A Chance for UMass to Make Connections

UMass Amherst will celebrate a major milestone this year, its 150th anniversary as a land-grant institution and the start of its role as the state university (see story, page 32).

It’s a chance to mark the school’s long history and effectively tell the story of how it has grown, matured, and become a national leader in many academic realms and a rising power in the research world. And that’s a story that definitely needs to be told, because far too many state residents, alums, state and regional economic-development leaders, and, yes, UMass trustees don’t know it as well as they should.

The 150th anniversary will provide an excellent opportunity to educate people on all that has happened in Amherst, and about the promise of much more to come.

But there is perhaps a much bigger, more important goal for the university as celebrates its beginnings at the height of the Civil War.

This would be the opportunity to re-connect with the alumni base and create more passion for the state university and its critical role in this state.

Indeed, for reasons that are somewhat difficult to articulate, there is a definite lack of passion when it comes to the university and its huge alumni base, at least when compared to the strong bond that graduates of institutions like Holy Cross, Boston College, Harvard, Amherst, Williams, and others have for their schools. And this level of passion also pales beside the fervor that graduates of other state universities across the country have for their schools.

Perhaps one of the reasons is sports — UMass does not have the high-profile programs of a Michigan, Ohio State, Florida, or Alabama. But, then again, Holy Cross and Amherst don’t have big-time sports, either. Perhaps it’s the fact that UMass must operate in the same small state as literally dozens of prestigious private institutions, including four within just a few miles of the campus. Perhaps it’s because UMass is the school that some people attend because they can’t attend those others.

Whatever the reason, the lack of a passionate alumni base has no doubt impacted the university, and not just in terms of the ridiculously low turnout for football games last fall at Gillette Stadium after the school made the risky and expensive leap to the Mid-America Conference and the so-called Football Bowl Subdivision — although that’s part of it.

This dispassion also affects donations to the school, thus limiting its overall growth opportunities, while it may also play a the role in the fact that UMass, like other public schools in the Commonwealth, has long been underfunded in comparison to institutions in other states.

A 150th-birthday celebration, even one on the huge scale that organizers are planning, is not going to change this equation overnight. But it can start to move the needle more in the desired direction.

If the university can succeed in drawing area alumni to the wide range of events on the Amherst campus, where they’ll see the cranes in the air and talk to current students, and if it’s able to attract alums from the eastern part of the state to events to be staged in Boston in October, then perhaps some important connections and reconnections can be made.

One of the sesquicentennial organizers used the phrase ‘light a fire’ to describe what he hopes might happen with the alumni base attending the various events to be staged. That’s being quite optimistic.

But it seems very realistic that the school can use this event to educate, inspire, and perhaps prompt alumni to scour their closets in search of maroon clothing. If it can do that, then maybe the passion level can start to rise.

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