As I launch my third statewide bus tour and consider the current moment in public higher education, it is hard not to be struck by the contrast we see in the performance of our state and federal governments.
The University of Massachusetts entered this new academic year with its spirits high, thanks to a historic infusion of support from the state.
I like to say that we in public higher education need many forms of support — public support, private support and even the occasional hug. And certainly, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts is giving our five-campus system a significant financial and emotional boost this year as a result of a $49 million funding increase that allows us to freeze tuition and mandatory fees, while still being able to advance our mission of education, research and public service.
As I travel the Commonwealth this week, my mission includes thanking the state for what it has done for UMass and announcing that we are going to seek to match the state’s commitment by launching a $1 billion fundraising campaign.
I will make the point that public and private support allows us to attract and retain the best and brightest — students and faculty.
Support for UMass aids students like Kayla DelValle of UMass Boston, who has helped to operate desperately needed health clinics in Honduras; José Lara of UMass Dartmouth, who coordinates a community service program that provides support to teens whose home life is troubled or who are struggling in school; and the team of UMass Lowell undergraduate and graduate engineering students that traveled to the Johnson Space Center in Texas to win a national NASA planetary rover competition.
Support for UMass assists the work of faculty members like Jeanne Hardy of UMass Amherst, who is studying a protein believed to be a promising target for new drugs in the fight against Alzheimer’s Disease; Dr. Katherine Luzuriaga of UMass Medical School, who was part of the team that successfully treated a baby born with HIV, and her Medical School colleague Jeanne B. Lawrence, the lead author of the first study to establish that the underlying genetic defect responsible for Down syndrome can be suppressed in cells in culture.
As supported as we feel by the state, we feel less certain about where things are headed with the federal government. And it is safe to say that we are not alone in eyeing Washington with a certain amount of trepidation.
For the higher education community, the trepidation is acute, as the federal government is a key source of financial aid for students and funds much of the research that occurs on our nation’s campuses.
It is sadly ironic that this relationship feels so unhinged at the moment, as the land-grant public university is a child of the federal government, created by the Morrill Land Grant Act passed a century and a half ago. In many ways, public universities are one of the federal government’s greatest gifts to the nation. We can only hope that stalemate and shutdown do not become our constant companions and that Washington will once again be a reliable partner.
As our bus rolls across the state, I will see the importance of the University of Massachusetts illustrated in a vivid way — in every corner of our Commonwealth. I will appreciate the fact that Gov. Patrick and the Legislature have made UMass and public higher education a top priority — and hope that the federal government can follow their lead.
Robert L. Caret is the president of the University of Massachusetts.