From the looks of it, UMass Boston is a college in the midst of a boom.
It boasts a new science center. A new parking garage. New buildings all over the place, actually. And coming in 2018, a new dormitory that its leaders have long touted as the key to shedding its identity as a commuter college. In Boston’s crowded college landscape, it is developing a dynamic new identity.
Unfortunately, that rosy scenario ignores the problem that’s putting the place in peril. The university is, suddenly and shockingly, drowning in red ink. It has a budget gap that could reach $30 million by June. That isn’t just a problem. It’s a disaster.
Campus leaders cannot say they weren’t warned. An internal report in 2011 spelled out the many opportunities the school could be facing — but it also made it clear that the road ahead was financially treacherous, reporter Laura Krantz noted in the Sunday Globe.
Now, a few years later, UMass’s worst-case scenario is perilously close to reality.
This yawning budget gap is especially bad news for chancellor J. Keith Motley, who has led the school since 2008. The decisions that led to this mess belong to many people. But as the man at the helm, Motley’s seat has to be getting warmer by the second. It doesn’t help that he is believed to be working without a contract, his previous one having expired.
The school’s budget problems are not bad news just for UMass officials. This is bad for the students who have found a home, and a quality education, at one of this area’s few relatively affordable universities. And because of the opportunity it provides, its problems should concern everybody. This city needs a strong UMass Boston.
It can’t be stressed enough that the problems are not really the fault of any one person, or even a group of people. UMass Boston embarked on a building boom partly because the buildings that were there were crumbling. And there’s nothing wrong with a college seeking to become more attractive to potential students by offering them more programs.
But the growth the boom was supposed to drive has not materialized. Enrollment is actually down. And the higher-paying, out-of-state students the school hoped to attract remain a relatively small part of the population. Neither of those trends is irreversible, but right now the growth strategy isn’t working.
UMass Boston has for decades suffered from a strange inability to transcend its origins. The building of the current campus ended in a construction scandal that landed two state senators in prison in 1977. In addition, the quality of the construction that lawmakers approved was terrible. The place has been getting patched up ever since. A parking garage was closed a few years ago after huge slabs of concrete started falling from the ceiling. If Beacon Hill bigwigs were going to steal money, they should have shaken down better contractors.
Recently, steps have been taken to deal with campus management. Barry Mills, the former president of Bowdoin College, was brought in as deputy chancellor, in charge of day-to-day operations. Mills has said he has no interest in becoming chancellor, but his presence clearly dilutes Motley’s authority.
UMass president Martin T. Meehan told me Sunday that he believes the school will weather its current woes, and said he has no desire to replace Motley. He called him an “inspirational and transformative” leader, albeit one in need of support.
“All you have to do is walk around Roxbury, or on campus, with Keith to see how much support he has,” Meehan said. “I think the transition to becoming a top-tier research university requires a great team, and that’s what we’re building.”
It’s long been clear that Meehan has big plans for UMass Boston, and it isn’t hard to see why. The school has a great location, a dedicated faculty, and an inspiring student body. But it won’t realize its grand ambitions unless someone can figure out how to pay the bills.Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Adrian_Walker.