It can’t go on this way.
UMass Dartmouth just can’t.
The latest reporting that the university leadership pulled their exorbitant $75 million estimate of the maintenance needs of the New Bedford Star Store out of nothing more than a verbal conversation with bureaucrats at the Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance is the last straw.
Chancellor Mark Fuller and his administrative team are doing serious damage to the school’s reputation as an academic institution devoted to the serious pursuit of knowledge.
Tasked with providing a good faith estimate of the costs of its artisan campus in downtown New Bedford, the chancellor blithely told the media that it could cost anywhere from $50 million to $75 million.
All these sustainability requirements from the state, he said, seeming to shrug his shoulders. We simply can’t afford it.
Of course, we really liked having a campus in New Bedford, he explained, but it’s simply not doable.
As my Irish forebears would say, what a line of malarkey.
Fuller and his team have squandered something he can’t get back with the people of the region that he is supposed to serve — his trustworthiness.
First, his rationale was that the school had terribly serious liability issues at the Star Store because it no longer had a lease or a line item in the state budget funding its annual cost.
Of course, Chancellor Fuller wouldn’t want to pick up the phone and talk about that challenge to New Bedford state Sen. Mark Montigny or Mayor Jon Mitchell to see what could be done about that situation. No, he blindsided both of them and announced the school’s closure two weeks before classes were to begin in an “open” letter to the community. No doubt crafted by his corporate wanna-be “strategic communications” team.
I kid you not, that’s what the UMass Dartmouth PR folks actually call themselves.
Read all The Light’s coverage of the departure of UMass Dartmouth’s College of Visual and Performing Arts from the Star Store.
The chancellor’s next rationale was that the closure of the New Bedford campus was all because the city College of Visual and Performing Arts building needed up to $75 million in deferred maintenance. That turned out to be smoke and mirrors, too. The real cost is more like less than $20 million, and that’s not an immediate cost that has to be done all at once. It may be even less if a creative ownership of the building can be worked out with Montigny and/or Mitchell that more reasonably controls the sustainability costs.
Next, the chancellor and his team settled on the argument that even if the maintenance was done, the university could not afford it because it would cost a million dollars a year to run the building.
Who knows which casual conversation and with whom led to that figure! Fuller and his team have demonstrated that they will use any outlandish numbers they can imagine to rationalize the departure of the CVPA from the city.
Can’t do it. Can’t do it. Can’t do it.
The university likes to boast these days that they are the only “research university south of Boston.” But they make that claim at the same time they ignore what the people and leadership who actually live on the South Coast say they want and need from the university.
The local academic bureaucracy has also done these things at the same time the Master of Fine Art students who already attend the school say that they abandoned their responsibility to deliver what they promised them. Almost unethically, the administrators have told the CVPA students not to worry, we’ll give you a degree even if you don’t have any of the facilities or learning environments necessary to legitimately earn that award.
They bring the definition of an ivory tower to a new low.
What’s really going on at UMass Dartmouth is that a core group of careerists at the school resent the New Bedford campus and they have resented it for a long, long time.
Here’s an example. The stories about administration after UMD administration — relentlessly led by chancellors from outside the region — failing to work out a deal for affordable parking, adequate shuttle and food services to the New Bedford campus. The problem has long been common knowledge among the city faculty and students.
The crew in charge at UMD just don’t get the South Coast cities and towns they have supposedly come to serve. And the more you talk to them, the more you realize that they have this delusion that one of the branches of the public university system of Massachusetts exists for THEIR personal goals and not the goals of the region in which the state opened the university.
I had a recent conversation with Doug Roscoe, a political science professor who is a first-team player on what goes on at the university, and he told me of his vision for a school where everything is on one campus. A true academic, he referred me to the Idea Factory, a history of the reasons behind the success of Bell Laboratories, and the benefits that grow from having all parts of a big research operation working together.
“They put all the labs on a single corridor — they all had to mingle,” he said.
Roscoe explained that it benefits all disciplines to be interacting with the others. The scientists and the artists, the liberal arts and the business folks.
I agreed. But I told the good professor that that corridor needs to extend from Dartmouth into New Bedford and Fall River, the struggling urban communities that are home to the largest share of this school’s undergraduates and graduates.
The university was built to serve the local students and their families and not vice versa.
That’s right. Service. The university does not pursue academic knowledge solely for its own purposes. The public university pursues higher learning to serve the benefit of the public it serves, and in this case Southeastern Massachusetts.
Roscoe’s a nice guy. I’ve known him a bit for a long time, even lectured at his class once a long while ago.
I believe, however that Roscoe and many of the UMD academics and especially administrators, suffer from a detachment that is all too common these days, one that separates academics from blue-collar folks, people who live in middle-class suburbs from people who live in working-class cities, and people whose values ultimately end in libertarianism from people whose values end in communitarianism.
The attitudes at UMass Dartmouth toward New Bedford and Fall River — the way they have treated the elected representatives of this region — are not possessed by just a political science professor, who by the way hosted UMass President Marty Meehan at one of his classes a few weeks ago. Roscoe says he has Meehan speak to those classes periodically when he sees the president’s political background in Congress as adding value.
Far be it, by the way, from the president of the state university system to come to New Bedford while he was in Dartmouth and go over and talk to this city of 100,000 people about the crisis of removing UMD from the downtown. He obviously doesn’t see it as a major problem, even though I understand the mayor has personally appealed to him on it.
No, the out-of-touch attitudes at UMass Dartmouth go right to the top, and they have for a long time.
Here’s what the last chancellor wrote in the 2017 UMD Master Plan, which Roscoe was nice enough to send me.
“While there has been significant investment off campus, our core main-campus academic buildings, campus center, athletic buildings, and housing are outdated,” wrote Robert Johnson, who like Divina Grossman before him, was at UMD for just three years.
This alone tells me the anti-New Bedford attitudes Johnson espoused were deeply embedded at UMD when he arrived. No doubt they also long predated Fuller.
In the 2017 plan, Johnson went on to list renovating Dartmouth campus facilities, replacing freshman housing, expanding the campus center, enhancing visitor experiences, expanding academic and recreational experiences, improving traffic flow and sustainability as the master plan’s priorities.
Not a single word, however, about improving the facilities and operation of the Star Store campus in New Bedford or for that matter the School of Marine Science and Technology in the South End of New Bedford. Faculty at SMAST, by the way, have complained that in recent years there has not even been adequate hiring of professors to sustain research in the region’s principal industry, fishing.
And all this was in 2017. Mayor Mitchell himself has said that Johnson had a vision of closing the Star Store campus. Chancellor Fuller has now realized that vision.
That 2017 Master Plan included all kinds of constructions of new buildings and renovations on the Old Westport Road campus in Dartmouth. An artist’s conception map is of a densely-built out campus including everything from a new administration building to expanded athletic facilities, new science and engineering buildings, a new nursing building, new dormitories and even a second entrance.
Not all of those structures, of course, will ever be built because of financial constraints. They renovated the Science and Engineering building instead of replacing it. But the Master Plan tells you what the university has on its wish list. Included in this master plan is the possibility of relocating the Faunce Corner Road Law School to Old Westport Road and expanding the CVPA building that is already in Dartmouth. Why? When the same report says there is room to expand in New Bedford.
A photograph of the Star Store in the plan mentions that there is room for that expansion at the New Bedford building but not a single word about goals for it or its other needs, which supposedly amounted to $75 million.
While I’m on the subject of the way the UMass system is run, I’d like to take a minute to wonder about the fact that the present chairman of the UMass board of trustees, Stephen Karam, is following both his father (Robert) and his uncle (James) in the same position!
Even for Massachusetts, that is a level of nepotism and political insidership that is breathtaking. In the entire state of Massachusetts, is there no talent to chair the trustees beyond this one family?
If you wonder why the state university system in Massachusetts is so second-rate compared to other states, just think of who we put on that board. And just think of who we make president of the whole system: Recent presidents have included both Meehan and former state Senate President Billy Bulger, who are both principally political operatives.
You might ask why a chairman like Karam, from Fall River, would be so insensitive to the needs of its own sister city, New Bedford. But you’d need look no further than the depressing attitude of competition and one upmanship between the two cities — both distant from the centers of power in Massachusetts — that have repeatedly made it difficult for them to easily work together.
The dysfunction that has produced arrogant and out-of-touch leadership like Mark Fuller is systemic in the Massachusetts state university system.
You can’t come to any other conclusion than the longstanding desire of many at UMD has been to find a way to remove the CVPA from New Bedford. Once and for all.
Sen. Montigny unfortunately, apparently unknowingly, gave them that opportunity. They quickly took it and have insisted ever since that there is no way to go back. Even though the studios that the MFA graduate and undergraduate students desperately need are just sitting in the Star Store building today.
As I wrote in a previous column, here’s what Sightlines, a UMD consultant hired to study its facilities, wrote way back in 2013.
“UMD will never have enough investment to fix all facilities in the foreseeable future.”
The report went on to recommend that the university “Identify buildings in poor condition and with limited program value.” And close them.
That’s exactly what has happened to the Star Store.
The reason Chancellor Fuller and President Meehan did not want to give a heads-up to Sen. Montigny and Mayor Mitchell about the CVPA campus in New Bedford is that they don’t see the school’s relationship to the region’s cities as a key part of its mission. I’ve had several officials with the university tell me point blank: “We are not an economic development agency,” and refer to “the main campus in Dartmouth” as opposed to the “Dartmouth campus” and the New Bedford, Fall River and crosstown Dartmouth “campuses.”
This “main campus” emphasis almost seems to be an obsession with them. Roscoe told me he’d love to bring the law school — located across Route 6 in the same town of Dartmouth — onto the Westport Road campus.
It’s hard to fathom. Harvard Law School on the north side of Harvard Square in Cambridge is certainly distant from Harvard Business School in Allston, and even farther from Harvard Medical School in the Longwood section of Boston. Both the business and law schools, and even Harvard Stadium, are on the other side of the Charles River. But Harvard doesn’t seem to have any idiosyncratic focus on trying to bring them all together.
Meanwhile, UMass Amherst has had no trouble opening a second 74-acre campus at Mt. Ida College, halfway across the state, and devoting an estimated $75 million just to the purchase!
Again, if public universities are not part of economic development, then what is their purpose?
Speaking of suspicious numbers, Meehan’s PR flack, John Hoey, recently sent me a press release extolling the “$8.3 billion” that the five-campus UMass system supposedly contributes to the Massachusetts economy, including 40,000 external jobs.
The key phrase in the public relations promotion, however, was this: “… the impact is driven by the purchase of goods and services by the University, and its students, staff, and faculty.”
That’s NOT what I mean when I talk about the need for a public university, located in a suburb between two of the state’s largest post-industrial cities. I’m talking about the MORAL RESPONSIBILITY of this university to help address 50 years of economic neglect in the state’s low-income central cities and the racial and ethnic minorities who principally live there.
When President Meehan was making his latest Dartmouth visit to lecture on politics at Roscoe’s legislative process class, he evidently arrived early.
But he didn’t arrive early to take a look at the Star Store, despite the entreaties of the local region for him to help it. No, he took a walk, evidently among other places he just happened to pass around the back of the Dartmouth CVPA building where the sculpture and other artisan classes are located. It’s where a wooden kiln that is not often suitable for use by the ceramics classes sits.
The president of the entire state university system, accompanied by three other suits (including Roscoe) was evidently gazing at the rugged concrete stucco of the Brutalist-style building while his group was trying to discern the difference where the building had been power-washed, and where it had not.
Meehan, like the Dartmouth administration, is evidently at least somewhat interested in the state of the Dartmouth buildings. Not so much in New Bedford.
Spokesman Hoey, when I inquired about the president’s walk, wrote me one of his typically authoritative “strategic communications.”
“I’m told he (Meehan) took a brief stroll around campus with Doug, and stopped to talk to a few people during that stroll. There was no specific purpose, nor should it be described as a ‘tour,’” he wrote.
Of course, John. He was just strolling.
When some of the faculty and students saw the president looking at the CVPA building, word evidently quickly made its way to Provost Ramprasad Balasubramanian and CVPA Dean Lawrence Jenkins, who frantically inquired what he was doing there and wanted to come down. They were too late.
Fiona Marques, a double major in psychology and integrated studio arts, was one of the students who saw the powers that be. She said it looked like they were discussing the Dartmouth building.
Marques says she has found the whole abrupt removal of the New Bedford campus “very unfortunate.”
It was a place for the disparate arts students to together experience something different than the main campus.
“Just the location was a big community builder,” she said.
My goodness. They ought to put one of the students in charge rather than these recalcitrant administrators. They have a better sense of what it’s all about.
Email columnist Jack Spillane at email@example.com