Halfway through the student protest at UMass Dartmouth last Friday, state Sen. Mark Montigny’s legislative counsel Audra Riding turned toward the office of Chancellor Mark Fuller and said: “I hope they’re up there listening right now — I doubt it, but I’m gonna hope.”
It was not surprising that Chancellor Fuller did not make an appearance at the student, and dare I say it, faculty protest, where 100 or so young people, professors and supporters assembled just outside his office in one of the Dartmouth campus’ ominous brutalist buildings. Fuller has been an almost invisible presence on the College of Visual and Performing Arts issue in the two months since he abruptly, and without any warning, shut down its entire campus in New Bedford.
In just his third year in office, Fuller has managed to ruin his relationship with both Greater New Bedford and the university’s beloved inner city arts school and its supporters. The point has come where he needs to resign. Not only the CVPA students, but the region’s legislative delegation and the mayor of New Bedford have clearly lost confidence in him.
Student after student at the rally recounted what Fuller’s hasty pulling of the rug from under their New Bedford campus just two weeks before classes has done to their creative lives, as well as their academic careers.
“It was a deliberate decision made by people who do not know or care about the impact it has on us,” said Lily McGuirk,an undergraduate senior painting major who has collected nearly 5,400 signatures to “Save the Star Store” building. “It was malicious.”
So far this semester McGuirk said she has had to work in Dartmouth painting classrooms in a “grueling process” because she does not have a studio to work on her senior show, akin to a thesis. “I’m interrupted and distracted as two other classes are going on in the same room at the same time,” she said, and without access to all her materials because there is no place to put them. She was greeted by shouts in the crowd of “Not acceptable!”
Almost half way through the semester, the university is in the process of installing undergraduate studios at the Dartmouth CVPA building but some have said they are too small and some lack the natural light of the Star Store.
Fuller and his provosts have not been moved by stories like McGuirk’s. They have steadfastly offered the students crumbs like an extension of the course-withdrawal period, rather than the tuition refund and career support that they and Sen. Montigny and New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell have now joined the students in demanding.
But as Riding said, it should not have been surprising.
Fuller has not just resisted the pleas of the arts students — after all, they’re just the young minds who’ve trusted their futures to UMass Dartmouth. He’s also resisted the entreaties of Montigny, the long-term state senator who actually created the UMD campus in an urban neighborhood that doesn’t very often get to share in the bounties of higher education.
Astonishingly, public higher education has very much abandoned the urban communities of Massachusetts. And if you don’t believe me, as I’ve said before, just look at the way the university system has treated expansion and maintenance needs at UMass Boston vs. UMass Amherst this last decade.
Fuller, no doubt with the full backing of UMass President Martin Meehan, has given the back of his hand to both the sitting state senator and the mayor of one of two cities of 100,000 people which his public university sits between, and was located to serve. Oh, but it’s a research university now, goes the argument that some faculty members trying to curry favor with the administration are pushing. It just happens to be located in Dartmouth because it has to be located somewhere.
The UMass Dartmouth student rally occurred two weeks after Gov. Maura Healey, almost equally invisible on the New Bedford CVPA crisis as the university officials, had asked the chancellor to at least meet with the students.
Fuller says he’s getting to it.
Even as some of the students headed toward their mid-term exams without ever getting into a usable art studio, the chancellor still hasn’t been able to squeeze them into his schedule. But he did pop his head into a meeting last week when the painting students were informed that, like the ceramics students before them, their studios at the defunct Bed Bath & Beyond store just won’t work. Shockingly, they won’t work in a Route 6 strip-mall structure that Fuller had hurriedly ensconced them in during his rush to take advantage of an opportunity to get out of New Bedford quickly.
For now, the students will just have to live with the fact that many of the tools of their artistic trade, formerly located in the cherished New Bedford Star Store campus, are now residing in a series of 21 storage trailers located on the vacant lot on the Dartmouth campus. It’s the lot where Massachusetts’ most forgotten branch of the state university last year demolished four moldy, 1970s-era dormitories with brown-water plumbing.
The whole thing is almost Shakespearean in the unfolding of the latest tragedy for this school that has suffered so greatly through the years at the state’s mismanagement of its university system.
Riding has been Montigny’s point person on the UMass Dartmouth debacle and over the course of the last week, she has helped piece together a lot of the missing pieces of the puzzle that led to the demise of the New Bedford arts campus.
As reported in New Bedford Light reporter Colin Hogan’s fine story on Montigny’s announcement of a state investigation, it’s a portrait of arrogance, phony cost estimates and a deep philosophical aversion to the principle that the state university in a democratic form of government should reflect the goals and values of the people who pay for it and attend it.
The missing pieces that Riding supplied helped to explain how not just once, but twice and then three times UMass Dartmouth and the state agency that oversees all public buildings failed to execute the purchase of the Star Store campus for a single dollar. I’ve attached Montigny’s timeline to this column so you can see just how long he worked to bring the New Bedford campus into UMass Dartmouth’s ownership and just how doggedly two state agencies, and in the end, the university itself, worked to avoid it.
The Montigny letters, to the UMD students at the rally and to Inspector General Jeffrey Shapiro, explain how it could happen that at the end of a 20-year lease during which Massachusetts’ government paid some $63 million to a company owned by a local developer, the state could still come up empty handed. More details, however, will have to come out when Shapiro ferrets out what went on with Fuller, developer Paul Downey, and the two mysterious state agencies at the heart of this all.
And it will come out.
Riding on Friday announced that Shapiro had pledged to start the investigation that Montigny placed in the Fiscal Year 2024 state budget.
Meanwhile, Nick Gula, president of the UMD maintainers unions, announced at the Friday rally that state Auditor Diane DiZoglio was also on board. “I talked to the state auditor and she is going to audit the university,” he told the crowd.
Asked for confirmation, DiZoglio’s office was less definitive.
“The students, faculty, and staff within the UMass Dartmouth College of Visual and Performing Arts community have raised important issues that must be reviewed,” wrote a spokesperson. “Our team is committed to working alongside state and local leaders, leadership at UMass, and relevant stakeholders to discuss appropriate next steps.”
Ah, newly elected state officials who run on fervent platforms. They cool down so quickly.
Montigny, however, is in his own backyard with this issue and he was stronger. His letter to the students pointed out that contrary to the way Chancellor Fuller has tried to frame the narrative, the state Legislature and a series of governors have always funded the CVPA campus at the Star Store. They funded it to the tune of $2.7 million a year in recent years, not to mention an $8 million on-the-books bond for a new HVAC system and $30 million in additional bonding for whatever might need to be done. The only caveat was that the university and these two mysterious but powerful state agencies — the Division of Capital Asset Management and the UMass Building Authority — would have to buy the building for $1 (in the case of DCAMM) so that a developer (Paul Downey of Mattapoisett) who had already paid off his debt on renovating the building, and who Montigny says did little of the required maintenance, did not continue to collect the state’s largesse.
In the case of UMBA, all Montigny asked is that the agency that last year former Gov. Charlie Baker instructed to realize the transfer would continue to fight Downey to complete that transfer. Downey has tried to claim that the university missing its deadline for taking the building means it remains his unless the inspector general investigation ordered by Montigny was thwarted.
Downey, of course, spent $90,000 on lobbyists in 2022 and 2023 and in an August 4, 2023, letter to Gov. Maura Healey — just five days before she signed the state budget — tried to convince her (through the alphabet agencies) to remove Montigny’s language demanding the inspector general investigation on the lack of maintenance at the Star Store.
Montigny’s letter to the students last Friday said that he has asked Inspector General Shapiro to investigate what maintenance was, and was not done, on the building over the full 20 years of the contract.
His letter further outlines how in a 2021 letter to the senator’s staff, DCAMM estimated the structure would need $16 million as a “wild guess” based on the developer’s estimates but that by this year the university was saying the structure needed up to $75 million worth of work. Nothing in the latest estimate, of course, has ever been itemized in terms of dollars and cents.
“The total lack of transparency and responsibility from these parties needs to stop,” Montigny wrote the IG.
Like anything else in state government, it takes time to track down the doings of agencies and a university that have become so arrogant they don’t want to be tracked. But they will be tracked down.
Montigny — who I’ve sometimes criticized for being willing to take ‘No’ for an answer from the university — is nevertheless the one person who’s fought doggedly to try to reverse this misadventure. For weeks now he has said he holds out hope that discussions between the Executive Office of Administration and Finance and UMBA will still result in a UMass Dartmouth purchase of the Star Store. But as Fuller has ignored his pleas to put the closure of the New Bedford building on hold, those pleas look like a long-shot at best.
Read all The Light’s coverage of the departure of UMass Dartmouth’s College of Visual and Performing Arts from the Star Store.
Montigny has made mistakes, in my opinion.
I understand why he did not want to earmark more money for Downey after the developer had demonstrated the ability to co-opt state government itself. But it was a mistake because it has allowed Fuller and UMD the loophole it has always wanted to exit New Bedford.
Montigny’s letter to the students was full of tough talk and his recommendations for the IG to get to the bottom of the mess. “UMass must provide student-artists with tuition reimbursement for their ill-advised and rushed exit from Star Store,” he wrote. “And UMBA must file a lawsuit if a settlement to secure the building cannot be reached within the next 30 days.”
That’s great. To a point.
If the investigation shows what I think it will, heads should roll at DCAMM and UMBA. But it will be cold comfort because the IG’s work will not be completed for months if not more than a year. The New Bedford campus may be but a memory then, no matter how much money is clawed back from Downey.
That is why our state senator and also the mayor of New Bedford need to do even more. And together for a change.
The weakest part of their argument has always been this premise that the CVPA campus can only survive in New Bedford if the university wants it to. No! The university and the state agencies that back it have long ago proven they don’t want the university here. Montigny’s own timeline shows it, particularly in Fuller’s refusal to reverse the evacuation of the Star Store just after it started.
That is where this latest of the revolving door of UMD chancellors showed his true colors. He doesn’t get it.
The public universities of Massachusetts are designed to serve the state, to educate the general population of the regions, and yes, to promote economic development for the state and country. That is the whole purpose of public higher education.
Our state senator needs to enlist his fellow legislators in a full-throated discussion of what went down in New Bedford and at UMass Dartmouth, and the role of DCAMM and UMBA in it.
In the meantime, Montigny should call on Chancellor Fuller to resign. And Mayor Mitchell and the rest of the legislative delegation should back him up.
Email news and opinion columnist Jack Spillane at email@example.com