Choosing a vision for UMass

What is your vision for UMass’ future?

I only ask because we stand at a crossroads. Two competing visions for the University are colliding. The first vision, as stated by the Provost: “The University’s mission is to provide an affordable education of high quality and conduct programs of research and public service that advance our knowledge and improve the lives of the people of the Commonwealth.”

This vision is at the heart of UMass’ conception. UMass was created as a land grant institution to provide the opportunity for higher education to those who could not otherwise afford it – farmers and ex-soldiers. For the many who share this historic vision, UMass is a success only to the extent that it uplifts the tax payers of the Commonwealth who are willing to work hard to attain higher education and do not have the means to gain access to private institutions. This vision aspires to use UMass as a tool to optimize the fundamental American ideals of freedom, equality and justice – to create a level playing field by making those in the Commonwealth with money give some of it to provide people who don’t have it with the opportunity to attain higher education.

Elitists and politicians push the opposing vision for UMass’ future. This second vision has most recently reared its inflated dome in the form of Mitt Romney’s budget proposal and was well-captured by Peter Nesson, Romney’s top education advisor. Earlier this week, Nesson spoke to the Associated Press in reference to the tuition hikes for UMass.

“There is a real desire to attract out-of-state, worldwide students to make it [UMass] the world class institution that we want it to be,” he said.

The emphasis in this second vision for UMass is prestige. It is for prestige that Romney wants to add 15,000 students to the UMass-Amherst campus in the next 10 years and distinguish Amherst as an independent campus. Prestige is more important than serving the people (those who follow this vision). There is more prestige for an elitist if appearing as the head of an elite cash-cow private school than there is as the head of a non-profit land grant school. So understand that when Romney proposes separating the Amherst campus and replacing state funding with student fees and private donations, he is taking the first step toward transforming UMass into an elite, cash-cow university.

Prestige is a desirable goal, but Romney proposes to put it in front, and at the expense, of educating the children of the small taxpayer by increasing student fees 15 percent for in-state students and 22 percent for out-of-state students. This injustice hits poor and middle class students and their families hardest. Not only do they have to pay higher tuition while simultaneously enduring diminishing educational quality, but many also will be bused off campus, because they can’t afford the tuition hikes.

Pretend for a moment you are an elite business owner and politician: what would your ideal UMass be? An institution that creates efficient workers for cheaper, minimizes anti-capitalist/anti-American sentiments, gives your offspring the competitive advantage in the future and ensures that your morals, religious beliefs and political ideology remain intact? Perhaps you could even use it as a tool to further your career and try not to pay a cent for any of the aforementioned benefits?

Well, Romney’s proposal does all these things. First, he proposes UMass get “outside business people” to help decide the curricula and believes vocational training should be the focus of public higher education. Second, by balancing the budget through increases in student fees and not increasing taxes, he will bolster his political career, and no rich people – himself included – will have to pay an additional cent in this time of financial crisis to help the people that most need it. The poor and middle class families will not be able to afford quality higher education, which from the elitist’s point of view translates into less competition for their offspring. More importantly, the absence of the poor from higher education means less exposure for wealthy offspring to those poorest and most dissatisfied groups (single mothers, minorities, immigrants and non-traditional students) who are so acutely aware of the injustices and inequalities of this country.

The Romney proposal has its pros: it would be great to make Amherst the undisputed flagship campus, cut a couple hundred million dollars worth of unnecessary “slush jobs” from this huge bureaucracy, create greater accountability by downsizing, have tuition kick back directly to the University and end President Bulger’s shady $14 million office. But should we the people agree to a 15 percent tuition increase because layers of bureaucracy need to be cut?

The realization of Romney’s prestigious vision for UMass will do irreparable damage to the people of the Commonwealth. Massachusetts already houses Harvard, MIT, Amherst College, Mt. Holyoke, Smith, Hampshire, Northeastern, BC, BU and Tufts to name a few. We don’t need another prestigious, elite, money making private club in Massachusetts. We need reasonable in-state fees and enough state funding to provide a quality higher education for those who don’t have the finances to attend private colleges.

The time to choose a vision for the future is fast approaching, and there are serious questions we need to answer and communicate to officials in the coming weeks: Inclusion or exclusion? Diversity or uniformity? Vocational or liberal curricula? Taxes or tuition hikes? Do we want to buy prestige by becoming larger and more elite or by earning it and uplifting the people of the Commonwealth?

Information in this column was used from the New York Times, Boston Globe and Valley Advocate.

Eduardo Bustamante is a Collegian Columnist.