UMass President Proposes New ‘Online College’

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By Matt Murphy

University of Massachusetts President Marty Meehan laid out a plan on Monday to create a new “online college” for adult students that he said could become the system’s bulwark against increasing financial pressures on college campuses caused by competition for fewer college-aged students.

Meehan, in his annual speech to state leaders and the university community Monday, March 4, said that in the coming months he would be meeting with senior officials and faculty on all five of the university’s campuses to plan a “new online college focused solely on adult learners.” He hopes the online college will gain a national profile.

The college, as described by Meehan, will offer degree completion programs, “rapid response” to workforce demand, and customized credential programs for employers.

Meehan said he presented the university board of trustees last fall with a model for the online college that would “allow us to rapidly scale this platform through strategic partnerships, while implementing best practices in digital education for adult learners.” The revenue generated from the online programs will be returned to the campuses, he said.

“The time for us to act is now,” Meehan said.

Meehan spoke at the UMass Club before an audience of a couple hundred, including political, business and university leaders. UMass is “strong,” he said, but will require “resolute action” to preserve that strength.

In his remarks, Meehan did not comment on UMass Amherst’s controversial acquisition of Mount Ida College in Newton, nor the search for a new chancellor at UMass Boston, which was abandoned after faculty revolted over the finalists selected for the position. Both issues generated a slew of headlines over the past year, and a search for a permanent Boston campus leader has been put on ice for now as interim chancellor Katherine Newman, who came from the president’s office, continues to lead the campus.

UMass Board of Trustees chairman Rob Manning acknowledged that Meehan had been “beat up” in the press, but defended the Mount Ida move, in particular, and said UMass would be in position to make future acquisitions as they present themselves if they add value to the system.

“UMass stepped in and saved that institution,” Manning said. “No one could have ever done what we did to help those students and their families and we picked up an asset.”

Meehan, after his speech, said UMass wanted to be in a position to “play a positive role” as the higher education sector goes through a period of upheaval, but when asked specifically about the idea of acquiring Hampshire College, which is facing possible closure, he said, “No, we’re not looking at Hampshire College.”

“Whether or not a university would acquire another university is a complex process that one goes through so that is not something I have seen any data on that would make me believe that would be good for UMass at this point, but it’s early in the process,” Meehan said.

Meehan, who has led the university since 2015, made online learning a focal point of his “State of the University” address in 2018, as well. His proposal for an online college comes as state lawmakers are just beginning to consider funding levels for the next fiscal year, but Meehan said UMass did not yet have a projected budget for the online college, and would likely borrow the money to get it off the ground and repay that loan once the program starts generating revenue.

With Governor Charlie Baker and Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito among those in the audience, Meehan thanked Baker for proposing to fully fund the state’s share of university union contracts, but said he also supports the “Cherish Act,” a bill that calls for an investment of an additional $500 million in public higher education.