Chancellor Robert Holub to leave UMass

By William Perkins

Three years ago, Robert Holub arrived on the University of Massachusetts campus to assume the role of chancellor and take the helm of the state’s flagship school.

Jeff Bernstein/Collegian
Jeff Bernstein/Collegian

But now the tall and slender man with a receding hairline who has served as chancellor of the University since August 2008 – and has had a voice that’s reverberated from Orchard Hill to Beacon Hill – will soon get ready to pack his bags and head out.

Holub will step down and depart from the school by July 31, 2012, officials at the UMass President’s Office, which at the time was headed by Jack Wilson, announced in late June.

He’ll leave amid reports that a committee charged with evaluating his performance had given him a negative review and recommended that his contract not be renewed.

And he’ll leave a post that’s been occupied by five different people in the last decade, once again, vacant. A search to find the next chancellor will begin this month.

But, while officials have already begun to map out nascent plans for the selection of Holub’s successor, a number of questions surrounding his impending departure still linger. Answers to any specific queries for the time being, though, have been hard to come by. Those with apparent knowledge of the situation have remained relatively mum – and have not commented on any specificities, citing the personal nature of the matter.

The only information directly issued by the University on the matter came in the form of a press release, which was disseminated shortly after the terms of Holub’s exit were hammered out. And officials contacted have refused to divulge almost any information not included in that release.

“I would just refer you to the press release,” a taciturn Robert Connolly, a spokesman for the UMass President’s Office, told the Massachusetts Daily Collegian.

That release makes note of the departure and provides some information on achievements accomplished by the school during his tenure.

It also includes statements from Holub and others abreast of the situation.

“I look forward to leading this great institution on its current trajectory of success for another year,” Holub – who declined to speak to the Collegian – was quoted as saying. “At the conclusion of what will be my fourth year as Chancellor, I am confident that I will leave UMass Amherst in a stronger position to build upon the many outstanding achievements of the campus during my tenure.”

But the release is scant on any details surrounding the decampment or the review authored the evaluation committee. It also doesn’t corroborate or refute the reports that the committee had cast his performance in a pejorative light, leaving much of the wondering public speculate what led to the exit of a man who came to UMass with a goal of raising the University’s stature.

Ascension to the top

Holub, 61, a New Jersey native, took over the reigns as chancellor on Aug. 1, 2008, succeeding interim chancellor Thomas Cole – who was at the helm of the school for a year – and John Lombardi, who had led the school since 2002 and left in the midst of a conflict with Wilson, the president of the University system.

At the time, Holub – a German scholar who has held previous administrative posts at the University of Tennessee and the University of California-Berkeley – had remarked that what drew him to the campus was an advertisement noting the school’s desire to progress into a top-ranking institution.

“I want to be at a campus that wants to improve and wants to gain more prominence nationally as a public university,” he told a crowd on campus in April 2008 during the still nascent search process for chancellor, the Collegian reported.

Holub was one of a group four candidates who had been tapped by a search committee – composed of University trustees, alumni, faculty and students – to become the next leader of the state’s flagship public higher education institution. The committee, which was made up of 24 people, was chosen by Wilson in conjunction with the Board of Trustees. The group of searchers also worked in cooperation with a search firm to acquire a wide array of candidates.

“The search committee developed a scope of what we do, and then we hired a search firm and then they sought out people from all kinds of places,” said Max Page, a member of the search committee and a professor of architecture and history who has also served as the president of the Massachusetts Society of Professors, the primary faculty union.

And some of the qualities the committee looked for in prospective candidates were the abilities to work well with students, alumni and members of the greater campus community, according to Kathleen Mitchell, another member of the committee and the past president of the UMass Alumni Association. Mitchell also noted that the committee was looking for a candidate who possessed great leadership skills and had the capability to help push the school’s mission and raise its standing.

Besides Holub, the other finalists recommended by the committee included Satish Tripathi, who at the time served as a provost and vice president for academic affairs at the University of Buffalo; Harris Pastides, a former faculty member in the UMass School of Public Health, who at the time served as the vice president for Research and Health Sciences at the University of South Carolina; and Martin Hall, who then served as the deputy chancellor at the University of Cape Town.

Hall, who had a few relatives who attended UMass, was the favorite of some faculty members and the then-president of the undergraduate Student Government Association, reports from the time indicate.

But Holub won the support of Wilson, who then got the go-ahead from the University trustees to appoint him to the chancellorship.

“Robert Holub is a distinguished scholar, a proven administrator and is driven by a desire to make UMass Amherst one of the premiere public universities in the nation,” Wilson said of the appointment at the time, the Collegian reported. “Excellence has been the hallmark of Dr. Holub’s academic career and will be his watchword and goal at UMass Amherst.”

In the arena

From the get-go of his tenure, Holub underscored a broad goal for the University – to raise the school’s stature and recognition.

“I believe … that the Amherst campus of the University of Massachusetts should be more than a regional power; it should aspire to the upper echelon of national public universities,” he said during his first address to the faculty as chancellor in September 2008, the Collegian reported at the time.

And some of the stature-raising initiatives have proven to be successful.

The school, according to statistics, has become more selective in recent years – with numbers showing that this year’s incoming freshmen class has higher average GPAs and cumulative SAT scores than any other class in the school’s history. The number of out-of-state students attending the University has also increased, according to statistics.

In addition, the UMass football team recently announced it would jump from the Football Championship Subdivision in the Colonial Athletic Association to the more prestigious Football Bowl Subdivision in the Mid-American Conference.

Holub also fought to try to gain UMass membership into the Association of American Universities – a prestigious organization consisting of a slew of research colleges and universities.

And Holub, according to some town officials, also fostered a strong relationship with the Amherst community as a whole.

“The partnership between the Town and the University has never been stronger, and a lot of credit for that goes to Chancellor Holub,” said Stephanie O’Keeffe, the chairwoman of the Amherst Select Board in a statement to the Collegian. “His vision for the University and the importance he places on both the institution and its students being responsible members of the larger community have been much appreciated.

“He and his staff have been true partners in working to jointly address the challenges and tensions that naturally arise in college towns,” continued O’Keeffe. “That has been a strong focus under his leadership.”

Large ongoing construction projects on campus also continued to take place under Holub’s belt. A new Commonwealth Honors College building consisting of classrooms and residencies is slated to be opened in 2013, and a new academic building expected to house classrooms for linguistics, journalism and communications programs is set to be unveiled in 2014.

During Holub’s tenure, though, funding to the University – and much of the UMass system as a whole – also continued to be a flash point issue.

The cost of fees students at the school have had to pay has also steadily increased – and was hiked by 7.5 percent by the Board of Trustees in June.

And, due to some fiscal and other consolidation plans, Holub successfully managed to merge College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics and the College of Natural Resources and the Environment into a single school known as just the College of Natural Sciences in 2009. But a plan first introduced by Holub to merge the College of Humanities and Fine Arts and the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences into the College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences has been met with scrutiny and criticism from some faculty members of the respective schools.

Parting ways

Towards the end of last semester, a committee composed of seven people was formed to evaluate the performance of Holub – as is required by the Board of Trustees to conduct on occasion.

And in May, reports surfaced in the Boston Globe that the committee had given him a largely negative review and recommended that his contract – which was set to expire on July 31, 2011 – not be renewed.

The Globe, citing unnamed sources, reported that the committee was particularly upset with a plan introduced by Holub to study the prospect of opening a medical school in Springfield. The paper also reported that the committee did not feel Holub promoted diversity on campus as much as he should have, and noted that evaluation committee members felt Holub had poor communication skills.

In June, the Globe, again citing unnamed sources, subsequently reported that Holub issued a letter to Attorney General Martha Coakley’s office requesting an investigation into the leaks of the information about the evaluation committee’s report.

And on June 30 – Wilson’s, who had announced ahead of time that he was leaving his post, last day as president of the University – word was disseminated from his office in the University press release that Holub would be departing from the school by July 2012. The Office of the President also announced that Holub could leave before then if a replacement is found in time.

Connolly, the spokesman for the president’s office, would not say if the news of Holub’s departure was directly related to the report of the evaluation committee.

“The press release that announced the situation … is probably what we’re going to say publicly,” said Connolly. He also said that any reports made by the evaluation committee would not be made public due to the personal nature of the documents.

But a publicly released evaluation report drafted by roughly 200 members of the Massachusetts Society of Professors gives Holub unfavorable markings on some things.

In an eight-query questionnaire, the majority of respondents gave Holub poor or unacceptable ratings on issues dealing with his development of senses of unity, purpose and growth at the University; his effectiveness in working with fellow administrators and employees and encouraging affirmative action; his ability to form relationships with faculty and students; and his fostering of planning documents and policies.

The majority of respondents, though, did give Holub average ratings in his ability to support and enhance the school’s mission; his ability to make the school attractive; and his ability at supervising the distribution of campus’s budgetary, personnel and physical resources. Most respondents, however, noted that they couldn’t judge his abilities at maintaining relationships with alumni and other agencies and entities.

Randall Phillis, the current president of the union and an associate professor of biology, could not be reached for comment on the report. But Page, the former president, said that he feels the focus now should be more on looking ahead than behind.

“Clearly there were enough strong feelings among a wide range of actors that this particular chancellor and this relationship did not work out, and let’s move on,” said Page.

Even so, the news of the circumstances of Holub’s departure was still unsettling to some.

“I was disturbed with all the press I read,” said Mitchell, one of the search committee members. “I feel that it’s premature and unfortunate.”

“I think that he’s done a very good job,” continued Mitchell, a 1979 graduate of the School of Business Administration. “I feel that anyone in that role … has a very difficult time trying to meet the expectations of many masters.”

W. Brian O’Connor, a professor of biology and the presiding office of the UMass Faculty Senate, also said that he was upset that word of the evaluation committee’s sentiment was leaked.

“I thought it was most unprofessional of whoever leaked the information to the Boston Globe,” said O’Connor, who has worked at UMass since 1967, “because it was a confidential personnel file that should have never been leaked to the public.”

“I think that Holub did a very good job in many situations,” added O’Connor. “Maybe he did make some mistakes communicating his ideas and he didn’t get them across, but in the long run … in what he has managed to do in three years in terms of construction, in terms of improving the student profile, in terms of increasing the number of faculty – although not as much as we hoped – he’s done a lot of positive things.

“And I think it’s kind of a shame if it came down to his ability to communicate with the trustees and that’s why he leaving, that’s unfortunate,” added O’Connor.

The next chapter

It remains uncertain where Holub will go next. But he will not be taking a severance package when he decamps and will continue to work under the terms of his original contract for this year – which includes an annual salary of $375,000 – said Ed Blaguszewski, a UMass spokesman.

A search committee composed of a wide array of members of the greater UMass community will probably be formed sometime this month to look for the school’s next leader, according to Connolly. That committee will eventually make a recommendation to new UMass President Robert Caret, who will then have to get the go-ahead from the trustees to appoint the next chancellor.

“Generally, we try to form committees that are representative of the University as a whole,” said Connolly. He added that the committee will most likely be made up of students, faculty, alumni, trustees and community members.

But in order for the next chancellor to succeed, according to O’Connor, the person will most likely have to be someone who has past experience working with professional unions and politicians.

“I do hope whoever takes his place does have an understanding of how to deal with professional unions, how to deal with trustees and how to deal with politicians,” said O’Connor, who noted that he and other Faculty Senate members are lobbying to have a majority of the search committee be made up of students and faculty.

Page, though, said that too much stake shouldn’t be put into one single person to make a difference as chancellor. The next chancellor, he said, should work in cooperation with other state leaders and boards to advocate for more funding for the University.

“I just think we should not be putting too much hope into any individual leader,” said Page. “It’s not about a single leader.”

William Perkins can be reached at [email protected]