Students at UMass demand answers, push for Motley to stay

Pantea Fatemi Ardestani: “It’s really important for students to just be aware of the deficit. We handle things better when we’re informed.”Pantea Fatemi Ardestani: “It’s really important for students to just be aware of the deficit. We handle things better when we’re informed.”
Student leaders at UMass Boston are struggling with the resignation of Chancellor Keith Motley, who they feel was forced out amidst budget concerns and the strain of a construction-dense campus. They also are asking for greater clarity with respect to deficit numbers.

Motley plans to leave his post, which he has held for the past decade during which he presided over an unprecedented boom on the Columbia Point campus, at the end of June. He will then take a year’s sabbatical and return as a tenured professor, at a salary of $240,000 a year.

Motley stands apart from the heads of the other UMass schools, student leaders said, and the loss of his direct interaction in student life will be a blow.

One of the students who feels that way is 21-year-old Pantea Fatemi Ardestani, a junior who sits on the UMass Boston board as its student trustee.

“Chancellor Motley is approachable, which is one of the biggest things for students,” she said. “They know him, and he knows them… It’s one of the things as students we really like about Chancellor Motley, and it’s important in any chancellor that we have in the future.”

Students understand that the current expansion “is certainly costly and long overdue,” a large number of them wrote in a letter expressing confidence in Motley that was passed by the undergraduate student government earlier this month and approved by the graduate student assembly.

Facing large construction apparatuses across the campus and overruns in a $750 million long-term facility and infrastructure rehabilitation project, Motley warned of needed austerity measures when the university was looking at a projected $26 million deficit in December. In late January, UMass Boston said that it expected a $15 million end-of-year deficit in late January. Last week, officials said that the deficit number is now down to between $6 and $7 million after significant cost-cutting measures, although enrollment and fundraising levels have recently declined.

Given the aging infrastructure on the Point and the ambitious master plan, “debt is not a novelty to any public university undergoing major expansion, especially when major necessary construction has initiated for the first time in over 40 years. Chancellor Motley has been instrumental in carrying out this expansion, but hasn’t done so alone,” the student letter read.

Incoming students knew that they would be inconvenienced by the changes as the campus began building its first dormitories and other school facilities, said Caio Alvim, 22, a senior.

Motley explained that “we were experiencing a sacrifice for the full potential for what students going to UMass Boston are capable of achieving,” Alvim said.

As far as the students were concerned, the construction is a long-term boost to Boston’s only public research educational institution, which they say is too often dismissed in favor of larger UMass schools. And, they note, the person championing that growth also needed the approval of the board of trustees, the president’s office, and other campus oversight authorities.

Lucas Henrique, 21, said students are frustrated with the way the campus learned about the shifting deficit numbers and Motley’s resignation – through outside media organizations. The junior said it was “kind of a shock to many of the students.”

Though the tenor of media coverage was discomfiting enough that students they had a “sense” that change was in the works, “we didn’t realize he would be resigning flat out by the end of the school year,” said Henrique, who called press coverage of the Motley story “a smear campaign. … We weren’t really aware. We felt as though the board really pressured Motley out rather than him willingly wanting to leave.”

Alvim, Henrique, and Fatemi Ardestani would like to see the president’s office and the state reject Motley’s resignation as a show of solidarity with his mission of raising the school’s profile. They were among the primary sponsors for the student government letter.

Interim chancellor Barry Mills, who was brought on as chief operating officer in March to help manage UMass Boston’s deficit, discussed the future of the campus in an email to the university community on April 14.

“There is no doubt, as so many of you have mentioned, that we should continue to make our case that the Commonwealth should help us remedy the legacy construction issues that have unfairly burdened this campus for years—in fact since the creation of this campus on Columbia Point,” he wrote, adding that any expansion should take place “in a manner that is financially responsible and disciplined.”

Mills appears to value transparency, Fatemi Ardestani said, which she sees as a promising sign. More problematic, students note, is the ongoing lack of clarity about deficit numbers.

“It’s an uncertainty impact,” said sophomore Gray Milkowski. “You hear $30 million from the Globe or whatever source, and especially as student leaders, you brace for a lot, you brace for courses cut… then three weeks later it’s $6.5 million. In three weeks we’ve managed to find $20 million somewhere. Personally, it’s just uncertain how it will impact me and the student body as a whole.”