The Culture of Achievement at UMassAmherst

[In response to a query from one of UMassAmherst’s prominent faculty leaders, who asked about the university’s response to the inability of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to fund labor contracts previously negotiated and the challenge of building a better UMassAmherst, John Lombardi wrote the following email. The original question suggested that faculty might choose to leave the university because of the situation related to the state’s inability to fund the contracts and spoke also to the challenge of improving the university under the difficult financial circumstances affecting the state. ]

August 27, 2002

Well, I'm not sure what situation you refer to. If you mean the failure to fund the contract, then I have one response. If you mean the process of building a better UMass Amherst, I have another.

For the contract issue, faculty who believe that the failure to fund the contract represents a reason to leave for greener pastures are probably not being realistic. If they can and want to leave because they can get a better deal elsewhere, they are simply doing what many market moveable faculty do everywhere all the time. If they choose to use the failure to fund the contract as an excuse, that's understandable. Over the years in many institutions, I've heard every excuse in the books for the decision to take a job that pays more, or that even if it doesn't pay all that much more provides more space, prestige, jobs for spouses, and whatever. But in every case the excuse is secondary to the real reason which is that in 99% of the cases the decision to move is motivated by an apparent or sometimes real improvement in individual personal economic circumstances unrelated to the particulars of the old campus or whether the new campus is institutionally better off. Such decisions are mostly based on individual self interest, as they should be.

As far as I know, we are still meeting outside offers for people the colleges and departments determine they want to keep, and from what I can tell we are still succeeding in finding good faculty who want to come and work here. If we do the wrong things consistently over time, this may change for the worse, but it's not the case now.

The vast majority of faculty and staff are not moveable for many reasons (family, academic specialty, stage in career, and the gross inefficiencies in the academic marketplace). Indeed, the reason we have unions in universities is precisely because the marketplace for faculty is very inefficient and does not clear at any reasonable price. Thus the union exists to protect the faculty from the operation of this very inefficient marketplace.

Consequently, the real issue is whether UMass Amherst is in trouble. The facts do not support the supposition that the university is in real trouble. However, for individual reasons some people benefit by propagating the notion that the end of the world is upon us. They have every right to say whatever they want, but the fact that they say it does not make it so nor does it reflect well on the critical abilities of those who believe what is not true.

The salary structure for faculty is not the best in the nation but it is not bad either. The data that I have seen, and we're doing another analysis to be sure we understand the impact of the retirement process, is that our salaries are actually well within the middle to upper middle range of our cohort group. That position cannot be sustained indefinitely without paying attention to the issue of funding salary increases, but at the moment we are ok. Partly we are ok because others around the country are not doing very well, because inflation is low, and because the general recession has hit other states as hard or harder than Massachusetts and our competitors are dealing with state budget cuts that often exceed ours.

The student pool for UMass Amherst is good, the quality of the students is holding and increasing slightly, the retirement cycle has given us an opportunity to lean out the administration and reallocate funds to initiatives that can move the university where it needs to go. The construction cycle is picking up and progress towards both new and renovated space is clearly rolling along in the right and accelerating direction.

In my long peregrination around American universities I've observed that one characteristic of successful universities is that they do not blame others for all their troubles. While they are sure others should have done more, they accept responsibility for making their university better and spend very little time and energy pointing the fingers of blame at others outside the university community.

This university is very much over balanced on its state support. This does not mean it has enough state support, but it means that it has far too little grant and contract, fundraising, and auxiliary enterprise funding to enhance its state dollars. This is the fundamental problem with UMass Amherst's financial structure, and if the university chooses to continue to be nationally competitive, it will have to fix these things.

These fixes do not come from Boston, the President can't do it for us, the trustees can't do it for us, the legislature can't do it for us, we have to do it ourselves. In competitive universities, the faculty, staff, administration, alumni, and friends of the institution (and in this case the institution in question is not UMass the system, but UMass Amherst) all accept responsibility for making the university better, for enhancing its revenue, and for adding value to its name.

In first rate universities people address the problem, they do not immediately externalize every unhappy thought to the world. There are many reasons why an institution might choose the culture of complaint rather than the culture of achievement as its principal rhetorical mode, but whatever the causes, the culture of complaint produces nothing but an indulgent evasion of responsibility.

Yes, the legislature should have funded the contracts, but they also should have funded a lot of other things for a lot of other people that they did not do because the Commonwealth does not have enough money. Do we like this? No. Is this an institution- destroying action by the legislature? No. Should we work to get better funding for the obligations the state places on us? Yes. Will we make progress by complaining, crying false alarms, and exaggerating the impact of the difficulties we all face? No.

That, my friend is what an outsider, with the images of many other university contexts fresh in mind, sees when coming to UMass Amherst and listening to the buzz that is currently in the air.

President Bulger and the Trustees are huge supporters of this university, UMass Amherst, but they are not directly responsible for the work that we do and they cannot fix our problems. UMass Amherst is where the primary answers to our challenges must originate, and as the answers originate here there's little doubt that the president and the trustees will support what we do. They cannot do it for us.