University of Massachusetts President William M. Bulger resigned Wednesday, under mounting pressure for failing to aid in a federal investigation of his fugitive mobster brother.
After insisting for months that he would not yield to demands that he give up the $356,000-a-year post he has held for nearly seven years, Bulger tendered his resignation at a routine meeting of the university’s board of trustees at the school’s Lowell campus.
Although all but one had backed the 69-year-old Bulger in a bitter showdown with Gov. Mitt Romney, the trustees voted “with regret” to accept Bulger’s resignation, offering him a standing ovation and a severance package of just under $1 million.
Lashing out Wednesday at his political opponents, Bulger said: “The university has become the target of what I think must fairly be described as a calculated political assault.”
He added: “I hope that the step I take today will be helpful in our effort to provide a measure of protection for the university.”
Bulger’s resignation provided the latest chapter in the ongoing saga of two blue-eyed brothers from South Boston: one who wielded legitimate power, and the other who ruled the underworld.
For nearly 40 years, William Bulger used his wit, charm and razor-sharp intelligence to stay aloof from the criminal exploits of his beloved older brother.
But he met his most formidable adversary in the person of Romney, a Republican who hailed not from the machine of Massachusetts politics but from the business community. Romney made the removal of William Bulger one of his top priorities upon taking office.
Bulger, a Democrat who for nearly 18 years served as president of the state Senate, saw his status as one of the state’s most powerful political figures start to crumble when he was forced to testify on Capitol Hill in June about the whereabouts of James “Whitey” Bulger, a former Boston mob lord and FBI informant who went missing in 1995.
Whitey Bulger, 74, secured a spot on the FBI’s “10 Most Wanted” list when he disappeared shortly before his indictment on federal charges linking him to 21 murders
Testifying under a grant of immunity, William Bulger said he only learned about his brother’s criminal activities through newspaper accounts. Although he admitted to speaking to his brother once by telephone after he disappeared, the university president said he had no idea where his brother was.
He also said he thought his brother’s misdeeds were limited to running a gambling operation. In a 30-year reign of terror, Whitey Bulger was widely feared as one of Boston’s most notorious criminals -- controlling the city’s drug traffic, among other illegal enterprises.
William Bulger’s refusal over many years to advance the federal investigation of his brother infuriated Romney, who launched an effort to eliminate Bulger’s position soon after taking office in November.
The move failed, but Romney continued to call for Bulger’s ouster on grounds that he was morally unfit to run the state’s five-campus university system.
Romney also expressed outrage over what he characterized as evasiveness on Bulger’s part when he testified before a congressional committee investigating the FBI’s use of mob informants.
State Atty. Gen. Tom Reilly, a Democrat, soon joined in the growing chorus for Bulger to leave.
The Boston Globe also called for Bulger’s resignation.
Romney on Wednesday called Bulger’s resignation “a positive development -- positive for the students, positive for the university. I think we can go forward now without the shadow of controversy over the university.”
But Ralph Whitehead, a professor of journalism at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, called Bulger’s departure “a huge loss for the university, without question.”
Bulger helped to expand and improve the university by keeping “one foot in the civic elite and the other in the corporate and labor elite,” Whitehead said. “That is one reason why people within the university have been much more appreciative and protective of Bulger than people outside.
“Now the question is whether the university will ever be able to replace that kind of stature.”
In a statement released by his office, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) also lamented Bulger’s resignation.
“I’m saddened by President Bulger’s decision,” said the senator, a longtime Bulger ally. “For more than 40 years, he has served our commonwealth with distinction.”
Lou di Natale, director of the UMass political poll, said Bulger and the university will benefit from Bulger’s resignation.
“It clearly deteriorated into a political game, and no one was being helped -- including Romney,” Di Natale said.
“I don’t think the governor was gaining any altitude by railing against the university.”
Di Natale likened Bulger’s resignation to an episode from a Greek tragedy.
“I don’t know if there’s anything that Bill Bulger could have done in the 40 years of his really remarkable career to postpone this moment because his brother was on a roller coaster to hell,” Di Natale said.
“His fate was always tethered to his brother’s,” said Di Natale. “He spent his entire life trying to overcome that fate, only to meet it.”
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Name: William M. Bulger
Birth date: Feb. 2, 1934
Education: Bachelor’s degree, Boston College, 1958; doctorate of jurisprudence, Boston College Law School, 1961
Career: Massachusetts House of Representatives, 1961-70; Massachusetts Senate, 1971-96 (president, 1978-96); president of University of Massachusetts, 1996-present
Party affiliation: Democrat
Personal: Married Mary Foley, July 2, 1960; nine children
Source: Associated Press