August 06, 2003

UMass President Resigns over Brother's Ties to the Mob

Life imitates the Sopranos:

The AP reports that University of Massachusetts President William M. Bulger has resigned "after months of mounting pressure over his role in the federal investigation of his fugitive mobster brother."

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at August 6, 2003 04:56 PM

There's a real rash of such scandals making news of late: see the great post at Critical Mass on the subject:

Posted by: KF at August 6, 2003 05:31 PM

Though considering the enormous size and scope of American higher ed., it would appear that scandals of this sort are relatively rare and infrequent.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at August 6, 2003 06:54 PM

No, of course. But it's one of those things like when you buy a orange Karmann Ghia, and suddenly it seems like every other car on the road is a orange Karmann Ghia. Having spotted one weird academic scandal, suddenly they seem everywhere.

Posted by: KF at August 6, 2003 10:27 PM

This scandal is particularly egregious, because the two brothers were so close and helped each other so often. Billy Bulger became the most powerful politician in Massachusetts partly because other politicians feared if they crossed him, his brother Whitey, the head of the New England Irish mob, would have them assassinated. (Former Boston mayor Kevin White said as much.) Meanwhile Bulger placed mob members in key roles in the state police, and protected mob informants from being fired. Recent court cases have documented how everyone who called local or state police or the Boston FBI with tips on Irish mob murders was soon assassinated, as a result of tipoffs to Whitey & Co. from corrupt police. The mob and the government in Massachusetts became so intertwined that it was hard to tell them apart, and the Bulger family was at the heart of it.

The UMass presidency was given Billy Bulger as a way of "kicking him upstairs" and out of the state Senate presidency after his brother fled from the FBI and was no longer quite as dangerous. He's featherbedded his (off-campus) office with family and hack allies making six-figure salaries for little or no work, while making millions in salary and expenses himself. His severance is a million dollars.

Posted by: pj at August 7, 2003 01:42 AM

"Having spotted one weird academic scandal, suddenly they seem everywhere."
True enough.

"His severance is a million dollars."
Now, that's a scandal.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at August 7, 2003 07:29 AM

Yes. Who cares about the Sopranos subplot. The scandal is the salary he was paid and the severance he's now getting. Apparently this man has made a lucrative career of getting expensively removed from various scenes by desperate people. Romney wants the position of U Mass President done away with entirely - I have no problem believing him when he says it's a waste, especially given the obscene salary and its character as dumping ground for the high flying morally disabled.

Posted by: Livia at August 7, 2003 09:37 AM

To play Devil's Advocate: William Bulger originally invoked his Fifth Amendment rights in refusing to testify about his brother. As far as what pj says, I think there's still an understanding that one is presumed innocent until proven guilty of wrongdoing; as bad a person as Whitey is, that certainly doesn't implicate his brother his actions. (What exactly is William Bulger charged with, pray tell? Bad genes?) Those who have read John Edgar Wideman's "Brothers and Keepers" may have a more sympathetic understanding of the position of the pressures placed upon the sibling of a criminal: I speak as someone whose younger brother is serving a 14-year sentence for multiple counts of armed robbery, conspiracy, and use of a handgun, and no, my brother didn't share any information about his crimes with me, and the FBI's assertion that William Bulger "must have known" is downright stupid. (If anybody knew, it was in fact the FBI, who protected Whitey Bulger and helped him eliminate his competition, as documented in the book "Black Mass".)

But that's getting off-topic. Bulger was pressured into resigning by Governor Romney, who has cut the UMass budget by $30 million while demanding that UMass take an additional 15,000 students next year. This $30 million budget cut means that UMass is considering eliminating certain foreign language departments and has cut the library acquisitions budget by two thirds (including cancelling $1 million's worth of journal subscriptions), but keeps $14 million in an "untouchable" fund for developing distance education courses that don't need costly full time tenure track academic labor to "deliver" them and that can be re-used again and again (I've seen the license; it basically grants zero rights to the instructor who develops the materials). In short, campus resources are stretched more thin, classes get bigger, and the school sees the "delivery" of "course content" by casualized academic labor as its future. The budget difficulties are a direct result of Massachusetts' past tax cuts for the wealthy (especially Proposition 4), and the UMass budget plan was developed by outside consultants (Bain Consulting) for Governor Romney without any input from the university itself. This is in a state where funding for public higher education is ranked 48th out of 50 states.

So, yes, let's watch the mummery over William Bulger, who may or may not have done anything criminal, but who the Governor didn't like (the Governor threatened to keep replacing members of the university Board of Trustees with people who would support his policies until Bulger was gone) and decided to have forced out. William Bulger was certainly a man with a lot of political power, and he might have used that power to protect Massachusetts' best hope for public higher education. The message is the same as it was at UT Austin 12 years ago: politicians know what's best for the university, not the university itself. Give people their bread and circuses, their scandals, and they'll make nary a peep about the issues that actually affect education.

Posted by: Mike at August 7, 2003 10:29 AM

As an advocate for the devil, Mike, you're not very convincing. A few key facts: Democrats have 136-23 (House) and 34-6 (Senate) majorities and can easily override Romney vetoes; the cut in the UMass budget is a bipartisan effort. Billy Bulger has acknowledged weekly telephone conversations with his brother during the period his brother has been on the lam, many taken at the homes of state employees, none at his home since he learned his phone was tapped, and none ever reported to the FBI. Before Whitey went on the lam, there were numerous reports of connections between Billy-Bulger-placed state employees and Whitey-Bulger mob members. Early in Whitey's period on the run, he was reportedly sighted spending a week at a Billy Bulger-owned hotel in the Caribbean.

To those whom this sounds unbelievable, read Black Mass.

Posted by: pj at August 7, 2003 01:36 PM

I think we're coming at it from different angles, pj: my contention is that William Bulger hasn't been charged with anything, and that I very much believe -- however much we might not like someone -- that people are innocent until proven guilty, and furthermore, that Romney capitalized on William Bulger's situation to help cut the university out of the decision-making loop. I never mentioned partisanship or republicans versus democrats, and I think both parties are to blame for gutting public education for the sake of a wallow at the tax-cut trough -- so, please, let's not turn this into a useless "It's the Republicans' fault!" "It's the Democrats' fault!" debate.

My argument stands: Bulger's situation is very useful to Beacon Hill politicians invoking the "education is too important to be left to the educators" rhetoric, and demonstrates how tenuous the position of public education is. Even if, hypothetically, the UMass system were to get another politically connected president -- the wonderfully scummy and venal Tom Finneran comes to mind -- the demonstration has been made that UMass can't and won't run itself if the Governor has anything to say about it. It's almost another form of the argument over tenure and academic freedom, just on a larger scale; this time, however, the stakes seem to be not whether a single professor can express a politically unpopular position, but rather whether there's going to be a public Research 1 institution for Massachusetts residents who can't afford the state's private schools. With cuts of this size, the University of Massachusetts is looking like it's going to be Massachusetts State College in a few years, which hardly bothers the folks on Beacon Hill who never had to sully themselves associating with the riffraff who attend public institutions of higher education.

And as far as the compensation goes -- yeah, it's not pretty. But Bulger's hardly alone, and is far from being the worst offender: it might be worth a look to see what the university presidents in other states are making; just make sure you haven't eaten recently.

Posted by: Mike at August 7, 2003 02:41 PM

Well, you can't expect taxpayer funding without political control. As for the particular choices the legislature & governor made, I don't know enough to judge their wisdom.

Posted by: pj at August 7, 2003 06:11 PM

IA - In addition to his $960,000 severance, he gets a $240,000 per year pension. Now that's a scandal.

Posted by: pj at August 7, 2003 06:29 PM
It's almost another form of the argument over tenure and academic freedom, just on a larger scale;...
Bulger wasn't appointed president of UMass because of his academic credentials; he was appointed because of his political influence. If it weren't for 9/11, Bulger would probably have a position at Massport (the authority that runs Logan International Airport), which is the traditional resting ground for Massachusetts party hacks.

Now that Romney has enough political influence to kick Bulger out, he's doing so. Live by clout, die by clout.

Posted by: Seth Gordon at August 8, 2003 10:07 AM

Nobody was arguing that he was, Seth: nice non sequitur. Reading the two sentences preceding the one you quoted will help give you the context.

Posted by: Mike at August 8, 2003 10:54 AM


You said, "Bulger's situation is very useful to Beacon Hill politicians invoking the "education is too important to be left to the educators" rhetoric..." The context seems to say that Bulger's removal is a blow to "educators," and, though it is difficult to tell, that Bulger is himself an "educator."

Of course, "education is too important to be left to the educators." The same way "war is too important to be left to the generals."

You know, Billy Bulger does remind me a little of Douglas MacArthur.

Posted by: Roger Sweeny at August 8, 2003 12:42 PM

Point taken. I don't think anybody familiar with the situation would mistake Bulger for an educator, but yes, I see his removal as a blow because he was a part of the structure of the university system, and he was also politically connected enough to make efforts (many people say those efforts weren't enough) to protect that system. I made the rough parallel to the academic freedom debate (think of the fired radical professor) because of Romney's threat to replace members of the Board of Trustees one by one until the Board did his bidding and fired Bulger: again, the apparent point being that universities may not manage their own affairs, and anyone who attempts to protect an institution of public education from the effects of tax cuts for the wealthy can be expeditiously removed by the state.

Posted by: Mike at August 8, 2003 04:09 PM


Romney did indeed threaten to not reappoint (when his or her term expired) any Board member who would not fire Bulger. But I don't see how that shows "that universities may not manage their own affairs, and anyone who attempts to protect an institution of public education from the effects of tax cuts for the wealthy can be expeditiously removed by the state."

Members of the UMass board are ALWAYS appointed by the governor. It was this Board that hired him and this Board that would, eventually, have fired him. They are not appointed by say, the Faculty Senate--and then the governor tries to control them by threatening not to reappoint them.

Board members are supposed to be the representatives of "the people" of the state. The University is not supposed to be able to do whatever it thinks best. That is considered undemocratic. Perhaps that is wrong. Perhaps the state government should just set up its universities with boards picked by faculty or students or staff, or have the boards appoint their own successors.

I take it you live in Massachusetts (as do I). I don't recall any "tax cuts for the wealthy" here recently. Expenditures by the state government grew substantially when the state's economy and tax collections soared in the last decade. Revenues are now well below expenditures and something has to give. Did your word processor just go on automatic pilot?

Posted by: Roger Sweeny at August 9, 2003 04:30 PM

You suggest that "something has to give": I'm disgusted that public higher education is the first place that a super-wealthy Republican governor (who got his law and business degrees from that rather famous private Massachusetts institution of higher education) decides to take from.

As for the "automatic pilot" dig: Proposition 4.

Posted by: Mike at August 9, 2003 05:15 PM

Proposition 4. Wasn't that the 2000 ballot initiative that provided for a gradual lowering of state income tax rates back to 5%? That doesn't seem to me to be "tax cuts for the wealthy." Though it is certainly possible that there was some fine print that I have forgotten.

Is higher education really the "first place" that spending cuts are coming from? Seems like a number of state agencies are also being forced to spend less than they did in the previous year. ("automatic pilot" dig is hereby referenced)

BTW: is there some easily accessible table or chart of UMass spending for the last 5, 10, 20 years or so?

Posted by: Roger Sweeny at August 11, 2003 10:45 AM