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Editorial: Paying freight on partying

University of Massachusetts Amherst officials deserve praise for quickly heeding Amherst’s call for help and agreeing to pay for extra ambulances and police patrols to deal with unruly, intoxicated students on weekend nights. UMass went even further in doubling the sum Town Manager John Musante estimated would cover adequate ambulance service to ensure other patients aren’t left waiting while crews tend to drunken partyers.

Unfortunately, Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy has said nothing, leaving his underlings to do the talking at a time when a strong public stand by the campus leader is in order.

The university says it will give the town about $40,000 to increase the number of ambulances available on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays this spring from three to five. UMass police will also join Amherst’s forces in joint patrols of neighborhoods close to the campus and provide a van filled with up to 10 police officers on selected weekends to watch areas where large parties are anticipated. The goal is to break them up before they mushroom.

These steps come in addition to the annual financial support UMass gives the town as part of a Strategic Partnership Agreement. In 2012 that sum was $363,718.

They are all good moves.

Over the past few years, countless meetings and planning sessions with town and university representatives have tried to thwart disruptive off-campus behavior by UMass students. Officials have tried multi-pronged approaches, from bribing and pleading to slapping students with large fines. The university says it has toughened punishments for those involved in off-campus incidents, but declines to release timely information about that, citing the lengthy process involved in compiling data. None of this has had much effect.

Townspeople are fed up. The warm-weather preview offered at Townehouse Apartments in North Amherst March 9 — scene of an out-of control party of at least 2,000 people — triggered a public rebuke by Amherst officials. They didn’t mince words at last week’s Select Board meeting. Musante demanded help from UMass and Select Board member Alisa Brewer criticized the university’s public statement about the event — a letter to the Gazette and Bulletin. She said the letter was inadequate, placing too much blame on town bars and cultural factors out of the university’s control. She complained the matter should have been publicly addressed by Chancellor Subbaswamy instead of John Kennedy, vice chancellor for university relations. “It would have been stronger leadership and more convincing,” she said.

It is hard to understand why Subbaswamy has been silent while the university’s reputation takes a beating.

Still, UMass is stepping up. Spokesman Edward Blaguszewski said that in addition to the Campus and Community Coalition to Reduce High Risk Drinking there is an Ad-Hoc Committee on Town-Gown Relations that has been addressing student misbehavior and quality-of-life issues. He said some of the measures UMass announced last week had been discussed by that group.

In addition, he said, the Ad-Hoc Committee is considering proposing that UMass expand the Student Union or build a new one, presumably in response to complaints that the campus’ shortage of social offerings contributes to driving students off campus to find fun.

There are no easy solutions to the problem. Vigorous work on it must continue, including renewed efforts to see how other large universities handle the problem.

Why does partying at UMass turn so ugly? It is a question that still needs an answer.

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