As Marty Meehan begins a new job as president of the University of Massachusetts, he’s pledging to raise more money than any predecessor.
From whom – and at what price?
It may sound naive to ask. But this is a public institution of higher learning. Who bankrolls its educational offerings should matter to the public.
Meehan promises to lead the university to greatness and he brings many great leadership qualities to that mission. He certainly understands the challenge of running a public university. “Trustees are looking for leaders to look at innovative ways to raise more money privately, innovative ways to develop a business strategy that increases revenue,’’ he said after his selection.
Indeed, Meehan’s fund-raising prowess was a large part of his appeal to the UMass board of trustees. The five-campus public university system, which he will now lead, is $3 billion in debt. As the Globe recently reported, it has nearly exhausted its ability to borrow. With revenue totaling about $2.9 billion, UMass owes $203 million in annual debt and interest. By 2020, the university projects annual debt service payments of $222 million.
Instead of borrowing more, UMass wants to develop more public-private partnerships that allow expansion without using taxpayer dollars. That’s what Meehan, a former congressman, did to great acclaim as chancellor at UMass Lowell. His zeal when it comes to growing the institution via creative financing is unquestioned. Private fund-raising increased by 67 percent on his watch, and UMass Lowell struck multiple partnerships with private companies.
This, said Meehan at the time, was a way to raise the international profile of UMass Lowell. For Raytheon, it was also a way to curry favor with an authoritarian regime it wants to cultivate for purposes of commerce. Out of this deal, Raytheon gets so-called defense offsets, which as Bender reported, are investments that companies agree to make in a foreign country in return for the country’s agreement to buy the contractor’s military products.
Kuwait jails journalists and academics who criticize the government. One recent news report also charged that women are “sold like slaves” into domestic work in Kuwait. That, of course, is no impediment for global business partners. But it does make for an odd affiliation for a university, especially one run by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
In a piece for the New York Times, Beth McMurtrie of The Chronicle of Higher Education, wrote that the partnership between Raytheon and UMass Lowell “raised a few eyebrows.” But in these times of great fiscal pressure for colleges and universities, higher education experts generally defended it. But one of them — Kevin Kinser, a senior researcher at the Institute for Global Education Police Studies at the State University of New York at Albany — noted the arrangement is “quite a gift, but it’s a gift with enormous strings attached.”
As Kinser pointed out, academic goals can fall victim to economic and political pressures, and a government or the university’s private sector partner can try to dictate course offerings and other restrictions. UMass Lowell, however, insists it has done all necessary due diligence and will maintain control over the program.
If spending is the path to greatness for the University of Massachusetts, the public should be willing to pay for it. If not, Massachusetts can expect more creative partnerships like the one Meehan brokered with Raytheon and Kuwait.