Political anger grows over UMass-Mount Ida deal
A swelling chorus of state lawmakers and other politicians is expressing anger and skepticism about the deal the University of Massachusetts has struck to buy struggling Mount Ida College and send its students to UMass Dartmouth.
Legislators, as well as state regulators, say they are also frustrated that they have received almost no information from UMass or Mount Ida, learning about the deal to create a new Boston-area campus for UMass Amherst from the media.
“There are just a lot of questions, none of which seem to have any answers,” Senate President Harriette Chandler said in a phone interview on Thursday.
Chandler said she wants top lawmakers to meet privately with officials from Mount Ida and the University of Massachusetts. One question she wants answered: why trustees allowed UMass Amherst to spend what could be as much as $70 million on the 72-acre Newton campus while UMass Boston struggles about 7.5 miles away.
“[UMass] has a campus in Boston that needs help, needs a lot of help. When you’ve got a financially troubled campus, is it appropriate to buy another one? Does that make any sense? I can’t answer that,” Chandler said.
State senators plan to hold a public oversight hearing in coming weeks to ask UMass why the deal is a prudent use of tax and tuition dollars, especially as the Boston campus continues to wrestle with an unprecedented budget crisis.
But while Chandler and some of her State House colleagues seek answers from UMass, Governor Charlie Baker has refrained from commenting on the role of the state university system in the controversy. He has criticized the Mount Ida shutdown but has primarily focused on the smaller school’s involvement in the deal.
Asked by reporters Thursday about the situation, Baker cited his concern for the Mount Ida students, especially those who had been admitted for the fall and now must find new options at the last minute.
“There will be an opportunity to do an inquiry with respect to adults. But I think the most important thing that needs to happen here is to make sure that these kids . . . have options and choices now that the rug has been pulled out from under them,” he said.
The University of Massachusetts Board of Trustees approved the Mount Ida deal in a closed-door vote on April 6 that UMass officials have said was unanimous. The trustees are appointed by the governor, and Baker’s education secretary, Jim Peyser, is a member of the board. Peyser, contacted Thursday via his cellphone and a spokeswoman, did not return the calls.
In a text message Thursday, Rob Manning, chairman of the trustees, said:
“UMass is in this for all the right reasons. There is a strategic benefit to the university, but we are also helping as many Mount Ida students as possible. As a first-generation college graduate, that is extremely important to me.”
Martin T. Meehan, president of the five-campus system, issued a lengthy statement Thursday defending the deal. He said all questions will be answered “in due course and through proper channels.’’
Meehan’s statement said that Mount Ida approached UMass after a proposed merger between Mount Ida and nearby Lasell College fell through last month. But he said the UMass deal was reached quickly because UMass had been in previous discussions with Mount Ida before that school began exclusive talks with Lasell.
Meehan also said the deal would have no impact on UMass Boston’s budget, because the Amherst campus will fund the deal itself, and no state funds will be used. The purchase would be funded by bonds.
“There is no aspect of this transaction that represents a discretionary use of resources that favors one campus over another,” the statement said.
He said the “agreement allows UMass Amherst to increase access to experiential learning opportunities’’ in the Boston area and provides Mount Ida students with a “world-class UMass education.’’
But whether UMass can dampen the outrage remains to be seen. The deal appears to have alienated even some who might have been UMass allies, such as Mark Montigny, a Democratic South Coast senator whose district includes UMass Dartmouth.
On Thursday, Montigny said he is furious that UMass is buying Mount Ida while the Boston campus is cutting its budget.
“I used the word apoplectic,” he said. “This is an institution that has never been given what it deserves.”
Montigny, who attended UMass Dartmouth, as did his three siblings, said he should be the university system’s biggest advocate. But he said it’s hard to sympathize with the UMass system, which asks the Legislature for money each year, after this development.
“They’re buying a country club,” he said. “If this wasn’t a use of taxpayer dollars, I’d find this really funny.”
Other state officials are also looking into the deal. Mount Ida on Thursday submitted detailed plans to the state for closing its campus. Attorney General Maura Healey’s office is also monitoring the situation.
Meanwhile, a group of 13 academic deans at UMass Boston penned a letter to the campus this week, expressing their frustration.
“Our students, as some of you and they have observed, are ill-served by this preferential treatment shown to UMass Amherst and to its students. It is not surprising that some of our students might see this purchase as diminishing the value of their UMass Boston degree,” the deans wrote.
Their letter followed one from interim UMass Boston chancellor Barry Mills with a rosy view of the future.
“I understand why people in our community are upset and uneasy,” Mills wrote.
“My advice to UMass Boston is to be bold, confident, and aggressive. Stay true to our urban mission. Continue to provide access and opportunity to students from all walks of life,” Mills wrote.
The frustration has prompted at least one lawmaker to act. Representative Nick Collins, a Democrat whose district includes UMass Boston, said he proposed legislation to give $3 million to the campus to help relieve its budget deficit this year, plus another $2 million to fund six academic centers at UMass, including one that helps veterans, which were recently told by administrators their funding would be cut.
“Until our obligations at UMass Boston are met, it gives me great pause that the system is making great acquisitions on private land to acquire private colleges,” Collins said.