UMass Amherst Struggles With Budget Cuts In A Downturn

The leaves are changing at the sprawling University of Massachusetts campus in Amherst. (Andrew Phelps/WBUR)

The leaves are changing at the sprawling University of Massachusetts campus in Amherst. (Andrew Phelps/WBUR)

AMHERST, Mass. — Perhaps the most striking thing about the UMass Amherst campus is how vast it is. On more than 1,400 acres in the Pioneer Valley, there are dozens of buildings, several sports fields, a fine arts center, a massive library, dorms, dining halls. Even a campus farm.

“This is the flagship campus of the university, with 26,000 students,” says UMass Amherst spokesman Ed Blaguszewski. He points out several new projects on campus and says this year’s freshman class was the largest in the university’s history. But what’s not evident is how hard the campus has been hit by the economic downturn.

Budget Cuts, The Ivies: UMass Amherst’s Biggest Challenges

Over the past five years, Massachusetts has cut public higher education funding more than any other state. So state funding now represents 24 percent of UMass Amherst’s total revenue, down from almost 40 percent a decade ago.

“The challenge for UMass and other public institutions is that we’re under-appreciated compared to other places in the country, where public higher education is front and center,” Blaguszewski says.

“About half of the undergraduates in this state are going to private institutions, so the awareness of the importance of public higher education is not as high as we would like.”

In a state where your private higher ed siblings are the likes of Harvard and MIT, it’s tough to compete. But UMass Amherst Chancellor Robert Holub says the school isn’t trying to be a so-called “public Ivy.”

“People use the Ivies out here on the East Coast. Since I spent most of my time at Berkeley — I was there for 27 years — we don’t think of the Ivies as paradigms for higher education,” Holub says.

“They’re fairly exclusive schools. They have a small undergraduate population. That isn’t my vision for great public research universities. I take Berkeley as one of them, Michigan — those are more the kind of schools I consider to be the top public universities.”

The UMass system ranked among those schools just last week. It was the only public university in New England to make it into the Times of London’s top 200 list. That’s despite the deep budget cuts, which have meant larger class sizes, fewer faculty and some threadbare facilities.

Controversial Plans For Improvement

Holub has ambitious plans to change those things. He wants to hire more faculty and generate new research. He also wants to bring in more out-of-state students who pay double the tuition and fees that Massachusetts residents do. His plan to boost out-of-state enrollment from the current 20 percent of the student body, to 25 percent, is a controversial one that not everyone agrees with.

“The notion that that’s the way we’re going to finance public higher education is deeply problematic,” says Michael Ash, an associate economics professor at UMass Amherst. He says states swapping students to go after the highest tuition dollars goes against the mission of public higher ed.

“It effectively privatizes the education as we go looking for people whose money will come in large sums and stick to UMass,” Ash says, which could end up pushing out the Massachusetts talent the school is trying to attract.

The Case For Public Universities

UMass junior Kara Mantin of Boxford chose the UMass Commonwealth Honors college because of the low cost.

“I could have gone to a number of really good schools, but I think I’m getting just as much here as I would have gotten at Johns Hopkins or BC.”
– UMass junior Kara Mantin

“I could have gone to a number of really good schools, but I think I’m getting just as much here as I would have gotten at Johns Hopkins or BC (Boston College) or any place like that,” Mantin says.

“I could have gone to BC but it would have cost $250,000, when I can go to UMass for like $30,000 for all four years. So why would I choose anything other than this?” she says.

The public school that many on the UMass Amherst campus do compare themselves to is the nearby University of Connecticut, a similarly sized university in a remote location.

“I think there’s a sense that UConn has been on the rise while there is a perception that UMass has been on the decline over the past 10 or 15 years,” Ash says. He attributes that to Connecticut lawmakers approving a $2 billion bond issue for UConn, enabling a major makeover and the hiring of more faculty.

Over the past 10 years, the number of Massachusetts students enrolled at UConn shot up by 70 percent. Even so, just like all public institutions, both schools have to deal with constantly fluctuating public dollars.

‘Zoo Mass’ Amherst

A fraternity party at Pi Kappa Alpha house on N. Pleasant Street in Amherst (Deborah Becker/WBUR)

A fraternity party at Pi Kappa Alpha house on N. Pleasant Street in Amherst (Deborah Becker/WBUR)

One way Holub wants to be less dependent on state money is to add 2,000 undergraduates by 2020. That plan isn’t going over so well with some Amherst residents, who say more undergrads will only perpetuate the so called “Zoo Mass” reputation.

“They want to expand, they want to be a first-rate university and they want to get rid of the idea that they’re a party school,” says Amherst resident John Fox.

“I think that they have plenty of property they can expand to for undergraduates. The question is just where do you put these students?”

Fox has lived near the UMass Amherst campus for 26 years. He’s concerned about what’s called the Gateway project — a deal Holub recently signed with Amherst to develop private student housing near the main campus entrance. Fox says the area can’t handle any more undergraduates.

“When they come back to school there are incredible amounts of people, hundreds and hundreds of people milling around and misbehaving and being on rooftops and drinking from open containers, not really understanding that this is a residential area,” Fox says.

So while fighting the Gateway project, Fox is also literally walking the streets of his neighborhood telling students to keep it down.

On a recent Friday night he joined other residents, police, students and university officials in a new program where groups hand out cookies to students making their way from the dorms to off campus parties, reminding them they’re in residential neighborhoods.

The campaign is called the “Have a Heart” program, and it was spearheaded by Amherst police officer William Laramee. He credits the program with resulting in receiving one-third fewer noise complaints than usual.

Police are cracking down on student rowdiness in other ways. There are new hefty fines for things such as open container law violations. Starting this year, students’ parents are notified when their child has any contact with police.

Despite the tensions, the residents realize that UMass and the other area colleges have somewhat insulated this quintessential New England college town from the recession. Amherst businessman Jerry Guidera, who runs the Center for Crosscultural Study, says higher ed is the economy.

“When the first place drops out of the retail space in downtown Amherst, another one sweeps in right behind it,” Guidera says. “Whereas you go to other places, especially in western Mass., and a boarded up storefront remains so for months on end.”

The public and private universities in the Amherst area employ more than 9,000 people and have a total payroll of more than $770 million. Some nearby communities want the university to help spread some of that money their way.

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  • Carmen

    Sorry to say… you spelled “Berkeley” wrong. If I’m not mistaken, Berklee is a private school!

  • http://www.wbur.org/people/aphelps Andrew Phelps


    We’ve got Boston on the brain. Fixed the error. Thank you.


  • Jacob L

    UMASS Amherst is an incredible institution. I started at UMASS in 2003 in the architecture department and was so happy with the education that I was getting that I decided to continue on after my 4 year degree and get my Masters degree at UMASS as well. I finished in 2009 and I now have only $40k in student loans and had very little trouble getting an amazing job out of school. I am very proud to say that I graduated from UMASS and will always have a special place in my heart for the place that set me up for a happy, healthy and productive life!
    I also found that the local community was engaging and welcoming, with a plethora of opportunities to be a part of the wonderful lifestyle offered by the Pioneer Valley, i.e. local agriculture, hiking, amazing restaurants, active community, etc.
    I hope that this school continues to be recognized and acknowledged as a top notch institution! It has certainly done more for me than I can express.

  • Bob F

    It’s that other Berkeley — west of Dedham.

  • Bill H

    UMASS offers an incredible opportunity to countless young adults both on campus and upon graduation. I graduated in the 90s–and realize now what an impt. decision I made in choosing to attend UMASS. I work with UMASS alums (randomly) and there is an immediate link and bond between us. Hopefully the state will see the BIG picture and keep this and all the institutions funded. I believe the majority of UMASS grads stay in the state and pay taxes. Something to keep in mind!

  • John

    Why was the photo in WBUR today a photo of a frat party instead of a more representaive image of UMass?

  • steve

    the state has plenty of money to fund this great university properly. instead of subsidizing corrupt state dept of probation with patronage jobs, or riduculous $5 copays for all state worker health care, or the most glaring corruption of all, pensions for state employees that start at young ages, and are paid out to people who didnt earn it, and so on and so on…

  • mary

    Start with the pensions of the UMass people – Charlena Seymour - $190,231.20 a year!
    There are plenty more with six figure pensions.
    These people are crooks.

  • cynthia ittleman

    Am I mistaken or did the UMass report not mention the Commonwealth Honors College? If it wasn’t mentioned, isn’t that a pretty big hole in the report?

  • Arthur Zack

    I graduated from UMASS in 1972. My family had no money and the only choice for me was UMASS, or the old Boston State if I wanted to go to a commuter school. The same comments and arguments about public funding and the party reputation were being made back then. As a student, I found many opportunities to mess around when I wanted to, but when I eventually found a course of study that grabbed my interest, the school had great resources and fabulous faculty members. It is also located in a great part of the state, and I lived in the area for ten years after graduating. The state must take advantage of this inspiring institution, find a way to stabalize its funding, upgrade its facilities, and strive to make it a world class university that provides a solid foundation for those who can’t afford the exorbitant costs of a private education.

  • Andrew A.

    There should be more discussion of the salaries of the employees of UMass (statewide).
    Of all state employees (as published by the Boston Herald yearly), UMass faculty are consistently on the top:


    I have a hard time listening to the complaints of budget shortfalls, “necessary” cuts in the services of the college, and “fees” added to students tuition when the huge salaries go on for pages and pages.
    In this economy, when many many professionals are taking pay cuts, I think it would be an honorable thing to do, in the interest of public education, to lower these huge UMass salaries by a percentage to ensure that many of the students can get an education.

  • http://www.wbur.org/2010/09/23/amherst-umass-future Eve

    UMass is a fantastic school for…really smart students who understand how to take care of its many opportunities. Too bad for the socially blocked middle class who is too afraid to let their kids mingle with everyone. It’s a school for real life.

  • Edward W. Sacco

    In 1967 the Umass lacrosse coach came down to Long Island to recruit players. I was recruited by over 20 schools but chose Umass after my coach, guidance counselor, and several teachers raved about the school. When I got to Amherst I loved it. I have a sister and brother who stayed back on L.I. and attended private schools. They and any friends who visited were quite jealous and impressed by both the University and the town of Amherst but I began to notice a different attitude among in staters, especially those from the Boston area. There certainly seems to be alot of “private school bias” probably due to the fact that Boston is home to many of the best private schools in the world. The 1968 lacrosse team was undefeated, when we went down to Priceton they treated us like brothers, when we beat Harvard the whining and resentment was overwhelming.

  • J.

    Fraternity life at UMass is quite small. Unless things have changed since I graduated 10+ years ago, it just was not cool to be in a frat. I appreciated having the party options, whether in frats or at off-campus parties, but I partook in very little of frat life. Had you gotten a little further past the front gates, such as to the dorms in Orchard Hill, you’d have found quite a different world from what you saw.

    My only memory of a frat party is of a trip I took on the PVTA bus. It picked up a bunch of drunken Mt. Holyoke students who claimed that they had just been kicked out of frat party because they were unattractive. I told them no UMass woman would demean herself by putting herself in such a situation. Then one of them threw up.

    Most of my extracurricular life at UMass consisted of hearing guest speakers and attending theatrical productions, concerts, and poetry readings.

    My UMass friends were quite intellectual. I went on to get my PhD in the humanities (I won’t say in which specific subject) at a top-ranked research institution that, so I read, far outranks UMass, and found the life of the mind there almost dead in comparison to what I knew at UMass. One of my UMass friends is an award-winning poet. Another is a respected short-fiction writer composing a first novel. (Heck, I’m a published author too.) Two of my female friends from UMass went on to get their PhDs in engineering. That’s quite rare for women. One of them is now a professor of engineering in one of the best engineering programs in the United States if not the world. A female professor of engineering is about as rare as a unicorn! Another UMass friend has his own highly successful on-line “tv” show. Two others are comics/actors who have repeatedly been featured in the Boston Globe.

    While I appreciate WBUR’s taking the time to address the financial woes that plague UMass in a state too undemocratic to support higher education, the school you just featured is unrecognizable to me. Likewise, I’m sure there’s some UMass grad out there who does not recognize what I knew to be UMass. There is no one UMass experience and UMass certainly cannot be summed up with a Pike party.

  • K.

    UMass has issue, but keep in mind that some undergraduate students have been very successful. For example, last year UMass had both a Goldwater and a Truman Scholar, which is no small feat for a school that has faced such challenges and neglect from the state.

  • john

    You only have 40,000 dollars worth of student loans, you make it sound positive.
    If you had went to UNC Chapel Hill your debt would be at least half of that. It is among the top colleges in the world and top 30 public universities in the country and do you know what the tuition is? 6,000 dollars.
    If I’m paying 12,000 dollars a year to go to one of the most expensive collegs in the world, shouldn’t quality be reflected in the price? It’s not, umass has one of the lowest endowments of a public flagship in the country and among the highest tuitions!
    Take for example, Where do college students spend most of their academic time on campus? The library. We have the tallest library in the world but there are less than 50 computers in the common area! 50 computers for 25,000 students. Every single day you have to wait in line and if you manage to find a computer then it’s another 5-10 minutes to wait OIT to verify your log-in.
    Another example most high schools yet alone collegs use white boards, projectors and other technolgies to assist in teaching, what does umass have? Chalkboards that date from the 50s.
    The school is extremely underfunded and the students and ultimately the state economy pay the price. All of my professors are great but it sadly the only redeeming point of umass and that alone is not enough to make a greate university.

  • john

    most expensive public colleges*

  • john

    Umass’s repetuation as a party schoole is absolutely true.
    Part of Holub’s plan to “improve” the school beyond attracting out of student students is to diminish the school’s party image. His idea is to send notes him to parents for students who are arrested for noise or alcohol complaints, lol. Alot of parents complained and students, college is the first step towards adulthood and what we do within it are of our consquencse legal or otherwise. It not the role of the college we pay to act as nannies.

  • http://umasspikes.com Robertson Howard

    Dear Deborah,

    Pi Kappa Alpha has a 3.4 GPA. Attempting to use PIKE to illustrate UMass’ reputation as “ZooMass” is deceitful and disingenuous.

    Best Regards,
    JBS Jr.

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