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Thomas Farragher

UMass re-making the grade

We were somewhere west of Worcester in a minivan packed with clothes, bedding, printers, a tiny fridge, and two kids headed for their freshman and sophomore years at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst.

I was riding in the back seat, with an edition of the newspaper you are now reading, when I learned that we were apparently not bound for glory. “At UMass, top rung remains out of reach,’’ the front-page headline read.

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That was four years ago this week, and I did what any proud father of UMass students would do. I quickly turned to the Shaughnessy column on the sports page.

In less than a year, the state’s university system had a new president and when I spoke with him the other day, I was feeling much better about the three UMass-Amherst degrees collected by my children.

“If you go to many other states, the Legislature’s often a majority land-grant graduates from that state and have a great deal of pride in it,’’ UMass president Robert L. Caret told me. “And here that has not historically been true. But we’re getting there now.’’

He’s right. And he can prove it. Earlier this year, state lawmakers approved a budget that gave the UMass system enough money to allow the school to freeze tuition and fees for a second straight year.

“They’ve given us a $100 million base increase, the biggest increase in UMass history,’’ Caret crowed.

And last month the front page of the Globe had a different kind of UMass story, an uplifting tale that detailed how the five UMass campuses, along with the nine-campus university system, have almost doubled their yearly private fund-raising totals over the last 10 years.

That speaks of confidence in an institution that is beginning to show some swagger. It’s about time.

Walk around the University of Connecticut campus in Storrs and you’ll find a sparkling campus that enjoys the strong support of lawmakers who are proud of their marquee public institution of higher learning. Boston College has a large, generous, and politically connected network of alumni.

And now UMass has a real chance to fashion a hybrid of those two schools. By its own count, UMass graduates now occupy 46 of the 200 elected seats on Beacon Hill. Twelve of them are in the 40-member state Senate, where they hold some of the most powerful posts.

In other words, UMass — with the exception of its football team (that’s another column) — is on a winning streak. And Bob Caret is its agile architect.

This UMass president is not your typical ivory tower type. Even as you take in his corner-office, panoramic view of Boston from his 33d-floor suite, it’s just as easy to imagine him sitting next to you at a poker game, cracking a joke and sipping a good strong drink.

The son of a Biddeford, Maine, luncheonette owner and the first in his family to attend college, Caret is the father of four children who knows what college kids — and their parents — want and deserve.

“There is this ego thing,’’ he said. “You want your kids to be at some place you’re proud of and you want them with a peer group that you’re proud of. And I think what we’ve shown is that when you come to UMass, you’re getting that. It’s not a default. It’s a choice.’’

I’ll say. The school will announce Wednesday that its systemwide enrollment has jumped 30 percent in the last decade.

Hey, if you think I’m in the tank for UMass, so be it. It’s a tank in which I’ve invested about $300,000.

By the way, that freshman kid who sat next to me in that minivan four years ago collected his UMass diploma in May. He got a job in his field and recently purchased a spiffy second-hand Jeep that cost more than any car I’ve ever bought.

Here’s the first thing he did before he drove it off the lot: He proudly affixed his maroon UMass magnetic decal to the rear bumper.

Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at thomas.farragher@globe.com.
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