UMass Chair Selected Again Over Objections

The University of Massachusetts Board of Trustees reelected Stephen P. Tocco as its chairman on Sept. 19 over the objections of members newly appointed by Governor Deval Patrick, dealing a setback to the administration’s attempt to reshape the panel.

Four new members, including former chairman James Karam and Philip W. Johnston, the former head of the state Democratic Party, urged the board to shelve a decision on new leadership until its December meeting so they could acquaint themselves with the board’s priorities. But they failed to muster enough support to sway the 19-member committee, which includes 12 holdovers appointed by Republican governors.

Patrick appointed five trustees Tuesday in an attempt to restructure the board to help drive his education plan and reduce the influence of Tocco, a Romney appointee and former adviser to Governors William Weld and Paul Cellucci.

Governors appoint the trustees, except for two voting student members, but the board chooses its own chairman. However, five members can call a special meeting to change the leadership at any time.

The appointments were the latest in a series of shakeups of the state’s education leadership, including appointments of new chairmen of the Board of Education and the Board of Higher Education.

In interviews following the morning meeting at UMass-Lowell, some new trustees said the leadership of the reconstituted board should reflect Patrick’s agenda.

“I’m a little disappointed,” said Karam, president of First Bristol Corp., a development company in Fall River.

“I think it was a reasonable request” to delay the vote, he said. “You have five new trustees, you have four new student trustees, and you have a new governor … . I think on broad-based issues, on the overall direction of the university, it’s important for the chairman and the governor to be aligned.”

Another Patrick appointee, Henry Thomas, president of the Urban League of Springfield, agreed.

“I do think that in light of the fact that the governor has a cradle-to-career vision for the future of education in this state, he should at least be given proper attention and respect,” said Thomas, who until recently served on the state Board of Education.

New members stopped short of saying that Tocco and Patrick’s priorities clash, although there is a widespread assumption that Patrick wants a new board chairman. Karam said he would not serve another stint as chairman because he already heads the board of governors of the Caritas Christi Health System.

Johnston said the move to delay the vote was aimed at giving new members time to get up to speed and was not “personally directed.”

“We felt strongly we should be given some time to make judgments on the leadership and direction of the university,” he said.

A spokesman for the governor’s office declined to comment on whether the vote represented a setback and said the governor was committed to working with the current leadership.

The four new trustees, two student trustees, and standing trustee Janet Pearl abstained from the chairmanship vote. One new member, Kerri Osterhaus, a Hudson physician who received her medical degree from the UMass Medical School, could not attend the meeting.