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ADRIAN WALKER

Even in crisis, UMass Boston can’t shake its habit of political hiring

JIM DAVIS/GLOBE STAFF

The library building on the campus of UMass Boston in Dorchester.

By Globe Columnist 

I thought the University of Massachusetts Boston had fallen on hard times, but apparently that depends on whose times we are discussing.

Times don’t seem to be hard at all for the retinue of recycled Beacon Hill solons and Democratic Party fixtures who have negotiated a soft landing in the midst of the rubble and chaos on Columbia Point.

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According to a report by the Globe’s Laura Krantz, the politically connected are doing quite well at the campus, despite its well-publicized budget crisis. Some courses have been canceled, staff pared back, and professors have even been ordered to cut back on photocopying, but that hasn’t prevented the chosen few from landing lucrative positions.

The most prominent of them is Tom Sannicandro, a former state representative who was hired at a salary of $165,000 to manage an institute that advocates for the assimilation of people with disabilities into society. That is a worthy cause, though whether it is central to the mission of UMass Boston strikes me as a fair question.

The hires include ex-lawmakers, a former head of the state Democratic Party, and a former Harvard administrator most recently employed by the Boston Water and Sewer Commission. Just seven of them command nearly $1 million a year in salary. They are high-priced administrators in a school already drowning in bureaucrats.

The timing of all this could not be worse. The school’s chancellor, J. Keith Motley, was recently forced out, supposedly because of the school’s budget woes. Its deficit was projected at one point to be as high as $30 million, though more recent estimates place it closer to $10 million. Either way, it is hardly an institution that can afford to be a lucrative landing spot. Yet that’s exactly what the school seems to have become.

Some would argue that this is nothing new. UMass Boston was born in scandal — two state senators went to prison for corruption when it was built in the 1970s. Ever since, it has been a plum destination for people with connections.

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Why UMass Boston? Well, for one thing, it’s a much more convenient commute for most former government officials than the campuses in Lowell, Dartmouth, Worcester, or Amherst. Also, for this subcategory of hires, having little, if any, experience in higher education has never been a problem. There seems to be a cultural presumption on campus that having politically wired people around is a huge asset.

Except there is scant evidence that their presence has helped. The biggest political problem facing UMass Boston right now might be resolving its longstanding struggle to get the state to pay for renovating its collapsing parking garage, which will cost a small fortune to repair. For years, the state has been reluctant to commit the millions of dollars the school needs. What good is a million-dollar lobbying team of legislative retreads if they can’t get a garage fixed?

Marty Meehan, the president of the University of Massachusetts system, is among those vexed by the hiring practices of the Boston campus. He stressed in a phone call Tuesday that his office had no say over the hires, even claiming that he heard about Sannicandro’s new job from Krantz.

“UMass Boston will not survive unless there is serious belt-tightening, and that is long overdue,” Meehan said. The head of the system did not dispute that many of the hires have been politically motivated, and he said they should stop, claiming he had made similar choices during his tenure as chancellor at the Lowell campus. “We cut people who were politically connected,” Meehan said. “I’ll leave it at that.”

There is plenty of room for debate about whether Motley bore too much blame for the fiscal woes of the campus, which seem to be partly the result of an ill-planned building boom. But there isn’t much doubt that UMass isn’t getting what it is paying for from its roster of political hires.

And once again, UMass Boston students are virtually overlooked supporting players in the school’s ongoing drama. Once again, there is money for everyone but them.


Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist He can be reached at adrian.walker@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter: adrian_walker.