UMass President:  We Can’t Afford 29 Campuses

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Massachusetts can’t sustain 29 state college campuses and within the next 10 years will have to reduce the number, the president of the University of Massachusetts said.

“Demographically, there’s no way that 29 will survive,” said Marty Meehan, president of the University of Massachusetts, during an appearance with Jon Keller of WBZ Channel 4 on Sunday.

The University of Massachusetts has five campuses (undergraduate schools in Amherst, Lowell, Boston, and Dartmouth, plus a medical school in Worcester). Massachusetts also has 15 community colleges offering two-year associate’s degrees; eight state schools offering four-year bachelor’s degrees that aren’t part of the University of Massachusetts system (in Framingham, Bridgewater, Boston, Salem, Fitchburg, Worcester, Westfield, and North Adams); and a law school (in Dartmouth).

But the number of high school graduates is declining in the state.

Historically, the opening and advancement of public colleges has been proof of achievement for individual state legislators, and the campuses have provided opportunities for patronage for politically connected people. Meehan, who has been part of the state’s political scene for close to 40 years, acknowledged that closing some campuses will be difficult, but he said it’s necessary.

“I actually think that consolidation is a must…We should be looking to see whether the consolidation of some community colleges with UMass makes sense,” Meehan told Keller, responding to a question. “These are tough political decisions, and sometimes it’s difficult to make tough decisions.”

Meehan, 61, became president of the University of Massachusetts system in July 2015, after spending almost eight years as chancellor of the University of Massachusetts at Lowell and 14 years before that as a Democratic member of Congress from Lowell.

He has battled with faculty members at the University of Massachusetts at Boston, who gave him a vote of no confidence last month. Faculty there are upset that he forced out a longtime chancellor of the campus in the spring of 2017 (claiming financial mismanagement) and also because he engineered the purchase in April 2018 of the now-closed Mount Ida College campus for $75 million on behalf of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, which is the flagship campus of the state university system. UMass-Boston faculty and staff think they get shafted when it comes to improving their facilities.

Meehan said UMass-Boston actually gets “a lot” more state spending per full-time student than another campus, the University of Massachusetts at Lowell.

Keller asked Meehan about proposed state legislation that would require the governor to approve major purchases by the University of Massachusetts, which currently needs only the approval of the president and the university system’s board of trustees.

Meehan said he would open to working with state legislators “on anything,” but he didn’t back off the substance of the Mount Ida purchase or the process that achieved it.

“What I’m not interested in is, I’m not interested in making tough decisions on UMass based on optics or based on, you know, a story in the Globe,” Meehan said during WBZ’s Keller At Large segment. “This is a $3.3 billion operation. We need to make judgments about what’s in the long-term interests of the university. That’s what we did in the instance of Mount Ida. And five years from now people will think it was a great deal because UMass Amherst students will get an opportunity for internships, co-ops, and interactive business in Massachusetts, and I want to see them do more of that.”

Meehan also suggested that Governor Charlie Baker owns a piece of the decision to purchase the Mount Ida campus, since Baker didn’t object to it.

“Regarding Mount Ida, any major purchase of property, we run that by the governor’s A and F office,” Meehan said, referring to the executive branch’s office of Administration and Finance. “So I communicated with the executive branch early on in the Mount Ida thing.”

“But they don’t have a veto,” Keller said.

“If the governor were to say he doesn’t want you to do something,’ UMass probably wouldn’t do it,” Meehan responded.