Man Charged With Restoring UMass Boston's Finances Is Searching For Solutions

Download Audio
Construction work is done in front of the Campus Center at UMass Boston on Wednesday, March 22, 2017. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Construction work is done in front of the Campus Center at UMass Boston on Wednesday, March 22, 2017. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

The University of Massachusetts Boston is trying to address a money problem.

According to memos obtained by The Boston Globe, UMass Boston's chancellor was repeatedly warned about the school's financial challenges as far back as 2012.

The administrator in charge of restoring the finances says he doesn't have a solution yet. Former Bowdoin College President Barry Mills was brought in to run the campus after it became clear that it faces a deficit.

From Projected Surplus To A Deficit

The windy campus these days is one massive construction site. Piles are being driven for new dorms. Cranes are swiveling. Backhoes and dump trucks are moving through big piles of dirt.

"There's been a lot of important construction that's been done on campus to make this place into a 20th-century and now 21st-century university," says Mills, the new deputy chancellor at UMass Boston and its new chief operating officer.

"There is an effort under way to build a parking garage that's under construction, which is sorely needed and will be wonderfully received by our community," Mills says. "There are dormitories being built that will allow us to attract many new students to the campus."

Mills says the big piles of dirt are part of a road construction project where utilities are being put underground to serve new buildings.

Mills was president of Bowdoin for 14 years. During his presidency, the college's endowment grew from $470 million to $1.4 billion.

UMass Boston has a comparatively small endowment: $77 million, Mills says.

"It's not nearly sufficient to have a significant effect on the operations of the university," he says.

A UMass official says the campus in Dorchester began its fiscal year projecting a $2.3 million surplus, but by Dec. 31, halfway through the fiscal year, a deficit of at least $15 million was projected, and university officials were afraid it could double.

Mills is now forecasting a much smaller deficit.

"We've worked hard over the last number of weeks, and people worked hard before I came here, to reduce that number substantially, and it will be a very modest, I think, deficit this year, quite modest," Mills says, "but that doesn't alleviate the fact that there is a structural deficit in the university."

Mills is looking for cuts, but also new ways to raise money. He wants to attract more students, more foundation grants and more large donors, and to offer online courses. He believes online classes can be especially helpful to commuter students like those at UMass Boston.

"If you have to work that day, or you have to be home with your family, or you miss a couple classes because life gets in the way, that can interfere with your ability to get through the class," Mills says. "To the extent that some of this education is online so that people can keep up, notwithstanding the fact they couldn't make it out here, that's a real opportunity."

Event notices cover a glass wall in one of the elevated corridors on the UMass Boston campus. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Event notices cover a glass wall in one of the elevated corridors on the UMass Boston campus. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Senior Michael Lavoie would like to see the $756 tuition increase students are paying this year put to good use.

"I'm hoping that they put it towards new buildings," Lavoie says. "I'm hoping that they overall just kind of do better with the school. Hopefully, they're putting it into classrooms and student life."

Lavoie moved from Worcester to attend UMass Boston, which he attends free, because he is a foster child. He does pay for his own housing, since there are no dorms yet. He drives from Chelsea.

"The parking situation hasn't gotten that much better," Lavoie says. "Every year, it seems like they're getting rid of every parking lot."

The construction is also what bothers senior Sarah Ohlund most.

"It's a pain in the butt," Ohlund says, laughing. "I had to sit in traffic for like 10, 15 minutes just to get here to this building this morning."

Mills worries about the students who don't graduate.

"People talk about you want to have more students," he says. "If you increase your graduation rate, you have more students, because if your existing customers are actually walking away, those are students, and so the real goal should be to try to maintain as many of those students -- both because it's good for the university, but more importantly, it's good for the students."

Forty-five percent of freshmen at UMass Boston graduate within six years.

Mills was brought in by the UMass trustees and President Marty Meehan to help UMass Boston Chancellor Keith Motley with campus finances.

"Keith is, as President Meehan described, an inspirational leader, and he connects with these students and the faculty in an important way," Mills says. "He also connects with the Boston community."

Mills says his job is to run the university from day to day, but he adds that he didn't accept the job at UMass Boston just to right the finances.

"I didn't come here to be the fixer," Mills says. "I understand that I have a job to do, but my real interest is in leading this institution, with Keith, as we understand what it means to be a 21st-century public research university in an urban setting. That's exciting."

This article was originally published on March 23, 2017.

This segment aired on March 23, 2017.

Headshot of Fred Thys

Fred Thys Reporter
Fred Thys reported on politics and higher education for WBUR.



More from WBUR

Listen Live