The proposed purchase of 72 acres of prime real estate in Newton by UMass Amherst continues to have some higher education advocates crying foul.
Champions of the deal say it will benefit all students in the Boston area, and that what’s good for UMass Amherst benefits the whole system. But to some UMass Boston students and professors, the deal smacks of the rich getting richer — and the poor on the outside looking in.
“Putting another campus in the vicinity of Boston makes it harder for our working class, majority minority students to compete for jobs, internships, and money in a city that already has dozens of schools competing for it,” says Katie Mitrano, UMass student union president.
Mitrano joined hundreds of protesters recently at a rally decrying the deal, framing it as a majority white campus encroaching on the territory of the only majority minority university in the UMass system.
UMass Amherst campus advocates counter with statistics: Amherst graduates about as many students of color as Boston, and 11,000 Amherst undergrads hail from the Boston area — more than any other college or university in the state.
“We serve the entire commonwealth, and the great majority of students in Massachusetts come from eastern Mass., so we are really, with the Newton campus, creating a new set of experiential learning opportunities that will benefit students who live in the Boston area,” says Ed Blaguszewski, spokesman for UMass Amherst.
About 800 students will be able to move into the former Mount Ida dorms quickly, officials say. The campus is in such good shape that the transition will be turnkey — with the campus up and running by this fall’s semester.
The president of the UMass system and Gov. Charlie Baker’s education secretary both back the deal. Even UMass Boston interim Chancellor Barry Mills is skeptical that the move would negatively affect the Boston campus.
“There are a gazillion schools in the Boston area. Study away at UMass Amherst for experiential learning? OK, so they’re going to have a sign in Newton, and it could be good for them, maybe. I don’t want to diminish the fact that they’re nearby, in Newton. But I don’t think it actually has a significant effect on us,” Mills told the Dorchester Reporter last month.
But the chancellor’s deans at UMass Boston disagree. All 13 responded to news of the deal, which they say blindsided them, with an open letter, saying the purchase perpetuates a perception of second-class treatment of the Boston campus.
“I think the deans at this moment feel that it is important for us to stand up in support of our faculty, in support of our staff and students, to say that we work incredibly hard here and our students deserve the very best. And for them to feel as though they’ve been treated as second-class citizens is actually no longer acceptable,” says Rajini Srikanth, dean of the honors college.
The idea that the Boston campus is slighted in the UMass system goes back to the formation of the school, according to Richard Freeland, a former head of the state’s board of higher education and former dean of arts and sciences at UMass Boston. “When UMass Boston was established,” he says, “it was going to be a different kind of place. But it was not going to be a lesser place. It was not going to be a seven dwarf to Snow White. It was going to be a fully developed, public urban research university.”
But now, he says the Boston campus has been dwarfed by its Amherst counterpart. The current Mount Ida deal, he fears, could reinforce that negative dynamic.
“A Newton campus for UMass Amherst could become in some way… a suburban alternative to UMass Boston, and therefore be part of the notion that UMass Boston really is there to serve working class, lower income people — and that’s what we want to keep it as,” he says.
If Amherst students had a head start in life over Boston students, so did the Amherst campus.
Freeland says UMass Amherst had the good fortune of having been the only major UMass campus during the growing years of the Baby Boomer generation, when the state was flush with cash destined for public higher ed. The Boston campus came later, and never experienced the kind of bonanza that Amherst did.
To the contrary, from the beginning, UMass Boston was plagued with a series of corrupt construction deals that landed two state legislators in jail. More importantly, that period left UMass holding the bag on a crumbling substructure that has never been completely fixed.
The Mount Ida deal might be a no-brainer for Amherst, but Freeland and others want to know how it will benefit the UMass system as a whole. And he says the powers that be haven’t properly answered that question.
WBUR caught up with Marty Meehan — president of the UMass system — during an event at UMass Lowell recently. “Well, this is a UMass Amherst decision, “he said, “and it’s great for UMass Amherst, but it’s also great for the system. As UMass Amherst does better and increases its reputation and its national stature, that’s better for all of the UMass system.” He added that despite all the challenges the Boston campus is facing, there’s a lot to look forward to.
“UMass Boston has a great future. We’re having a search for a new chancellor,” he said, “and we’re hoping to get a nationally significant, great leader. UMass Boston, frankly, has more upside than any of the campuses because of its location.”
Regardless of their differences over the Mount Ida deal – there’s one thing UMass Amherst, UMass Boston, and the entire UMass system can agree on: The state should do more to fund its universities.
By some measures, Massachusetts has the sixth lowest level of funding for public higher ed in the country.
Now UMass is calling on state legislators to step up their game, and once and for all do away with Boston’s debt. Then maybe a land deal in Newton wouldn’t bring such a sting.
This article was published on May 3 on the website of WBUR 90.9 FM, Boston’s NPR News Station. The Reporter and WBUR have a partnership in which the two news organizations share resources to collaborate on stories.
Simón Ríos is a WBUR reporter who is working from the Dorchester Reporter newsroom. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.