UMass President Marty Meehan delivers 2019 State of the University address

Plans for ‘UMass Online’ announced

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UMass President Marty Meehan delivers 2019 State of the University address

(Collegian File Photo)

(Collegian File Photo)

(Collegian File Photo)

(Collegian File Photo)

By Michael Connors, Assistant News Editor

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In his third annual “State of the University” address, President of the University of Massachusetts system Marty Meehan focused on his plans to increase college affordability while also strategizing about how to address future demographic changes in the state.

Before taking the podium in Boston on Monday evening, Meehan was introduced by Chairman of the UMass Board of Trustees Robert Manning, who prefaced the president’s speech by stating that UMass was doing “great” compared to other institutions in the United States.

Manning remarked that this success was coming on the heels of great uncertainty in higher education, citing the University of Massachusetts’ acquisition of Mount Ida College as a key example.

“You don’t have to look too far, close to our hearts, to see what happened to an institution like Mount Ida. UMass stepped in and saved that institution,” Manning said.

“In the process, we picked up a key strategic asset for the University,” he added, noting that UMass is looking to make more acquisitions due to consolidation in the future. “People need to understand that that value that we created accrues to the citizens of the Commonwealth. They own the University; they’re the shareholders of it.”

Meehan began his speech by referencing the Saxon Report, a document published in March 1989 that outlined steps to eventually turn the UMass system into a high-ranking research university focused on creating positive economic impact in the state.

“We have indeed become the world-class university the commission envisioned. By every measure from student impact to third party validations [and] student demand — we have reached the upper echelon of public universities in the United States, and indeed, across the globe,” Meehan said.

Meehan pointed to high graduation rates, a high retention rate of UMass graduates living in the state and more than $6 billion of annual economic impact from all five system schools combined as indicators that the University has become top-tier.

“Through the talent we develop, the research we conduct and the service we perform, we have become a key thread in the social, cultural and economic fabric that makes Massachusetts the greatest state in the nation,” Meehan said.

In contrast to these accomplishments, Meehan explained that cost inflation and commitment to meeting financial needs of students are still challenges that UMass currently faces. Citing a recent report by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, Meehan said that state funding for higher education had decreased by 12.5 percent when adjusted for inflation.

Meehan was optimistic that future work with the state legislature on funding could alleviate some financial stress for students.

“I will continue to advocate for any reasonable measure seeking to preserve the promise of an affordable higher education and remove the albatross of debt for our students,” Meehan said, stating his support for the Cherish Act which would freeze tuition and fees for five years and increase the funding of public universities back to per-student fiscal year 2001 levels, adjusted for inflation.

The most impending issue, Meehan explained, is a shifting demographic landscape in the state. A lack of births during the Great Recession of 2007–9 would mean that schools in Massachusetts will see a dramatic decrease in enrollment starting in 2026, he said.

The recent instances of struggling universities in the state are only symptoms of greater troubles ahead, Meehan said. He added that even though UMass is “in a better position than most” regarding this issue, it should not be ignored.

“The effect on the Commonwealth will be acute. Our economy will suffer,” Meehan said.

In preparation for these changes, Meehan said that greater fiscal oversight, improved transparency measures and strategic investments have already been implemented. But more advancements must be taken to make public education in the state more accessible, he conceded.

Meehan unveiled a plan for “UMass Online,” an online college that he said would enhance economic mobility in minority groups and provide employers with educated workers. Around one million Massachusetts adults have some college credit but no degree, he said.

“A concerted and highly-targeted effort to make a UMass education available to these student learners, adult learners, is the answer to a number of issues,” Meehan said.

This rapid response to workforce demand will put the state ahead when demographic changes start to set in, Meehan explained.

“The time for us to act is now. It’s predicted that over the next several years, four to five national players with strong regional footholds will be established. And we intend to be one of them,” he said.

Meehan ended his speech by quoting the Saxon Report from almost 30 years ago, which said at the time, “resolute action now can give the University the opportunity to reach its full potential.”

“We must take bold and decisive steps to ensure that we continue to fulfill our critical mission of access, opportunity and excellence, and to remain the world-class research university that the Saxon commission envisioned,” Meehan concluded.

Michael Connors can be reached at [email protected] or followed on Twitter @mikepconnors.