Romney advisor visits campus, discusses priorities

By Daniel J. Fitzgibbons

As a new legislative session approaches, the Romney administration’s higher education agenda includes capital spending, construction reform and strengthening ties between the UMass, state college and community college systems, according to Ann Reale, senior policy and education advisor to the governor.

Reale, a 1989 UMass Amherst graduate in Economics, visited campus Nov. 4 to discuss key issues with Chancellor John V. Lombardi and other administrators and to make a first-hand assessment of facilities and maintenance needs. For Reale, who was handed the education portfolio in April after serving as the state’s chief fiscal officer since 2003, the return to Amherst gave her some fresh perspectives.

Based on her conversation with the chancellor, said Reale, Lombardi understands the financial challenges facing the state and is responding accordingly.

“Chancellor Lombardi’s realistic about the state’s ability to provide more resources for the university and is trying to put as much effort as possible to develop new revenue sources,” she said. “It’s good to know that more emphasis is being placed on securing more federal and private research support and fundraising.”

Reale said Lombardi also raised the need to renew a two-year-old pilot program that has allowed the campus to retain tuition from out-of-state students. Approved as part of the FY04 state budget, the initiative generates an estimated $28 million for the campus.

“Tuition retention is about to sunset,” said Reale, citing the need for new legislative authorization. “We’re very interested in continuing that program.”

After touring the campus and getting briefed on facilities and maintenance issues, Reale said she has a better handle on institutional priorities. “A picture’s worth a thousand words,” she said, “but to see it in person is worth a million.”

Since capital funds are released at the discretion of the governor and the Executive Office of Administration and Finance, Reale said she is hopeful that more funding may be made available for facilities. She also said Romney supports construction reforms that could speed up construction by reducing regulatory requirements.

But politics are part of the equation, she said, noting that a $20 million capital spending plan for higher education previously proposed by Romney was not funded by the Democratically-controlled Legislature. The loss of three Republican seats earlier this month makes the passage of construction reforms “more challenging,” Reale conceded.

Reale praised the campus’s efforts to improve ties with local community colleges, saying the strategy reflects the Romney administration’s view that public education should be part of a continuum from elementary education through graduate school.

She pointed to the newly created John and Abigail Adams Scholarship program, which provides four-year tuition waivers at public campuses to students scoring in the top 25 percent of MCAS exam takers by the end of their junior year. The program, which will begin in 2005, will help improve recruitment and retention, said Reale, and free up some merit-based aid on the campus level.

Reale said the Adams Scholarships will also promote the idea of higher education among high school students who may not have previously considered continuing on to college. “If they get a letter telling them they have a four-year tuition waiver, it will get them thinking about the opportunity,” she said.

According to Reale, Romney also recognizes the importance of UMass Amherst within the public higher education system. “The flagship represents the system’s quality,” she said, “and the governor supports the need to preserve its status as the flagship.”

For Reale, being the governor’s education advisor continues a career path she began after her original plan to be a teacher didn’t work out. Her six-month teaching stint in a Braintree middle school “wasn’t necessarily what I was expecting from education. I appreciate the challenges of being in a classroom.”

From there, she went to Syracuse University, where she completed a master’s degree in public administration. In 1996, she joined the Executive Office of Health and Human Services as a budget analyst, then became Gov. Paul Cellucci’s budget director and later undersecretary of Administration and Finance.

Since she was tapped for the education advisor’s role last spring, Reale said her background on the fiscal side of state government has been helpful. “I see opportunities and connections to economic development and other areas for education.”

And her experiences have reinforced the idea that government officials can’t operate in a vacuum. “If you make decisions without talking to people,” Reale said, “they are not going to be good decisions.”