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UMass Boston gerontology program suspended

Once a leader in the field, institute to stop accepting applicants

Since its inception more than 30 years ago, the gerontology program at the University of Massachusetts Boston has been regarded as a leader in aging studies and elder care.

“We captured worldwide discussion on the concept of productive aging,” said Scott Bass, who established the program and is now provost at American University in Washington, D.C. “The gerontology program was the poster child.”

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But as first-year degree candidate Holly Belanger prepared for the new semester last week, she learned that the the UMass College of Public and Community Service has stopped accepting admissions, and all her classes have moved online.

“It’s a huge deal to me,” said the Haverhill native. “I moved to Boston specifically to not deal with the commute.”

With enrollment pared down by two-thirds over the past decade to a total of 13 students pursuing a bachelor’s degree, Provost Winston E. Langley has “inactivated” the UMass program. Another underperforming program in labor studies has also been inactivated. In a memo to faculty and staff last month, Langley said that “no applicants will be accepted until further notice.”

Aging services coordinators are dismayed that the university has been unable to maintain the prestige of its gerontology program, saying that such studies are now more vital than ever to aid a rapidly aging population. People 65 and older now constitute about 13 percent of the populace, according to the federal government’s Administration on Aging, and that is expected to balloon to 19 percent — 72 million— by 2030.

Al Norman, executive director of Mass Home Care, a network of nonprofit “age information centers,” drafted a letter earlier this month, signed by nearly 100 academics and service providers (including Bass) from Massachusetts and across the country, asking the university to reconsider.

“When recruiting, it’s helpful to have someone who’s shown an interest in aging services while they were an undergrad.”

Al Norman, Executive director of Mass Home Care 
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“I work with close to 1,000 care managers,” Norman said. “When recruiting, it’s helpful to have someone who’s shown an interest in aging services while they were an undergrad. That tells us this is a person who’s serious about working with older people.”

The university’s postgraduate gerontology program and its two certificate programs, including one named for Frank J. Manning, the late pioneer in Massachusetts’ “senior power” movement of the 1970s, will remain open.

UMass Boston’s associate provost, Kristine Alster, said that chronically low undergraduate enrollment in recent years led to an earlier two-year suspension of new admissions, beginning in 2008. Thirteen students “is a pretty typical number for them over the last four, five, six years,” she said. Classes, some of which had already moved online, have seen attendance in the single digits.

Alster said that during the previous admissions hiatus the faculty and staff were asked to “identify recruitment strategies and reformulate the program. We put forward a proposal and reopened for admission in fall 2010.” But that effort, she said, has failed to increase enrollment.

Norman and others said the program needs to market itself better. Even the term gerontology feels outdated, he said. “I don’t like the term,” Norman said. “It reminds me of the 1950s — all those advertisements for tired blood and bottles of Geritol. The program needs a new infusion of ideas.”

Belanger, the first-year student, agreed the program could use an improved marketing strategy. Students in the field can pursue a range of professional options, from home care, nursing home staffing and advocacy to research on the social and biological effects of aging.

“Whenever I tell people I’m at the school for gerontology, nine times out of 10 I have to explain to people what it is,” said the 23-year-old, who chose the career path after working for several years in nursing homes. “Not a lot of schools even offer this program. The fact that I could get it in state, with cheaper tuition, was amazing to me.”

Now Belanger is taking a wait-and-see approach: “If it gets downgraded to a certificate [program], my future with UMass Boston is probably over,” she said.

Dr. Thomas T. Perls, a professor of medicine at Boston University School of Medicine, said he has drawn several research assistants from the UMass Boston program and is “desperate” for more. “The number of positions in which a BA in gerontology would be a huge asset, and probably a requirement, are going to do nothing but skyrocket” as the population ages, he said. “Their prominence in the field is huge.”

In addition to providing potential hires in the aging services community, the UMass Boston program has produced critical studies, researching, for instance, the factors that compel an elderly person to transition from home care to a nursing home. Bass cited one case in which a classroom project resulted in more than $26 million in fuel assistance for seniors. “It was a dynamic time,” he said.

There are about 40 undergraduate gerontology programs across the country, according to the Association for Gerontology in Higher Education. For UMass Boston, the department’s struggles are a “chicken-and-egg problem,” said Norman: low enrollment has been causing low visibility for the program, and vice versa.

“I do have hope that the university will have some flexibility on approaching this,” he said. “I don’t think it’s something they’re doing with any great happiness or enthusiasm.

“The net result is that at a time when the baby boomers are entering the Social Security system and 1 in 5 people in Massachusetts are over 60, this is not the time to be shrinking services. It’s time to be stepping up,” he said.

James Sullivan can be reached at jamesgsullivan@gmail.com.

Corrections: An earlier version of this story gave an incorrect title for Dr. Thomas Perls, a professor of medicine at Boston University School of Medicine and director of the New England Centenarian Study.

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