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Saturday, August 30, 2003

Tight Money in Mass

Today's Boston Globe is full of articles about the state, businesses or individuals fighting to get more money.

Bill Bulger's request for a larger pension gets front-page coverage. You'd think that the extra $32,000 he's asking for annually is what is going to make or break the state budget from the coverage the story gets, when in fact the state is a few billion dollars short of the cash needed to provide the same services as a few years ago. But of course the Globe would never let antipathy toward Bulger color its coverage, or whip up public opinion to try to influence a vote by the state pension board.

Tom Reilly is criticizing KeySpan for planning to jack up energy bills 40 percent in some cases this winter. That story also gets top billing on the front page, and justifiably so, since it means a lot of people could have trouble affording to heat their homes adequately this winter.

Meanwhile the state is trying to raise some cash itself through a T fare hike that a new report, called self-serving by critics, says would have little impact. All I know is that the T's service is generally poor and unreliable, and it isn't even worth what I pay now.

The state has also introduced fees for using rooms in the State House for events during the day, "as much as $4,650 for daytime use of the Great Hall, the Grand Staircase, and other historic rooms." I expect we'll see an increase in events on the State House steps and other places where you don't have to pay through the nose to actually say something near state government offices. Only the well-funded interests will be able to buy the access of an event in the Great Hall now, a damaging state of affairs that is not worth the slight revenue the fees may take in.

In a break from the pattern, some tolls on the Mass Pike could be eliminated, we learn in the Metro section.

And finally, an op-ed by James Carlin suggests ways to "trim the fat" at UMass and save some money. For a former UMass trustee and chairman of the Board of Higher Education, Carlin is stunningly ignorant about how universities operate. Maybe he has some scores to settle with the people still running UMass, who knows, but what is clear is that his proposals will never work. Here's an example of his angry rhetoric, perhaps a clue as to why he's no longer a university administrator:

"Trustees should put the brakes on institutions trying to be all things to all students by conducting meaningless soft science research, offering programs for which there's no demand, providing country club-type amenities and performing frivolous so-called public service."

Hostility doesn't serve anyone, Mr. Carlin, though it probably will win you some points with the Howie Carr crowd, right?

I think his worst idea is to eliminate tenure for UMass professors:

"Tenure is a very expensive lifetime job guarantee and it is a one-way street. Institutions can't terminate a tenured professor, but the professor can quit anytime and accept a better deal at another school, usually with tenure being offered as well at the new job. Tenure makes our campuses unmanageable. Tenured professors can tell their bosses to 'get lost' any time they want, in any manner, on any matter, and there's nothing the institution can do about it. Tenure kills productivity. Eliminate tenure."

Where to begin? I will limit myself to saying that tenure is in existence at all of the top colleges in the country. If UMass does not offer tenured positions, good professors will go elsewhere, leaving behind those who aren't good enough to get anything better than what UMass offers. This hardly seems to fit with Romney's professed aim of building UMass-Amherst into a "flagship" public university in the mold of Berkeley or Ann Arbor. Plus there is the case for tenure ensuring academic freedom, which is kind of nice too. Professors are not private sector executives.

All in all, the articles in today's Globe are a strong sign of the anxiety caused in all quarters by the weak economy. There simply isn't enough money to go around.