Mitt Romney rarely visited the University of Massachusetts as governor, but on July 18, 2005, he called a news conference at the system’s Boston campus. It was sweltering out, but he barely broke a sweat. Standing in an underground parking garage so dilapidated it endangered the buildings above, he pledged $50 million for repairs.
What happened next would be part of a pattern marking his four-year effort to change higher education. His plan went nowhere.
Romney introduced a bill that could have paid for the garage, but he did not include a specific earmark for the project - a common way of attracting support in the Legislature. Weeks after the press conference, a high official of UMass said, he asked legislators about the garage and received only blank stares.
The Legislature ultimately gave UMass Boston $12 million, barely enough for emergency repairs, and the garage continued to crumble. The cost of fixing it went up. A year after Romney came calling, UMass deemed it unfixable and shut it down.
A review of Romney’s record on higher education as governor reveals several sweeping plans - a wholesale reform of the public system, steep budget cuts followed by dramatic funding proposals - that all ran into a buzz saw in the Democratic-controlled Legislature. Many were overshadowed by a high-profile battle with William Bulger, the former state Senate fixture who was then UMass president.
Supporters say Romney’s plans were ahead of their time. Almost all of them reflected his business mind-set. He would often sneak out of his office to visit budget wonks and pore with delight over spreadsheets, said Robert Costrell, a current Romney adviser who previously served as both the state’s chief economist and Romney’s top education aide.
“That had never happened before,’’ said Costrell, who also worked under two previous governors. “He was engaged with the data, very much so.’’
Romney “wanted to get things done, when it was at all possible,’’ Costrell added. “A lot of times it wasn’t possible.’’
Detractors note that the Legislature worked more smoothly on higher education with Romney’s three predecessors, all Republicans. If some legislators were hostile to Romney, they say, that was partly because he alienated them with campaign rhetoric and spent months browbeating Bulger out of office.
“I think legislators saw him as a guy who was used to calling the shots and not working collaboratively,’’ said state Senator Stan Rosenberg, a Democrat who cochairs the Legislature’s public higher education caucus and represents Amherst, home of the UMass flagship. “They wanted him to act like an equal partner, and because he came out of business and didn’t have legislative experience, he didn’t see the world that way.’’
Rosenberg said Romney called him twice to ask for his vote on legislation. “I felt respected,’’ said Rosenberg. “But that was early in his tenure. It never happened again.’’
Romney’s campaign website mentions little about higher education except to promote a merit-based scholarship his supporters call his signature accomplishment, and to link to a white paper that proposes to trim the Department of Education and encourage private-sector participation in the student loan market.
But his Massachusetts record matters to his Republican presidential campaign now more than ever. Recent ads have focused on his time as governor, and President Obama’s campaign aides have said they will target his time in office.
Observers of Governor Romney’s early months might have expected higher education to be a top priority. In 2003, eight weeks into his term, he called it “my opportunity to be bold’’ and proposed to overhaul the public college system.
His plan, based on reports by old colleagues at Bain & Co., was filed amid a $1 billion-plus state deficit. It called for cutting $150 million from the public system and getting rid of not only the UMass president but his entire office. It proposed combining six state schools into three and consolidating 22 campuses’ back offices into seven.
It argued for spinning off the Amherst flagship and effectively privatizing three other schools so they could raise tuition without Board of Higher Education approval. Talking points from the time noted ominously that without the authority to raise prices, the three schools would have a low chance “to survive declining state support.’’
That fit Romney’s general philosophy, said Jean MacCormack, who as chancellor of UMass Dartmouth sparred with him over establishing a public law school: “He said to me once, ‘If something is being done well in the private sector, why do we need to do it in the public sector?’ ’’
Another of Romney’s 2003 proposals raised eyebrows statewide. Romney wanted to charge students 15 to 28 percent more to attend four-year public campuses. His corresponding plan to boost financial aid by $44 million got less attention.
Some of Romney’s 2003 proposals still have supporters. He called for campuses to be funded partly on the basis of student performance, an idea championed by the current Board of Higher Education. His consolidation agenda is echoed in a recent proposal by the Boston Foundation, a powerful philanthropy group.
And his proposed increase in the cost of attendance was de facto enacted by public campuses, which raised fees 23 percent on average during the Romney era to cope with budget cuts. The schools also increased financial aid.
“He put that approach on the table as a policy, and we rejected it,’’ Rosenberg said. “Then we did it anyway.’’
But almost all Romney’s 2003 ideas were ultimately subsumed by his five-month crusade that year to remove Bulger from the UMass presidency, a move driven by events unrelated to higher education.
Bulger had been reluctant to speak about the possible whereabouts of his gangster brother, James “Whitey’’ Bulger. Romney vented his displeasure in the media, but his office argued that his reform package was not mere window dressing for a hit on a political opponent - one whom he had privately asked for advice on governing across party lines, according to an official who worked for Bulger.
A 2003 Board of Higher Education brochure aimed at UMass students made Romney’s case. “Myth: This whole plan is just an attempt to get rid of President Bulger,’’ it read. “Fact: Not true at all.’’
Legislators did not see things that way. Some of them dug in further when Romney blocked $371 million in UMass funding that would have paid for, among other things, dormitories at the Boston campus, a favorite project of Bulger’s.
“It came on my desk as simply a rubber-stamp sign-off,’’ said Eric Kriss, a former Romney finance adviser and cofounder of Bain Capital. “But it didn’t appear there had been a thoughtful discussion about the mission of UMass Boston and whether the dorms would be supportable.’’
Kriss said he told Bulger and other UMass officials to “come back with an integrated strategic plan.’’
Instead, believing he was an obstacle to his own university, Bulger announced on Aug. 3, 2003, that he would resign.
By that time the rest of Romney’s higher ed proposal was dead. The governor who would later push through a major health care overhaul had not yet learned how to build a coalition.
“I remember a meeting with his staff where someone asked, ‘have you thought through the political strategy?’ ’’ said John Schneider, former executive vice president of the think tank MassINC.“And they just said, ‘well, we’ve got a lot of work to do.’ ’’
Romney did not attempt another reorganization during his term. Occasionally, he negotiated deals affecting higher education - a UMass union contract, for instance, and the move of a life sciences company into a facility at UMass Dartmouth. But he vetoed legislation or cut funding that supported those deals.
Romney does have two higher ed achievements to promote on the campaign trail. He pushed state schools to shore up their science and math standards.
And in 2004, he established the John and Abigail Adams Scholarship, which gives four years of public college tuition to students who score in the top quarter in their districts on a state standardized test. He worked with legislators to ensure its passage and has said the day when he personally named winners was one of his favorites: “I got more hugs on Adams Scholarship day than I did at Christmas.’’
Early critics said the scholarship would funnel aid away from those in need. That worry was not borne out, said Costrell, because data show needy students are more likely than wealthy ones to use the scholarship.
But critics still note that the scholarship covers only tuition, which is not much. At UMass Amherst, it accounts for just 7 percent of the cost of attendance.
Parents do appreciate the Adams money. “It’s not a lot, but it’s a lot to me,’’ said Dasheka Tate, a nurse and single mother from Dorchester whose daughter will attend UMass Amherst this year.
Yet guidance counselors say the scholarship does little to keep bright students in state schools - one of its key goals - because elite private institutions can offer so many grants that they may actually wind up being cheaper.
Asked if she would encourage a student to go to UMass over an elite private school because of the Adams scholarship, Liz Beal, a counselor at Fenway High School, was emphatic. “No, no, no,’’ she said. “It’s a small bonus. But it isn’t making that decision for students. Ever.’’Mary Carmichael can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @mary_carmichael.