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Quinn: UMass-Boston's growth is good news for city

Every fall in the early 1960s Massachusetts legislators were accustomed to being invited to our state's great university in Amherst to see the campus, watch a football game, and otherwise be lobbied by the administrators there to see the benefits of public higher education and support the University of Massachusetts. My Dorchester neighbor and colleague, George Kenneally, and I would always ask our hosts about how many students were being served and how many came from where we lived. My family didn't have money, and neither one of us had ever gone away to study at college. We knew many of our young constituents were in the same boat. There ought to be a place, we would say, where city kids will trip over opportunities for higher education.

Our vision for an urban public university took hold in 1964, when Senate President Maurice Donahue proposed locating a branch of the University of Massachusetts in the Boston area and asked Senator Kenneally to join him in sponsoring a bill that would accomplish that purpose. I was thrilled to join them as a sponsor from the House of Representatives. Soon after the legislation passed, Governor Chub Peabody signed the bill into law. Our friend John Ryan came down from Amherst to be the first chancellor, and he started in right away, opening up in rented premises on Columbus Avenue on the edge of the Back Bay, and on the edge of our city's less esteemed South End.

Later, after some had thought about outlying locations, we settled on locating a permanent campus at the site of the Mile Road Dump on Columbia Point in Dorchester. Construction was completed in 1974.

Those who needed affirmation that our Columbia Point location was an ideal place for a public university soon got it. In 1979, the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum opened next door, ratifying our belief that the University of Massachusetts Boston was indeed on course to serve what we saw as its very important mission: to provide access to, and opportunity for, quality higher education.

What has happened since has been truly remarkable. Through the efforts of subsequent administrations, legislators, and university leaders, a highly competitive and effective public university has flourished. It has become a place where city kids do trip over opportunities and, increasingly, where others flock to attain their college and graduate degrees, pursue their career aspirations, and get a foothold toward achieving the American Dream through greater opportunities than were afforded their parents.

The University of Massachusetts Boston, its chancellors, faculty, and staff have developed opportunities so effectively and so broadly that more and more students strive to acquire their educations on the Columbia point campus. This year, nearly 15,000 students are enrolled in undergraduate and graduate programs. Most are from Greater Boston, but many are from beyond: Students hail from 330 of the commonwealth's 351 cities and town. Over half are the first in their families to seek college educations. And they are homogeneous regardless of color inasmuch as the university meets 91 percent of their financial needs.
UMass-Boston is also growing in resources and reputation. Researchers secured a record $45 million in funding last year, including money to develop a Center for Personalized Cancer Therapy in partnership with Dana-Farber/Harvard Cancer Center. The College of Nursing and Health Sciences is rated among the top 10 percent of its peers, and the university's College of Management program continues to receive high praise from the Princeton Review.

As a result of this growth, the university is eager for more modern academic facilities and more space to accommodate upcoming construction. Chancellor Keith Motley and his staff have developed a master plan for expected needs, a vision that includes more classrooms, more science laboratories, and, eventually, dormitories. The plan includes these aspects because the need is there.

The greater community should be excited, but not concerned, about these plans. One might argue against parts of them, or say that we did not intend a school this big. Well, we wanted it as good as it is, and success secures the followers. Perhaps no one expected the present scope of graduate studies, but the programs were created and they stimulated more interest. Similarly, students from beyond a 10-mile area like what they see and they want to live on campus and get the educational balance that such an opportunity provides. Local students should be, and will be, able to compete in all areas, and the dormitory opportunity will assure that. The student body will still be 85 percent from Massachusetts, as it is now, and overwhelmingly day-hoppers, as young men like Quinn and Kenneally were in their college days.

That UMass-Boston has become so attractive is a source of pride for the community. It beat out Harvard for the JFK Library. It beat out the Boston Public Library for the Commonwealth's research and archive facility. It beat out Harvard for the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the U.S. Senate. And it will meet future challenges with equal success.

Not bad for the old dump, and very good for Dorchester and the city of Boston.

Robert H. Quinn, an attorney working in Boston, is a former legislator from Savin Hill who served as speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representatives and as the state’s attorney general.