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Shirley Leung

UMass Amherst isn’t the bad guy in the Mount Ida saga

Mount Ida College.
Mount Ida College.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Who’s the villain in the drama of the surprise agreement by the University of Massachusetts Amherst to purchase and shut down Mount Ida College — a deal that will leave 1,500 students scrambling to finish their degrees?

Let’s be clear about one thing: UMass Amherst did not create the financial crisis that threatened to close Mount Ida this summer. From what we know so far, it was the private Newton college that decided to walk away from a marriage with Lasell College that would have been less disruptive to students and preserved faculty jobs.

UMass Amherst will tell you it was approached by Mount Ida to take over its debt and real estate for up to $70 million. The price was right, and UMass grabbed it. School leaders in Amherst have long wanted a satellite campus closer to Boston to make it easier for their students to do internships and co-ops in the city.

“It was not like we hired an agent and said go find us something,” said UMass Amherst chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy.

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UMass Amherst may look like the bad guy for forcing Mount Ida students to relocate and encroaching on UMass Boston’s turf. The timing couldn’t be worse as the Boston campus endures painful cuts and now may face a new competitor.

But this is the other reality: UMass Amherst is the system flagship, and Subbaswamy needs to do what it takes to make sure it remains strong and competitive. As much as we worry about the future of UMass Boston, that doesn’t mean UMass Amherst can stand still.

Experiential or hands-on learning is where higher education is heading, and if UMass Amherst students can’t access that, it puts them at a disadvantage. The Amherst campus educates more high school graduates from Massachusetts than the top eight private universities in the state combined. Amherst also graduates the largest number of Massachusetts students who then decide to stay here. They are among the engineers, accountants, computer programmers, and biotech scientists who power our knowledge-based economy.

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And they’re not all white rich kids. UMass Boston may be the system’s majority-minority campus, but UMass Amherst graduates more students of color than any other campus.

“We are more selective. That doesn’t mean we are exclusive,” Subbaswamy said.

Amherst is hardly alone in wanting an urban presence. A parade of institutions from Babson College to Worcester Polytechnic Institute have recently opened or expanded their Boston outposts.

If anything, perhaps UMass Amherst should have held out for space in the city. Still Mount Ida’s Newton property is a lot closer than the Western Massachusetts campus, which can be a 2-hour drive from Boston, and the turnkey purchase comes with dorms for close to 900 students.

“We want our flagship state university to be strong and broad, and capable of exposing students to a variety of situations and experiences,” said Paul Reville, the former state education secretary, who now teaches at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.“That’s a positive thing. It’s just that the timing and juxtaposition of challenges of the UMass Boston campus make it seem questionable from a public point of view.”

Scrutiny is coming fast and furious from Beacon Hill, the attorney general, and the state board of higher education. As part of the agreement, Mount Ida students will be automatically offered admission to UMass Dartmouth — about 60 miles from their old school — so they can complete their education.

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Talk to UMass president Marty Meehan, and he will tell you he expected a backlash. He could have hired a big public relations firm to help with the message but decided against it.

“Optics only matter in politics, not running a real university,” said Meehan, a former congressman. “I know and the chancellor [Subbaswamy] know this is the right thing to do.”

What would make this an even better deal?

If Meehan and Subbaswamy can promise this won’t have an negative impact on UMass Boston. For example, whatever programs Amherst offers at Mount Ida, such as executive education, should not hurt similar ones at UMass Boston.

Or that other UMass campuses such as Dartmouth and Lowell can share in the wealth of a new acquisition, and that some of their students get opportunities to do internships in Boston and stay in Mount Ida dorms.

In other words, is there way to make this deal benefit not only Amherst but all of UMass as well?

“I am open to all suggestions,” said Subbaswamy.

Let’s take him up on that.


Shirley Leung is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at shirley.leung@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @leung.