Robert Caret ready to take helm as UMass system president

By Nick Bush

Incoming University of Massachusetts system president Dr. Robert L. Caret comes to the Bay State with a unique record of problem-solving at his previous institutions. While President of San Jose State University, Caret oversaw the construction of the largest library west of the Mississippi River, the eight-storey Martin Luther King, Jr. Library. The library project was a collaborative effort between the city of San Jose and the university – the first of its kind in the country, and an example of Caret’s skill at promoting cooperation between likeminded constituencies, which will be crucial in his new role as leader of the UMass system.

Caret will be replacing outgoing president Jack Wilson, who last March announced he would be stepping down this June after eight years at the helm. Wilson is widely credited with bringing together the UMass system, fostering research collaboration between schools and attempting to build a more cohesive UMass brand. Caret will inherit many of Wilson’s current projects, including his ongoing branding efforts and the establishment of the UMass system’s first law school in Dartmouth last year.

Caret will also be inheriting the university system’s problems, along with its promise. UMass has long struggled to raise its profile, consistently battling dwindling state funding, a shrinking number of tenured faculty, low minority graduation rates and growing pains stemming from the diverse five-campus system’s continued expansion. The man now tasked with forging UMass’ future in the face of these disparate concerns is Caret, and his response may come to define his tenure as the 26th president of the 66,000-student UMass system.

The 63-year-old Caret is a New England native, having grown up in Biddeford, Me. Before completing his Ph.D. in organic chemistry at the University of New Hampshire in 1974, he became the first member of his family to attend college as an undergraduate at Suffolk University.

“As someone who was born and raised in New England, I can’t tell you how delighted I am to be returning to this region and becoming president of the University of Massachusetts,” Caret told The Daily Collegian. “They say you can’t go home again, but I am doing just that.

“Massachusetts is a very special place to me. It is where I studied as an undergraduate and first glimpsed the prospect of what has become my life’s work: teaching students and providing leadership at institutions of higher education. I was drawn to the former, which in turn led me to the latter. This is work that I take very seriously, and I am honored to have the opportunity to pursue it [at UMass].”

The progression of Caret’s candidacy for president did not pass without contentious moments. As the UMass Board of Trustees interviewed candidates in late November, the Boston Globe reported that members of the search committee considered UMass Lowell chancellor Martin Meehan to be the board’s likely choice. This prompted Gov. Deval Patrick to publicly demand a more transparent selection process, and Meehan ultimately withdrew his name from consideration. In a surprise move, UMass Board of Trustees Chairman Robert J. Manning proceeded to step down from his post, sighting Meehan’s withdrawal as a factor.

Despite the sometimes grueling selection process, the choice of Caret has been met largely with praise since it was announced on January 13.

“[Caret] demonstrated to [The Board of Trustees] that he had he had done extensive research into our university, and has a clear understanding of our complicated history in getting state support,” said Mike Fox, the Umass Amherst Student Government Association student trustee. “He has shown high levels of success at both previous universities where he has been president, and has shown an ability to improve the experiences of underrepresented groups, all of which greatly impressed the board.”

Caret made his mark over the past eight years as president of Towson University, Maryland’s second-largest public university, located just outside of Baltimore. Caret served as a faculty member, dean and provost at Towson for 21 years before leaving the school to become president of San Jose State in 1995, endowing him with firsthand experience across academia’s many realms.

Caret faces the hefty challenge of lobbying Beacon Hill for increased legislative support, a goal which has proved elusive for UMass during much of its history.

In his recent budget proposal for the fiscal 2012 budget, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick allotted $429 million for the five-campus UMass system, maintaining funding at its current levels. Outgoing-President Wilson has long warned that UMass will be facing a budget gap if state funding is not increased for the upcoming fiscal year, due to the impending loss of $37.8 million in federal stimulus funds set to expire and the current lack of state funding for nearly $17 million in raises and benefits for union contracts. If the final budget produced by the Massachusetts House and Senate in June keeps funding for the UMass system at $429 million, the next president will be tasked with overcoming a funding hole of more than $54 million. Caret will have no easy task in distributing the burdens of such a drastic economic discrepancy across a university system that for years has grappled with state funding levels lower than comparably wealthy states.

Caret seems prepared to fight hard to overcome the challenges the university system will face in the near future.

“The University of Massachusetts is critical to the future of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and that is a message that I am going to spread throughout Massachusetts and beyond our borders,” said Caret. “We are central to Massachusetts’ future. Yes, we have challenges, but I am confident that those challenges will be surmounted, and I believe that an important step in addressing those challenges is for us all – students, faculty, staff, alumni and administrators – to be more forceful and purposeful in telling our story.”

Dr. Timothy Sullivan, Chair of the Towson University Faculty Senate, has worked with Caret directly for the past eight years and seen his administrative style first-hand.

“From what I’ve seen of [Caret’s] management style, it is focused on understanding the institution,” said Sullivan. “He consistently asks, ‘Can we afford to do this and still achieve our mission?’ Even if a particular program has fewer majors, it may be important to the institution, and you have to find a way to fund it.”

“Caret has made a large impact on [Towson] over the past eight years,” said Daniel Gross, Editor-in-Chief of the Towson Towerlight, the school’s student newspaper. “Rather than working on student affairs issues, Caret seemed more focused on the big picture items, such as the business and marketing aspects of the university, and developing a master plan – and in general he has succeeded in getting Towson on the map,” said Gross. “As far as Maryland’s public higher education goes, the university is now second in size and prestige only to the University of Maryland College Park campus, and still growing.”

According to Sullivan, one reason Caret was well respected and effective at Towson is the seriousness with which he took the opinions of others, especially faculty members.

“When we didn’t agree on something, or there were differences in opinions, [Caret] was always a proponent of thoughtful discussion,” said Sullivan. “He doesn’t have a confrontational attitude, but rather aims for collaboration, which I think is a very good quality in a leader. When he has to make a tough decision, he gathers a lot of information and opinions in the process. I never felt like decisions were coming from the top down.”

Another critical issue that may come to define Caret’s presidency is the dwindling UMass faculty, which has been shrinking for nearly 20 years. According to a recent Boston Globe report, the UMass Amherst campus has lost nearly one-fifth of its tenure-track faculty over the past two decades, and in the past five years, the state has cut public higher-education appropriations per student by more than 13 percent.

Past attempts at expanding the faculty, such as the Amherst 250 plan, have been abandoned as funding became scarce. Now faced with a shrinking budget before even arriving, Caret will be in the difficult position of attempting to attract tenure-track faculty while simultaneously placating the fears of current faculty concerned about the fate of their programs.

“[Caret] has a very good reputation amongst the Towson faculty, and many of us are sorry to be losing him,” said Sullivan. “He listens to you, and is easy to talk to. There have not been any clashes or crises between him and the University Senate during his tenure, and we’ve maintained a very good relationship.”

Caret seems committed to using UMass’ strengths to his advantage, while at the same time finding ways around the system’s weaknesses.

“The University of Massachusetts is an institution with many strengths and has a strong and growing reputation throughout the nation,” said Caret. “As we see with some of the recent announcements, the University is enjoying impressive growth in key areas like student demand and enrollment, research funding and technology transfer, and with its laudable fundraising and endowment growth.”

According to Sullivan, Caret has shown a strong commitment to preserving academic programs, even in economically challenging periods.

“[Caret] started as part of the Towson faculty before moving into administrative work, and I think he has retained his understanding of the faculty’s mindset,” said Sullivan. “He’s been very thoughtful in tough money times to protect academic programs. We’ve had some situations where smaller programs were brought together into one, but I don’t think the faculty ever felt uncomfortable. Caret has always asked ‘What’s the most efficient way to accomplish what we want to accomplish as a university?’”

Wilson’s tenure emphasized research growth, particularly at the flagship Amherst campus. Caret seems prepared to carry on Wilson’s legacy here, with other campuses broadening their research commitments, including a planned expansion of masters and doctorate programs at UMass Boston.

Caret’s time at Towson also featured a renewed concentration on expanding profitable research programs.

“Our campus has been evolving, and Towson is much more research-orientated than we were 10 years ago,” said Sullivan. “Under Caret, we have been hiring young faculty and fostering a supportive environment for research. We don’t have a long tradition of raising a lot of money on campus – but that has begun to change, as funds coming from research grants and contracts have nearly doubled in recent years.”
Caret may also be poised to focus on the UMass system’s low minority graduation rate. In his eight years as president there, Caret oversaw a dramatic rise in Towson’s graduation rates for black and Hispanic students. When Caret was named president in 2002, only 45.9 percent of black students graduated in six years from Towson, compared to a campus average of 56.6 percent. By 2008, the university had raised this graduation rate by a striking 24 points, graduating 69.9 percent of black students (almost four percent better than the new campus average of 66.2 percent).

According to 2008 data compiled by The Education Trust, black students at UMass Amherst graduate in six years at a rate of 56.3 percent, 12.7 points lower than the average of 69 percent schoolwide. The 2008 graduation rates for Hispanic students at the Amherst campus were even lower, with only 51 percent graduating in six years, 18 points lower than the campus average.

The most recent data from The Education Trust shows UMass Amherst underperforming in this category compared to similar institutions, with more than 65 percent of black students graduating in six years at the University of California, Santa Cruz (65.9 percent) and Florida State University (69.5 percent). As recently as 2002, UMass Amherst graduated only 40.1 percent of its black students, and 52.1 percent of its Hispanic students in six years.

At Towson, Caret focused on admitting high-scoring students from strong public high schools, and then closely tracking each student’s progress by establishing strong mentoring and counseling networks on campus. In 2005, he made the bold step of guaranteeing admission and a partial scholarship to all students from Baltimore who finished in the top 10 percent of their high school class. According to a Washington Post report, the number of black freshmen from Baltimore attending Towson proceeded to rise from 34 to 98 in just a single year. Caret then worked hard to ease the transition to college for freshmen from disadvantaged backgrounds, establishing programs that pair freshmen with mentors and illuminate the importance of teamwork and study skills.

Nick Bush can be reached at [email protected]