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Caret, Patrick at odds over plan for UMass fee hike

School president wants 4.9% increase; Governor Patrick says system must first cut costs

UMass president Robert L. Caret and Governor Deval Patrick are now exchanging heated words over the UMass system’s proposed increases in student fees.

JOHN TLUMACKI/GLOBE STAFF/FILE 2011

UMass president Robert L. Caret and Governor Deval Patrick are now exchanging heated words over the UMass system’s proposed increases in student fees.

In an unusual public spat, Governor Deval Patrick and University of Massachusetts president Robert Caret are quarreling over a proposal that would raise UMass fees by 4.9 percent.

Caret proposed the hike Tuesday evening, saying he deeply regretted it, but adding: ‘‘We need to have a certain critical mass of dollars to educate our students and run our operations. The state keeps cutting us, and we just can’t keep up.’’

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Patrick, however, said UMass needs to further cut costs before it demands more money from struggling families. In a letter to Caret Tuesday, he wrote, ‘‘I am not convinced that UMass has yet done enough to find efficiencies and reduce costs so that any new revenue is dedicated to teaching and learning.’’

Caret fired back in an interview: ‘‘To say we’re not looking at efficiencies is ridiculous.’’

The fee increase sailed through a UMass finance committee vote, 10 to 2, Tuesday and is likely to pass the full board Wednesday morning.

Patrick has not lobbied UMass trustees, whom he appoints, to mobilize them against the measure. But Secretary of Education Paul Reville, a member of the board, is expected to argue against it on instructions from Patrick, proposing instead a comprehensive study examining new ways UMass might cut costs.

Under the proposed increase, in-state students at the four undergraduate UMass campuses would pay about $580 more per year, and the total cost of attending would rise from $11,901 to $12,481. Fees, which support a wide variety of university activities, by far outstrip in-state tuition, which is set by the state and has stayed level for a decade, at about $1,600, depending on the campus.

The proposed fee increase would track with the university’s overall trend. UMass has raised fees 10 times in the last decade, including by 7.5 percent last year.

The increase would be smaller than those at other public schools, including many Massachusetts state universities outside the UMass system and several UMass peer institutions. The University of New Hampshire, for example, raised fees 12.5 percent this year.

Caret and Patrick have been loosely debating a possible fee hike for months. But officials representing both sides gave differing accounts of the negotiations.

According to an administration official, Caret originally approached the governor seeking an increase of more than 8 percent. Advised to reduce the number, he came back proposing 5.9 percent.

Caret disputed that account, saying the discussion never got that specific or serious.

Until Tuesday morning, according to several UMass officials, Caret thought Reville was on board with his proposal.

Instead, said administration officials, the governor appealed directly to Caret with both the letter and a phone call.

The letter, a copy of which was provided to the Globe, noted that the congressional standoff over student loan interest rates may further pinch family budgets and was signed with a handwritten note from Patrick: ‘‘Consider my suggestion seriously.’’

Patrick’s proposed budget for next year includes $455 million for the UMass system, 6 percent more than the current year’s budget.

But that boost could be offset by rising operational costs at UMass. The system is trying to pay off $63 million in new union contract obligations and debt service alone, university officials said.

The fee increase, which applies to all undergraduate and most graduate students, would generate $25 million in net additional revenue, according to the university.

The committee meeting on the proposal Tuesday was long but not contentious. Almost two hours in, UMass board chairman James Karam suggested an amendment, calling on UMass to freeze fees at the new rate for the next two years, provided that the state agree to kick in enough funding during those years to match revenue from fees and tuition, a dearly held goal of Caret’s.

‘‘I was trying to send a message to the Legislature and the governor: ‘If you can agree [to] commit to take us back to 2009 funding, we will commit to have zero increases for the following two years,’ ’’ Karam said. ‘‘I think that’s a hell of a commitment.’’

The amendment passed with the rest of the proposal.

Of the two people voting against the proposal, one was Reville; the other was a student trustee, James Tarr of UMass Lowell.

A second student trustee, Peter Shock of UMass Dartmouth, voted for the increase. ‘‘If we had state support, I would be all about voting against it,’’ he said. ‘‘But I’ve talked to my peers in the last couple of days, and students are worried about quality. Without the fee increase, we can’t be a top-ranked research institution.’’

Other UMass students were dismayed to hear they would likely face yet another hike in prices.

‘‘I think the whole strategy of the board of trustees has been to do these modest increases every single year, to make it seem like it’s not that bad,’’ said Paul Weiskel, a junior at UMass Boston who was involved in last fall’s Occupy protests on campus. ‘‘In the end, it’s the same result, which is pricing out the people the university was meant to serve.’’

UMass has tried to ease the burden on some students by beefing up financial aid packages. Typically, said Karam, about a third of revenue from any fee increase at UMass goes toward financial aid.

But Weiskel said he still found such initiatives unsatisfying. Much financial aid is distributed in the form of loans, he said, ‘‘which don’t exactly solve the problem.’’

Mary Carmichael can be reached at mary.carmichael@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @mary_carmichael.
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