UMass at the Crossroads

"We have to save the place or change it." That was the message UMass-Amherst Chancellor John Lombar-di left with state legislators at a hearing last month held by the recently created Committee on Higher Education. Lombardi told the panel, which includes state Sen. Rosenberg, D-Amherst, that the campus is at a critical crossroads and, "under enormous stress."

He talked about neglected buildings that were falling apart, laboratories that needed new equipment, faculty that needed to be added, and fees that have been consistently increased — about 40% over the past four years alone.

The basic message he was sending? That unless something is done — unless a major commitment is made to the university — the campus will have a very hard time merely maintaining its current levels of quality, let alone becoming the major research center that everyone hopes it can some day become.

We hope the message resonates not only with the higher education committee, but with the full Legislature.

Before we elaborate, we must say that there are plenty of budget priorities in this state and, as Michael Widmar, president of the Mass. Taxpayers Foundation, points out in the opinion piece below, the state is far from being out of the woods when it comes to sound fiscal health.

Indeed, the list of new and existing programs that need a boost in the next few budgets is long and getting longer. It includes new health care initiatives, school building programs, infrastructure projects, capital spending, and a widely supported proposal to fund early childhood education for all children in the Commonwealth.

UMass, and especially its Amherst campus, have a place on this list — although the House Ways and Means version of the fiscal ’06 budget, released late last month, does not appear to make the university a priority. That budget plan includes only a $5 million increase for the entire five-campus system, which has an overall budget of $392 million (down from $529 million in 2000). You can do the math, but we’ll do it for you. That’s a mere 1.2%.

The state university needs, and deserves ,much more.

We’ve said many times — and as recently as last month, when we came out in support of a recommendation from a task force on higher education to boost spending on state and community colleges and UMass by one-third over the next several years — that the Legislature must look upon spending in this area as an investment, not an expense.

Why? There are several reasons, starting with the fact that state schools wind up educating many of those who will eventually live and work in the Commonwealth. But also because these schools, especially UMass and its Amherst campus, are more than seats of higher learning — they are drivers of economic development.

If the Pioneer Valley wants to some day move out from under the enormous shadow of Boston and the Route 128 corridor and be a center of job creation, the Amherst campus will be the driving force that makes that happen.

But it can’t handle that assignment when it is fighting to keep its head above ground.

During his testimony before the higher education committee, Lombardi referenced the Old Chapel, the university’s oldest and most photographed building. It’s been closed to the public for six years because it is such deteriorated condition it has been deemed unsafe.

This sad state of affairs is tragic and clearly symbolic of a university in neglect, but the chapel is not the reason why the Legislature needs to ante up and give the Amherst campus a meaningful budget increase.

A boost is needed because if current patterns continue, the university will not only fail to move forward, it will slide back — in terms of reputation, research, and the number of quality programs. And if that happens, the state will pay a price.

It’s like Lombardi said; ’the university is at a critical crossroads.’