Living among some of the world’s most prestigious private universities and colleges, Massachusetts residents have often seen their own flagship public university as second rate.
“When I first came out here, we used to have a running joke: that the University of Massachusetts Amherst had an excellent reputation in 49 of the 50 states,” said M.J. Peterson, a 35-year veteran professor in the university’s political science department.
But times are changing. “I haven’t heard that in a long time,” Peterson said.
Indeed, momentum seems to be the word on everyone’s lips at UMass Amherst.
The school has shot up from 52nd in 2010 to 26th this year in the coveted U.S. News and World Report rankings of public universities, while applications to the school have grown 30 percent in the past decade — even as the state’s number of high school graduates has stagnated.
“The minimum goal is to keep our trajectory going, and even that is going to be a challenge,” Peterson said. “Because a lot of places are working hard to come up, so we’re going to have to run faster to stay in place.”
Now, as the university prepares to find a replacement for Chancellor Kumble R. Subbaswamy, who many credit with the university’s transformation, members of the UMass Amherst community are reflecting on the university’s rise, what happens next, and whether it can balance its nascent elite status with its egalitarian mission.
Subbaswamy, 71, announced earlier this month that he will retire at the end of June 2023. He had planned from the onset to stay for about a decade, he said, and leading the university through the pandemic was grueling.
“It’s a good time to turn it over to somebody new with a fresh set of eyes and new energy,” he said in a telephone interview Friday.
As the university’s top leadership transitions, many at UMass Amherst want to see the upward trajectory Subbaswamy initiated continue.
“By any measure that you use, Swamy’s leadership has been extraordinary,” said Marty Meehan, president of the UMass system, using the chancellor’s nickname in a telephone interview last week. “It’s really important that students have the opportunity to attend a flagship campus that is as good as any in the country, and that’s what we have right now.”
Before Subbaswamy assumed the chancellorship, UMass Amherst had been through four leaders in a decade.
Subbaswamy, a physicist born in Bangalore, India, who previously served as provost at the University of Kentucky, did not immediately undertake big changes upon his arrival in 2012, several professors said. Instead, he listened and got a feel for the place over the course of nearly a year.
“There wasn’t a lot of change for change’s sake,” said Anthony Paik, a sociology professor and secretary of the faculty senate.
As Subbaswamy’s vision for the campus then emerged, it was ambitious. The new chancellor wanted to put UMass Amherst on a path to the top 20 public universities in the country, Paik said.
To do it, Subbaswamy took aim at the campus’s graduation rate.
In 2011, about 78 percent of the university’s students graduated in six years. The figure wasn’t unusual for large public institutions at the time, but it was well behind the elite public schools the chancellor hoped to one day rival.
UMass Amherst focused on undergraduate advising, especially for first-generation undergraduates; abolished the “undecided” major category for undergraduates, placing them instead on exploratory tracks within the university’s colleges; and implemented a system for professors, advisors, and deans to share notes on students so fewer slipped through the cracks, several professors said.
It seems to have worked. Now 84 percent of students graduate in six years. The four-year graduation rate jumped even more, from about 67 percent in 2011 to 77 percent today.
Subbaswamy also revamped the university’s honors college, founded a school of computer science, and was a prolific fund-raiser.
The university’s enhanced reputation has helped attract star faculty, snag big research grants, and boosted graduates’ job prospects.
“If you’re graduating with a UMass degree, it’s kind of worth a bit more now than a couple years ago, when it was known more as a party school,” said Tasneem Kelly, a rising senior from West Springfield studying information management and political science.
The university’s ascension is just as much a survival strategy as it is a reputation boost.
Higher education in New England is staring down the approach of what’s been dubbed the “demographic cliff” — falling numbers of high school graduates. Small liberal arts colleges were the first to feel the squeeze, but even big public schools are worrying.
“The competition is going to be intense for students, and students are much more likely to want to attend a university that has a national reputation,” Meehan said.
Raising a university’s reputation can be an expensive proposition, according to John Stevens, a New Hampshire-based higher education consultant and UMass Amherst alumnus. Investments in a range of resources, from new buildings to more student advisors, cost money. As tuition rises at public universities, they lose some of their price advantages and must compete with private institutions, often spending more on amenities and academics, Stevens said.
In fact, tuition and fees rose an inflation-adjusted $6,500 per student in the UMass system between the 2001 and 2020 fiscal years, while state higher education funding per student dropped $2,500 over the same period, the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center found.
“Because it can no longer rely on the state, it has to make these private sector decisions, and in some ways that changes the character of the university,” said Timmy Sullivan, the director of the Public Education Network of Massachusetts.
Increasing enrollment, recruiting more high-paying, out-of-state students, an emphasis on fund-raising, and higher debt loads for students are all the results, said Sullivan, who has nearly $33,000 in debt remaining from his years working on a UMass Amherst degree.
When Whitney Battle-Baptiste, an archeologist and director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Center, arrived at UMass Amherst 16 years ago, it was less prestigious, but it was a place with more of an underdog, sometimes radical attitude, she said.
“The culture has changed slightly, as the truth is we need to raise funds. We need to have some profit to maintain our campus resources,” she said.
Meehan acknowledged that affordability is a challenge, but said the UMass system has been aggressively fund-raising for scholarships and has increased financial aid by about 50 percent during his tenure as president.
However, there doesn’t need to be tension between UMass Amherst’s pursuit of prestige and its role in promoting social mobility, said state Representative Natalie Higgins, a Leominster Democrat and UMass alumna.
“I think those two things can happen at the same time,” Higgins said. It just requires more money from the state Legislature, she said.
Subbaswamy said he’s tried to strike the right balance, but it will remain something his successor will need to be aware of.
“We all worry about access as much as excellence,” Subbaswamy said, pointing out that the number of Black students and other students of color on campus has grown significantly during his tenure. The next chancellor will have to keep focusing on race and equity while building a good relationship with Beacon Hill, he said.
UMass officials said they plan to name a chancellor search commission this summer and host listening sessions with students, faculty, and staff before scouting candidates.
One thing everyone agrees the next chancellor will need is a trait Subbaswamy has in abundance: the ability to listen.
UMass Amherst faces thorny questions about blatant acts of racism, many Black students’ feelings that they don’t belong, sexual assault at fraternities, and retention of faculty members of color. Subbaswamy launched several initiatives, like a Black advisory council, to work on those issues and held town halls on tough issues where he didn’t shy from students’ pointed questions.
It’s because maintaining good relationships with every community on campus underlies a chancellor’s ability to get anything else done, Subbaswamy said.
His approach, and his advice to the next chancellor, is simple.
“People appreciate honesty,” he said.
Alexander Thompson can be reached at email@example.com