The most diverse campus in the system is the most marginalized
The financial plight of the University of Massachusetts-Boston is symbolized by a crumbling, unsafe underground parking garage that was shuttered 13 years ago.
The low end of the estimated price tag to demolish the garage and eliminate other corroding campus buildings: $150 million, according to a 2017 Boston Globe report.
How did the commuter school respond? By building a brand new garage last fall and jacking parking fees by 150 percent, sparking a backlash from students, staff and faculty members.
But the root of the problem isn’t UMB leadership, including interim chancellor and poverty expert Katherine Newman. It’s the university system’s quickness to allocate money without an accurate financial assessment.
A report from a Boston-based research group calls on the state comptroller’s office to audit the UMass system at large for its inaccurate projections of UMB. These were used to justify the system’s greenlight of UMB’s ambitious campus expansion plan.
UMass system higher-ups made a “$65 million math error” in approving a plan that UMB couldn’t pay for, according to the Pioneer Institute report, “Fiscal Crisis at UMass Boston: The True Story and the Scapegoating.”
Those higher-ups don’t appear to have grappled with their role in the scandal. System President Marty Meehan asked graduating alumni for donations during his May 31 commencement speech at UMB, according to the Boston Herald.
There’s a reason so many of them were wearing #SaveUMB stickers to protest Meehan and the system’s financial decisions.
Summer's here and the time is right….
for funding our future.
— Jeffrey Melnick (@melnickjeffrey1) June 7, 2019
Belatedly noticed ‘extreme projection error’
Financial scandal has been a regularity at UMB, an urban research university of 14,000 undergraduates, for four decades. Corrupt state lawmakers have played a role, including in the underground garage’s construction.
But this time, neither campus administrators nor politicians are to blame, the Pioneer Institute report argues.
UMass at-large administrators “unfairly scapegoated” UMB’s former longtime chancellor, J. Keith Motley and other campus administrators for the $30 million deficit for the fiscal years of 2017 and 2018, according to the report. Motley resigned in 2017.
The Pioneer Institute places the blame for the financial crisis on the UMass Board of Trustees, President Meehan and its Central Office for approving UMB’s campus expansion program absent any plans to pay for it.
It took the UMass Central Office until the middle of FY 2017 to realize that it “presented an extreme projection error” to the board on UMB’s estimated financial reserves, according to the report, written by Greg Sullivan, a former state inspector general.
The board of trustees and Meehan adopted the expansion plans based on profoundly inaccurate financial projections published in 2016. They estimated FY 2017 reserves of $77.7 million and 2018 reserves of $92.9 million.
A few months later, UMB’s projections were drastically lowered by UMass administrators: $28.1 million and $28.5 million in FY2017 and FY2018.
“When they realized their error in the middle of FY2017, they directed UMB administrators to replenish the reserves, triggering the budget crisis. This was the root cause of the so-called $30 million budget shortfall,” the report says.
In other words, UMass leadership told UMB administrators that in spite of the system’s own projection errors, it was up to campus officials to offset the difference.
‘Adding fancy new additions without fixing the foundation’
While its underground garage still rots, UMB was nonetheless given the okay to move forward with the expansion plan.
Since then, it has erected a new campus center, new laboratories, classrooms, a new science building and even its first pair of dorms, completed last year. The plan also commits UMB to “Green/Sustainable Facilities and Environmental Priority.”
A Globe editorial called the additions at UMB similar to “a homeowner adding fancy new additions without fixing the foundation.”
The Pioneer Institute doubled down on its findings in a press release.
“UMass President Marty Meehan and the university’s board of trustees bear the bulk of responsibility for the budget crisis at UMB,” and the board “failed to plan for, provide, or keep track of the funds needed for the program of rapid expansion it had approved for the Boston campus.”
The study also found flaws in the November 2017 audit of UMB by KPMG, which was commissioned by UMass executives.
The audit only focused on the university’s internal finances, leaving it “limited in scope,” and KPMG “ignored missteps in the oversight role” of Meehan and the board, the report explains:
The estimation error that precipitated the UMass Boston financial crisis was directly attributable to the UMass Central Budget Office, under the direction of the UMass president and the [UMass Board of Trustees], who are legally responsible for approving the capital reserve amounts on each campus annually and for keeping close track of available reserves.
Anneta Argyres, president of the UMB professional staff union, emphasized the fact that UMass is giving administrators six-figure salaries while cutting evening and weekend courses and other services for parents, the Herald reported.
Instead of “prioritizing a good, quality, affordable education … they seem to be increasing the number of upper-level administrators and their pay,” Argyres said.
Prof. Rachel Rubin contrasted tuition and parking hikes with the defunding of diversity organizations: the William Monroe Trotter Institute for the study of African American Culture and History And the Mauricio Gaston Institute for the Latino community. “These institutes made our campus special and brought students here,” she told the Herald.
The Herald’s editorial board noted the state senate’s proposed budget would force the UMass system to “take a double hit: no additional funding plus a tuition and fee freeze.” Officials say the system would have to cut more than $22 million from personnel and programs.
A history of financial scandal
UMass-Boston has been no stranger to administrative scandal in the past.
A 1980 study conducted by Amherst College found that at UMB, “bribery, extortion, and political favoritism were a normal part of doing business in Massachusetts, under both Democrats and Republicans,” said the Globe in a 2017 editorial.
Two state senators went to prison for extorting money from McGee-Berger-Mansueto, the consulting company that supervised the construction of UMB.
Now known as the MBM scandal, the senators promised MBM that it would keep the UMB contract even in the midst of a state legislative investigation.
MBM’s contract faced allegations of collusion and conspiracy between a state agency and the firm, since the contract was approved with no outside oversight. Senator Joseph DiCarlo then used the investigation as a way to embarrass Lt. Governor Donald Dwight, a potential rival for governor who had approved the MBM contract.
DiCarlo told the firm that a favorable report for MBM was going to cost it, according to newspaper reports from the 1970s and 1980s. MBM made several separate payments totaling $40,000, and in turn, it was cleared in the state legislative investigation.
The poor financial management is reflected in the condition of UMB’s shuttered underground garage, made of “low quality cement” and its steel rods exposed to “salty ocean air,” as described by the Globe editorial in 2017. It was closed in 2006 for safety reasons.
The central UMass office has argued that UMB should foot the bill for rejuvenating campus infrastructure, but students and staff are tired of so much spending directed to buildings and garages rather than affordable educations, according to the Herald.
In spite of being the most diverse campus in New England, UMB has historically been the runt of the UMass bunch. The system’s five-year plan did not include any money for UMB in President Meehan’s $23 million “approved project list.”
UMass-Amherst even bought Mount Ida College in nearby Newton, which many at UMB now view as a competitor.
The UMB faculty council approved a measure declaring “no confidence” in Meehan and the board in the aftermath of the Mount Ida acquisition, saying it would “inaugurate an inter-campus model of competition” in the system.
Commenting on the council’s condemnation, Meehan told MassLive a year ago: “Leadership requires making decisions even when they aren’t popular with everyone.”
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