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Kumble Subbaswamy: Future of ‘Retreat’ project up to town of Amherst

The debate surrounding the Retreat, however, has at times veered into territory characterized by misperception and confusion, particularly when it comes to the role of the University of Massachusetts Amherst and our plans for growth. Let me offer some facts and context to help inform the community’s discussion.

One incorrect assumption is that UMass endorses this housing development, that we have a financial stake in the Retreat and that we have the power to control it. State law is clear. The university is prohibited from partnering with a private developer to create or manage student housing on public or private land. It will be officials in Amherst who decide whether the project meets appropriate requirements.

A second incorrect belief is that UMass is charting a path of astronomical growth. Someone cited a report the other day that we plan to grow by 15,000 students! While our campus master plan outlines the capacity for growth over the next 50 years, our operational plans for growth are modest and responsible. We have added 1,000 undergraduates since 2009 and we are in the process of setting future goals. We have 20,600 undergraduates and at most will add another 2,000 by the end of the decade. Even at that level, UMass Amherst would still be significantly smaller than most public flagship universities.

People have asked me, ”Why doesn’t the campus simply build more residence halls?” Part of the answer has to do with the nature of a major public university and part relates to finances. To be competitive in attracting students, we need to allow for off-campus housing alternatives. Part of the educational experience for some of our students is learning to live on their own away from campus. From a financial perspective, the university doesn’t have the capacity to build a series of residence complexes. This fall, we will open our new Commonwealth Honors College Residential Community, adding 1,500 beds on campus. We have limited debt capacity, and as town residents have witnessed in recent years we have been building to address serious needs in classrooms, laboratories and infrastructure.

Some national context proves helpful here. No major university houses all of its students on campus. When the Honors College opens this fall, UMass Amherst will have more than 12,600 students living on campus, making it the third-largest residential campus in the nation. We will house about 61 percent of our 20,600 undergraduates and will trail only Michigan State in East Lansing and Rutgers in New Brunswick, N.J., in total housing capacity. Michigan State, with 15,000 beds, has an undergraduate enrollment of 37,500 (40 percent housed) and Rutgers, with 15,000 beds, has an undergraduate enrollment of 30,500 (49 percent housed). While Amherst, with a population of 38,000, is smaller than East Lansing (population 48,000) and New Brunswick (population 55,000), the ratio of off-campus undergraduate students to residents in Amherst is significantly less than that of East Lansing and New Brunswick.

Private development of housing for college students is a model adopted throughout the country. While the university has no position on the specifics of the Retreat, we believe some form of private investment will benefit all involved. Additionally, the university is committed to exploring the feasibility of a legislative remedy that would allow us to pursue public-private partnerships to address our housing needs. If we, as a community, don’t encourage efforts to increase the local housing stock, we will likely see more conversions of single-family homes into student housing, an outcome that we all want to avoid.

Creative thinking in many forms will help us succeed, and following approval by Town Meeting this spring, I look forward to working with the town to assess key development issues, including ways to strengthen boundary neighborhoods and bolster the local economy. Long-term sustainability depends on engaging private and public solutions to examine creative ways to protect our natural surroundings and economic vitality. As the community decides how to evaluate the Retreat or similar projects in the future, this collaborative perspective will serve us well.

Kumble Subbaswamy is the chancellor of the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

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