Education secretary gets raucous reception at UMass

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BOSTON — Education Secretary James Peyser received a raucous reception at the University of Massachusetts Boston on Thursday, where his entreaties to spur growth outside campuses and cut dead wood within state higher education ran up against faculty demands for more funding.

Peyser told the audience at a convocation ceremony on the harbor-side campus that state higher education institutions should work more closely together, and cut programs that are not working.

“Educational leaders need to become increasingly hardheaded in separating the wheat from the chaff,” said Peyser, who said UMass “can’t afford to keep marginal programs on life support in hopes that they’ll eventually get better or bigger.” Encouraging educational leaders to focus on their strengths, Peyser said, “Trying to be all things to all people is a formula for mediocrity.”

As an example of sharing resources, Peyser pointed to a collaboration in downtown Lynn between North Shore Community College and Salem State University, allowing students to attend two years of community college and two years at Salem State in the same place.

Leaders of UMass Boston’s Faculty Staff Union have raised alarms about notices to nearly 400 non-tenure-track faculty who were told they might not be hired back this year for the fall semester. About 300 were hired back, according to the university.

“You can’t imagine the psychological effect that had on our faculty,” John Hess, a senior lecturer at the school for 28 years who teaches English and American studies, told the News Service.

The vice president of the Faculty Staff Union, Hess said morale is “as low as I’ve ever seen it” and the university had never threatened so many people with ending their employment.

“I don’t want to be told that I’m expendable,” said Cathy Corman, who received one of those notices, at a rally after the event, before leaving to teach a class. A university spokesman said the non-tenure-track faculty are hired semester to semester.

Peyser found common cause with the many members of the audience advocating for higher education to be more affordable and accessible to students, though the faculty who questioned Peyser at the event advocated for more funding rather than new ways of structuring education.

“If we really want to see transformational change, we need to encourage and support educational entrepreneurs, both inside and outside of our existing campuses,” said Peyser, who highlighted Match Education and UMassOnline as ways to deliver education via the internet.

Massachusetts Teachers Association President Barbara Madeloni, who is on leave from a faculty position at UMass Amherst to head up the union, lambasted Peyser after the event at a rally on UMass Boston’s plaza.

“I was chilled quite frankly by the comments of the Secretary. He talked about public education in the most disturbing terms,” said Madeloni, who drew a line between the secretary quoting Henry Ford and his allegedly treating education like an “automobile factory.”

People in the audience did not hide their disagreement with Peyser, who opposes a proposed constitutional amendment extracting about $2 billion in taxes from incomes over $1 million and supports passage of Question 2, which would allow for up to 12 additional charters schools annually outside statutory caps if voters pass it this November.

Asked about the audience reaction – which included booing, and some yelling – Peyser told reporters, “I loved it. Great reception. They’re enthusiastic.”

Peyser seemed to enjoy himself Thursday, smiling during the booing, and parrying playfully while answering a question about his opposition to the surtax on high earners.

Joe Ramsey, who teaches English and American studies, asked Peyser if he was being “disingenuous” by pointing to relatively scarce state resources when he is “actively working” to block a new revenue source in the form of a surtax on incomes over $1 million.

“My job is not to be thinking about tax policy. That’s not my bailiwick,” Peyser began, in his answer. As boos emanated from the audience he asked, “Do you want that to be my bailiwick? Is that what you’re booing about?”

Further along in his answer, which noted various demands on state education spending beyond UMass, members of the audience chanted “Answer the question,” and Provost Winston Langley stepped in to say, “He’s still in the process of answering.”

“I’m actually done,” Peyser clarified, before taking a different question from Marlene Kim, the Faculty Staff Union president and an economics professor, who asked what Peyser could do to help and questioned whether “we have to choose between faculty and buildings?”

Chancellor Keith Motley came to Peyser’s defense, urging people to show respect.

“He showed up, and lots of folk that we invited have not come here,” said Motley, who gave Peyser a ceremonial spyglass, or telescope, so that, Motley said, he can see the campus from downtown.

Home to new buildings on campus, UMass Boston has a crumbling superstructure above a now off-limits former parking garage that the university hopes to dismantle. At a different point, Peyser recognized the problems with the superstructure, while saying the administration is focusing its repair efforts on community colleges.

Opponents of Peyser’s approach brought to the event fake currency with “Privateer Peyser” on the front dressed up in a pirate hat, alerting people to the secretary’s UMass Boston visit and claiming it represents “zero $ for public education” and “millions plus for corporations.”

Although charter schools were not a theme of Peyser’s talk, the pitched campaign between opponents and proponents of Question 2 was a clear backdrop to Peyser’s talk. Question 2 opponents handed out literature, and Boston City Councilor Tito Jackson denounced supporters of the referendum at the rally after Peyser’s speech.

“This is a battle and we are fighting some of the richest, most connected and most powerful people – but what they don’t know, that the power actually comes from the people,” Jackson said.

— Written by Andy Metzger

Copyright State House News Service