A move by the University of Massachusetts Amherst to expand the flagship campus into greater Boston is being buffeted by headwinds.
The plan by UMass Amherst to acquire the suburban Boston campus of a soon-to-close small private college is the subject of scheduled hearings by the state Board of Higher Education and by state legislators, who say they were blindsided by reports about the deal.
Faculty and students at UMass Boston complain the plan is an affront to their financially struggling urban campus. The Pioneer Institute, a conservative-leaning think tank, slammed it as “irresponsible,” and the state attorney general is looking for more information.
In the face of the criticism, UMass Amherst Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy strongly defends the proposal to purchase the 74-acre campus of Mount Ida College in Newton as a “strategic move” to give students access to internships and part-time jobs at businesses that are a two-hour drive from western Massachusetts.
" The controversy is just in the minds of those who have nothing better to do," Subbaswamy said.
Establishing a physical presence in metropolitan Boston has long been a goal for leaders of the UMass flagship campus, and something Subbaswamy has pursued since he become chancellor in 2012. When trustees of the financially-struggling Mount Ida decided to close the school, an opportunity presented itself.
" It is a great deal for the Commonwealth, it is not simply about UMass Amherst," Subbaswamy said in an interview in Springfield Tuesday. "There is so much activity in the 128, 495 corridor that both our students will benefit from it and the employers there and hence the economy will improve."
UMass Amherst will take on about $70 million of debt to acquire the campus in Newton, but no state funds will be used for the purchase, according to a statement from University of Massachusetts President Marty Meehan.
The state university system already has a campus in Boston. Faculty and students at UMass Boston were said to be furious when they heard about UMass Amherst’s plans. UMass Boston has been laying off people and eliminating programs to close a budget deficit.
Subbaswamy said UMass Amherst’s expansion plans are totally unrelated to UMass Boston’s current struggles.
" If tomorrow we walked away from Mount Ida, UMass Boston is no better off. In fact, the whole community is worse off because ( the Mount Ida campus) would be in foreclosure," Subbaswamy said. He added the UMass acquisition plan includes an " organized exit" for Mount Ida students.
"It is not our fault that Mount Ida and other small colleges are having financial problems," said Subbaswamy.
Another UMass campus, in Dartmouth, has offered Mount Ida students in good academic standing the chance to transfer there automatically. But Mount Ida has several unique programs, including funeral home management and veterinary technology, that are not available at UMass Dartmouth.
Mount Ida hosted a college fair for its soon-to-be former students Tuesday that was attended by representatives from colleges in Massachusetts and other states.
Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey said her office hears daily from Mount Ida students with questions about how they’ll complete their education and pay off their loans.
"They've paid a lot of money out, they are down the road on courses and course work and my job is to make sure we do all we can to help these students and families," said Healey.
Healey said her office is seeking information from both Mount Ida and UMass.
" Any time you are talking about the use of public funds or transfer of assets from one nonprofit to another that involves a look by my office," Healey said.
The state Board of Higher Education must still approve the UMass Amherst-Mount Ida proposal. The board has scheduled a hearing for April 24th.
The State Senate voted to conduct an oversight hearing.