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    kevin cullen

    UMass just can’t win

    Students on the UMass Amherst campus.
    Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff/File
    Students on the UMass Amherst campus.

    UMass can’t win.

    It wasn’t too long ago, six years to be exact, I was reading, in this very newspaper, about people complaining that the University of Massachusetts’ flagship campus in Amherst was a second-tier state school, nowhere close to the Michigans and the North Carolinas of this world.

    The rap on UMass was that its facilities and academic standards were second-rate and its supposed undesirability was evident in a lack of out-of-state students lining up to apply.

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    Now the Pioneer Institute is out with a report saying a more academically rigorous UMass is spending too much money on nice new buildings and letting in too many out-of-state students.

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    Like I said, UMass can’t win.

    Marty Meehan, the UMass president, is none too pleased with the Pioneer Institute report.

    “I refuse to accept the expectation that UMass should be mediocre, that it somehow is a negative to build a nationally-ranked university,” said Meehan. “There are people who think UMass should be a place for people who can’t get into elite universities. But the idea that you could have a globally recognized university with 99 percent of your students from in-state just makes no sense.”

    The Pioneer Institute recommended that UMass cap on the number of out-of-state students it admits, but Meehan isn’t buying it.

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    “UMass isn’t anywhere near a level where a cap is necessary,” he said. “We’re taking more Massachusetts residents than ever before. Some of them are students who, in the past, would have attended private universities. But, looking for value, they’re picking UMass.”

    Meehan also disputed the idea that taking more out-of-state students is somehow cheating Massachusetts students.

    “Diversity isn’t just race or ethnicity,” he said. “It’s where you come from, too. And having more students from other states, from other countries, is a good thing for Massachusetts students. It’s a big world out there, and we’re supposed to prepare them for that big world.”

    Besides, he said, the out-of-state students, who pay about $43,000 a year to go to UMass Amherst, are subsidizing in-state students, who pay about $26,000.

    The Pioneer Institute found that across the five-campus UMass system, out of state enrollment increased by 84 percent between 2008 and 2014. In that same period, in-state enrollment grew by 19 percent.

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    But Meehan says UMass Amherst has a good balance, with 76 percent of undergrads being from Massachusetts.

    Meehan won’t apologize for building up the Amherst campus.

    “UMass has become a research engine for Massachusetts,” Meehan said. “The $630 million in research is behind only Harvard and MIT.”

    A view of UMass Amherst’s Commonwealth Honors College for high-achieving students.
    Nancy Palmieri for the Boston Globe/File
    A view of UMass Amherst’s Commonwealth Honors College for high-achieving students.

    While the Pioneer Institute is seen as a frequent critic of the public sector and a champion of the private sector, Meehan said his interactions with the private sector suggest it supports the UMass strategy and wouldn’t support the caution advised by the Pioneer Institute’s report.

    “As part of my job, I meet with CEOs all over Massachusetts. I haven’t met one CEO who thinks we should retreat, only that we should strive to be greater,” Meehan said. “About 85 percent of UMass grads initially stay in Massachusetts, and 65 percent stay permanently. The vast majority of graduates of private universities leave. So it’s the UMass kids who are filling the jobs here, and the CEOs know that.”

    One part of the Pioneer Institute’s report, suggesting that UMass’s growth could pose an existential threat to private colleges and universities, was especially galling to Meehan.

    “We don’t have any responsibility to private universities,” Meehan said. “We have no obligation to put the brakes on because it might hurt private universities. This report is about protecting those private institutions in this state that want to charge more and deliver less than UMass does. These institutions have lost enrollment, some of it to UMass, because people are making the rational decision to opt for the affordable quality that UMass provides.”

    As for the Pioneer Institute’s claim that UMass is not fulfilling its primary purpose in educating Massachusetts residents, Meehan waved a dismissive hand.

    “The focus on UMass Amherst ignores the rest of the system,” he said. “If you can’t get into Amherst, or Lowell, you can get into Boston or Dartmouth. And if you can’t get into any of those, you can get into a community college.”

    If you get decent grades at community college, you’re guaranteed admittance into UMass.

    “Those who get into the university via the community college system are statistically more successful,” Meehan said. “The point here is we believe it’s vital to increase the standards at UMass, and we’re not going to apologize for doing that.”

    If Meehan sounds a tad overly defensive, he has a right to be. He is the first undergrad alumnus of the UMass system to serve as president. UMass has been demeaned for generations, even as it has provided a good, affordable education. It struggles for status and attention in a state and a culture where private universities, from Harvard to Boston College, gobble up the available oxygen. It doesn’t receive the legislative support that is taken for granted by public universities in most states.

    “When I graduated from [UMass] Lowell, the state provided 85 percent of the budget,” Meehan said. “Today, it’s 24 percent.”

    So out-of-state students are needed, if only to have them pay a bigger share. But it isn’t merely about money.

    This week, Meehan will attend commencement at UMass Boston, where students from 150 countries will graduate.

    “One hundred and fifty countries,” Marty Meehan said, marveling at the number. “That’s a strength. Not a weakness.”

    Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at cullen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter@GlobeCullen.