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UMass-Mount Ida deal smacks of empire building

The Campus Center at Mount Ida College. Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff/File

IN A SUDDEN ANNOUNCEMENT that caught many by surprise, the University of Massachusetts Amherst agreed to buy Mount Ida College, the small, private, and struggling liberal arts college in Newton. The UMass trustees approved the purchase behind closed doors, and so far neither the Amherst campus nor the system has offered any convincing justification for the controversial transaction.

Under the agreement’s terms, UMass Amherst is assuming all of Mount Ida’s debt, which is estimated to be between $55 million and $70 million. All 280 Mount Ida employees will be laid off and most of its roughly 1,500 students will be allowed to finish their degrees at UMass Dartmouth, at in-state tuition rates. The Amherst campus will acquire Mount Ida’s property, which is nestled in a leafy area near the Charles River.


UMass Amherst intends to turn the 72-acre parcel into the “Mount Ida Campus of UMass Amherst,” where they’ll establish career preparation programs like internships, co-ops, and “experiential opportunities for Amherst students. “It’s a big deal,” said UMass Amherst chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy.

For Mount Ida students blindsided by the news, the transaction is shaping up to be a big deal indeed — and the offer of a transfer to UMass Dartmouth isn’t much consolation. Attorney General Maura Healey’s office said it will conduct an inquiry to make sure the Mount Ida students aren’t being shortchanged. Mount Ida students pursuing one of the school’s specialty programs — which include dental hygiene, mortuary science, and video game art — may face difficulties continuing their studies.

Like many other small liberal arts colleges, Mount Ida was in bad financial condition and had previously explored a merger with Lasell College. Some disruption for students was perhaps inevitable.

But why UMass? The university’s purchase has been stirring outrage. It raises one set of questions about UMass Amherst — and another about the UMass system as a whole.


For the Amherst campus, the transaction smacks of empire-building, with a thin educational justification. If Subbaswamy had enough room in his budget to buy 72 acres in Newton, what else could the campus have done with that cash? Is a campus with terrible public transit access helpful for undergraduates with internships in Boston?

And for the system as a whole, the deal raises questions about how the arrangement will affect UMass Boston, and why the existing campus in Greater Boston so often seems to get the short end of the stick. To the extent possible, the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education should scrutinize the deal.

UMass Boston, which serves a predominantly urban and largely minority student body, is in the midst of harsh cuts. Research centers are on the chopping block, and employees have had to contend with layoffs. The campus is also still coping with its crumbling physical condition, a legacy of cheap construction and its corruption-ridden history.

The woes at UMass Boston shouldn’t mean that UMass Amherst has to tread water. Still, the outcry on Monday was understandable.

At the very least, the UMass system “should re-examine this [UMass Amherst] deal and have a conversation about the message it sends to other campuses, especially Boston,” said Erin O’Brien, a political science professor at UMass Boston.

And it should prompt the UMass board and Beacon Hill to ask whether the division of resources among the system’s branches is fair when one UMass campus has to lay off janitors while another has enough to invest in real estate.