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UMass details plans for Mount Ida property

Kumble Subbaswamy’s letter expanded on less concrete intentions announced earlier this month when UMass surprised many by announcing that it had struck a tentative deal with Mount Ida to buy the land for about $70 million.
Kumble Subbaswamy’s letter expanded on less concrete intentions announced earlier this month when UMass surprised many by announcing that it had struck a tentative deal with Mount Ida to buy the land for about $70 million.(Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff/File 2014)

Amid growing backlash, the chancellor of the University of Massachusetts Amherst penned a letter to state lawmakers Thursday assuring them that his plan to purchase the 72-acre Newton campus of the soon-to-be-closed Mount Ida College is a wise investment.

The letter said the state's flagship campus needs to stay competitive in attracting students and preparing them for jobs in the local economy, and it said this campus, as an outpost for students to do internships in Boston, will help accomplish that goal.

In addition to housing undergraduates, UMass Amherst plans to host graduate and executive education programs on the campus, the letter said.

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"We are at a critical juncture. If we do not meet the demonstrated, growing needs to provide the students of Massachusetts with a flagship university . . . our students will increasingly leave the Commonwealth," the letter said.

The letter also explained how the school plans to finance the purchase, a response to skepticism from state lawmakers, UMass students and professors, and others who have questioned whether it is a responsible use of money or will hurt nearby UMass Boston.

"I would not even consider doing anything to impede their operations," wrote Kumble R. Subbaswamy, who became chancellor in 2012.

Subbaswamy's letter comes after a heated meeting this week when Mount Ida parents, UMass Boston students and professors, and state education officials questioned whether the UMass deal makes sense for the state and students. In addition, state lawmakers have scheduled a hearing on May 16 to ask their own questions about the deal.

Governor Charlie Baker has been silent on whether he considers UMass Amherst's deal a good one. However, Jim Peyser, Baker's education secretary who is also a UMass trustee, voted in favor of it.

Peyser said in a statement this week that the UMass acquisition of the campus "has real potential to strengthen UMass Amherst by enabling its students to gain greater access to work-based learning experiences, while providing new opportunities for productive collaborations with the other U-Mass campuses — including Boston."

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The deal is not final. UMass officials are still in a period of fact-finding, officials said. The state Department of Higher Education has said it must also approve new academic programs and the use of the campus as an Amherst satellite.

Mount Ida president Barry Brown, as well as the college's trustees, have been silent on exactly why the school closed so abruptly. A spokeswoman has said it found itself without enough money to pay employees starting in June.

Subbaswamy's letter expanded on less concrete intentions announced earlier this month when UMass surprised many by announcing that it had struck a tentative deal with Mount Ida to buy the land for about $70 million.

Subbaswamy said the school has a business plan to make enough profit from the campus to pay back the money UMass will borrow to buy it and also reinvest $1.4 million in the Amherst campus.

The campus will provide 820 dormitory beds for undergraduates to complete internships in the Boston area. In turn, that will allow the Amherst campus to increase its enrollment, the letter said.

It plans to start operations on the "Mount Ida Campus of UMass Amherst" this fall. Undergraduate programs will start over the course of the next academic year, the letter said.

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Professional graduate and certificate programs will be in areas such as business, nursing, computer science, and engineering, according to the letter.

The campus will also offer programs and offices to interact with Boston-area alumni to help develop donors, corporate partnerships, and academic collaborations.

The letter reiterated that the campus will be purchased with borrowing by the Amherst campus. As a general policy, UMass trustees require each campus to spend not more than 8 percent of their annual budget to repay debt. Amherst spends around 6.5 percent, according to UMass. Annual debt payments on the purchase will constitute less than one half of 1 percent of the campus's $1.2 billion operating budget, the letter said.

The letter described the school's desire to do more to connect students with career opportunities around and inside the Route 128 corridor.

The letter said each year UMass Amherst awards more degrees in science, technology, engineering, and math than any other college in the state, public or private. Unlike other schools, most graduates stay in state, the letter said. Five years after graduation, more than 70 percent of in-state alumni still live and work in the state, it said.

"But this pipeline of talent is threatened," the letter said. As state funding for higher education dries up across the country and recruitment markets tighten as the population of high school students decreases, schools must do more, the letter said.

The letter said the campus can help lead the school to public-private partnerships. In 2016, the MassMutual Foundation provided UMass Amherst with a 10-year, $15 million grant to hire research faculty to train students in data science and related fields, the letter said, a direct result of their need for more workers with those skills.

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"Similarly, the Newton presence will allow UMass Amherst to form direct relationships with technology and life sciences companies along the Route 128 corridor and with major employers in Boston," the letter said.

State Senate President Harriette Chandler and Speaker of the House Robert A. DeLeo did not respond Thursday to requests for comment on the letter.


Laura Krantz can be reached at laura.krantz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @laurakrantz.