Simmering regional rifts exposed by UMass-Mount Ida deal

University of Massachusetts general counsel Gerry Leone, UMass Amherst Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy, and system President Marty Meehan waited to testify at Wednesday's Senate hearing. [Photo: Sam Doran/SHNS]

An oversight hearing held Wednesday to examine the deal between University of Massachusetts Amherst and Mount Ida College also highlighted broader tensions between different regions of the state and within the UMass system.

UMass Amherst is buying the 70-acre Newton campus of Mount Ida -- which is closing and would have declared bankruptcy if not for the purchase, according to school leaders -- to use as a hub for Greater Boston career preparation for its students.

At a Senate Post Audit and Oversight Committee hearing on Wednesday, UMass Amherst Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy said the state has experienced "a pronounced demographic and economic tilt toward Greater Boston," and the flagship campus' location in western Massachusetts "seriously limits internship and co-op opportunities for our students" at a time when employers are increasingly looking for applicants with practical experience.

Sen. Anne Gobi of Spencer, located about 11 miles west of Worcester, told UMass officials during the hearing that the transaction amounted to "a great disservice to central and western Massachusetts that has supported that Amherst campus for years and years and years."

"It seems to me that if UMass really wants to do something, we know that the manufacturing, we know that STEM is going in western Massachusetts," Gobi said. "It's growing quite a bit and it seems to me that instead of trying put something back out here in Boston -- we love Boston, but we know there's 350 other cities and towns in Massachusetts that have an awful lot to offer, and I would think that you would want to look at some of the regional equity and build up UMass."

Subbaswamy and UMass President Marty Meehan pushed back against Gobi's comments. Meehan said UMass Amherst is "totally committed to driving that economic growth in the western part of the state."

Gobi disagreed. "Not when you're shifting kids out here," she said.

Subbaswamy said only a small portion of his school's 21,000 undergraduates will be at the 800-bed Mount Ida campus at any given time, and detailed UMass Amherst's local economic development efforts.

"We certainly are doing a great deal to bring industry to western Massachusett in terms of if you look at the seven new startups that we have over there, if you look at MassMutual investing $15 million in our data science program, if you look at the Institute for Applied Life Sciences and the collaboration we have at the medical school," he said.

"UMass Boston Needs New Leadership"
Students, faculty and alumni of UMass Boston have also expressed frustration with the Mount Ida deal. A statement signed by faculty, alumni and students and sent to Meehan, legislative leaders, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, and Gov. Charlie Baker warned of "potential damage" to the Boston campus, including "cannibalization of enrollments."

The UMass Boston Faculty Council on May 14 issued a vote of no confidence in Meehan, saying establishment of a satellite Amherst campus in the Boston area "would further complicate and weaken the already difficult process of equitable allocation and distribution of public funds across the University system." The council's declaration said the purchase would "inaugurate an inter-campus model of competition, rather than collaboration."

UMass Boston has faced its own financial challenges and is in the midst of hiring a new chancellor.

SHNS Video: Meehan after Senate hearing
Meehan said in his prepared testimony that he has "considered the concerns expressed by some members of the UMass Boston community."

"The historic issues regarding shoddy construction and poor fiscal management on the Boston campus are real, and I am doing everything in my power to address them," he said.

Under questioning by South Boston Sen. Nick Collins, whose district includes UMass Boston, Meehan said the Mount Ida campus "won't be competition for UMass Boston," and that UMass Amherst students deserve the same opportunities for internships.

"UMass Boston has more upside, I would argue, than probably any other campus, because of its location, because of its mission," Meehan said. "UMass Boston needs new leadership and then we're ready to push forward on it."

The final speaker at the hearing, UMass Boston class of 1969 graduate Arthur Mabbett, argued that the Mount Ida deal "plainly demonstrates that social injustice and institutional bias at the very least is alive and well in the University system."

Mabbett asked in written testimony why UMass didn't pursue a joint initiative to benefit students throughout the system and why UMass Boston has been "allowed to drown in debt caused by the initial deficient construction of the campus in 1974." He said UMass Boston has been held back by its debt and asked why resolving that debt was not a priority for the system over acquiring Mount Ida.

Meehan said the UMass Board of Trustees has mandated that the purchase benefit all students, and other campuses would have the opportunity to put forward ideas for what that would look like. At a meeting in Amherst, the board of trustees approved the deal during a closed executive session.

"If there can be a collaboration for internships or if there's something that the business center is doing at UMass Boston, it's going to be up to the Boston campus to look at different ways that they could potentially utilize the campus, but UMass Boston had the opportunity to acquire this campus if they wanted to," Meehan told reporters.

He said university officials "need to work with the UMass Boston community to reassure them that this will in no way hurt the Boston campus."

According to Attorney General Maura Healey's office, which reviewed deal documents and valuation analyses and conducted interviews with independent consultants, the $86.5 million value of the deal to Mount Ida amounts to "fair value." The deal includes a $75 million payment from UMass and $11.5 million in debt forgiveness from a creditor that the attorney general's office says is contingent on the transaction.


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