State should give UMass more autonomy, says report

By Daniel J. Fitzgibbons

Additional funds for research, business and government partnerships and faculty recruitment could be freed up if the state eases statutory requirements governing various University operations, according to a report released June 1 by the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation.

The five-campus system, which has seen state support drop by 25 percent over the past three years, is hamstrung by inflexible rules and procedures, says the 23-page report titled, “The University of Massachusetts: Removing Barriers to Educational Excellence at the State’s Public Research University.” The study calls for a number of minimal-cost reforms, including tuition retention, authority to set and define tuition, increased flexibility to build or lease facilities, and a relaxation of Continuing Education regulations governing faculty workloads.

Stressing the key role that UMass plays in the state economy, the report says the system must be able to compete head-to-head with other public and private research institutions for federal and industry support, top faculty and graduate students.

According to the study, competing effectively requires the ability to invest seed money to attract outstanding professors and build labs; flexibility in acquiring and modifying space quickly in response to new opportunities; and the ability to assign faculty where they are most needed.

To underscore the point, the report cites the example of a biotechnology firm that located at the University of Connecticut because UMass Amherst officials were unable to free up $100,000 to bring a building up to code to house the company.

Already pressed financially by deferred maintenance demands and the state’s limited ability to fund capital projects, says the study, the University is further handcuffed by state regulations that direct million of dollars in tuition payments to the commonwealth’s General Fund.

As a result, the University’s use of those funds – about $84 million in 2003 -- in the “fast-paced competition for research dollars is severely limited,” according to the foundation. Furthermore, says the study, state budgetary procedures often delay the availability of funds for several months at the beginning of each fiscal year, while other rules require that funds be committed nearly two months before the end of the fiscal year.

In addition, the study notes, unused appropriations expire each June 30 and cannot be carried over to respond to unanticipated opportunities.

The channeling of tuition to the General Fund, according to the report, also deters the University from recruiting more students since state appropriations are not tied to enrollment. As a result, the University incurs additional costs for more students, while receiving only the fees paid by those students.

The foundation’s report proposes that the University be granted the authority to retain 100 percent of the tuition revenues and to expend those monies without state appropriation. “By including an offsetting reduction in the university’s appropriation, the proposal would have little or no cost impact on the state budget,” concludes the study.

The study also endorses stripping the authority to set tuition from the Board of Higher Education and giving it to the University’s Board of Trustees, which would be empowered to redefine tuition to reflect true student expenses. Currently tuition accounts for only 21 percent of charges to in-state undergraduates at UMass Amherst, while the rest is covered by fees.

Redefining student costs would allow many students who qualify for tuition waivers or tuition reimbursement to recoup a much a larger share of their costs since fees are not covered by either program, says the study.

The report also urges state officials to give the University the authority to carry over state-appropriated funds into the following year.

Other recommendations call on the state to continue to pay fringe benefit costs for UMass employees paid from retained tuition and to fund explicitly any expansion of state tuition waiver programs.

Compounding the lack of capital funds for renovation and construction of facilities, says the report, the University faces a “thicket of burdensome state controls” that increase the timeframe and cost of building. Except where non-state funds are used, UMass is prohibited from managing its own construction or making decisions on leasing property.

In response, the MTF report recommends that responsibility for managing UMass construction projects be transferred from the state Division of Capital Asset Management to the University of Massachusetts Building Authority. In some cases, says the report, the building authority could delegate management responsibility to individual campuses.

The study goes on to recommend that the University be given permanent authority to sign leases without further state approval, a change aimed at speeding up the acquisition of off-campus space and the leasing of campus facilities to business partners.

The report’s final recommendation addresses the issue of statutory limits that prevent full-time “day” faculty from teaching night or continuing education classes that accommodate many older or working students. “At a time when the state has been forced to cut back its financial support so dramatically, university deans need the flexibility to assign their faculty in ways that better meet student needs and support their efforts to foster research,” says the study.

The report drew praise from President Jack M. Wilson, who said, “I am sure that these recommendations will receive careful attention from state policymakers and will help to shape public higher education discussions in the weeks and months ahead. I wholeheartedly embrace the MTF’s core assertion that the University of Massachusetts is critical to the Commonwealth’s economic future.”

“It has many very useful suggestions for improving the operation of the various campuses of the university, and most of the suggestions would be beneficial to Amherst specifically,” said Chancellor John V. Lombardi. “As always, the devil is in the details, and how any particular proposal helps would depend greatly on how it would be implemented. … We appreciate the insight from the Mass. Taxpayers Foundation and we look forward to the discussion it should generate.”