Opinion

JOAN VENNOCHI

Mount Ida is classic Boston: Steeped in insider politics, secrecy, and faux outrage

Boston, MA - 5/12/2018 - Students file into into Blue Hills Bank Pavilion for the final commencement ceremony for Mount Ida College. - (Barry Chin/Globe Staff), Section: Metro, Reporter: Laura Krantz, Topic: 13mountida, LOID: 8.4.1885814524.
Barry Chin/Globe Staff
Students file into Blue Hills Bank Pavilion on May 12 for the final commencement ceremony for Mount Ida College.

If only Donald Trump were party to the deal to shut down Mount Ida College and turn the 74-acre campus over to the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Then Attorney General Maura Healey would find a way to stop it.

But, alas, for the dispossessed students of Mount Ida, the power behind this transaction is not with the president in the Oval Office, but with Marty Meehan, the president of the UMass system, with backup from Governor Charlie Baker. So instead of challenging it, Healey found a narrow legal argument to support Mount Ida’s death by shutdown: $75 million from UMass is sufficient value for Mount Ida’s land and assets. Besides, the school will file for bankruptcy if the deal doesn’t go through, she argued, so case closed. The deal was finalized on Thursday.

Healey also announced an investigation into Mount Ida president Barry Brown, the board of trustees, and assorted Mount Ida officials as to whether they breached their fiduciary duties. In the meantime,
UMass Amherst will get what it wants: a nice leafy campus, within easy commuting distance of the UMass Club at 1 Beacon Street.

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This is a classic Boston story, steeped in insider politics, secrecy, and faux outrage. It even offers an intriguing Suffolk University angle. Brown, a longtime professor at Suffolk Law School, was appointed provost of that university in 2008 and became acting president in 2010. He took the Mount Ida job in 2012. Meehan, a Suffolk Law School alum and graduate of the masters of public administration program, served on the Suffolk board from 2003 to 2009. In 2015, he reportedly used Suffolk’s interest in choosing him as its next president as a bargaining chip to get a bigger platform, and pension, at UMass.

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Lost in all this self-serving cronyism were college kids at Mount Ida and UMass campuses other than Amherst, as well as professors, the most expendable of academic commodities. No one but the teachers and their students mourn the lost faculty positions at Mount Ida. As for students and faculty at UMass Boston, it’s out of sight in Dorchester, out of mind.

To its credit, the Senate Post Audit and Oversight Committee at least tried to force some public accountability out of these dealmakers. After Brown and Jason Potts, Mount Ida’s chief financial officer, ducked the Senate hearing on Wednesday, Senator Kathleen O’Connor Ives, the chair of the committee, threatened to subpoena them. Maybe that will happen. But to borrow from Macbeth, the shock expressed in the aftermath of this deal so far boils down to “sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

According to Carmin Reiss, the chair of Mount Ida’s board of trustees, the school’s administrators knew in 2017 that they were at the financial “point of no return.” That didn’t stop Mount Ida from admitting students or taking their money. However, Reiss doesn’t seem too worried about Healey’s investigation. “We’re confident we’ll do just fine in that review,” she said after the Senate
hearing.

While Mount Ida deserves scrutiny, no one should forget the other party to this deal: UMass. Exactly how this plan was hatched remains a mystery to the public. But the cold-blooded consequences are there for all to see. It went down the way it did because, as Senator Anne M. Gobi, a Democrat from Spencer pointed out, the students “were an afterthought in all of this.” The dealmakers were thinking about land and money. Healey’s effort to secure help for them is fine, but how is an AG going to enforce commitments for displaced students?

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A contract can be voided if one of its terms is unconscionable. What happened at Mount Ida is unconscionable. But UMass and the state’s top political leaders didn’t try to stop it. They were party to it. As Healey’s preferred prosecutorial target would say: Sad!

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