Opinion

Editorial

UMass Is Merely One Part of the Answer

EditorialBWlogoYou don’t have to read between the lines to get the gist of the message that UMass Amherst Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy left during a lengthy interview with BusinessWest (see story, page 6).

What’s on those lines makes his sentiments clear enough.

Indeed, when you slice through his comments on everything from the university’s involvement in economic-development efforts to the ongoing project that has become known as the ‘Springfield Initiative,’ it’s clear that he believes people in this region have to manage their expectations when it comes to what the flagship campus can accomplish — especially given the current fiscal challenges the school is facing.

“We’re only one element in bringing about systemic change,” the chancellor told this magazine. “The local government, local business, the state government, and the private sector — they all have a role to play in this. We’re ready, and we have a track record of getting involved with social change and economic development, but we can’t do it without resources.”

There are two messages there, obviously. The first is that UMass can’t be expected to be the solution to this region’s still-sluggish economy, one that continually lags behind the rest of the Commonwealth when it comes to jobs and overall vibrancy. And the second is … well, give the university more resources.

And the chancellor is right in both respects.

First, the funding part. Public higher education in this state, and that includes the many campuses of the state university, have been woefully underfunded throughout most of their history. Maybe it’s the bevy of elite private institutions that we have in the Commonwealth that has created this attitude, and maybe there are other factors, but public colleges and universities have simply not been a priority in this state. But they must become one, because, while those private schools cater to students from around the globe, the community colleges, state colleges (they now like to be called universities), and UMass focus on people from around the corner, and these are individuals who will ultimately turn our economy around.

As for UMass Amherst and the matter of expectations, the chancellor is correct. In many ways, expectations for what the university can do and should do are not realistic, or in keeping with the current fiscal realities. There is a tendency in this region — and this magazine has been as guilty as anyone — to look at the Amherst campus not as a partner, but more as a cure-all when it comes to what’s ailing Western Mass. and its economy.

Nowhere is this more true than in Springfield, where talk of a UMass campus in the central business district has been described a potential catalyst for a revitalization in that area. This talk comes without any real verification of need — although it likely exists — and no real thought about the competitive balance in higher education in the city; there are already seven colleges within 10 miles of downtown Springfield (some only a mile or two away) that offer many of the same programs as UMass. And there is little thought about the school’s ability to fund something like this when it can’t even properly maintain the aging buildings on the Amherst campus.

But the thinking is typical of what we see in this region: ‘downtown Springfield needs a spark? Have UMass put a satellite campus there.’

Moving forward, it would seem that the region doesn’t need a huge attitude adjustment when it comes to the state university. Just a small one. The school has been and always will be a tremendous resource, an educational pillar for the entire state, and an economic engine that is not only one of the region’s largest employers, but a force in many areas of economic development, from research that can translate into jobs to assistance provided to area manufacturers that will help them be more competitive globally.

But it is not the answer. It is simply a big part of the answer.

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