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Meehan Calls UMass Growth a Top Priority

October 5, 2018

LOWELL -- University of Massachusetts President Marty Meehan wants the state’s public college system to be world-class and devoted to research, even if doing so results in a higher percentage of out-of-state students.

Meehan’s comments, made during a Wednesday meeting with editors of The Sun, were a response to criticism levied against his leadership by the Pioneer Institute. The Boston organization has argued on several occasions that the university’s expansion has left Massachusetts students behind.

In Meehan’s view, though, out-of-state students pay a higher tuition and thus subsidize the costs for locals and help fund expansions.

“You can’t be a great world-class institution and have 95 percent (of students) come from inside the same state,” Meehan said. “The data is overwhelming that a state like Massachusetts needs a world-class public research university, so I don’t think it’s good enough that UMass be a safety net.”

Growth within the system has been apparent on multiple fronts in recent years. The endowment’s assets have more than doubled in the past decade from slightly less than $400 million in 2008 to $800 million in the most recent fiscal year. In that same timespan, enrollment at UMass Lowell has grown by 50 percent, Meehan said, the Boston campus opened its first-ever dormitories and the system’s schools rose up several national rankings programs.

Meehan, who retired from Congress to become UMass Lowell’s chancellor in 2007 and became president of the system in 2015, will likely oversee the next steps as well. He recently signed a contract extension keeping him in his current position through 2023, and he described several specific goals for the coming years: growing the UMass endowment and expanding research operations, developing online education, improving the system’s rankings and more.

On several occasions during the Wednesday interview, Meehan stressed how closely he focuses on the fiscal health of the university. With large-scale demographic changes underway, schools will likely need to reshape their finances, and Meehan predicted smaller schools unable to cope will close -- just as Mount Ida College did earlier this year before being acquired by UMass Amherst.

Mount Ida’s closure prompted controversy as students scrambled to figure out their futures and officials questioned the abrupt timing. Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey launched an investigation into the situation in May.

Looking back several months later, Meehan described the developments as “unfortunate,” arguing that UMass had nothing to do with Mount Ida’s initial decision. He defended the university’s decision to acquire the small college’s properties, arguing UMass Amherst was able to expand its Boston-area presence for only $70 million compared to what would have been $500 million in new construction.

“Better communication is probably the biggest lesson of it,” Meehan said. ”(But) it was the right thing to do.”

Meehan’s interview with The Sun on Wednesday tackled several other topics:

n Both UMass and Meehan himself are under fire from adjunct faculty at the Lowell campus, who have been without a contract for three years. Both sides acknowledge that negotiations have stalled, but vocal advocates for the adjunct faculty -- a group that includes hundreds of people in Lowell -- say they are not offered the same pay or benefits that their peers at other UMass campuses receive.

The group has specifically singled out Meehan, running television advertisements criticizing his handling of the situation and protesting UMass board of trustees meetings holding signs with his face on it. They argue that, as president, Meehan should step in to take a more active role in reaching a resolution.

“All contracts are negotiated with the unions on the campuses,” Meehan said Wednesday. “Jacqui Moloney says if they gave into what the (union) demands are, it would cost $20 million, and that would all be borne by the students. The campuses -- they handle the negotiation, and in the president’s office, we urge them to negotiate in good faith.”

n State funding is a key issue on Meehan’s mind. In fiscal year 2019, state appropriations cover only about 22 percent of UMass’ budget, according to the school’s financial estimates, with tuition and fees making up 27 percent, grants accounting for 16 percent and the rest coming from elsewhere.

What Meehan would like to see is the state take ownership of construction and building maintenance on UMass campuses, something he said most other states do with their public university systems.

“If the state neglects its buildings and you’re a university, you’ve got to make that investment and that means students have to pay a portion of it,” he said.

n Although Meehan said Wednesday he had not yet read new guidelines from federal Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos that, in contrast to Obama-era actions, grant additional rights to the accused during college sexual-assault investigations, he said he thinks addressing the topic openly with students is more important than a specific policy.

“The most important thing to do in these areas is to have open dialogue and communication with students at the beginning,” he said. “I think that’s the most important part so that before we get to those (sexual-assault) situation, students are talking to each other in advance about it. That works the best.”

Follow Chris on Twitter @ChrisLisinski.

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