AMHERST — The University of Massachusetts Amherst plans to launch a new capital campaign Sunday to raise $300 million, a bid to make up for dwindling state funding and build the kind of alumni loyalty that some state flagships have enjoyed for generations.
For the new chancellor, Kumble Subbaswamy, the symbol of UMass Amherst’s undertaking is the picturesque Old Chapel at the center of campus: its doors have been locked for 17 years, cobwebs gathering and ceiling tiles crumbling inside.
Subbaswamy, who arrived last summer after his predecessor, Robert Holub, was eased out by trustees, recalled his “disgust” at the condition of the once-proud Romanesque Revival chapel built from local granite and sandstone in 1885. “It speaks to the benign neglect or ambivalence that the state has had towards this campus,” he said. “For that very reason to me it now can become symbolic of the . . . growing importance and growing pride of the institution.”
Subbaswamy was inaugurated as chancellor Saturday in the culmination of a week of celebrations of UMass’s 150th anniversary. In an interview Thursday, he spoke enthusiastically about the university’s recent improvements, despite being treated just hours earlier for a dislocated shoulder from a fall down the stairs at home.
“We’ve been in all sorts of shadows of private institutions, hidden in the valley of Western Massachusetts, [yet] we’ve emerged as this major university,” said Subbaswamy, a physicist who most recently was provost of the University of Kentucky. “It’s time now to spread the word and put a little swagger into the campus.”
UMass’s fund-raising lags way behind the state’s private universities as well as many public universities in other states with stronger alumni traditions. Penn State, for example, is in the middle of a $2 billion capital campaign.
UMass’s four campuses together have seen the state contribution to their core academic functions decline from about 57 percent of their budget in 2008 to 43 percent today. The Legislature is considering a proposal from system president Robert L. Caret to freeze tuition and fees for two years in exchange for the state funding 50 percent of the budget.
Despite the drop in state support and a high turnover of campus leaders, UMass Amherst officials believe they have a lot of good news that will help them woo support from thousands of alumni who have never donated before.
UMass Amherst has become notably more selective in the last few years, with SAT scores of freshmen rising and the percentage of applicants accepted dropping from 80 percent in 2005 to 63 percent last fall.
A building and renovation boom, including an honors college and life science building opening this year, has turned the campus into a maze of construction sites, punctuated last week by springtime bursts of pink and yellow from flowering trees and daffodils.
“The exciting part of what I get to do is to tell people about what UMass is today versus what they may have thought it was yesterday,” said David Fubini, a cochairman of the campaign and a director at McKinsey & Company.
More controversially, UMass Amherst is spending millions of dollars to upgrade its football program and join a more elite subdivision, but the team attracted deeply disappointing crowds to Gillette Stadium in Foxborough this year.
Fubini said he didn’t know yet how the football ambitions will affect the fund-raising campaign.
The physical improvements have eased the long-standing sense of UMass as bleak landscape of stained concrete. But they come at an enormous price: $1 billion invested in facilities between 2004 and 2012, with another $1.1 billion planned for the next five years, according to officials.
The state funded only $105 million of the capital spending over the last eight years, so the campus has borrowed heavily. Next year’s debt service will be $73 million, a huge burden for a school with an endowment of only $259 million.
Priorities for the capital campaign, which has already raised $183 million during its quiet phase, are research and technology, merit and need-based scholarships, buildings and infrastructure, and improving the faculty.
The school is already committed to rebuilding the faculty ranks back up from about 1,020 professors currently to the previous high of about 1,200, Subbaswamy said. The campaign is soliciting donations to add 27 new endowed professorships, doubling the number of elite, high-paying posts designed to help UMass defend itself when other schools try to poach rising stars.
Subbaswamy expects the chapel project to cost $15 million to $20 million, compared to the $55 million capital campaign goal for student support or the $97 million goal for research.
While other priorities may seem more pressing, Subbaswamy says delaying renovations will only make them more expensive.
The school envisions using the renovated chapel for exhibit space, campus events, and weddings. Its history offers a lesson for alumni today: members of the class of 1892 each donated $20 for the clock and bell tower, according to a library spokeswoman. That’s the equivalent of $500 today.
Several students said they would have to see what their job prospects are after graduation before they could imagine donating to UMass. Prominent on campus last week was an exhibit called the “debt fence,” where students posted testimonials about how much they owe: $30,000, $92,000, even $120,000.
Nicole Larsen, a freshman from Westford, said she and her parents have already started making small donations to the nursing school.
“Since I love UMass so much and am having such a good time here, I definitely think making that available to other kids in the future will be really important,” she said.