Romney’s higher ed overhaul in Mass. fizzled

Courting college students and young voters who are critical to his re-election, Obama has stressed college affordability. In a rare moment of solidarity, Romney sided with Obama on legislation the president signed this month to prevent interest rate increases on new loans to college students.

Back in 2003, Romney’s higher education plan in Massachusetts was crafted with help from Romney’s former business consultant colleagues at Bain and Co. It was part of his efforts to close a $3 billion state budget gap.

Romney called for dismantling the 59,000-student university system, spinning off the flagship Amherst campus, privatizing three schools and merging six campuses. He wanted to group campuses by regions to share administrative services and cut costs. He wanted to boost tuition by as much as 28 percent, while adding $44 million to financial aid.

Romney said his plan would save about $150 million overall.

Yet it was Romney’s proposal to eliminate Bulger’s job and his entire $14 million-a-year office as overseer of the university’s five campuses — Romney called it an unnecessary layer of bureaucracy — that stirred the most controversy.

Bulger branded Romney’s plan a “corporate takeover” by a wealthy former venture capitalist with scant understanding of public education.

Bulger had been president of the Massachusetts Senate for 17 years when he was appointed to the UMass post by Republican Gov. William Weld in 1996. To critics, Bulger symbolized the system’s rampant cronyism.

He ruled the Senate with a bullying style, brokering back-room deals while rewarding friends and punishing critics.

Bulger is a younger brother of James “Whitey” Bulger, who was among the FBI’s most wanted fugitives while Romney was governor.

For years Whitey Bulger had fed the FBI information on his New England Mafia rivals and allegedly got away with murder and other brutal crimes while being protected by a corrupt FBI handler. Whitey Bulger disappeared in 1995. He was caught in Los Angeles a year ago and is awaiting federal trial for his alleged role in 19 murders.

In late 2002, William Bulger invoked his Fifth Amendment rights and refused to testify before a congressional committee probing the FBI’s use of mob informants.

Romney fumed, calling Bulger’s reluctance to testify “inappropriate.” Bulger finally testified in 2003 after being granted immunity. But Romney said Bulger didn’t cooperate enough with the investigation and called him unfit to lead UMass.

Bulger eventually stepped down amid public pressure. Romney never revived his stalled higher education plan.

Romney critics said his attacks on Bulger hurt UMass’ reputation. But Republican political analyst Jim Nuzzo said the fight to shake Bulger’s hold on UMass paved the way for future changes.

“Bulger symbolized old-style crony politics,” Nuzzo said. “Bulger represented everything that had to be changed if we were going to see real change in higher education, and Romney knew that.”