UMass is losing sight of its mission

By Nick Milano

What is the University of Massachusetts’ mission? Ask a variety of people and you might get a variety of responses.

Some might say it is to provide education to students from Massachusetts. Some might say that it is actively pursue research grants and conduct cutting-edge research. Some might say it is an institution whose goal must be changed from a focus on research to one only on teaching.

Is there one right answer? Probably not, but the answer is important. With changes on the horizon for both UMass and scores of other state universities around the country, knowing, understanding and following the mission statement is more important than ever.

When I was either a senior or junior in high school, my school went through the arduous accreditation process. As a result, the school was opened to random people walking through it and seeing how classes were taught, how students carried themselves and the upkeep of the school. For a year before the evaluators came, our headmaster forced us to learn and memorize our mission statement in case we were ever asked by one of the evaluators. To this day I can still recite most of it: “Boston Latin School seeks to ground its students in a contemporary classical education…”

We students knew what BLS was all about. To satisfy that classical part, we were required to study Latin for four years. Greek and Greek Tradition were also offered. The rest of the statement was about preparing students for college. This was also understood.

From the moment you walk into Boston Latin, you are greeted with the threat that first, you will place first in the state in the MCAS (my class was summarily punished when we did not do so in eighth grade) and that you will be put through hell to prepare you for college. BLS, we were promised, would be more difficult than college would ever be. Regardless of what we felt about the mission statement, we knew where we stood. It was sink or swim, it was do well or get left behind. It was fitting that the No Child Left Behind Act was announced at BLS.

The same cannot be said, unfortunately, about UMass. The Mission Statement itself is confusing. It reads, “The University’s mission is to provide an affordable and accessible education of high quality and to conduct programs of research and public service that advance knowledge and improve the lives of the people of the Commonwealth, the nation and the world.”

This is important because of the recent debate over how UMass should raise more money. Instead of focusing on raising funds from the pitiful Alumni Association or lobbying state government, Chancellor Robert Holub wants to increase class sizes, decrease class choices and make dorms and dining commons even more crowded by making UMass bigger, but only open the doors to out-of-state students. If the mission statement was clearer, perhaps those decrying such a move could more adamantly argue that the mission of UMass is to favor state residents over out-of-state residents.

Just as important, though, is the debate over whether UMass should be more of a research institution or a teaching institution. For years, UMass has been derided as an easy school to get into and on the low side of state schools around the country. With better and better students choosing UMass over private schools, those who would normally get in are being overlooked.

Sunday’s New York Times ran an article on how public universities are looking more and more like private ones, taking on better students from richer backgrounds. The article questions whether this is a good thing because state institutions are usually meant to help low and middle income students rise in society. Traditionally, poorer and minority students do worse on the SATs. If they are being scored out of UMass, usually an affordable and reachable choice, then where can they turn?

This is the problem with the UMass mission statement. The University can turn its back on those it is supposed to teach in the name of being able to secure better and richer research grants. The University can turn its back on state residents who have been paying taxes to support their state universities their whole life and choose to open its doors primarily to out-of-state students.

The murkiness of the mission statement is alarming. UMass should be about teaching its students – predominantly in-state residents – a profession that will enable them to live a productive life. In fact, it is troubling that I have to come back to Boston Latin School’s statement for clarity and a purpose: “as preparation … for responsible and engaged citizenship, and a rewarding life.”

Nick Milano is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at [email protected]