Jessie Gardner is a teenager from Plymouth who this year discovered the magnificence of T.S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf. She wants to be an English teacher in the Boston Public Schools, but that depends on one thing: whether she can afford to return to college next year.
Gardner, 19, is a freshman at the University of Massachusetts Boston, and she works three jobs to help pay for her studies. But the $400 monthly commuter rail and MBTA pass is expensive, so she is considering transferring to a school that’s closer to home, and cheaper.
“I wish it was easier to pay for college,” she said.
Gardner personifies the spirit of UMass Boston, a school founded to educate local people, often of modest means, and then return them to their communities to make a difference. But many students and educators fear that mission might erode as the school struggles to extricate itself from massive financial problems that are expected to persist for years. Already, deputy chancellor Barry Mills has indicated some programs will likely be cut.
“Starting soon, we are going to actually evaluate every single program on the campus. Every single program. From the bottom up. No program will be immune from it,” Mills told trustees last month.
Campus officials have also indicated that tuition and fees may rise and some classes will likely be canceled.
“The reason it has us on edge is because of how much we care about these students,” said Rachel Rubin, an American studies professor.
UMass Boston plays as important a role for its 16,847 students as those students play for the city of Boston. They help fill the ranks of the city’s teachers, counselors, police, nurses, and scientists.
One program, Teach Next Year, has educated 461 teachers since 2000, more than half of whom were hired in Boston, said graduate program director Lisa Gonsalves. Of those, 126 were teachers of color, she said.
“We work at UMass Boston because we love the city and we love our students, and that commitment to the students has not changed,” Gonsalves said.
Few UMass Boston students take their education for granted. Instead, they squeeze classes in between jobs and family obligations. Many are smart, even brilliant, but some lack study skills or confidence. Professors become equal part mentors and academics. Long office hours are common, and conversations often veer from professional to personal concerns.
This year for the first time, the campus became majority-minority, with 57 percent of undergraduates and 29 percent of graduate students people of color. Fifty-six percent of undergraduates represent the first generation of their families to attend college, according to the school.
It is also a campus where students depend heavily on scholarships and loans. Sixty-two percent of undergraduates receive financial aid, and 48 percent receive government grants reserved for the neediest students in the country. Tuition is $13,400 for in-state students and $32,000 for out-of-state students.
But because of their complicated circumstances and backgrounds, students also come to class rich with life experience. Many make Boston their laboratory for learning — and innovation.
One master’s student has developed a program for Spanish-speaking immigrant parents in Waltham to better engage with the local high school. Another studies the effect of lead poisoning on the Cambodian refugee community in Lynn. The biology department has a $17 million federal grant with the local Dana-Farber Cancer Institute to do research.
UMass Boston is also a place where older adults can return to school without standing out. That age diversity makes for robust classroom discussion. Once, in a sociology class, an older black student told the class how a family member had been shot by police. Several classmates were active law enforcement professionals.
“Those kind of stories will just come out of nowhere, but they add a layer of gravity to the class,” said the professor, Philip Kretsedemas.
But the school doesn’t attract only locals. Graduate students, especially, come from across the world. Many said they could sense that faculty are committed to social justice, and they liked that the programs are so practical.
Professors also pursue projects that take them all over. Faculty have traveled to a village in rural Mexico to study the Aztecs, to Panama to study frogs, to Lisbon to research hunger in Mozambique, and to Moscow to study a university set up by Russians for people from former European colonies. Some projects are primarily scholarly in design, while others have immediate impact.
In March, UMass system president Martin T. Meehan installed Mills, a former Bowdoin College president, to help address the campus’s looming problems, including a budget deficit, overdue construction projects, declining enrollment, and lackluster fund-raising. The school’s longtime chancellor, J. Keith Motley, announced his resignation last month amid controversy over what many called an overly ambitious expansion that left the school in debt.
Mills told trustees he took the job because he believes in the school’s mission. He said he aims to convince people, including state leaders, that public higher education is worth supporting.
Indeed, taxpayer support makes up an increasingly small portion of UMass Boston’s funding. In 1985, state funding was 75 percent of the operating budget, according to a report from 2011. Today it makes up 29.5 percent, including benefits the state pays for some UMass employees, according to UMass officials.
As they wait to see how Mills will plug the budget gap, professors and students worry about their research projects and classes. They also worry that the university’s pursuit of more out-of-state and foreign students — an effort designed, in part, to bring in more revenue — could crowd out locals. Some doctoral students are unclear whether their dissertation funding will continue.
“I hope whatever happens, that there will be somebody who will support that mission, because it’s different,” said Esther Kingston-Mann, a history professor emerita who taught at UMass Boston for 45 years and retired in 2014. Kingston-Mann, the daughter of Polish and Ukrainian immigrants, said she identified with her students and tried to empower them.
Faculty said that over the past few years they have already been asked to do more with less. They have fewer office staff to support their programs and more students per class.
Some influential players outside the university do place a high value on its special role in the city. The Boston Foundation runs a program with UMass Boston and other local universities to help Boston public school students finish college.
“As a state, we seriously underinvest in public higher education compared to other states, and it’s a very foolish thing to be doing,” said Paul Grogan, the foundation’s president.
Grogan said a first-rate, affordable public university can create a “ladder of mobility” in the city. According to another expert, the school will have to convince state and business leaders that it is vital, that it serves a unique function that the host of other colleges in Boston do not.
“Just making the case on principle won’t prevail; what will prevail will be performance that is oriented toward people and their needs and the needs of the city of Boston,” said Terrence MacTaggart, a higher education consultant who served as chancellor of both the Minnesota State University System and the University of Maine System.
News of UMass Boston’s financial troubles has unnerved the campus all spring, but it hasn’t crowded out moments of academic success and collaboration.
In a small auditorium at UMass Boston on Thursday afternoon, a group of students, professors, and visitors gathered for a concert. For that hour at least, no one had time to worry about future uncertainty.
A guitar and percussion began to play, and the sultry voice of Candida Rose Baptista, a 56-year-old graduate student from New Bedford, filled the room with singing as she transported the audience on a journey to Cape Verde through her song and a photo and video slide show.
Baptista is one of thousands of students for whom UMass Boston has provided a chance to change life’s direction. For her, that was from working in a bank to researching the Cape Verdean immigrants of her native South Coast.
“These people who put together this program are really people who care about the mission,” Baptista said. “And I am so thankful that I was able to be the recipient of that.”