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Max Page

Don't privatize UMass

UMass-Dartmouth students protested last month after university trustees approved a $1,500-per-student fee hike. UMass-Dartmouth students protested last month after university trustees approved a $1,500-per-student fee hike. (Peter Pereira/The Standard Times via AP)
By Max Page
March 19, 2009
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AMIDST all the bad news for UMass, perhaps the worst came last week when Chancellor Robert Holub spoke to the Amherst Chamber of Commerce and declared that in the coming decade "we will be less dependent on the state's allocation - it's a smaller part of our calculation, which is not something we like to do but that's the reality of the situation."

Could privatization possibly be the answer for UMass? If state support for higher education continues to decline, the money has to come from somewhere. Private schools balance their budgets by charging exorbitant tuition and fees. UMass is already one of the most expensive public universities in the nation for in-state students, even more so after the recent $1,500 fee increase. And yet that only covered half the budget cuts this year. Do UMass leaders think UMass should charge tuition and fees for Massachusetts residents on par with Harvard, Amherst College, and Wellesley?

It is worth a reminder that UMass has a public mission, beyond great teaching and research: providing educational opportunity to talented working class Massachusetts citizens. UMass Amherst has more Pell Grant recipients than Amherst College, Boston College, Harvard, MIT, Smith, Tufts, and Wellesley - combined. Those schools, as wonderful as they are, do not educate our working-class or even middle-class citizens. The state and community colleges do. Privatization will undermine that 150-year-old mission.

If not from tuition, where else could UMass get the funds to be a first-rate public research university? It doesn't have a multi-billion dollar endowment (as do Michigan, Texas, and other public research universities that the privatizers want to emulate). Grants and contracts? Over the past decade, UMass faculty have raised more grants than ever before - putting UMass just behind MIT and Harvard in the state. But the chancellor has quietly canceled the "250 plan" that was intended to increase tenured faculty, and with declining numbers of tenure-system research faculty there is no way to replace state funds with ever-growing grants and contracts.

Fundraising? UMass could certainly do better. But even if it doubled its yearly fundraising from an average of $30 million to $60 million - a huge task in any economy - it still wouldn't erase this year's budget cuts alone. Meanwhile, Massachusetts remains near the bottom of the 50 states in state funding for public higher education.

Follow the bouncing ball. Top UMass administrators say the university will never get more money from the state, so it doesn't, which forces the trustees to raise fees for students, which makes the Legislature believe UMass can handle its financial affairs on its own, which leads to declining state revenues, which leads to more speeches before the Chamber of Commerce declaring that the state will never fund public higher education. Down, down, down we go.

I was on the search committee that brought Holub to the Amherst campus. We hired him to stop this cycle and to be an advocate for UMass, not to embrace privatization. Many of us are going to ignore this new "reality" and go to the State House on April 8. We will make the case for why, in the midst of a recession, public higher education is actually the best investment our state could make, training workers and citizens for a new world and economy. Don't take my word for it: Michael Porter, a Harvard Business School professor says the same thing. He has argued for more stimulus dollars to support public higher education, because his research shows it's the most valuable type of infrastructure this country can build. The United States' half century of prosperity after World War II was anchored in the rise of the best public university system in the world. The next era of prosperity - real prosperity, not AIG, fake money prosperity - will also be built on a renewed investment in public universities.

Two months ago, Governor Patrick told a group of us that this is the year to "have a conversation about the cost of civilization." Education is one of those public goods that comes with a cost, one that taxpayers are actually happy to support with their dollars. The leaders of the University of Massachusetts should pick up some banners and bullhorns and join the fight.

Max Page is associate professor of architecture and history at the University of Massachusetts and on the executive committee of PHENOM (The Public Higher Education Network of Massachusetts).

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