Commentary: UMass Boston centers jeopardized by budget cuts

By G. R. Peterson
Special to the Reporter

On Oct. 15, UMass Boston’s interim chancellor, Katherine Newman, held a Town Hall Forum at Lipke Auditorium on the Dorchester campus. Despite the meeting’s setting in one of the campus’s drafty concrete buildings, Newman was often successful in painting a positive picture of UMass Boston’s future.

As a current graduate student and resident of Dorchester, I was at times caught up with her positivity. Her energetic presentation, done along with two of her staff, took up the bulk of the forum before the floor was opened for questions after which there were moments where the rubber clearly hit the road.

When Emily McDermott, university provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs, transitioned to discussing UMB’s centers and institutes, it was by sardonically interjecting “favorite topic” before continuing. The quip effectively conveyed the controversial nature of former interim chancellor Barry Mills’s decision to move toward ending university funding of the centers and institutes.

McDermott re-stated some of what we already knew: 17 centers and institutes on the Dorchester campus ran deficits greater than $60,000, collectively amounting to approximately $5 million of the gap the school faced between FY18 revenues and expenses. UMass Boston has around 54 such organizations.

Admittedly, 17 centers and institutes, each of which posted $60,000 of debt, sounds pretty bad. On the other hand, $60,000 is close to the number many students are ballparking in student debt. And we were told that that was normal.

More to the point, if 17 centers and institutes out of 54 had carried $1.02 million in debt, why is the reduction and ultimate elimination of university funding being applied to all?

McDermott defended the decision, stating that centers and institutes are “normally” understood to be “self-supporting” because they “bring in external funds.” What appeared to be the major reason, however, strikes at the heart of the rancor that emerged after the university’s decision was made public through one of Mills’s campus-wide emails.

“One of the main reasons that we took this action is that we reviewed the research centers and institutes as doing incredibly important work, but work that was not necessarily directly supportive of our students,” McDermott said. “They often have relationships with students and might support some TAs or RAs or whatever, but they’re not directly meeting students.”

Maybe I fit into the “whatever” category. As a well-paid intern with a center last spring, not only did I generate income that literally made it possible for me to continue my graduate education, but I also received an incredible opportunity to build my skills and network professionally. The UMass Policy on Centers and Institutes states that these very experiences are the goals of these organizations. How are these critical building blocks from school to work not “directly meeting student [needs]?”

More importantly, several of the centers and institutes support historically marginalized groups in the United States and in higher education, including the Center for Women in Politics and Public Policy, the William Monroe Trotter Institute for the Study of Black Culture, and the Mauricio Gaston Institute for Latino Community Development and Public Policy.

According to information on the UMass Boston website for the 2017/2018 academic year, 18 percent of the school’s population is African American; 17 percent is Hispanic; in all, 53 percent is minority. UMass Boston is the only school in the UMass system with a majority minority student population.

Given the poor optics of cutting resources to such centers and institutes in a national climate of increasingly blatant discrimination, McDermott offered this consoling statement: “We did not cut the centers and institutes in any specific fashion,” meaning the university did not in fact take action to terminate any centers, institutes, or employees within them. Instead, the university will work with the organizations on a “Glide Path to Self-Sufficiency.”

With 54 centers and institutes on the line, probability suggests some will survive, though it remains to be seen how each one will operate on an ideological American budget of “self-sufficiency.” For other centers and institutes, the university’s decision to end funding will undoubtedly lead to slow death by fiscal asphyxiation.