Challenges clear for UMass Boston

An independent audit commissioned by the University of Massachusetts and made public last week paints a damning portrait of the UMass Boston administrative team that was, until last fall, led by Dr. J. Keith Motley.

In a report of its findings, the private firm KPMG determined that the Dorchester campus lacked competent financial management and accountability, which led to chaotic budgeting and resulted in a “lack of confidence” that prompted UMass president Martin Meehan to seek the audit in the first place. 

The tough critique, as summarized in a memo from Meehan to the university’s trustees, includes “a lack of commitment from UMass Boston campus leadership to meeting the budget it presented to the Board of Trustees.” Essentially, the report says that UMass Boston was operating with two budgets — a paper budget that was presented to board members and system administrators, and an actual, real- time budget that was wildly out of whack.

It was, as Meehan writes, “a culture at UMass Boston that treated the budget as a “guideline” and not an “operational reality.’”

The KPMG report also underlined the challenges that remain for the new and future UMass Boston administration. Interim Chancellor Barry Mills, who has already announced that he will depart the campus at the end of this academic year, hopes that austerity measures, furloughs, and cutting a significant portion of future building projects from the university’s master plan will bring the present deficit, now estimated to be $18 million, down to $5 million on his watch.

“I am confident that the issues raised in the KPMG report are either already being addressed by new UMass Boston management or that plans are in place to address them moving forward,” Meehan stated. “However, returning UMass Boston to strong financial footing will be a multi-year process that will require many difficult decisions.”

Meehan credits now-mandatory quarterly financial reports, installed in the last fiscal year at each of the five UMass campuses, as having “helped surface the issue at UMass Boston.” He says that “system-wide transparency in the form of reliable, timely reporting from the campuses to the system office that is accessible and understandable” will make a huge difference.

We applaud this approach to getting the Dorchester campus stabilized and poised for renewed growth in the coming years. The Bayside section of the campus— a 20-acre, waterfront gem — presents itself as an important piece of this goal. Last month, the university’s building authority, which is the current owner of the Bayside site, revealed that 16 private companies had responded to its “request for information” document issued last summer, a first step towards the eventual redevelopment of this key Dorchester property.

If the university system continues on its present course, Bayside could well be the key to reversing the budgetary strains while better integrating the campus and neighborhood with a mix of uses, including housing, retail, and other public amenities.

A search committee to find a new, permanent chancellor to lead UMass Boston met for the first time last Friday. Obviously, the next leader will need to ensure that the failures detailed in this KPMG report are corrected and never again repeated.

A note on next week’s edition
Next week’s Dorchester Reporter will be published a day early due to the Thanksgiving holiday. Instead of Thursday, the paper will be circulated on Wed., Nov. 22. Our deadlines are also earlier for next week: Editorial copy is due by Fri., Nov. 17, at 4 p.m. Our advertising deadline is Mon., Nov. 20, at 3 p.m.