LETTER: CHALLENGES CLAIM OF PLANNED UMASS EXPANSION MADE AT DISTRICT FOUR MEETING – PRAISES PUBLIC-PRIVATE PARTNERSHIPS

UMass Amherst. Photo: flickr.com

Last week, The Indy reported  “the most important piece of news” coming out of a District 4 community meeting was  that UMass Amherst (UMA) planned to double its undergraduate population by 2040, putting even greater undergraduate pressure on Amherst off-campus housing.  Here’s The Indy statement in question in the report of the District 4 meeting: “The biggest piece of news was unexpected and came near the end of the meeting. A participant who described himself as a UMass employee, and who said that the Town should know, reported that UMass plans to double its size by 2040.  Schreiber noted that the UMass undergraduate enrollment this year is up by 700 students, and that housing those students off-campus at four students per house would take 175 houses.”

I suspect this information was not fact-checked by The Indy & I worry, since it may not be correct, that it doesn’t reflect well on The Indy’s  fact-checking policies.  It does look like neither Councilors Schreiber nor Ross,  UMass faculty and moderators of the District 4 meeting, challenged the claim of doubling by 2040 per se.  Nonetheless, I am concerned about the factual status of what, if true, becomes a matter of great concern – and if not true, does not reflect well on The Indy as a reliable information source. The afterlife of this report in The Indy took place at a subsequent District 3 meeting, & offered evidence to me of how carefully Town & UMA administrators scrutinize The Indy & parse its contents.  All the more reason, it seems to me, to be careful when fact-checking  statements made at District or other informal meetings about what is being rumored or taken as fact – or pointing out that what has been said  is a claim, but not necessarily “the biggest piece of news.”

It’s worth noting (at least, this is my not-fact-checked understanding) that UMA now gets only 20% state funding, so it’s financial status (under strain from Boston & the other four UMA campuses) is not strong.  Chancellor Subbaswami has been quoted as saying that UMA is in effect a private university that receives 20% state funding. What remains of UMA bond issues has been used for administrative & classroom buildings, sorely needed (in my experience as a former UMA faculty member).  I know that state funding for the campus dropped seriously while I was still on the UMA faculty (1973-2015) & the campus badly needed adequate research and classroom space.  

For that reason, a few years ago, those of us who worked with UTAC (University and Town of Amherst Partnership) argued strongly for the creation of  Public-Private-Partnerships as a way of funding on-campus residence halls without resorting to bond issues, but that idea was blocked for years in Boston for reasons I still don’t understand.  That blockage is now over, the PPP idea as a way of funding on-campus residence halls seems on track & it remains to be seen if there are developers willing to invest in building new residence halls on leased state-owned space.  (This last statement is a guess on my part.)

I think many of us are aware that UMA is also staring at a demographic cliff, given what I understand to be (again, not fact-checked) a sharp decline in birth rates during the past decade.  I’ve also heard that UMA is increasing on-line courses and University Without Walls to accommodate (a potential increase in?) non-resident on-line students. So there are reasons to fact-check the implication of claims as to doubled resident population size by 2040.

I’ve never been shy about critiquing UMA when it deserves critique – but I’d hate to see The Indy join in the overly-easy “go after the big guy” approach that many of my friends and neighbors take, not aware that the “big guy” has its own financial struggles, and is doing somewhat better (in collaboration with the town) in managing off-campus student life than it did some years ago, before many of us became neighborhood activists.

Of course we need to maintain pressure on UMA & apply the “squeaky wheel” principle of politics.  But I do urge that we do so with correct, fact-checked information, if only to strengthen our leverage for times in which our leverage is needed.

All best & in continued admiration of your work with The Indy.

Maurianne Adams
District 3

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