Walsh: “Open to the idea” of city running UMass Boston

Mayor Martin Walsh reiterated today that his administration is “open to the idea” of the city of Boston taking more control of the University of Massachusetts-Boston campus in Dorchester, a prospect first floated Wednesday in a Boston Globe column.

The Dorchester campus has been buffeted by a string of controversies— from a budget crisis and a change of leadership at the chancellor’s office to more recent concerns about the impacts of UMass Amherst’s plans to acquire Mt. Ida College.

Walsh says his comments — which indicated he is mulling a possible takeover of the campus— were a response to a specific question on the topic posed to him by Boston Globe columnist Shirley Leung. In Leung’s column, Walsh said he was concerned that the campus does not have a plan, adding, “I would be interested in having the conversation with UMass system to see if that would be the better thing to do — to possibly make UMass Boston a city institution.”

The mayor repeated his concerns about UMass Boston’s trajectory this morning as he left a panel at Boston College High School, next door to the UMass Boston campus. He said his comments were a general response to Leung.

“I was asked a question by a reporter if we’d ever consider it, and it’s something that obviously is not off the table,” he told the Reporter. “I have concerns about UMass Boston and the future of the school. It’s our only public four-year college in Boston. And also, being a Rep. here for so long, working so hard to work for the expansion of UMass is important, and I hope the growth of the school continues to move forward.

“I don’t want to see it stop and I don’t want to see it move backwards, as this institution is too important to Boston, and important to urban kids.”

Leung also referenced UMass president Marty Meehan— saying he is skeptical of city government being inherently better at running public educational institutions than the state. Meehan’s office said in a statement to the Reporter that the university is keeping its attention on righting the UMass Boston ship, including the hiring of a new permanent chancellor sometime in the coming weeks.

“We are bullish on UMass Boston,” said UMass spokesman Jeff Cournoyer on Wednesday, “which is poised for a new era of success with Chancellor [Barry] Mills’ success achieving budget stability, the phase of heavy construction coming to a close, a potential infusion of new revenue from the Bayside development, strong student demand, and a search for a permanent chancellor underway. That is where our focus is.”

Related reading: Interim chancellor moves to boost morale at UMass Boston as transition looms

UMass Boston is a majority-minority school, mostly serving commuter students. It weathered a number of controversies in recent years, including a Robert Kraft-backed proposal for a stadium on the former Bayside Expo site that ended abruptly amid sharp criticism from the Dorchester political delegation. The campus is now in the process of marketing the Bayside parcel for a long-term lease, a potential windfall for UMass Boston and revitalization for the Columbia Point peninsula.

More recently, UMass Boston community and elected officials have been critical of UMass Amherst’s proposed purchase of Mt. Ida College’s campus.

Saddled with structural deficits and a campus debt of around $500 million, UMass Boston is also working toward a planned leadership change. Interim chancellor Mills took over management of the campus after J. Keith Motley was ousted last year, and a search committee is whittling a pack of potential chancellors down to several finalists.

The prospect of city involvement in UMass might be a factor for these potential chancellors, which include Dorchester native and former Obama-era EPA chief Gina McCarthy, as well as MBTA fiscal and management control board chair Joseph Aiello.

Asked if his comment could impact the chancellorship search, Walsh was definitive.

“No, not at all,” he said. “I mean, there’s no comment. If UMass wanted to enter into a conversation with us about this I would absolutely be open to the idea, but I think that Barry Mills has done a nice job of stabilizing a situation that was difficult, a financial situation. Keith Motley was an incredible chancellor back when he was here. He was very community orientated. I hope the next person coming in has a little bit of quality on the fiscal side and the community side.”

The Columbia Point campus, for its part, seemed to throw cold water on the city takeover idea in a statement to the Reporter on Friday.

“UMass Boston is proud of its role as the second campus in the University of Massachusetts system to open its doors and did so only after far-sighted civic leaders waged a prolonged campaign to bring the power and prestige of the UMass educational brand to our city," said spokesman Robert Connolly. "Today, UMass Boston plays a significant role in defining a brand that across the nation and throughout the world is equated with excellence and achievement -- and we find the idea of altering that relationship unimaginable.

"This is an inopportune time to create doubt about our future affiliation for several reasons, not the least of which is that it is the exact moment during which students are making final enrollment decisions -- and significant shifts can translate into millions of dollars in foregone revenue. But we are confident that students understand that we are and will continue to be UMass Boston.”

Jennifer Smith can be reached at jennifer.smith@dotnews.com, or follow her on Twitter at @JennDotSmith



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