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Higher Ed Cheerleader

Former UMass President Robert Caret
Robert Caret

CommonWealth Magazine
By Jack Sullivan

The University of Massachusetts matters. It matters for a lot of reasons and to a lot of people—parents, students, lawmakers, government officials, and taxpayers with no connections except that their money supports the system and they all want a bang for their buck. 

More than 68,000 students, full- and part-time, mostly Massa­chusetts kids, attend one of UMass’s five campuses, and nearly 14,000 graduated last year. Nearly 300,000 UMass alumni live in Massachusetts. You’d think with those kinds of numbers, fiscal, physical, and civic support for the system would be easy to find. But when you’re sharing the education spotlight with the likes of Harvard, MIT, Tufts, and other world-renowned institutions, you struggle for attention and support and carry something of an inferiority complex. 

Robert Caret knows that. Caret, who took over as UMass president from Jack Wilson on July 1, has spent his entire professional life in the public higher education world: as a professor and administrator at Towson State University in Maryland for two decades, followed by nearly a decade as president of San Jose State Univ­er­sity in California, and then the last eight years back at Towson as president. 

Caret, who earned a PhD in organic chemistry at the University of New Hampshire, has a booming voice that complements his oversized persona and assertive and confident manner. He’s part politician, like past UMass president William Bulger, and part academic, like Wilson, the man he is replacing. He’s been recognized for his success in growing Towson and San Jose State in size, academic scope, and diversity, while at the same time increasing minority graduation and retention rates. At Towson, Caret eliminated the gap between minority and white graduation rates, one of only 11 colleges or universities nationwide that can claim such success. It’s that national stature that made him Gov. Deval Patrick’s choice as Wilson’s re­placement. The perception that Caret can also till the rocky terrain of Massa­chusetts politics like a pol—without having the baggage of actually being one—is a bonus. 

Caret, 63, hails from Biddeford, Maine, a hardscrabble industrial town 20 miles south of Portland. He was one of the first members of his family —indeed, he says one of the first in his town—to go to college. His journey has made him a passionate advocate for the role publicly funded colleges and universities play in educating the country’s students. It’s that passion that UMass trustees and Patrick hope can tap the minds, souls, and wallets of potential supporters, while competing against some of the world’s most highly regarded private institutions.

One area Caret sees as essential as a top administrator is ensuring the school blends in with the community where it resides. In San Jose, he developed numerous “town-gown” committees to address the needs of the area’s diverse residents as well as those of a school going through growing pains. His approach upon returning to Towson was similar, trying to become a magnet for the majority-minority population in Baltimore. 

Sitting in his temporary office in Post Office Square one morning in early May prior to taking the presidential reins, Caret marvels at his water view in a city he first became familiar with as an undergraduate at Suffolk University. More than four decades later, Caret is coming back to Boston on a mission to energize support for five very different campuses that make up one system that’s never received the kind of recognition and support its backers think it deserves. 

Recent years have been particularly brutal, with student fees soaring to offset declining state aid. Tuition has remained virtually flat over the last decade, a little over $1,600 per year. But fees have gone up more than 300 percent in that same period, from $3,069 in 2001 to nearly $9,500 this year. With the fiscal 2012 budget of $429 million the same as last year—but down from nearly $480 million just a few years ago—and with the loss of federal money, the system is facing a $55 million deficit. To cover half that gap, UMass trustees just approved another 7.5 percent hike in fees for the upcoming school year, an average increase of more than $800. Layoffs and other reductions are being eyed to cover the remainder.

Where the state once picked up nearly half the cost of educating UMass students, the burden now falls squarely on the student. That is one major area that Caret emphatically says he will change. He says it in a way that precludes doubt. But Caret is no Pollyanna, and he did not come into this situation blind. He knew the state of the economy nationally and familiarized himself with UMass’s funding struggles before accepting the job. He says he’s had general conversations with Patrick and Education Secretary Paul Reville about “shared responsibility,” the idea that the burden for educating students be spread more equally among many shareholders as a public obligation.

I sat down with Caret to talk about his educational philosophy, football, his knowledge of UMass, and his goals. Over the course of our conversation, a number of subjects were addressed two and three times. I’ve rearranged the order of some of his answers to avoid jumping around too much for the reader. We began by talking about why he’s remained committed to public education all these years. (Suffolk was his only foray at a private school.) This is an edited transcript of our conversation. 


COMMONWEALTH: When you look at public versus private higher education, outside of the positive affordability factor that most state schools have, is there a broader value to public institutions? 

CARET: You hit the obvious point—the price differential. The less obvious is the quality of the educational environment, or the climate, the ambience, the environment itself. If you go to a public institution, in general, you will find an institution that is much more diverse because it has many more pathways into it, and it is often taking many more students from many more walks of life. So the peer group is a much broader peer group, much like the peer group you will be dealing with in the real world when you go to work, as opposed to, sometimes, a subset of that peer group that all group up in the same private, preparatory schools and wind up in the same country clubs and the same board rooms. And there are plusses to that, I think, in terms of the society we are trying to create. I don’t say all privates are one way and all publics are the other way. But just in a general sense, you are going to get a much more diverse peer group [in public higher ed institutions] that represents the diversity of ideas, race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation that you find in society. There’s an excitement to that. Our job as a public university is to provide the alternative choice to the private universities. Public universities are not just chosen because of affordability but are chosen because of quality and a different ambience than you would get at a private school. We don’t want to compete with them, but to complement them in terms of civic society. 

COMMONWEALTH: When you first went to San Jose State as president and then Towson State, did you find that kind of diversity in those schools or was that something that you had to create? You said that at both of those schools one of your goals was to increase the minority graduation rate and retention rate, and at Towson State, one of the ways you did that was to recruit more high-performing, high-achieving minorities. 

CARET: Well, they are very different schools. San Jose was an extremely diverse environment when I arrived. So you had an extremely complex ethnic, racial, cultural background there, and we had to put in structures to really deal with the complexity of that population. In California, you have this liberal, open society, but the African-American students at San Jose State, because they’re only about 4 to 5 percent [of the student population], really felt, to some extent, disenfranchised by the campus and the community because they just didn’t have enough voice. So what you do in those kinds of situations is make sure these organizations, these student groups, have a voice. And I did that through creating ethnic town-and-gown committees. I had an African-American town-and-gown committee, an Asian-American, and a Hispanic-American committee.

Towson was, when I arrived, probably 90 percent, 95 percent white. We kept opening up the doors more and more and now we’re probably only 80 percent white, but it’s still largely a white campus. When I first got back, I’m asking a thousand questions and one of the questions was, “We just took in 2,200 freshmen, how many came from the Baltimore city public schools?” Out of 2,200, 25 came from the Baltimore public schools. 

COMMONWEALTH: Not 25 percent? 

CARET: No, 25 students. We had a lot from Catholic schools and religious schools in the city, private schools, but not the publics. We’re only a quarter mile from the city line and only four miles from downtown [Baltimore], and I said, “That’s crazy. Is anybody doing anything about this?” They said, “Well, we don’t need to. We’ve got 20,000 applicants. We don’t do town halls down there, we don’t do college fairs.” I said, “It’s the nucleus of the state. It’s the political hub of the state. We’ve got to reach out to the city.” So we opened up and we did a top 10 percent program—we guaranteed the top 10 percent of the high school kids in the city and in the county no charge to apply and up to a $4,000 scholarship, if you needed it, to match the financial aid. And guaranteed admission, regardless of your grades —if you were in the top 10 percent, you were in. And we went from 25 to 200 in one year, and that process has continued up until today. If you’re in a region that’s 30 percent, 40 percent African-American, and you’ve only got an 8 percent African-American campus, you’re not doing your job. We need to get ready for the world that’s coming as opposed to the world that’s here. 

COMMONWEALTH: What was the draw for you with public versus private higher ed? 

CARET: When I got out of grad school—every grad school in the country has niches that it’s developed—and UNH in chemistry had two large niches: one was people went on and became faculty someplace, and the other one was the pharmaceutical industry. I had taught high school, I liked teaching, so I decided to go the faculty route. Most of the positions I was offered were non-tenure track, so I wound up taking the position at Towson, which was also non-tenure track. But Towson was growing like crazy at the time and I just felt I had a really good shot there as a tenure track. The next year, they had two positions open up and I applied and got one of them, so I just started off there, and 21 years later, I’m still there. So I just wound up being in the public sector. It wasn’t necessarily planned. 

COMMONWEALTH: So you are not one of those people who thinks that tenure is a bad thing?
CARET: I am one of those people who can argue both sides. There’s a part of me that understands, because of all the legal protections we have, that tenure is not as necessary as it was 100 years ago. But on the other side—and I unequivocally can give you examples to prove this—what tenure does is protect universities from outside intrusion. The example I like to use is when [Ronald] Reagan was governor of California, and Clark Kerr, who is considered one of the gurus of higher education in all of history, was in charge of Berkeley and the students were protesting the Vietnam War. Reagan fired Kerr because he didn’t think he was hard enough on the students. Kerr left, but Berkeley never changed because you couldn’t fire the faculty and you’re not going to change a university by just changing the president. I can assure you that if Reagan could have fired the faculty, he would have, and Berkeley would have changed. We need a place in society where government can be criticized without fear of retribution, and universities have often played that role. But I do believe if we continue tenure, which I think is important because of the protection it provides us, we need to be substantively in­volved to make sure that faculty are living up to what we expect them to do, both pre-tenure and post-tenure. So post-tenure review, on a periodic basis with substantive outcomes, is something that I think is necessary and desirable. 

COMMONWEALTH: So what would be the value of tenure if you do that? 

CARET: Well, [dismissal of a tenured faculty member would] require a substantive negative [finding]. It’s not just that you don’t like the person’s personality or you don’t like their political point of view, but that it’s actually destructive to the educational environment, in the classroom, and in our buildings. I think the main reason for tenure, from an institutional perspective, is to protect the institution, but the way you are protecting the institution, what you’re doing there, really, is protecting the academic freedom to speak your mind within the framework of your discipline. And that’s where it’s most important.

COMMONWEALTH: Your two prior jobs were at places that were, for the most part, single campuses. How do you apply the singular vision that you’ve had for the universities you previously ran to this much wider, multi-campus audience?

CARET: I think each of them will be somewhat unique, so that, together, the system is serving a variety of needs as well. I do think both Lowell and Boston, and Boston in particular, want some housing and want to have some critical mass of students so it’s not just everybody comes [to campus each day] and everybody leaves [at the end of the day]. 

COMMONWEALTH: From the beginning, UMass Boston was opened for the minority student and the low-income urban student who can’t afford room and board, who can’t afford going away to school, who has to work nearby. And also for the single parent who wants to finish their degree, for the older student who wants to return to college. It would seem to me that the building of residential halls is going to take away from that mission. 

CARET: No, I don’t think so. I think what will happen will be much like what happened at San Jose—it was a bicameral campus. Half the population was traditional age, the other half was average age of 22, 23, largely commuter, largely working, coming to school sometimes full-time, sometimes part-time. I think you’ll see at UMass Boston the same kind of thing. They unequivocally understand their history, if you talk to the faculty and staff there. I don’t think you’ll ever see them give up on their original mission because they all too intimately believe in it, which is the access mission for those broad populations you just described.

COMMONWEALTH: You have a history at San Jose State and Towson State, especially at Towson, of being a very big supporter of the athletic department and the sports teams. UMass Amherst has just announced that it is going to be going 1A with its football program, moving up from the championship subdivision to the bowl subdivision. Is it coincidental that this is happening with your arrival?

CARET: Yeah, it’s just coincidental, but I am supportive of it. I’m really a social animal—I’m not a jock per se. I go to a lot of athletic events just like I go to lots of other events where I socialize with people. I like athletics, I don’t live and breathe it. I can’t quote you names and numbers. That’s not my thing. I like going to games. Amherst is the flagship campus, and people hate that term, but it is the flagship campus and it is the primary public research university in the state. We need to develop it so that it’s better and better at what it does. And part of that is going to be characteristics of the campus, including what sports it plays and at what level and what peer group is it in. The move to the FBS [Football Bowl Subdivision] level from FCS [Football Championship Subdivision] is a move that I fully understand for that school. 

COMMONWEALTH: But if they’re going to play their home games, as was announced, at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, which is 95 miles from Amherst, how does that benefit the campus and how does that make a connection to the campus?

CARET: Everybody would prefer to have a 30,000-seat stadium on the campus. If you made that a criterion for doing this, it wouldn’t happen because there’s no way we could afford to do that—because that is done largely with auxiliary money and, hence, largely on the backs of student fees. We’re just not in a situation, budget-wise, to take on that kind of debt. So the reality of the situation is, Gillette becomes a necessary partner in the mix in order to get the kind of stadium we need. Lots of the students at Amherst go home on weekends, so a lot of them are already in the Boston suburbs on weekends. There’s a huge alumni base, 265,000 alumni, many of them in the Boston metropolitan region. So what the school is doing is drawing on the alumni base, drawing on students who are already in the region on weekends, and we’ll use busing as we have in the past to get students from the campus back and forth. If it’s successful, maybe a stadium comes someday in the future. But it can’t be a fixed variable today because it would just end the discussion, so I think it will either be successful or it won’t. 

COMMONWEALTH: When you spoke with Gov. Patrick about the budget, were you given any commitments?

CARET: No, no commitments. I’ve talked to the governor a couple of times, I’ve talked to [the education] secretary, Paul Reville, several times, and there are no commitments. I don’t think you’re going to see, in Massachusetts, any precipitous funding change in where we are. My job is to continue to educate the governor and the Legislature as to how important UMass is. I’ve been using the term, what is our “shared responsibility” to the citizens of Massa­chusetts and to the Commonwealth itself. By shared responsibility I mean, what do we think is an appropriate mix of expense to the student and to his or her family, to the state, and to the federal government. I don’t think Massa­chusetts is where it needs to be. I don’t think 20 cents on the dollar, for the UMass system, is an appropriate level of funding from the state. My goal for the last 10 years has been to get the states back to at least 50 cents on the dollar and then we can move from there. But I’m open to that debate. What is the appropriate percentage? The three primary funding sources for a student are the state, the student himself or herself with their tuition, and the federal government behind the scenes providing financial aid to the student that comes to us. Those are the three big pieces of revenue that we use. The feds have been, even though it’s diluted by inflation, pretty constant, the state has de­creased and therefore tuition has increased, but that’s pretty much the mix we have today. I have pointed out that I do think we need to look at that shared responsibility piece and see where Massachusetts used to be, where it would like to be, and can we get there. I’m pretty sure, other than because of the budget crisis, Massa­chusetts is not where it thinks it should be. It’s where it has to be at the moment, and we need to get it back to where it should be.

COMMONWEALTH: Do you believe that college campuses, as one way to raise funds, should be in competition with the private sector, for instance, in research and development and patents? UMass Worcester has a nonprofit corporation, Common­wealth Medical, that does audits and analysis of pharmaceutical purchases for Medicaid and Medicare. They also provide prison health care, and they are in competition with private companies that are bidding for it. Is that the purview of a college, to get state funds to go into a state entity? 

CARET: I’ll answer that two ways. One is, I think absolutely we need to be involved in research and consulting. The state invests $500 to $600 million in us every year on the operating side, not counting on the capital side, and there’s no reason they shouldn’t benefit from the expertise on the campuses. I think having us there as a research arm, as a consulting arm, is an important tool. It gets touchier when you start to compete with private business. I understand if I had a private business and I was competing with a state entity that is being subsidized and so their costs are much lower, that I would have trouble competing. So what I’ve tried to do—and I haven’t had this dialogue in Massachusetts, this is one of those things where people could start yelling at me—but what we’ve always tried to do in the states that I’ve been involved in is that when we get involved with that kind of enterprise, we do it with an educational mix to it, too. As one of my mentors used to say, just because you can make money selling cars on a campus, it doesn’t mean you are going to make money selling cars on a campus. Because our job is not to make money, we need to be doing things on campus, whether they are for profit, or not for profit, for the benefit of the education and the research mix that goes on on campus. 

COMMONWEALTH: Where does the endowment picture fit into this? UMass has the 142nd largest endowment in the country [$520 million]. For a system this size, it is undersized. What do you do to engage UMass alumni, because they’re really not an engaged group? 

CARET: If you go back and really look 40 years ago, 50 years ago, when people started fundraising [at public colleges and universities] for the first time, states didn’t want us to do it because they felt companies and people are paying their taxes and those taxes are underwriting these campuses at 70 cents to the dollar, and we don’t want you to go hassle them for more money. A lot of the companies in those days, because I was raising money in those days, actually had policies in place where they didn’t give to publics, because they felt that their tax dollars were going to the publics and their endowment dollars or their foundation dollars should go to the privates. What you’ve got to do is, from the day you bring [students] in, develop strong orientations, a strong belief and understanding of the campus that they’re becoming part of, and, for the traditional students at least, tell them about the history of the campus, teach them the fight song. The most important thing is to get them attached to the campus, whether it’s through a student club or a major, or through volunteerism. What we need is to ramp that up by several thousand percent and get more kids engaged so that when they do leave its not just, “Hey, I paid you, you gave me a decent education, I liked a couple of my faculty, I’m off with my life,” but that when it’s homecoming time, or when you get a call to come back to the campus for some kind of an alumni event, they want to be there. And that’s the beginning. The biggest piece is that 4- to 6-year period that they’re with you, to give them the kind of experience that they reflect back and say “That was fun, I’d love to do that again, I’d love to be part of that again.”