Metro

This UMass Boston program faces uncertain future

Construction at UMass Boston.

Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

Construction at UMass Boston.

The nursing school at the University of Massachusetts Boston, one of the campus’s most successful programs, faces an uncertain future because of a logistical snafu caused by the myriad construction projects underway at the same time.

The program is housed in a building set to be demolished in the next few years, but the Baker administration has nixed a plan to fund a replacement building, leaving the nursing program looking for a new home.

Advertisement

“Our concern is that at one point we did have funding for a building,” said Marion Winfrey, interim dean of the College of Nursing and Health Sciences, which has about 1,700 students.

This conundrum is just one of many that have resulted from the Rubik’s Cube of construction underway on campus and the 2015 gubernatorial transition from Deval Patrick to Charlie Baker.

Get Fast Forward in your inbox:
Forget yesterday's news. Get what you need today in this early-morning email.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

The nursing school problem comes as the campus also faces a structural budget deficit this year that could have reached as high as $30 million if not for cost-cutting measures underway.

The many construction projects on the campus have exacerbated the budget challenges, and amid concern from the central UMass office and trustees, longtime Chancellor J. Keith Motley announced earlier this month that he will step down in June.

It’s unclear whether Patrick actually committed to paying for the new nursing building and whether the campus should have built a new nursing school before other projects it has begun. Meanwhile, nursing school professors wonder where their program will be housed in the future.

Advertisement

“It’s difficult without a building,” Winfrey said. “It would be so much better, we would have been in it and really flourishing.”

That’s not to say the program isn’t doing well. There are 613 undergraduate nursing students this year, plus others in the master’s, PhD, and online programs, and the school is considered one of the best in the region. It accepts a large number of transfer students, and its flexible schedule allows them to complete their degrees expeditiously. The college is 76 percent women and 46 percent minority.

A variety of scholarship programs help students afford the cost, including one with Partners HealthCare that paid for 98 students in the past 10 years to attend school for free for two years, Winfrey said.

Enrollment at the College of Nursing and Health Sciences as a whole, however, did drop from 1,852 in 2015 to 1,698 in 2016, according to the university.

How could such a prominent program face such an uncertain future? As with many of the projects at UMass Boston, the chain of events that led here is complicated.

The nursing program is housed on two floors of the science building, which sits atop a crumbling garage set for demolition. But in order to demolish the garage and science building, the school first needs to complete a utility relocation project that was delayed by asbestos in the soil where the utilities will be buried.

With the utility project done, the garage and science center can be demolished. But so far, there is no new home established for the nursing program.

UMass Boston Deputy Chancellor Barry Mills said he will make sure the program finds a home before the science building comes down, which could be as soon as January 2019.

“Nursing is one of UMass Boston’s strongest and most respected programs, and the university is actively engaged in finding appropriate space for the college,” Mills said in a statement.

Winfrey, the nursing dean, said she has met with Mills once but hopes to learn more from him at a meeting next month.

The idea that the state would pay for a new nursing building dates back to 2012. At a press conference on campus, then-Governor Patrick, a Democrat, said the state would build a new $100 million academic building.

Several years later, the state began a study of that project that ultimately cost $800,000, according to Baker’s office. Nursing school administrators worked with architects who visited other colleges to plan how they would design their new laboratories and clinical rooms, according to the dean.

But before the study was complete, Baker, a Republican, took office and halted a large number of capital projects Patrick had promised. Baker’s team prioritized projects to fix and maintain buildings that the state owns, rather than build new ones, according to a spokeswoman from the Executive Office for Administration and Finance.

In a statement, the Baker spokeswoman said his administration has committed more than $149 million in capital funding to UMass Boston, including $78 million it promised earlier this week to help pay for the underground garage and science center demolition project. But his office did not express interest in paying for a nursing building.

The UMass system president, Martin T. Meehan, said it’s up to campuses to set priorities and carry out building plans in a responsible manner, adjusting to conditions as they change.

“The previous administration obviously had committed to buildings all over UMass and all over the public higher education system,” Meehan said. “There’s a new administration.’’

With the future unclear, UMass Boston administrators are exploring on- and off-campus options for the nursing program.

It will be more difficult than simply finding classrooms because the nursing program needs special labs to simulate hospital rooms and space to store special equipment like the three new human mannequins Winfrey just purchased.

The science center’s demolition will also affect other offices and programs housed in that building, but the nursing program’s future is by far the biggest question because of its size.

The School for the Environment will move to renovated space in the McCormack building, according to Dean Robyn Hannigan. Still up in the air: where the engineering and math and computer science programs will relocate. Many of the other science programs have migrated to the new Integrated Sciences Complex that opened in 2015.

Winfrey said it’s in the state’s best interest to ensure the nursing program has a solid future, since it graduates about 400 students per year, many of whom remain in the area to work. For many students, the program is transformative, she said.

“You have first-generation students, they’ve made a commitment, and once they become a nurse . . . now they’re going into a middle-class job and life. It’s really life altering,” she said.

Laura Krantz can be reached at laura.krantz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @laurakrantz.
Loading comments...
Real journalists. Real journalism. Subscribe to The Boston Globe today.