UMass Amherst Struggles With Budget Cuts In A Downturn

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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)

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."

[sidebar title="Interactive: Students Discuss Fears, Prospects" align="right" width="300"]UMass Amherst students (Photos by Kirk Carapezza for WBUR)Students here face a tough job market once they graduate. Producer Kirk Carapezza spoke with students about their fears and prospects in a down economy.[/sidebar]

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.

This program aired on September 23, 2010.

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Deborah Becker Host/Reporter
Deborah Becker is a senior correspondent and host at WBUR. Her reporting focuses on mental health, criminal justice and education.



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