Caret’s quest for support takes a different route.

By Kevin Cullen – Boston Globe Columnist.
October 16, 2011

FALL RIVER – Paul McCartney, the old Beatle, had used the same Peter Pan bus on his last US tour, so it was appropriate that “Within You, Without You’’ was on the stereo playlist.

Bob Caret, the new president of the University of Massachusetts, grew up in the ’60s, so the soundtrack for the 400-mile trip that began in North Adams on Monday and rolled into this old mill city on Thursday was provided by the Youngbloods and Dylan, the Temptations and Zeppelin, Hendrix and The Byrds.

Caret took over the five-campus UMass system in July. He doesn’t officially get inaugurated until Nov. 1. But he thought it would be a good idea to actually see what he’s supposed to be in charge of so he said two words that are not unknown to UMass undergrads: road trip.

“I actually like doing this,’’ he said, as the Peter Pan bus headed down a rain-slicked road from New Bedford to Fall River. “It’s the real world.’’

The real world of Massachusetts politics has been unkind to UMass. State support for the state university system is fickle at best. In a state where the privates get the glory, not to mention $50,000 tuitions, the state subsidy for each UMass student has dropped from $10,000 to $7,000 in just the last five years. Those kids, and their parents, are picking up the slack in higher fees and tuitions.

Last year, UMass Online, a virtual campus which allows students anywhere to take courses via computer, generated somewhere in the neighborhood of $70 million, which is a pretty nice neighborhood. But Caret knows everything he wants to do, from getting graduation rates up to eliminating race-based graduation disparities, depends on getting more support for old State U.

The Save UMass paradigm has always been: get the pols up on Beacon Hill to take more interest. Get them out to Amherst for a football game at Alumni Stadium or a basketball game at the Mullins. Show them the polymer science labs. Wine and dine them on the 33d floor at the UMass Club on Federal Street in the Financial District in Boston. A quick glance at the state funding history for UMass shows that strategy has not exactly worked.

And so it was more than slightly revealing that so many of the people Bob Caret was meeting and talking to as he barnstormed across the state, from the Berkshires to the South Coast, were not people in the business of politics but people in the business of business. There is a new paradigm.

Caret walked into the Smith & Wesson plant in Springfield and listened to executives say they needed more college-educated workers. They said, “We need you,’’ to which Caret replied, “The feeling is mutual.’’

“Look,’’ Caret said, “everybody talks about Harvard and MIT and all the great privates and, yeah, they are great schools. But if you’re talking about the economic engine for this state, you’re talking about UMass. We’re graduating 14,000 students every year. We’ve got a quarter of a million graduates living in Massachusetts, and they are the ones running and working in the companies that drive the state’s economy.

“We do need advocacy, particularly in the business community. You get the CEOs calling up the governor and the Legislature, that’s different than me or anybody else at UMass making those calls.’’

Everywhere he went, Caret heard people say they want more from UMass. In Pittsfield, they want a UMass presence downtown. In Springfield, they offered UMass a building downtown. Caret doesn’t think new campuses in cities trying to reinvent themselves is realistic. But creating a UMass presence with classes in those places is.

“I’m offering MBAs in Poland and master’s degrees in China,’’ he said of the online operation. “There’s no reason I can’t do something in Pittsfield.’’

At one event, a politician took Caret aside and suggested UMass tuitions should be much higher, as high as private schools.

“I can do that,’” Bob Caret said, in a way that made you know he never would, “but I don’t think that’s what UMass is about. We have 70,000 students. We could raise the tuitions, get the students down to 15,000, and the vast number of them would be from just a certain social strata, but then it wouldn’t be UMass anymore.’’

Caret grew up in Biddeford, Maine, where his father ran a restaurant that catered to factory workers. He worked in that restaurant so he could go to Suffolk. Then he got his doctorate in chemistry at UNH. He ran San Jose State in California and Towson University in Maryland, very well, before coming to UMass.

He is good at what he does because he never forgot where he came from.

When the bus rolled through North Adams and Pittsfield and Springfield and Holyoke and Worcester and Lowell and New Bedford and finally here, he was looking at old mill towns like the one where he grew up.

He was the first one in his family to go to college, and he knows there are a lot of UMass kids in the same boat, a boat that helps other boats rise.

Bob Caret learned so much on his excellent adventure. One thing he learned is that you should not go to the bathroom when a bus is about to start moving.

He knows he has taken on one of the most daunting challenges in the state. He has to change more than minds. He has to change a culture.

On the stereo, the Lovin’ Spoonful asked, “Do You Believe in Magic?’’

And Bob Caret said yes, he does.