State auditor: UMass violated law in axing Advancement office last year

The University of Massachusetts campus in Amherst.

The University of Massachusetts campus in Amherst. STAFF FILE PHOTO

By SCOTT MERZBACH

Staff Writer

Published: 06-20-2024 3:47 PM

AMHERST — University of Massachusetts officials violated provisions of the state’s Taxpayer Protection Act law when moving fundraising operations from the Advancement office to the private University Amherst Foundation, according to a final determination from the state auditor’s office.

The May 31 determination, written by Michael Leung-Tat, deputy auditor and general counsel for State Auditor Diana DiZoglio, and sent to David Lowy, general counsel for UMass, states the concerns that UMass didn’t engage with the state auditor’s office to complete an analysis, under the Taxpayer Protection Act, of whether there would be costs savings for the state in privatizing jobs. Instead, this was done after the contract with the private entity was in place.

“After reviewing this matter and the provided documentation in detail, we are unable to determine that this outsourcing produced financial savings at a higher quality of public service,” Leung-Tat wrote. “We are informed that a time tracking system was not and is not currently in place to track employee time allocation, making it impossible for us to determine financial impacts.”

The letter is accompanied by a recommendation that UMass Amherst implement at the earliest possibility a time tracking system to help track employee time allocation to inform future analysis, and an observation that, while there are no enforcement powers granted the auditor under the Taxpayer Protection Act, “we caution in the strongest terms that UMass Amherst and all campuses within the University of Massachusetts system comply with the TPA in the future and in all respects.”

Then-Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy said the restructuring plan, in the spring of 2023, was necessary to meet regulatory compliance requirements, explaining that the structure of the Advancement office risked the past and future eligibility of its employees to participate in the state’s retirement and pension system.

According to an explanation from Elissa Flynn-Poppey, an attorney representing UMass, in a filing with the state board of retirement, the restructuring was necessary after the private foundation, created to handle large donations made to UMass, and the university had become intertwined for 20 years.

“As a result of this restructuring, the majority of current Advancement positions will be eliminated and re-created, in whole or in part, as private UMAF positions,” Flynn-Poppey wrote.

The Professional Staff Union and University Staff Association, which had fought against the 100 or so positions involved in fundraising, alumni communications and event planning, and associated work being transferred, seized on the auditor’s final determination to continue its efforts to bring those people back as UMass employees.

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Jason Johnson, union steward for the Professional Staff Union and a former Advancement office employee whose position was privatized in May 2023, said in a statement that he supports the state auditor’s opinion.

“We’ve been arguing all along that UMass Amherst was recklessly rushing their privatization scheme, and now, the state auditor agrees that UMass violated the law,” Johnson said.

Previously, the state auditor had determined that whether would be costs savings from privatizing should have been sought before any contract.

UMass spokesman Edward Blaguszewski issued a statement expressing appreciation for the state auditor’s work and said the university would work closely with all regulatory bodies to ensure strict compliance with the law.

In addition, he noted that all affected employees either moved directly to the UMass Amherst Foundation or remained with UMass in another capacity.

“As promised, and in fulfillment of the transfer agreement between UMass Amherst and the unions, every state employee whose position was affected by the compliance-driven reorganization either accepted an offer to work for the UMass Amherst Foundation or remained in state employment at the university,” Blaguszewski said. “There were no layoffs.”

The union, however, contends that some Advancement employees left to work for other universities or private employment elsewhere.

In addition to the unions, the changes were criticized by U.S. Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey, U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern, and state legislators Jo Comerford and Mindy Domb.

While the determination doesn’t bring any immediate change, the unions see this as another opening to bring back the Advancement office, said Jonah Vorspan-Stein, an organizer for the Professional Staff Union.

Mary Malinowski, president of the University Staff Association, agrees.

“The fight to save public work and bring these positions back to UMass Amherst isn’t over,” Malinowski said. “In the end, even UMass must be accountable to the law, and we won’t stop until this theft of public work is put right.”