Growth spree has UMass Boston in bind
It was the autumn of 2011, and the future of UMass Boston seemed bright.
Four years into his tenure, Chancellor J. Keith Motley had just received the results of an ambitious report that would set in motion a decade of growth at the city’s only public research university.
By 2015, the campus would have more students, more tenured professors, its first-ever dormitory, new PhD programs, and an array of new buildings to replace many of the unloved, and crumbling, red brick buildings that have long defined the campus. The changes would bring not only first-rate laboratories and classrooms but, at long last, a view of Columbia Point’s sparkling waterfront. By 2025, it predicted, the campus would be transformed.
That vision, however, came with a huge warning: Those plans would be expensive, and without careful planning could saddle the university with a deficit of as much as $41 million by 2015.
The report’s authors cautioned administrators to watch every dollar, find efficiencies wherever possible. They would need to raise tuition, recruit more full-pay students from outside Massachusetts, and scrutinize the financial impact of each new program.
Now, five years later, the campus finds itself in a situation much like the one it was warned about. In its quest to rise from a commuter school to a top-tier research university, it followed through with the buildings, the programs, and the faculty while largely ignoring the warning that came coupled to those promises.
“I think what they became was kind of reckless,” said John Hess, a longtime English professor who served on the committee that wrote the 2011 report.
Despite a prediction last summer that it would generate a $2.3 million surplus this year, the campus instead faces a budget gap that could reach $30 million by the end of the fiscal year in June.
It is a body blow to the mission and image of a university that plays a critical role in a city known as a higher-education capital, offering undergraduate and graduate school opportunity to students with high aims but limited means. Tuition for in-state students is $13,400 and $32,000 for out-of-state students. Seventy-one percent of its 12,847 undergraduates receive financial aid.
Administrators are scrambling to make ends meet, clean up construction debris, improve fund-raising, and reverse declining enrollment after it dropped by 183 students this year from last. Frantic attempts to cut costs have left professors demoralized and skeptical about whether administrators have faithfully shepherded the campus, according to interviews with faculty.
University of Massachusetts president Martin T. Meehan has hired a special administrator from the outside to assist Motley in righting the ship, but interviews with longtime professors and a review of university documents detailing the situation make it clear that the problems facing UMass Boston stem not from one person or one decision alone.
Over the years — decades, even — a pattern of shrinking state support, ballooning maintenance needs, and at times chaotic management and lack of communication have combined to steer the school into an untenable situation that has left students to bear more of the cost, with tuition and fees up by 6 percent in the past year alone, according to campus financial documents and faculty and university officials.
“I do wish we had reacted sooner to stem the tide on our budget deficit at UMass Boston,” said board of trustees vice chairwoman Maria Furman.
Meehan said that when he took over in 2015, he began requiring quarterly reports from the campuses — and those reports offered a window into UMass Boston’s problems.
“It became clear that we had an issue that we needed to address at Boston,” Meehan said in an interview Friday. “To the extent there was a lack of attention, we are making adjustments.”
Furman said the change in board leadership, and in the UMass president’s office, slowed the board’s reaction to the problems. She said she is unhappy with some of the ways the campus has tried to cut costs.
For example, last summer the school sent notices to about 400 part-time faculty to say they might not be rehired in the fall, a notice required by union rules. It then rehired most of them.
More cuts followed last fall and this spring, including courses canceled, conference sponsorships ended, and office supply budgets curtailed.
Students and faculty worry more cuts will come as Barry Mills, the former Bowdoin College president who is Meehan’s pick to help run the campus, tries to balance the budget. They are also concerned about whether the university has followed through on certain cuts it promised.
For example, administrators instituted a hiring freeze in November but since then have hired 29 people, including four administrators with salaries of more than $100,000 apiece, records show. Earlier last year the school hired or promoted 10 other top administrators to positions that pay between $96,000 to $228,000, records show.
Meanwhile, faculty said they are left to cope with the results of a disorganized administration that has added many new programs while leaving others to languish.
The campus has added 22 new degree and certificate programs since 2014, according to records provided by the campus. They range from a new doctorate in global comparative public administration to a certificate program in “game-based teaching with technology.”
At the same time, some professors say that programs they have developed are ignored.
“We’ve built up these small areas of expertise and excellence but then the university doesn’t nourish them and people get disillusioned,” said David Levy, a longtime professor in the business school.
Levy said he helped pioneer a program that researches organizations and social change, and it became the first track in a PhD program in business administration. But the program lost its PhD administrator and cannot replace that person because of the hiring freeze and they were not able to admit new students this coming year, he said.
What remains unchanged at UMass Boston, however, is a deep sense of purpose.
Faculty believe serving their students, many of whom also work full time and raise families, is more important than the hurdles they now have to overcome to teach, even as the bureaucratic chaos has left them anxious and frustrated.
“People love it, despite everything,” Hess said.
Many faculty still recall the early days of the urban college. It was founded in 1964 as the state’s only public university besides the flagship in Amherst. Amid political turmoil and civil rights activism, a generation of baby boomers who couldn’t afford a private education, or didn’t want one, flocked to the school’s original location at 100 Arlington St. in the Back Bay.
Ann Withorn, a professor who taught at UMass Boston from 1977 to 2013, remembers the college when it was home to a group of idealistic, sometimes rowdy, academics who came of age in an era of protest and social change. The place has changed a lot since then, she said.
“But the students who want to go there are still very similar to the students who’ve always wanted to go there,” she said. “It always was the higher education for everybody.”
Today everybody includes many first-generation, low-income, minority, and immigrant students. The majority-minority campus is among the most diverse in the city and the most affordable. At the same time, its research prowess has increased, and it attracts top-quality faculty.
But because many of the students lack the financial stability of their counterparts at the private colleges just a few miles away, the campus’s financial distress has had an even larger impact on their studies. A recent restriction on photocopying, for example, is a big deal, because students must now often pay to print handouts elsewhere or access a computer to read them online.
Juan Pablo Blanco, an immigrant from Argentina who until recently was undocumented, works full time as a restaurant manager in Cambridge while he pursues an undergraduate degree in philosophy.
One of the biggest ways the budget cuts hurt students, he said, is that some course sections have been canceled, meaning students sometimes have to wait longer to graduate.
“It’s becoming a lot more tricky to figure out,” Blanco said.
“When am I going to take them, and how am I going to graduate on time?”
His partner is a master’s degree student who wasn’t sure if her teaching assistant job would be eliminated in the cuts. Instead she accepted a position that covered just three quarters of her costs, to make sure she would have at least some income, and took out loans to cover the rest.
“Having to pay money out of pocket is a huge hit for us,” Blanco said.
While tuition increases can be painful for students, costs appear to have risen at the slowest pace of several scenarios outlined in the report to fund the new programs and buildings. Costs for in-state students have risen about 18 percent since 2012.
The number of out-of-state students has grown, but not at the rate needed to keep up with costs. There were 2,641 out-of-state students in 2012 and 3,538 last year, according to a 2017 bond prospectus from the university. The report suggested adding as many as 3,000 per year.
Motley, the campus chancellor, did not respond to a request to be interviewed for this story. Neither did Provost Winston Langley.
Amid its growing pains, one of the university’s biggest challenges has been the uncertainty of financial support from state government. In 1985 state funding made up 75 percent of the campus’s operating budget, the report said. Today it makes up 29.5 percent, including benefits the state pays for some UMass employees, according to UMass officials.
The 2011 report warned that the school should advocate for more support but not count on it.
“This means engineering a major paradigm shift,” the report said.
“Adopting new financial models that reflect the new reality of public funding.”
A cornerstone of the 2011 report was a suite of new buildings that would be the first since the original structures went up 40 years ago.
In 1968 school leaders announced the move to Columbia Point, a 100-acre site formerly home to a landfill and cow pasture. But the opening of that campus in 1974 proved as much a curse as a blessing.
Shoddy construction began to crumble long before it should have. Giant chunks of concrete fell from the ceiling of an underground parking garage, so it had to be closed in 2006. In 1977, two state senators were jailed for extorting payments from a consultant that oversaw the project; the company itself was later accused of taking money for services it never performed.
The 2011 report forecast that by 2014, the school’s 50th anniversary, there would be a “dramatic new UMass Boston,” with a dormitory, new classrooms, higher retention and graduation rates, and expanded research programs.
While some benchmarks have been met, and some projects completed, many lag significantly behind.
A new science complex opened two years behind schedule and cost $28 million more than expected. A new classroom building was delayed a year and ran $17 million over budget.
Another mammoth project on campus is one that ultimately won’t be seen. The university is in the midst of a utility and roadway project to install water, sewer, and electrical service underground.
That project stalled for a year because asbestos was found in the soil. That and other setbacks mean it is now set to cost $233 million instead of $142 million. The state has agreed to pay $75 million toward that project.
As UMass Boston nears its self-imposed debt cap, it has looked to private developers to finance projects like the $126 million dormitory, set to open in 2018 instead of 2014, and a $71 million parking garage. That dormitory project stalled for years amid opposition from the surrounding neighborhoods, state officials, private universities, and some students and professors themselves, who believed it would divert the school from its roots as a place for locals.
Why would the university embark on so many construction projects at once when it knew the debt it would incur?
Phil Johnston, a UMass trustee who was chairman of the UMass Building Authority when many of the projects were built, said university officials believed they were imperative to the campus’s success.
The buildings “were bad to begin with, and then they deteriorated to the point where they had an impact on enrollment,” said Johnston.
But perhaps as much as the buildings, it’s the little things that matter to UMass Boston students, like how frequently the shuttle buses run from the JFK/UMass T station to campus. One set of budget cuts proposed reducing the frequency of those shuttles.
Janine Massicotte, 47, commuted for two and a half years from Worcester to UMass by public transportation. For five hours a day, several times a week, she took a city bus to the commuter rail to the T to that shuttle, and if it were to come less often, she said, she could miss her class.
Massicotte returned to school later in life, after she cared for her ailing father, and is one class shy of a bachelor’s degree in psychology, she said.
Now she worries the budget cuts will threaten the small class sizes that made it exciting to learn, and the diversity of classmates who taught her as much as the textbooks.
“It’s just going to be like any other school,” she said.
“And I think that’s too bad.”