UMass purchase of Mt. Ida College prompts a local outcry on priorities

Collins decries private bailout

The decision by the University of Massachusetts to acquire Mount Ida College in Newton as a new satellite campus for UMass Amherst students has attracted the attention of a local legislator and state Attorney General Maura Healey while drawing sharp criticism from faculty and students at the university’s campus in Dorchester.

The agreement, which was approved by the UMass board of trustees in a closed-door meeting last Friday, will allow some 1,000 UMass Amherst students to be housed on the Mount Ida site, which will be known as the Mount Ida Campus of UMass Amherst.

In acquiring the 72-acre Newton campus, UMass will take on the private college’s debt, estimated to be in the $50 million to $75 million range.

UMass Amherst Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy said the “strategic move” will provide Amherst students with “internship, co-op and experiential learning opportunities” by establishing a pipeline to Boston area companies.

But the deal – first revealed in reporting done by Mass Live last week – has boiled into a major controversy for the UMass system.

On Tuesday, state Rep. Nick Collins of South Boston told the Reporter that he is “not happy” with the university’s decision. “I’m really concerned about where UMB is on the list of priorities,” said Collins, who is running for a seat in the state Senate this spring. “I’ll be meeting with the UMass President, and I’m going to be clear about my frustration.”

Collins went on. “UMass Boston is an incredible university in Dorchester, and a real lifeline to the city. This deal begs the question if we have our priorities straight. When you have a campus in crisis, that should be the top priority, not bailing out private institutions.”

UMass Boston student body president Katelyn Mitrano said that her peers are “outraged” by the news. “Once again the university system forgets about the Boston campus and our students,” Mitrano said in a statement to the Reporter. “It is disheartening that UMass Boston students have been forced to bear the burden of a budget deficit caused by administrative decisions approved by the Board of Trustees with no financial assistance from the president’s office, the board, or any other UMass campus. However UMass Amherst can purchase an entire college campus standing only a few miles away from the existing Boston campus at a cost of tens of millions of dollars.”

She added: “By doing this the university system is directly cutting into UMass Boston’s market share, creating even more competition for students, donors, internships, and job opportunities in Boston’s already aggressive higher education landscape.”

Governor Charlie Baker told reporters on Tuesday that he was “stunned, shocked, amazed and really disappointed” to learn of the “current state of play at Mount Ida.” However, Baker directed his remarks at Mount Ida’s leadership, not at UMass’s involvement and spending.

Mount Ida’s short-notice closure leaves many of its students with uncertain futures. Most will be offered automatic admission to UMass Dartmouth, which is more than an hour’s drive away from Newton, a solution that presents logistical problems for many students. Other enrolled students will be left without a program that accommodates their majors, while many incoming freshman are scrambling to change their college plans.

On Monday, state Attorney General Maura Healey said her office would examine the acquisition to make sure Mount Ida students have fair and appropriate opportunities to complete their education.

“Our interest is ensuring that Mount Ida students are protected in this process and able to access the best information and resources to make decisions,” said Emalie Gainey, a spokesperson for Healey.

UMass president Martin Meehan told the Boston Globe that the decision to purchase Mount Ida was made independently by the Amherst campus – and that the overall system would not “prevent UMass Amherst from developing a campus that they’ve worked hard at for years. If Boston wanted to acquire a parcel and had the capacity, they could do it as well,” he said.

Meehan said the Mount Ida students are the top priority for UMass officials, and they will be able to finish their studies at the other university campuses.

“Our number one concern has been with the students at Mount Ida,” Meehan told the State House News Service in a phone interview.

Mitrano, the student body president at the Boston campus, said many students believe that the Amherst move is a response to Boston’s growing campus.

“With a new residence hall, a new chancellor, construction coming to a close, and a budget that is nearly balanced, I sincerely believe that UMass Amherst, the board of trustees, and President Meehan are afraid of the potential of UMass Boston to become the next ‘flagship campus.’ All parties involved are doing everything they can to maintain Amherst’s status rather than truly working as a system in the best interest of both their students and the Commonwealth,” she said.

State House News Service contributed to this story.