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JOAN VENNOCHI

Being ‘shocked’ isn’t enough. Baker needs to fix Mount Ida mess

Mount Ida dental hygienist students Colleen Morney and Latish Derepentigny spoke at a public hearing Tuesday.
Mount Ida dental hygienist students Colleen Morney and Latish Derepentigny spoke at a public hearing Tuesday.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

Governor Charlie Baker is "stunned, shocked, amazed, and really disappointed by the current state of play" at Mount Ida College. That's not enough. He needs to fix it.

When University of Massachusetts trustees approved a plan to close Mount Ida and use its 74-acre Newton campus as an outpost for UMass Amherst students, the board signed off on more than a real estate deal.

It signed off on a terrible betrayal of Mount Ida students, brokered by Mount Ida president Barry Brown and embraced and defended by UMass president Martin Meehan. And Baker is party to that betrayal. Since taking office, the governor has named nine trustees to the UMass board. His secretary of education, James Peyser, is also an ex-officio member of the 22-member board. Baker doesn't yet control the board, but 10 representatives make him an accessory to a vote that brought chaos to a close-knit community of students, their families, and professors.

All in the name of giving UMass Amherst students a leafy perch for Boston-area internships, while UMass Boston students and faculty beg for money and attention.

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Of course, none of the betrayers were anywhere to be found when the consequences of their actions played out at Tuesday's hearing before the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education. The testimony about broken promises, misrepresentations, and deceptions was painful to hear. Even more painful was the lack of ownership for the human fallout from this real estate transaction. Current students are unable to find comparable alternative degree programs. Incoming students have lost financial aid packages and their acceptances at other colleges.

Chairman Chris Gabrieli lamented "a shockingly disappointing lack of accountability," and said students "have really been ill-served." But he told a packed room of the aggrieved that responsibility for the deal falls elsewhere.

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"A lot of harm has been done. It's not acceptable," declared Fernando Reimers, a Harvard professor and fellow board member. "We should not be bystanders." This is not just system failure, added Reimers, it's leadership failure: "Leadership at Mount Ida and their board and leadership at UMass and their board."

As Reimers also observed, "I notice Marty Meehan is not here. I just wonder, when is he prepared to come before the board and explain."

Wonder away. Explaining the Mount Ida acquisition to a board that has no authority over him is probably not very high on Meehan's to-do list. After all, he got his own board to do what he wanted.

So who's in charge of fixing this? That's what Francine Lowell, the grandmother of a Mount Ida student, wanted to know. Lowell had driven from Connecticut to Boston to attend the hearing, and after Gabrieli explained that his board is not the responsible decision-maker, she said she had a question. "We don't take questions," said Gabrieli.

She asked one anyway: "Who does make that decision?"

This is Massachusetts, so the answer is complicated.

The bureaucracy in place is supposedly designed to protect the independence of the boards. But it also protects everyone and anyone from being outed as the maker of a bad decision. The UMass board of trustees oversees the five campuses that make up the UMass system. But each campus chooses its own path. The 13-member Board of Higher Education — which currently has five Baker appointees, plus Peyser — oversees state and community colleges.

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But beyond legal accountability, there's something called moral accountability. That's what Baker owes to the blindsided students of Mount Ida College. What he owes to UMass Boston students is a topic for another day. What we see so far is a major failure of leadership and accountability, and the worst kind of betrayal — the betrayal of young people's hopes and dreams.


Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.