has been a tough time for higher education.

We had an advantage, though, over these other places. Because we've never really had good state support, we've learned to live without it. So all of those things you cite: the declining state funding, and yet we're ranked 19th in the world; the declining state funding, and yet we've won a Nobel Prize; declining state funding, we've over tripled our endowment. The real numbers that matter have gone up and have been positive.

Does the system need to find a way to lower tuition and fees?

I would say no. I think that would be a serious mistake. Because if you, for instance, as an outstanding alum of the university, were to tell me, 'Jack I'm going to give you $20 million and you take that and you use it as the best thing for the university.'

And the choices you gave me were: I can lower tuition and fees by $20 million or I can put that $20 million into financial aid. Now, I can tell you exactly who would get that money. If I put it into lowering tuition and fees, that $20 million would go to the 47 percent of students who do not get financial aid, which are primarily above $150,000 family incomes, and not a penny of it would go to the students who had need.

If, on the other hand, I put that money into financial aid, then all of that money will go to the 53 percent of the students that are getting financial aid and that have family incomes below the $150,000 mark. From a social perspective, I cannot justify lowering tuition and fees and thereby disadvantaging students that have need.

I want to ask about politics in this way: The search for your replacement was pretty long and drawn out and became openly political and contentious. Why was it such a difficult process, do you think?

The fact is that the public universities get a lot of attention. And part of that is a good news thing.

Governors understand, they understand how important public higher education is to their state, at the same time they're not really putting the investments in it. And so they want to become involved and there is a lot of attention.

I wish that we could do a search without any leaks. But the fact is, we didn't have a single search during the 10 years that I've been associated with the University of Massachusetts that didn't have some form of this.

Do politics at the UMass system get in the way of education?

Absolutely not. I have not seen that at all. I mean there is politics at the University of Massachusetts just like there is politics in Massachusetts. And when I came here they told me, 'Jack, this is a place where politics goes to a new level.' And I laughed and I said, 'Look, I worked in Washington, I worked in New York,' I said, 'I even worked at Texas.' I said, 'I know about politics, politics is everywhere.'

They were right. It is a new level. And that's the way it is. But did it ever get in the way of the education? I don't think so. I really don't.


This program aired on July 18, 2011.

Bob Oakes Senior Correspondent
Bob Oakes was a senior correspondent in the WBUR newsroom, a role he took on in 2021 after nearly three decades hosting WBUR's Morning Edition.



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