As tensions escalated this week between members of the UMass Boston community and the UMass president’s office, elected officials touring the Columbia Point campus made it clear that they plan to weigh in heavily on how its land will be used and its status within the UMass system.
US Rep. Stephen Lynch, newly sworn-in state Sen. Nick Collins, state Rep. Dan Hunt, and City Councillors Annissa Essaibi-George and Frank Baker went on a walk-through of UMass Boston facilities on Monday. The university is a critical educational institution for Boston, they all said afterward, while noting that they are deeply concerned about the institution’s active efforts to sell or lease the former Bayside Exposition Center site, appoint a new chancellor, and deal with a fierce reaction to the sense that UMass is prioritizing other campuses.
Last week, Mayor Martin Walsh caused a stir when he suggested that the city may want to consider taking over the embattled campus, saying he was unhappy with the school’s erratic trajectory in recent years.
Rep. Lynch echoed those concerns and Walsh’s remarks after the campus tour, telling reporters: “It doesn't seem that they're invested at all here in this university. And I think Mayor Walsh brought a great point up the other day when he said, I think that if the system is not going to treat this campus right, maybe we should become an independent college, an independent university so that we have the right of self-determination here on this campus.”
Lynch also addressed the controversial deal between UMass Amherst and Mount Ida College in Newton, where the Amherst school would purchase the Boston-area campus and take on its $55 to $70 million of debt.
"I think that, that decision was reckless," he said. "It was done virtually in secrecy from us. There was never a fully informed decision made with us as partners."
Attorney General Maura Healey recommended the deal close in a letter to the Mount Ida community on Tuesday, noting that the consequences of not closing on the deal by May 16 "will be more devastating than they would be if the transaction occurs."
Citing a "disorderly and harmful closure," Healey's office also disclosed Tuesday it plans to open an investigation into Mount Ida's senior administrators and its board of trustees to determine whether they violated their fiduciary duties in addressing the college's financial condition and in carrying out its educational mission.
If UMass Boston were extracted from the UMass system, Lynch said, and became a city-run school, “we certainly wouldn't be out buying suburban private universities. We certainly wouldn't be taking on $55 million in debt service for the benefit of a private college.”
Chaos around the Mount Ida deal continued this week. On the Boston campus, “the Mount Ida purchase has got people worried about competing interests here,” Councillor Baker said. Students and faculty see the Newton acquisition as UMass Amherst making a play for the same Boston-oriented students who would otherwise be drawn to Columbia Point in Dorchester.
A state Senate hearing on the deal is planned for Wednesday.
Back at UMass Boston, the Faculty Council, in a declaration of “no confidence,” on Monday slammed UMass President Marty Meehan and the 22-member UMass board of trustees for creating an “inter-campus model of competition, rather than collaboration, within and across the UMass system.”
In response to the rebuke, UMass Board of Trustees Chair Rob Manning and Meehan again stated that there is not expected to be an adverse effect on the Boston campus. “Leadership requires making decisions even when they aren’t popular with everyone,” said Meehan. “While I respect the faculty’s passion for UMass Boston and its mission, I maintain that UMass Amherst expanding co-op and experiential learning opportunities for its students will not negatively impact UMass Boston.”
Mount Ida aside, the UMass Building Authority, which has jurisdiction over all campus land deals, is working to find a revenue-generating use for the the Boston campus’s Bayside parcel. It could fetch a windfall sum for the university, which is struggling with structural and ongoing debts even as it continues ambitious construction projects like its first-ever dormitories.
The Monday tour confirmed “that there's a lot of great things happening on campus,” Rep. Hunt said. “The construction is on time or early, and the product at the end of the day is going to be superior, and the university gets a bad rap paying for the sins from the 1970s on bad construction.”
Hunt later added, “As far as the Bayside property, I would agree with Congressman Lynch and Senator Collins that we need to preserve that property for the history and future of UMass Boston. They're not building more land, you know. We can't recreate an opportunity like this that we have at the Bayside.”
Sen. Collins brought up legislation pending on the Hill that he co-sponsored with Rep. Hunt and then-Senator Linda Dorcena Forry that would require any development moves by the university outside of education purposes be subject to the local zoning process.
“Right now, you know, you can't build a birdhouse in Newton without significant community support,” he said. “So the notion that those tools will be used outside of the realm of academic purposes should be concerning to those residents as well.”
One complication of a city of Boston-run university would in part be the enormous financial strain on a municipality that already has a massive public school system under constant scrutiny for its investments. UMass Boston campus officials last week were displeased by the timing of such speculation, pointing to the current chancellor search and students beginning to decide where to attend school in the fall.
Whether the campus were to split off or not, Councillor Essaibi-George said, the city needs to be involved.
“As a former high school teacher in Boston, it's so important that we're still honoring the urban mission of UMass Boston, while supporting some of the very successful programs that are happening over here,” she said, adding, “as UMass as a whole system makes decisions that very directly impact what's happening here in the city of Boston, [it’s vital] that we're at the table, both in the chancellor search but also in conversations about the growth of this campus and any other campus in the city of Boston.”
And Lynch thinks local priorities and input, which may run counter to its current direction, need to be reflected in its only public research university.
“We wouldn't be selling 30 acres of land on the waterfront that could be better used to educate our children,” Lynch said. “So I think the mayor hit a good chord there. It certainly resonated with me. I think he's got the kernel of a good idea there and if we can't reconcile our differences with the future of this campus and, and what's going on at UMass Amherst and what's going on with President Meehan's office, then maybe we should go our own way, because we certainly have the priorities right. The priorities should be the kids of this city, in this state, and in this world that could be educated on this campus.”
Material from the State House News Service was used in this report.