For decades, the Boston campus of the University of Massachusetts was the overlooked stepchild in the city’s family of high-achieving colleges. Isolated out on windswept Columbia Point, the campus is largely a grim maze of brick buildings that hardly inspire scholastic ambition.
So a striking new science complex, with a distinctive glass-and-steel atrium, is more than just a long-overdue makeover. It also serves as a loud punctuation to the academic progress the urban college has made in recent years.
“It’s just a beginning, but this building is symbolic,” said J. Keith Motley, UMass Boston’s chancellor since 2007. “When you come on campus, it embraces you and says, ‘We mean business.’ It’s a long way from where we started as an institution.”
The $182 million Integrated Sciences Complex, designed by Boston architecture firm Goody Clancy, is the first new academic building at UMass Boston since 1974 and instantly becomes the de facto campus flagship. The sleek architecture, backlit at night in a rainbow of colors from teardrop-shaped lanterns hanging in the five-story atrium, is now the first thing that visitors see when they arrive on campus.
Students say outsiders might not appreciate how something as simple as a modern, spacious building can boost their academic self-esteem — and just make it plain easier to learn.
“We were bumping elbows all the time. Our genomics core was downstairs, and we didn’t even have desks,” said 25-year-old graduate student Justin Cotellessa, who is working on a cancer-detecting research project. “Here we can do our research and bookwork at the same time.”
The complex, scheduled to open in time for the start of the spring semester this month, will serve as a showcase for cutting-edge research conducted by UMass scientists, from blood tests for cancer to the use of bacteria to scrub pollutants from the environment. Borrowing a page from private-sector tech clusters nearby, the school is concentrating researchers from various disciplines in the building to encourage collaborations.
School officials hope the building — and the work inside it — will help UMass establish closer ties to the burgeoning innovation economy in Boston, which is more closely associated with the major labs and research offices of Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Just as important, the modern facilities should help UMass sell its campus as a destination, not just for prospective students but for research talent, as well.
“We’ve been able to attract away and hire great minds,” Motley said. “When people see the innovation that’s happening in this city and the new reality of the university, they get excited.”
When research biologist Jennifer Bowen hit the interview circuit for academic positions in 2009, she was courted by Princeton University and the University of California. She agreed to interview at UMass Boston mostly because she had become fond of Massachusetts while completing her PhD at Boston University.
Expecting little, she said, she was surprised by a palpable feeling of purpose. Unlike Cal, which was grappling with a budget crisis, enthusiastic officials at UMass detailed a long-term plan to build the science complex and win more research funding. They also offered Bowen the chance to work with undergraduates.
“Princeton students are going to be fine with or without me,” Bowen said. “Here, I really like the fact that I can find undergrad students in the mix who have a huge amount of untapped potential. It’s amazing what a little bit of encouragement can do.”
Since joining UMass Boston, Bowen has snagged a prestigious award from the National Science Foundation for her team’s research into how saltmarsh microbes store carbon — a timely question as concerns about climate change grow.
Motley said Bowen’s testimony is a validation of his strategy: Rather than boost revenues by packing in students and building “revenue-generating” buildings such as dormitories, Motley is concentrating on academic and research facilities to attract better faculty and students.
He hopes UMass Boston will soon receive $100 million in annual funding for research, up from $60.1 million in fiscal year 2014.
The school is finishing construction on a new general academic building with art studios and teaching labs that is set to open in September; construction on another academic building is slated for 2016. The administration also is drawing up an ambitious plan for a public-health complex down the street at the old Bayside Expo Center, which UMass Boston bought in 2010.
The state government has been a strong supporter of UMass Boston, not just for new buildings but for students, too. The school’s budget for this year is nearly $381 million, up from the $347.4 million it spent last year. Tuition and fees, meanwhile, come in at $11,966 for Massachusetts residents and $27,430 for out-of-state students.
Though workers are still fussing over the finishes at the science complex, faculty and students have already treated themselves to a sneak peek.
“We are chomping at the bit to get in here,” said professor Jill Macoska, who directs UMass Boston’s Center for Personalized Cancer Therapy, as she and several graduate students approvingly inspected a pristine 3,000-square-foot lab space.
“Our old building is like a rabbit warren . . . We have to say ‘excuse me’ just to move around,” Macoska said. Her team is currently conducting sophisticated experiments using an ordinary commercial refrigerator.
Her new lab has a walk-in refrigerator made for science and elaborate ventilation systems to suck up noxious fumes. Most importantly, it is five times the size of her old lab, which will allow the cancer team to upgrade its equipment and add more graduate students to the research staff.
“We had to hold off on buying equipment because we literally had nowhere to put it,” Macoska said. “Now we can really ramp up.”
The new building is a sharp contrast to the forbidding fortress of brick around it. The construction of the campus in the early 1970s was itself an ugly scandal that came to define Massachusetts politics for years: Two state senators were jailed for extorting payments from a consultant to the project; the company itself was later accused of taking money for services it never performed.
The episode led to the creation of the Ward Commission, which launched a far-reaching investigation into how public contracts were awarded and found a rash of defective buildings around the state and millions of dollars in wasted expenditures.
UMass Boston is trying to turn the page on that past, Motley said. He argues that the school has done too little to promote its accomplishments since then.
“When I took this job, I thought I was coming over to save the campus,” he said. “But I found out there was so much talent already here. People just felt like it wasn’t noble to talk about it. I’m trying to give us permission to be proud.”