WASHINGTON — Mitt Romney took over as Massachusetts governor in 2003 with a sweeping plan to overhaul the state's public college system to cut waste, reduce costs and boost efficiency.
"This is my opportunity to be bold," he said in announcing the plan.
But when Romney left office four years later, not a lot had changed. His strongest mark on higher education was for a merit scholarship program he championed for top high school students.
Romney's restructuring plan was stymied by a Democratic-run state Legislature where many lawmakers were irked about his bitter public feud with William Bulger, the University of Massachusetts president and one of the state's most powerful and entrenched Democrats. Romney had criticized Bulger's silence on his then-fugitive brother, a legendary Boston Irish-American mobster. Bulger ran the UMass system with an iron hand and had plenty of old pals in the Legislature eager to thwart Romney.
"The governor can play such an important role in higher education," says Phil Johnston, a member of the UMass board of trustees and a former state Democratic Party chairman. "The bottom line is that after his reorganization proposal collapsed, Romney pretty much forgot about higher ed, except for his fight with Bulger."
Romney's campaign declined requests for comment. Bulger, through a spokesman, also declined to comment.
Now the likely Republican presidential nominee, Romney hasn't said much on the campaign trail about his higher education proposals, so his record in Massachusetts could offer clues about his approach to the issue if he wins the White House.
The wealthy former businessman was mocked by Democrats for saying in March that financially strapped students should "shop around" for the best loans and affordable schools.
In a recent speech to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Romney touted how as governor he put in place the John and Abigail Adams Scholarship program providing four years of free tuition at any state college or university for Massachusetts high school students who score in the top quarter of their school district on state standardized tests. More than 18,000 students in the class of 2012 won scholarships, which for the 2011-12 academic year ranged from about $700 to $1,700.
Romney has called for simplifying the federal financial aid process and re-opening the federal student loan market to private lenders. He says President Barack Obama's increases in federal student aid such as Pell Grants have driven up college tuition rates.
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.4 comments on this story
"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."
Democrats blame Romney for not working harder to lobby lawmakers for his plan, the way he did on his big health care overhaul that laid the groundwork for his 2008 presidential bid. Johnston said that lack of follow-through and attention to policy detail was a Romney trademark.
Republican governors before Romney had worked hard to win compromises with Democratic lawmakers, Johnston said.
"This business is all about relationships," Johnston said, "and he did not have many with the Legislature."