Legislative hearing set on UMass purchase of Mount Ida

  • Holbrook Hall at Mount Ida College in Newton. The University of Massachusetts Amherst will acquire the college's campus after entering into an agreement with Mount Ida. creative COMMONS

Staff Writer
Published: 4/26/2018 2:26:26 PM

State senators will discuss the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s controversial decision to purchase the Mount Ida College campus at a hearing next month on Beacon Hill.

On May 16 the Senate Committee on Post Audit and Oversight will hear invite-only testimony on whether the UMass Amherst acquisition of Mount Ida College in Newton was made with adequate transparency.

In a letter sent to legislators Thursday, Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy said the purchase aligns with the university’s greater strategic plan to expand career opportunities for students in the science, engineering, business, health care and technology fields. 

“Unfortunately, in this era of demographic and fiscal challenges, this is likely not he last time an institution of higher education in Massachusetts will be forced to close its doors,” Subbaswamy said in the letter. “I am confident that the higher education community will, including the University of Massachusetts, learn from this situation and be better prepared to respond moving forward.”

The deal was announced on April 6 after Mount Ida, already struggling with budget deficits of its own, reached a decision in principle with the university. With an annual operating budget of $1.2 billion, the flagship UMass Amherst campus will take on Mount Ida’s debt obligation estimated at $70 million, while remaining under the 8 percent debt cap for each campus, Subbaswamy explained.

The soon-to-be-named Mount Ida Campus of UMass Amherst will not admit any undergraduates, but serve as an additional instructional site for students from UMass Amherst pursuing jobs or internships in the greater Boston area. Subbaswamy explained it will help UMass Amherst in its goal to be listed among the top 20 public research universities by U.S. News & World Report. The university currently ranks 29th. 

State senators said they were caught off guard by the decision to purchase the 74-acre campus. Critics say the state university could have better used the money to repair UMass’s existing campuses and keep tuition rates down. 

“A few senators have spoken out about their opinion that this would require some sort of oversight because UMass is a public institution and it was approved without sharing information, without notice to the legislature,” said Emily Lazaro, an office coordinator for the Senate committee on Post Audit and Oversight.

The hearing is happening at the request of Sen. Michael Rodrigues, D-Bristol/Plymouth, and Sen. Mark Montigny, D-Bristol/Plymouth, according to Lazzaro.

UMass Amherst administrators have defended the decision, saying the campus will give opportunity to students seeking jobs and internships in science and technology not available in western Massachusetts. The 1,450 Mount Ida undergraduates would be offered automatic admission to the UMass Dartmouth campus.

“We believe it’s a good deal in terms of the transaction,” UMass Amherst spokesman Edward Blaguszewski said in an April 6 interview with the Gazette. “We are optimistic and enthusiastic about the initial business plan that will benefit our students and the economy of Massachusetts, and strengthen us as an institution.”

The proxy campus, located just 10 miles outside of Boston, will help UMass Amherst undergraduates better connect with eastern Massachusetts’ business community, according to Subbaswamy. 

“Over 70 percent of in-state UMass Amherst undergraduates come from the Greater Boston area, and most return to Greater Boston to work after graduation,” he said in the letter.

With 820 residential beds, it will allow for a modest undergraduate enrollment growth in Amherst, Subbaswamy said. The purchase also allows for a $1.4 million investment in operating expenses on the Amherst campus. 

Last year, UMass Amherst awarded 1,700 undergraduate STEM degrees. Academic-industry collaborations, which are a growing segment of UMass Amherst’s $220 million annual research and development expenditures, will be initiated at the Mount Ida campus. 

Testimony at next month’s hearing will be presented by Subbaswamy and other university officials, Blaguszewski said. The public will be allowed to submit written statements and attend the hearing. 

University officials are working to find accommodations for students displaced by the closing of Mount Ida College. The Newton-Needham Chamber of Commerce has expressed their support of the purchase, according to Subbaswamy.

“While the Mount Ida acquisition will undoubtedly advance the strategic goals of the flagship campus in Amherst, which is my primary responsibility, I have and will continue to fully support the various new initiatives of our sister campuses, and would not even consider doing anything to impede their operations,” Subbaswamy said.

The public hearing will begin at noon in Room 428 of the Massachusetts State House at 24 Beacon St. in Boston.

Sarah Robertson can be reached at srobertson@gazettenet.com.

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