Shadows of arts students’ accusing fingers stretched toward the concrete administration building across the lawn. The students were singing chants and slogans, but no faces appeared in the windows to listen or shut a blind. No administrator emerged through the glass-paned doors to proudly say their piece or scurried away to escape in their car. The building was just empty.
“I can’t believe no one’s here,” said Cynthia Cummings, a former vice chancellor of student affairs at UMass Dartmouth, who stood among the protestors. “They deserve someone to listen to them.”
The rally, back in October, took place on the campus quad, encircled by the aging — and in many places crumbling — 1960s brutalist architecture of UMass Dartmouth. The students were protesting the administration’s decision to vacate the Star Store, the arts campus in New Bedford that attracted students from around the world and had helped revitalize the old whaling city over the last two decades.
Cummings, the now-retired administrator, is one of many former and current faculty, staff, and administrators who have started to publicly worry that the Star Store’s closing could be the first major sign of trouble at the university — maybe even within the whole UMass system.
Cummings found Grant O’Rielly, president of UMass Dartmouth’s faculty federation, near the back of the shouting crowd — and a quiet, serious conversation turned to the state of the campus around them.
O’Rielly said, “Many faculty are concerned. Is this indicative of something that could directly impact them?” He continued, shaking his head: “Every building here is 60 years old and the routine maintenance hasn’t happened.”
Cummings replied that she was more concerned about the growing list of vacant positions in her old office of student affairs. “The general disinvestment,” she admitted, “it’s related.”
The University of Massachusetts — like most public universities around the country, experts say — is still grappling with a financial restructuring that dates back to the 2008 global financial crisis, when state appropriations faltered and students’ tuition and fees became the primary revenue stream.
Each year, the UMass system has taken on more debt — the current $3 billion burden is three times bigger than it was in 2008. Each year it has shifted more costs onto tuition-paying students — in 2020, UMass eclipsed $1 billion in tuition and other student fees, representing a doubling of this revenue source in barely a decade.
Now the university is running into a new headwind: declining enrollment. Nationwide, the pandemic prompted many people to reconsider attending college. Long-simmering trends, like increasing tuition and lower opinions of a college education, have led many to reevaluate their choices.
UMass’ reliance on tuition, experts say, has made it even more susceptible to cutbacks during an enrollment crunch.
“There’s a reckoning of, ‘What assets do we need? What physical plant components do we need?’” said Emily Wadhwani, senior director of U.S. public finance at Fitch Ratings. “For UMass and many schools, that looks like some assets being divested and [buildings] being closed.”
All across higher education, “you’re seeing some degrees of consolidation,” Wadhwani summarized. In September, she co-authored a report forecasting further cuts in the near future, titled: “More U.S. Higher Ed Consolidation, Trimming or Closures to Come.”
Public universities have three risk factors, according to Wadhwani, and all are happening within the UMass system: less state funding, declining enrollment, and higher debt burdens.
Wadhwani is familiar with UMass, having overseen its bond rating for Fitch. She said decisions about what programs and departments to keep, close or expand are being made on a “campus-by-campus basis” — meaning every school increasingly needs to justify its own existence with tuition revenue, grants, or other funding.
“Institutions of higher education are becoming more businesslike to control runaway expenses,” she said. And UMass is no exception.
Decisions to close a campus like New Bedford’s Star Store, Wadhwani said, are happening more frequently, because public universities can no longer afford to think about public impact more than their own bottom line.
“The days of a public institution being all things to all people… that’s a challenging platform to sit on,” Wadhwani said. “I think [public universities] are going to have to tighten their missions.”
Long decline for UMass Dartmouth enrollment
This could spell trouble for UMass Dartmouth. While all UMass campuses have dealt with enrollment challenges since the pandemic, Dartmouth has seen the most severe drop-off. It’s also the only UMass campus with a history of enrollment decline stretching back before the pandemic.
The school’s enrollment peak was in 2010, when 9,432 total students (undergraduate and graduate) were on campuses in Dartmouth, New Bedford, and Fall River. By 2022, the school had shed more than 20% of its peak population, for an enrollment of 7,457.
Enrollment challenges cannot be separated from tuition increases, Wadhwani said. This is especially true at public universities, like UMass, where tuition increases are outpacing those of private colleges — a direct result of state appropriations making up a smaller percentage of UMass’ revenue.
Today, tuition and fees at UMass Dartmouth are continuing an upward trend; in-state undergraduates now face a sticker price of more than $30,000 for room and board for the first time ever, according to financial documents. This represents a 15% increase in student costs since 2018 — despite a “tuition freeze” from 2020 to 2022 — owing mainly to more expensive room and board.
How UMass Dartmouth is weathering these challenges is not clear. Mark Fuller, the school’s chancellor, did not agree to an interview with The Light. But in an open letter in October, he wrote: “Some leaders try to cut their way out of budget pressure, but my approach is to grow our way out.”
Fuller pointed to modest enrollment growth in the College of Visual and Performing Arts — the very program that was formerly housed in the now-shuttered Star Store — as a bright spot for the university. He called the arts a “crucial part of our mission.”
The chancellor did not see closing the campus as an abdication of that mission, or even as a sign of trouble: “We have thriving arts programs that are on the rebound, despite what others have claimed,” Fuller wrote.
However, other administrators have started to acknowledge the sea change going on within UMass. Marty Meehan, president of the entire UMass system, publicly addressed enrollment issues this year, saying they were among the “very strong headwinds” facing the university.
“Our enrollment is certainly stronger than the community colleges, the state universities and the non-elite privates,” Meehan said. (State universities are non-UMass public universities, such as Bridgewater State.) “But we know what’s coming. Headwinds are coming.”
The Light has previously reported on the enrollment crisis in Massachusetts’ community colleges, but these two-year schools rely far less on tuition than UMass’ four-year institutions. Only 11% of Bristol Community College’s revenue, for example, came from tuition and fees — compared to more than 30% for the UMass system.
And already the state has made new appropriations for community colleges, but there are no commitments to start funding UMass at rates similar to pre-2008.
Instead, lawmakers are trying to pass legislation that would provide tuition assistance and debt relief to Massachusetts residents — these bills are known as the CHERISH and debt-free higher education acts. If passed, the laws would primarily support individual students rather than increase state appropriations to universities — which have been inconsistent from year-to-year.
“Campus feels like it’s dying”: What it’s like inside UMass Dartmouth
On the October day that students rallied on the campus quad, chanting away at an empty administration building, they were joined by a small cadre of faculty, staff, and community supporters.
Some, like the maintenance workers union president, Nick Gula, were boisterous and direct. “It’s a travesty what’s happening around here,” Gula said. “They’re passing costs along to students.”
Gula was at the microphone several times, acting as a master of ceremonies, and led chants that brought the crowd to life: “Do your job! Do your job!”
Others were more quiet and careful, like one untenured professor in attendance who stayed near the back. Citing uncertain job security, this untenured professor wished to withhold his name from any news reports.
“Campus feels like it’s dying,” this professor said. “Between the infrastructure crumbling and the staff leaving, it definitely feels like it’s dying.”
The professor pointed out several deteriorating features around campus, including out-of-date science labs and a stairwell near the main quad that was derelict and roped-off.
All of this is happening at the same time that the university needs to attract more students.
“I don't think they can afford what needs to be done,” the professor said.
Years of reports indicate that the professor is right.
In 2013, the university faced a stark finding: “UMass Dartmouth will never have enough investment to fix all facilities in the foreseeable future.”
The report came from Sightlines, a consultant hired to address the needs of buildings and other campus assets. In its assessment, the consultant reported that “to just halt the growth of backlog” of maintenance projects, UMass Dartmouth would need “an annual investment of $25M.”
This was only the latest bad news about the campus, as only three years earlier a different consultant, NORESCO, had described: "building systems at UMD are in a severe state of disrepair, with many systems having minimal, if any, preventive maintenance since the original campus construction, most of which dates to the 1960s and 1970s.”
In 2016, another indictment of on-campus assets and general mismanagement found that “the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth did not properly administer its inventory of fixed assets,” including IT infrastructure, capital assets, and other fixed items that were valued at more than $30 million.
Since the earliest of these reports — NORESCO, in 2010 — UMass Dartmouth has seen five different chancellors or interim chancellors, including Fuller.
The heart of the issue is that almost every gray slab of the concrete campus was poured between 1964 and 1971, when the merger of the New Bedford Institute of Technology and the Bradford Durfee College of Technology was formalized with the creation of a then-futuristic campus.
The opinion-inducing “brutalist” architecture of the school — known in the 1960s as the Southeastern Massachusetts Technological Institute — was the brainchild of Paul Rudolph, dean and designer of Yale’s famous architecture school. His centrally-planned Dartmouth campus was built all at once.
Through the school’s evolutions, including its rebrand to UMass Dartmouth in 1991, it’s had few physical updates. And the all-concrete construction, according to Sightlines’ 2013 report, has turned out to have consequences for maintenance: “the central campus’s unique architecture … makes it very difficult to access building mechanical systems [and] has been a major contributor to the lack of equipment maintenance.”
The result: a large portion of campus buildings are reaching their expiration dates simultaneously, without any regular maintenance done along the way to soften that blow.
Walking around, small details of the stately campus reveal themselves: visible cracks in the foundation of some buildings; eroded stairwells that reveal iron rebar; and roped-off, crumbling stairwells, like the one pointed out by the untenured professor.
“There’s tons of stuff just falling apart,” that professor said.
What would new investment mean for UMass Dartmouth?
On Tuesday evening, a small group convened in Dartmouth’s auditorium. A handful of professors, graduate students, maintenance staff, and even two administrators turned out for a presentation on state funding and how it could benefit the campus.
“Our buildings are crumbling,” said Sam Sonnega, a third-year PhD student in biology. “And there isn't lab space available.”
Sonnega told a story that drew groans and knowing head-shakes from the crowd. Over the summer, he was working in an on-campus lab that lacked air conditioning. The room became sweltering, reaching 95 degrees during the afternoons as he tried to focus on his research.
In the corner, a refrigerator used to store animal samples whirred desperately, then died.
“We lost a year's worth of samples,” Sonnega said.
However, the message from the evening’s main speaker, a higher education policy analyst, was more positive: "I've never seen a moment that's more favorable for investment in higher ed," said Colin Jones, of the Mass Budget and Policy Center.
Jones explained that while "higher ed is probably in a more dire strait than K-12 [schools]" — owing to the decades-long trend of underinvestment — new monies made available from the passing of the Fair Share Act (also known as the millionaire’s tax) are turning the tide in higher education.
In this year’s state budget, higher education received 23% of the new funds, which led to an $84 million scholarship expansion (other recipients were public transit, road and bridge construction, K-12 schools, etc.).
Jones said things are starting to turn around in Massachusetts, where higher education spending per-student is now below the U.S. median.
On campus, the new investment could change the day-to-day lives of students and staff, other attendees said.
Nick Gula, the maintenance workers’ union president, came to the auditorium’s microphone.
"I love all you guys, but seeing you every day to reset a breaker,” he said. “I could do so much more if we invested smartly.”
Email Colin Hogan at firstname.lastname@example.org