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UMass Boston professors say budget risks school mission and quality

Class sizes grow, research access shrinks, more decisions guided by potential profit

Jule Pattison-Gordon
UMass Boston professors say budget risks school mission and quality
UMass Boston faces a $30 million deficit, while enrollment and fundraising both are in decline.

UMass Boston’s budget woes were thrown again into sharp focus last week as the campus reduced the powers of its chancellor in a declared attempt to infuse new expertise into the financial discussions. After letting Chancellor J. Keith Motley’s contract expire in an atypical move, university trustees curbed Motley’s control over daily operations, bringing in former Bowdoin College president Barry Mills to handle those duties. Mills is widely credited with significantly increasing Bowdoin’s endowment, providing grants in place of loans to students on financial aid and growing minority enrollment.

The move is the latest sign of financial troubles at the campus, which faces a $30 million deficit and an enrollment that dropped by about 200 students over the past year. Fundraising also has declined by about $4.2 million over the past four years.

Professors say the budget cuts impede their ability to do their jobs — both as teachers and researchers — at the state’s only public research university. Class sizes are growing, departments are losing funding for photocopies and other basic supplies, researchers are denied cost-coverage to attend research conferences and more cuts are expected to be announced soon, according to Marlene Kim, professor of economics at UMass Boston.

With state dollars accounting for just 29 percent of UMass’s budget, pressure is on university leadership to chase funding, not mission, says Anthony Van Der Meer, senior lecturer of Africana Studies at the school. This places barriers to achieving UMass Boston’s mission of providing a degree pathway to a diverse enrollment of urban students, he said.

“When the state only financed less than 50 percent of the budget, then you’re forced into privatization,” Van Der Meer told the Banner, adding that urban communities of color especially are hit when the university is less able to aggressively seek to meet their needs. “The financial positioning that the university is in marginalizes these particular communities because it is chasing dollars and seems to be making the production of education about dollars, not about real transformation in the ways that people will be able to contribute to the communities from which they came.”

One example of the pressure to court private money, Van Der Meer said, is reflected in the university’s talks with Robert Kraft, owner of the New England Revolution, over selling him land on which to site a soccer stadium. The university also increasingly has been courting wealthier students, including international students, who pay full price, and youth from the suburbs, with the result of leaving behind many students with fewer resources.

“We are concerned about the ability to teach and educate our students,” Marlene Kim told the Banner. “What people teach has been affected because the resources aren’t at the library.”

Van Der Meer also questioned the value of introducing Mills with a $250,000 annual salary at a time when the university’s wallet is emptying and said the move avoids examining root causes of the financial struggles.

“It’s not paying attention to what the problem is,” he said. “What they’re doing is biding time, versus really trying to figure out how do we begin to address it.”

Students hit

Larger class sizes are a significant concern, with Van Der Meer saying that while first year introduction classes traditionally are capped at 25 students, he recently was saddled with an 80-student class, making it more challenging to provide individual attention.

“How’s that going to help a lot of kids who come from urban communities who you’re trying to get to relate their experience to what they’re learning, not have it be abstract and different?” he said. “It’s shameful. It’s almost a way of ghettoizing a public university.”

Kim said the school aims to increase class sizes to at least 18 students per professor as a cost-saving measure and will be cancelling classes in which fewer students enroll. Given that many students work full-time and have families and other schedule commitments, this creates a real concern that some pupils may not be able to find classes required for graduation that fit into their schedule, she said.

Subscriptions to some online research databases have been discontinued, especially resources used by the humanities departments, and some departments have been disallowed from making photocopies. The tradition of replacing faculty computers every five years is being discontinued. The institution’s operating budget was cut by about 17 to 20 percent in November, Kim said.

Researchers and educators hit

Kim said funding has been dropped for travel to research conferences, meaning that professors without the private means cannot attend what typically is a major arena for presenting and receiving feedback on research, participating in journal and professional organization board meetings, networking with others in the field, discovering potential journals in which they might seek to publish their work and hearing and providing feedback on peers’ work. All these activities are expected of professors, both by others in the research community and by the university itself, Kim said, noting that as part of their evaluation process, faculty are required to list the conferences they attended and details of their participation there.

“It’s a barrier to advancing in the field for anyone — adjunct or someone with tenure track position,” she said.

Van Der Meer, meanwhile, said the focus should be on teaching and preparing students to transform their communities — a piece of the university mission he regards as underfunded. As a full-time but non-tenure-track professor, he teaches four classes but has a shared office, while tenured professors, with research focuses and just two classes, are given individual offices.

The two professors’ testimonies suggest that in both research and classroom teaching, the university is falling short of providing sufficient support.

Africana Studies at risk

Professor Robert Johnson, former chair of the Africana Studies department, previously suggested that his removal and replacement with an associate professor of English without a background in Africana Studies could be a move toward saving money by dismantling the program. (Meanwhile, the university said changes to the department were based solely on an attempt to improve academics). Van Der Meer said the university is too weak in its support for the Africana Studies department and diversity, noting that two black women were denied tenured professor positions.

“When you’re dismantling the Africana Department, what’s your commitment to diversity?” Van Der Meer said.