UMass Dartmouth tries to put the focus on school life again
DARTMOUTH — More than a thousand college students flocked to the dining hall for a late-night breakfast, with heaps of pancakes, bacon, and eggs served by professors. The Moonlight Breakfast was a feast for students about to start finals the next morning, a cheerful and utterly ordinary tradition similar to school-sponsored study breaks on campuses across the country.
Except that this was the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, a school in the international spotlight thanks to student Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, one of the accused Boston Marathon bombers, and his three former UMass Dartmouth classmates charged last week with trying to cover up his role in the attacks.
Students at the breakfast last Thursday were not simply blowing off steam from studying. They were recovering from weeks of fear and uncertainty, and the lingering worry that their diploma will one day conjure up a terrorist attack in the minds of prospective employers.
It is hard to imagine worse publicity for a formerly low-profile public university tucked away in the southeast corner of the state. But many students and professors insist that the real UMass Dartmouth is different: a nurturing environment in which first-generation college students take small classes and an economic engine in its struggling region, even as budget woes have forced cutbacks and spawned controversies.
“I like to think of UMass Dartmouth as the first rung on the ladder of opportunity,” said history department chairman Mark Santow. “We are a symbol of where higher education is supposed to fit in the American dream. We’re not some sort of terrorist factory.”
The accusations against Tsarnaev were so stunning and incomprehensible that his arrest seemed to some like a blip that might not damage the school. After all, Unabomber Ted Kaczynski graduated from Harvard.
But after three of Tsarnaev’s friends from the college were charged with obstruction of justice in allegedly hiding Tsarnaev’s backpack and laptop or in lying to authorities, it was clear that the campus would suffer.
Fox TV’s Bill O’Reilly castigated the college. The fake-news outlet The Onion posted a parody on an imaginary “semester-long course in Applied Domestic Terrorism.” Reporters swarmed the campus.
Cassandra Charles, a sophomore from Medford, was dancing to TLC’s “No Scrubs” at the Moonlight Breakfast, but she had a nagging fear that her school will always be associated with Tsarnaev and his friends.
“I feel like we were very unknown, especially compared to UMass Amherst, which we always get compared to,” she said. “Now we’re the infamous UMass Dartmouth.” In reality, Charles said, “we are like every other college campus.”
The young men in the news were hardly shining lights on campus. Although Tsarnaev was widely described as sociable and well liked, he had poor grades and owed more than $20,000 in tuition bills, sources have told the Globe. His penchant for smoking marijuana was much discussed by classmates.
His friends Dias Kadyrbayev and Azamat Tazhayakov, students from Kazakhstan, endangered their student visas because of poor grades, according to their lawyers. Kadyrbayev was expelled for his grades, according to a school official.
University officials said that the school properly handled the visa issues and that sometimes a student with an outstanding bill can remain enrolled if financial aid is expected to come through.
Still, UMass Dartmouth chancellor Divina Grossman said administrators had identified procedures that need improvement. She declined to specify them, saying faculty needed to be consulted first. She is appointing an independent task force to examine policies.
“We have to be responsive and accountable to the public; we are a public institution,” Grossman said. “We want to make sure we understand what happened here and look at all the data and make appropriate changes as we need to.”
The spotlight on UMass Dartmouth may have exacerbated tensions between some professors and the administration. English professor Richard J. Larschan was accused by campus officials of inappropriately sharing Tsarnaev’s transcript with others, said another professor, Bal Ram Singh, who spoke to Larschan.
Larschan denied doing anything inappropriate, but announced his retirement, said Singh, who said he believed the university targeted the professor without due process.
“It’s very, very damning to an academic intellectual environment when faculty, who are really the backbone of an institution, can be done away with like that,” Singh said.
A university spokesman said he could not comment on a personnel matter, and Larschan did not respond to repeated messages seeking comment.
One of the Dartmouth campus’s best known professors, casino authority Clyde W. Barrow, said the administration in general is secretive and disorganized and marginalizes the faculty.
“Nothing works on this campus, from toilet paper dispensers to accounts payable to the dorms,” he said.
But Grant V. O’Rielly, president of the Faculty Senate, said Grossman, who became chancellor less than a year ago, has been much more open than her predecessor and is working to spruce up the campus.
UMass Dartmouth’s retro concrete architecture has been unpopular with students, and many buildings desperately need rehabilitation. But several professors raved about the newly renovated library, which Globe architecture critic Robert Campbell called “one terrific piece of architecture,” letting floods of light into formerly dark and cramped spaces.
Students and faculty talk about the campus’s unique offerings, including its marine science program and an arts campus that has helped revitalize downtown New Bedford. In 2010, UMass absorbed a struggling private law school, which became the state’s first public law school.
While many students are immigrants or the children of immigrants, only 368 of the 9,200 undergraduate and graduate students on campus are international, said a school spokesman.
Professors said their best students are as promising as any in the country. O’Rielly, a physics professor, said a couple of graduates in his department this year are headed for prestigious doctoral programs.
He also described UMass Dartmouth as a place where undergraduates have more access to research opportunities than they would at most universities. He has received a National Science Foundation grant that allows a handful of undergraduates to do nuclear physics research in Sweden each summer.
Many students work part time or even full time to put themselves through school, Grossman said.
“People in this region look up to the university as the beacon of educational opportunity,” Grossman said. “I worry that the mistakes of [a few] students would tar with the same brush” thousands of others.
Some students express the same worry, but they also embrace a new slogan, “Corsair Strong,” a reference to their school mascot, the corsair, a type of pirate.
“Everyone’s trying to knock us down,” said Zach Connolly, a senior from Brockton. But “we’re way too strong for that,” he said. “. . . Just like Boston is resilient, we’re a resilient school.”