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The Flagship Report

UMass Amherst Crafts a “Framework for Excellence”
Robert Holub

Robert Holub says the university’s vision plan stresses not only goals, but levels of accountability in striving to achieve those benchmarks.

Robert Holub is becoming a seasoned veteran in the art of creating vision plans for major universities.

He played a key role in developing such documents for Berkley and the University of Tennessee, the last two stops on his résumé, and, at the request of the board of trustees, he recently completed one for UMass Amherst, which he now serves as chancellor.

Through all that experience, he’s come to learn some things. First, that this must be an inclusive process, with input from a number of key constituencies. At the same time, however, the process can’t drag on for years — which it can if too many people get involved.

But maybe the most important thing Holub says he’s learned is that such plans must contain levels of accountability when it comes to goals and stated benchmarks. This is one of the keys to keeping a document like UMass Amherst’s “Framework for Excellence — the Flagship Report” from sitting on a shelf and gathering dust.

Holub, who came to the university late last summer, is confident that this won’t be the fate of his plan, because there are measures of accountability when it comes to stated goals on everything from faculty development to research; from development to establishing a larger physical presence in Springfield.

“What we want to do is create some sort of spread sheet with some of the goals, who’s responsible for them, and what kind of unit should be developing strategic plans that are in line with the overall goals for the institution,” he explained. “For example, I’d like to see the office of research come up with a plan of its own that will go into more detail than what’s in this plan, and get into what they need to do the make the Office of Research more effective.”

This process will continue on down to the department level, he continued, adding that the plan will play a large role in his efforts to take the university to the proverbial next level in terms of prestige, quality of the educational programs, and even size of the endowment.

In this issue, BusinessWest takes a look inside the Flagship Report and details how Holub intends to take what’s in print and make it reality.

Course of Action

Holub said the name of the report, which provides a roadmap of sorts for planning over the next decade, to 2020, was chosen carefully. This is not a detailed plan, he explained, but a true framework, created with the expectation that individual campus units will build upon it with their own plans as to how to meet stated targets.

“This is a good starting point,” said the chancellor, adding that, to the best of his knowledge, UMass Amherst has not drafted such a report in some time. And when putting it together, the authors acknowledged the current difficult economic conditions, but didn’t factor them into the goals or stated objectives.

The economy is an obvious caveat, however, said Holub, meaning it will impact when and to what degree many, if not all, of the stated goals can be reached. And in the meantime, the plan can help the college as it goes about deciding how and where to make cuts if the conditions demand them.

“I thought it was important at this time, when we’re faced with potential cutbacks, to have a framework in place for going forward,” he explained. “This will help guide in our decision-making; decisions on where to invest money and where to cut are determined by your strategic plan and the vision you have for the campus.”

When asked if there are priority areas within the report, Holub started by saying that there are things the university simply doesn’t do well, or as well as it should, and that these would obviously be considered priorities. He put development in this category, and noted that the university recently hired a vice chancellor of Development, and that one of his first assignments will be development of a strategic plan for that office to ultimately improve fund-raising efforts.

Research is another area Holub believes can and must be improved. “We’ve gone up in terms of our numbers, but we haven’t significantly improved market share; we haven’t moved up in the rankings, and we’re looking to see how to do that.”

Faculty development is still another area of concern, he said, noting that there are 225 or so fewer tenured faculty members than there were in 1987. However, this is one matter that will likely have to wait until the state’s fiscal condition improves before significant progress can be achieved.

Doing some quick math, Holub said that, to bring the number of tenured staff back to 1,200, the desired goal set down in something called the “Amherst 250 Plan,” created several years ago,” will cost roughly $25 million, a price that will be met, ultimately, through revenue from increased student enrollment and some help from the state.

Thus, a reasonable goal, he continued, would be to achieve net growth in the size of the faculty — there could be reductions in size over the next few years due to the state’s budget woes — by the middle to later years of the 10-year planning period.

One of the more subjective goals moving forward is the strengthening of the partnership between the university and the city of Springfield. Holub stressed that one already exists, as evidenced by the creation of the Pioneer Valley Life Sciences Institute, which is a collaborative effort between UMass and Baystate Health, but the university and its trustees desire a larger presence.

“As the state’s land grant institution, we maintain commitments in many of the state’s ‘gateway cities,’ and as the public flagship institution located in the western part of the state, we have a particular and abiding interest in our closest neighbors and their welfare,” the report states. “We are committed to Amherst and Hadley, where the campus is located. However, we are also concerned about other communities in the region, especially the future of the city of Springfield, the largest city in the region and the third-largest city in Massachusetts, and one threatened by declines in its economic base.

“Our new partnership with the city will continue to nurture the various programs we have offered Springfield over the years, and will lead to the development of fruitful connections in the coming decade,” the report continues, “particularly in the areas of creative economy and green-industry development.”

Just how this nurturing process will play out remains to be seen, and much depends on the economy, said Holub, adding that there will be a physical presence of some sort, probably in the form of an office.

“I don’t think that presence will be in the form of giving instruction — we probably won’t be moving a college down there — but we will have activities that will be beneficial to Springfield and beneficial to the campus,” he said.

“We have many programs already running in Springfield, but we don’t have that physical presence,” he continued, adding that the university will likely explore doing something in the downtown area, where the school’s efforts will be visible and also provide support to other businesses.

Holub said that Gov. Deval Patrick’s administration supports the university’s plans for a greater partnership with Springfield and that he hopes this support translates into funding included in this year’s budget.

Learning Curves

Holub told BusinessWest that time will tell how well the university is able to meet the goals set down on that spreadsheet he wants to create.

The economy will obviously factor into efforts to achieve improvement in faculty development, fund-raising, research, and even the partnership initiatives in Springfield.

But the university now has a framework for excellence — something it hasn’t had in recent years — and, to the extent that it can, the school will now try to build on it.

George O’Brien can be reached at[email protected]

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