Can $235 million calm the tumult at UMass Boston?
Will $235 million be enough to quell the long-running labor strife at the University of Massachusetts Boston?
The school cashed in a lottery ticket last week when it leased the Bayside Expo property adjacent to its Columbia Point campus in a huge real estate deal. UMass president Marty Meehan immediately hailed the transaction as “the biggest thing to happen to UMass Boston in the past 50 years.”
It’s not hard to understand why Meehan was so excited. The college is described as “cash-strapped” so often it sometimes seems like part of its official name. Fixing the shoddy construction of the campus has plunged it into debt that has often seemed to hamper its academic mission. A gigantic windfall — the site was purchased for a mere $18.7 million in 2010 — can only be good.
The site has long been underutilized. For a time, the Kraft family hoped to put a soccer stadium there. The new dream is to build a mini-Kendall Square, attracting life-sciences companies, among others. The plans are vague, but the potential for the area is transformative.
But controversy arrived almost immediately. An “open letter” from the Faculty Staff Union denounced the deal — whose details had yet to be announced at that point — as one that would “severely damage our educational mission.” It was quickly signed by 100 faculty members — who, again, didn’t yet know what was in the agreement they were trashing.
However, the deal comes at a fraught moment for UMass Boston. The school is led by an interim chancellor, Katherine Newman, who took over after campus activists blew up the search for a permanent replacement for J. Keith Motley. The reasons for that revolt were many, but ultimately they stemmed from distrust between the management of the UMass system and the UMass Boston campus. People on campus simply didn’t trust that Meehan was committed to the best interests of the school.
This might be a good time for them to calm down. Getting top dollar for this parcel will only be good for the school.
So where will the money go? Newman says part of it will go to fix the school’s crumbling infrastructure, an unavoidable project whose cost has been estimated at as much as $155 million. (Newman says the real estate deal will lower the cost of that project, because UMass Boston won’t have to borrow the money for it now.)
Newman also hopes the money will help fund the expansion of some academic programs, singling out nursing and computer science. She said the money can’t go directly into operations, so it can’t be used to fund institutes — a long-running campus battle — or to lower parking fees, which have been rapidly rising, to widespread dismay.
But the consistent contention of campus critics has been that Meehan simply doesn’t care about UMass Boston, charges that were supported by the terrible handling of the purchase of Mount Ida College last year, and the poor communication with the campus over the search for a new chancellor.
This is an opportunity to reset that relationship. As it turns out, the administration made a deal that will only support UMass Boston, even it won’t resolve every campus issue, which no single deal ever could.
“Everyone would love to have the headache of figuring out what to do with $235 million,” Newman said last week. “Thank you very much. I’ll take that problem on.”
UMass Boston occupies a unique niche in the higher-education landscape in Boston: the only school explicitly dedicated to the education of working-class, first-generation students who struggle to find their footing at other schools. Meehan gets that, and Newman, a distinguished scholar of inequality, definitely gets that.
Now that it has found a much-needed pile of cash, the other thing UMass Boston needs is a path to unity. Its future depends not just on prosperity, but on finding a way to peace.