Mt. Ida deal frustrates students, professors at UMass Boston
UMass Boston students and professors are livid after learning that UMass Amherst will buy a new campus in Newton for its students, while Boston is forced to keep cutting people and programs to make ends meet.
To them, the university system trustees’ approval of Amherst’s plan reinforces a longstanding belief on the Dorchester campus that the University of Massachusetts Boston is considered second-best.
“The board just really doesn’t care about Boston,” said Katie Mitrano, president of the UMass Boston undergraduate student body.
“This is going to starve us even more. It’s going to put us into competition with our sister campus,” said Lorna Rivera, a women’s studies professor at UMass Boston.
“There is a lot of neglect of the Boston campus within the UMass system in a way that we can only link to socioeconomic discrimination,” said Charla Burnett, a UMass Boston PhD student and graduate student employees union representative.
The growing outrage is the latest fallout from a decision last week by UMass trustees to approve a UMass Amherst plan to buy the Newton campus of Mount Ida College, which will close.
Attorney General Maura Healey said over the weekend she would look into the situation to see if Mount Ida students could possibly qualify for relief from their college loans and to help determine what transfer options are available.
Under the UMass plan, Mount Ida students have the chance to automatically enroll at UMass Dartmouth or apply to transfer to another UMass campus.
Amherst intends to use the campus for its students to complete internships and academic collaborations with Boston-area colleges and businesses. Amherst officials said the 72-acre facility, which comes with dorms, laboratories, and sports fields, will also help fund-raising by having a facility closer to alumni in the city.
The purchase will be financed by the Amherst campus with $37 million in tax-exempt bonds, plus other borrowing. All UMass campuses have separate budgets, and their borrowing abilities depend on how much debt a campus has in relation to its operating revenue.
The Boston campus has struggled acutely over the past year with an operating deficit at one point projected to reach $30 million. The deficit was caused, in part, by millions of dollars in delays and overruns on various construction projects on the campus, as well as decades of general financial mismanagement, according to the results of an audit released last fall.
As a result of the budget challenges, UMass Boston has cut course sections, laid off employees, imposed a hiring freeze, closed an on-campus day care center, and even instructed students to cut back on printing and copying.
Rivera, the women’s studies professor, also runs the Mauricio Gastón Institute for Latino Community Development & Public Policy, one of 17 centers and institutes at UMass Boston that will lose funding from the university.
“It makes one wonder, . . . of all the campuses why is UMass Boston consistently excluded and shamed and marginalized from the whole system?” she said.
The Amherst deal is not final. The state Board of Higher Education is required to approve Mount Ida’s plan for how students will complete their degrees. Its next meeting is scheduled for April 24.
In addition, although UMass trustees approved Amherst’s plan to buy the campus, a UMass system office spokesman said on Monday that the deal is still subject to more research.
Some UMass Boston professors and students on Monday questioned whether Barry Mills, their interim chancellor, advocated for the Boston campus while Amherst was negotiating with Mount Ida College. And they asked why the Mount Ida students weren’t offered automatic transfers to UMass Boston, since it is much closer than Dartmouth and many Mount Ida students are from Boston.
Mills, in a phone interview Monday afternoon, said that he was approached to talk generally about UMass Amherst’s plan but that the deal came together quickly. He said it was clear from the outset that this was Amherst’s plan.
“Candidly, we don’t need a campus in Newton. We have a fantastic campus right here in the heart of Boston,” he said.
Mills said he is focused on the campus Boston already has, as well as the nearby Bayside property it owns and the dormitory it is building.
“I’m incredibly confident about this school as we get our financial house in order. . . . We are on an enormous trajectory,” Mills said.
UMass system president Martin T. Meehan said UMass Amherst pursued the deal with Mount Ida all on its own.
“The [UMass] system wouldn’t prevent UMass Amherst from developing a campus that they’ve worked hard at for years. They have the capacity to acquire this. If Boston wanted to acquire a parcel and had the capacity, they could do it as well,” Meehan said.
Meehan said the Dartmouth faculty decided independently to grant Mount Ida students an automatic transfer and Boston could do the same if it wishes.
“If they captured every commuter student at Mount Ida, their financial outlook would change dramatically. And I hope that UMass Boston will attract a number of students from Mount Ida,” he said.
But at UMass Boston, professors and students said they refuse to believe the system has done all it could to help them in their time of challenge.
“Our students are especially perceptive to decisions that are made that seem to ignore or at least undervalue their capacity as students,” said Aaron Lecklider, chairman of the American Studies department.
Rivera said Amherst’s move demonstrates a lack of diversity in decision-making, because the people who made this deal failed to see what message it would send to UMass Boston.
UMass Boston is the only majority-minority campus in the system, with 59 percent of undergraduates minorities. In addition, 48 percent are low-income. UMass Amherst is 73 percent white, with 12 percent of students black and Latino. It is 23.9 percent low-income students.
Amherst has an operating budget of $1.3 billion. UMass Boston’s annual budget is around $430 million.
Isaiah Johnson, a first-year history major at UMass Boston from Waltham, said the purchase sends an unfortunate message to students of color like himself who overcome major obstacles to attend college, a message that his campus is not valued as much as one that serves more affluent students.
“I see the purchase of the Mount Ida campus as kind of a manifestation of the university’s values,” he said.