UMass Boston’s chancellor lays out the institution’s ‘Path to Greatness’

By Barry Mills

Dear Friends and Colleagues:

From the moment I arrived on this campus a little more than a year ago, I have had an abiding belief in UMass Boston’s ability to continue its march of progress and take its place alongside the very best urban public universities in the nation.

I believe that UMass Boston is well on its way to becoming an important and leading university – its trajectory is fixed and its destiny is assured as long as we remain true to our mission, demand excellence, and remain confident and ambitious for our students and in our scholarship. When people express despair about our nation’s future, I invite them to come to UMass Boston to glimpse the nation we can be – a place where people from all backgrounds come together and work for a common purpose and the common good.

The confidence that I had in UMass Boston when I arrived in March 2017 has increased week by week and month by month – and only continues to grow.

As you may suspect, I offer this perspective understanding that many members of the UMass Boston community have been unnerved by the recent headlines relating to UMass Amherst’s pending acquisition of Mount Ida College in Newton for the purpose of providing experiential learning for its undergraduates and executive education.

Let me say that I understand why people in our community are upset and uneasy.

From the outset, it was a struggle to win approval for a public university in Boston. Throughout the years, some worked to limit our success and growth. There is a history one cannot walk away from. Moreover, corruption so profoundly maimed the campus-construction process that we are still picking up an exorbitant tab decades later. And generations of UMass Boston students, faculty, and staff were forced to cope with facilities that fell well short of what they needed and deserved.

Nonetheless, UMass Boston grew, achieved, and delivered on its promise and its mission. This is a credit to the faculty, staff, alumni, and students of UMass Boston – who wouldn’t be deterred or denied.

People may disagree with my views – and I respect that – but as someone who has been deeply immersed in UMass Boston for a year and whose time here will end soon, here is what I ask members of the UMass Boston community to consider at this moment:

Focus on UMass Boston, which really is about to take off. Its first-ever dormitories will open in the fall, our seemingly never-ending construction projects are all about to conclude, our admitted-students Welcome Days have been standing-room-only affairs. Students and parents from across the state and all over the nation attended those Welcome Days and, full of excitement, all they were talking about was: UMass Boston.

UMass Amherst has the right to come to Newton if it so chooses. It is spending its own money to do so. Amherst sees this as the best way to serve its students and the commonwealth and is willing to take on the risk that comes with this project.

We had the opportunity to be part of the Mount Ida venture and still do, but at this point, my view is that UMass Boston should concentrate its efforts here at Columbia Point and at Bayside. We should be focused on what is best for our students, faculty, and staff and not act defensively or reflexively. Our focus should be on what is right for UMass Boston. Yes, we need to have competitive realities in mind. One of our great assets is location. We have what no other public university has – a home address in Boston, one of the greatest cities in the world. Which also means that we live in one of the world’s most competitive higher-education markets. But, if we focus on excellence and maintain the drive that has gotten UMass Boston to where it is today – we will win.

We should also think about the university of the future and higher education in the 21st century – which means delivering education at scale. We are a university of nearly 20,000 students. We could and should impact many more – in part by developing a vibrant, high-quality online program that capitalizes on our UMass Boston brand. I see this as a priority.

UMass Amherst sees a purpose in coming east, but that doesn’t mean that we are obliged to move west. We see the sun rise over Boston Harbor every day. Why would we go anywhere else? We must recognize that we don’t have a right to say “no” to this idea any more than Amherst has a right to tell us that we can’t have dormitories or provide academic programs that it, as the original UMass campus, may have had first. Though this doesn’t mean that any of the five UMass campuses should be building across the street from each other.

People have rightly taken note of the lead role that was assigned to UMass Dartmouth in relation to the academic futures of the 1,000 or more Mount Ida students who will be upended when the school closes. We have great sympathy for the Mount Ida students who are facing this harrowing circumstance – through no fault of their own – and we are at the school today providing information and offering an expedited path to admission for qualified students interested in coming to UMass Boston. We are optimistic that a significant number of Mount Ida students will look at UMass Boston’s quality, affordability, and proximity and will see us as a beacon in this moment of upheaval. But I would emphasize that these students need to make the right decision for themselves – it is their future.

In trying to express these matters in a balanced way, I would say that UMass Boston has been, and for a long time will be, burdened with millions of dollars in annual debt service payments that are the legacy of our sad construction saga. But it is also the case that the state and the UMass System have been supportive partners in recent years, as evidenced by:

• The state providing the bulk of the funding for the construction of UMass Boston’s $183 million Integrated Sciences Complex, which opened in 2015.

• Governor Baker, in April 2017, committing $78 million in funding for our substructure project.

• The UMass system working with us to put in place the public-private partnership that led to the construction of our $120 million, 1,100-bed student housing complex. The dormitories, the first in UMass Boston’s history, will open this fall.

UMass Boston also stands to realize a significant infusion of funding from the expected long-term lease of our nearby Bayside property. These funds should help us to develop our most important academic and research programs, which, in turn, will drive social and economic progress throughout the city and across Massachusetts.

It is my view that the UMass system understands the importance of UMass Boston. The system understands why it is essential for us to succeed and is supportive. The demands on us to be financially responsible have been painful, but demonstrating financial discipline, as we now are, will generate even more confidence and support.

Make no mistake: We are a financially stable university. We have endured more than a year of deep budget cuts and, as a result, now project balanced budgets in the years ahead. And we have developed a new plan for the substructure that delivers a more comprehensive fix at a lower price. We demonstrate every day our disciplined management and financial stability. We are more stable and financially secure than many colleges and universities locally and across the nation. 

What we need most at this juncture – and deserve – is for the state to provide UMass Boston with the final piece of funding to put our substructure problem – the lingering legacy of the construction corruption of the 1970s – behind us once and for all. This funding, roughly $80 million, would settle a figurative debt and would spare UMass Boston from taking on more debt in the future – debt that students would end up paying and that would limit our future growth.

Two final thoughts:

A word about my colleague, Kumble Subbaswamy, the chancellor of UMass Amherst. Some have speculated that we are witnessing a majority-white campus trying to gain advantage over a majority-minority campus in this episode. I think it needs to be said that Chancellor Subbaswamy, who came to the United States in 1971 with $8 in his pocket, seeking his doctorate in physics, and believing in the promise of America, has dedicated his life to providing opportunity and excellence for students from all backgrounds. He is a distinguished educator who cares about the future of every student and throughout his career has championed the cause of diversity in higher education. To see him and the campus he leads in any other context is unattractive and incorrect.

Finally, my advice to UMass Boston is to be bold, confident, and aggressive. Stay true to our urban mission. Continue to provide access and opportunity to students from all walks of life. If we follow this path, we will be a premier public urban public research university; we will transform countless lives; and the world will always look to the UMass Boston beacon. 

Barry Mills is the interim chancellor of UMass Boston.