Ongoing budget woes are creating an environment of anxiety at the University of Massachusetts Boston, students told UMass trustees Wednesday as they asked for an immediate infusion of funds to give the campus a window to develop a long-term plan.
"We can't move forward by destroying our university and what it stands for with more staff layoffs, threats to our academic programs, or further disenfranchisement of those of us that need a place like UMass Boston the most," Juan Blanco, who earned a bachelor's degree at UMass Boston and is now a grad student there, told the trustees' Administration and Finance Committee. "All we need is more time, and you have the power to make that happen."
Amid extensive construction and a search for a new chancellor, UMass Boston this year has been seeking to close a $30 million structural budget deficit, aiming to get the gap down to $5 million by June 2018.
Budget-cutting efforts have included $4.5 million in non-personnel reductions and an employee buyout program that yielded $3 million in savings, according to campus officials. Earlier this month, 36 employees received layoff notices and work hours were reduced for seven others.
"UMass Boston is committed to putting its fiscal house back in order, understanding that its mission of transformation must rest on a solid foundation," campus spokesman Robert Connolly said in a statement.
Students, faculty and others opposing the cuts protested inside and outside the meeting at the UMass Club, asking trustees to funnel $5 million from the UMass system reserves to the Boston campus, in hopes of staving off cuts and sparing employees from layoffs while figuring out long-term moves.
"Five hundred years of service, 50 people's lives, you're sitting on 100 mil, vote to give us five," they chanted over the meeting proceedings as they walked out of the room, telling the trustees they'd return for the next meeting.
One demonstrator carried a sign with images from the Dr. Seuss book "How the Grinch Stole Christmas," depicting the Grinch carrying a large bag of money bearing the UMass logo. "Even the Grinch changed his mind...Why be cruel...When you can be kind?" the sign read.
The UMass system as a whole finished fiscal 2017 with a 1.6 percent positive operating margin, exceeding the 0.1 percent margin that was budgeted. UMass Boston, with a negative 0.7 percent margin, was the only campus in the red, according to figures presented at the meeting.
The Boston campus's financial performance was better than anticipated last year, said Lisa Calise, the university system's senior vice president of administration and finance. She said UMass-Boston is "well underway in implementing plans" to live within its fiscal 2018 budget, which includes a $5 million projected deficit.
UMass officials presented projected operating margins for the next five years, forecasting a system-wide margin that ranged from 0.7 percent in fiscal 2019 to 2.1 percent in fiscal 2023. The medical school, Amherst, Dartmouth and Lowell campuses, and central office are projected to post positive margins each year, while Boston's is projected at 0 percent in fiscal 2019 and -1.2 percent in fiscal 2020 before ticking upward.
"UMass Boston is working to regain financial stability and projections released today indicate that the steps that have been taken over the past year will result in the campus achieving its goal, with UMB's operating margin trending positive over the next five years and reaching 2 percent in FY 2023," Connolly said.
The campus workforce totaled 2,095 people in 2016, an employee count that has been reduced by 130 positions this year.
The reduced count comes after several years of payroll expansion. According to university documents, UMass Boston had 683 faculty positions in fiscal 2014 and 809 in fiscal 2017. Staff positions totaled 1,202 in fiscal 2014 and 1,286 in fiscal 2017.
Enrollment at UMass Boston rose from 12,262 in 2006 to 17,085 in fall 2016, a 38.2 percent increase. This year, there were 16,415 students enrolled.
Blanco, one of two UMass Boston students who addressed the trustees during the meeting's public comment period, said the campus's financial problems arose over time from a variety of causes. He said an extra $5 million from the central office would "buy us the necessary time" to find ways to close the gap, pointing to longer-term solutions including a push for more state funding, potential revenue from a sale of the former Bayside Expo site, and a 2018 ballot question that aims to generate new money for education and transportation by imposing a surtax on incomes over $1 million.
Maddi Walker, a sophomore and organizer with the Public Higher Education Network of Massachusetts, said students are feeling the effects of budget cuts. She said she knew five students who transferred to other schools, saying UMass-Boston would be worse off without the "dedicated, passionate individuals."
Walker said readings are no longer printed for students, who are expected to make the same connections with their professors despite growing class sizes and in some cases share an adviser with 1,200 peers. Her own financial aid was cut this year and she's now working two jobs to pay for her studies, she said.
"My story isn't unique," Walker said. "The narrative of UMass Boston is becoming a narrative of lost opportunities."