Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

The Daily Collegian sits down with outgoing Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy

The chancellor discusses the current housing crisis, COVID-19, and labor unions, among other campus issues
Dylan Nguyen / Daily Collegian.

On Friday, April 28, The Collegian met with University of Massachusetts Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy for a sit-down exit interview. In an hour-long interview, Subbaswamy  discussed his last 11 years as the University’s leader; he covered his arrival at UMass, administration’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the current housing crisis, the unionized workforce of faculty and staff and incidents of racism and sexual assault that have occurred on campus. Subbaswamy  also gave insight into how he handles backlash to decisions that he has made over the years  regarding the University. 

The interview took place in a conference room in Munson Hall, a columned brick building built in 1898 near the south west area of campus, now used for public relations offices. 

The Chancellor sat at a long table, looking out at the campus on a cloudless  day with the Founders Day Campus Cookout in full swing just a few steps  down the lawn. Subbaswamy adorned a blue suit with a striped maroon tie. UMass spokesperson Edward Blaguszewski was present but did not participate in the interview. 

The transcript of this audio along with notes and fact-checking from Collegian producers and editors can be found below.


Help us recall your first month at UMass, what do you remember about the start of your tenure here?

    To be honest, what happens is that the interview process is so abbreviated that you really don’t get a chance to get a feel for the campus. I could see the vibrancy of the student body, but frankly the campus looked drab, buildings were worn and landscaping was not at its best. So, the general impression was this place needs a face lift, but otherwise I knew the reputation of the institution all along, it’s really well known outside the Commonwealth. So, the general sense that I also got talking to people was that the Commonwealth needed to be introduced to the flagship in a more direct way than simply making the claim that we’re the flagship.


We’re still dealing with the repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic. In the state of Massachusetts, we’re seeing over a thousand COVID cases a week, and it’s clear that the virus has not vanished from campus either. From your perspective, how did UMass’ response to the pandemic play out? What did we get right, and what could we have improved?

    I think in the early going there’s no telling who got what, because this was a brand new virus that virologists didn’t know anything about. And, if you remember, initially it was all “don’t touch anything,” next to “wear cloth masks” and now N95s and what not. So, in that sense, I think everyone did their very best to keep up with the best science available at that moment. I think if you ask “could we have done anything differently in that early going?” The answer is: no, because we just didn’t know anything, not much about the virus.

    I think where perhaps people can ask questions would be, for example: In the fall of 2020, how many students did we bring back? Because at the last minute we decided we weren’t going to bring back even the relatively small number that we were going to bring back. And all of those were made in the context of we have a high density population here, the town is a small town, and our students, of course, also live off campus. The Department of Public Health had its concerns about the density of population here, vaccinations weren’t around yet — so, I think we made the right decision. We made the more cautious decision. Others might disagree and say “well, you know, we could’ve brought back more students,” but that’s hindsight.


We understand that enrollment is high at UMass and that other college towns are facing increasing housing conflict like this town is — that being said, are there any singular factors that you could attribute to the heightened campus housing crisis?

    If you just look at our enrollment patterns — because there’s always fluctuations, we aim for a certain number of students but then more may come, less may come, and if less come you can go to the waitlist — it’s not an exact science. When you say “we want to matriculate 5,300 students,” it fluctuates. But also, one of the things that happened with the pandemic was a lot of people who learned they could work remotely moved away from cities into lower population rural areas, college towns, things like that. That’s a dynamic that’s being felt.

    The big picture is that we’re always driven by significant master planning, this is not randomly, let’s say, “next year, let’s admit 500 more students.” If you go back to 2010 when there was a master plan that was drawn up right after the 2008 collapse, there was a well planned decision to increase the student population here by about 3,000, and the housing was to be built half of them on campus and about half of them by the town. We built our 1,500. The town was slow to do that, in the sense that this town doesn’t like multi-family dwellings in general and they don’t like dwellings in which students live.  

    So, I think it’s probably time for another master planning exercise now. Generally, campuses and towns do this every ten years or so to see, how did this all work out and what changes do we need to make.


  • In speaking to the relationship between UMass and the town of Amherst, Subbaswamy said that oftentimes in college towns “the university is the elephant in the room.” He described 2014’s Blarney Blowout, calling it a “Saint Patrick’s Day event, which looked horrible and was horrible,” as a turning point in the town-university relationship. The raucous celebration spurred changes to the University’s residence hall guest policy, and Subbaswamy said he believes the student body has become more responsible since the event. He also attributed the improving town-university relationship to Amherst’s move away from the town meeting model of governance. A town council of 13 councilors now governs Amherst, which the Chancellor said creates opportunities for “intense, meaningful conversations, as opposed to emotional conversations in a town meeting setting.”
  • Subbaswamy emphasized that admissions is not an exact science, and that in devising measures to alleviate the housing crisis administrators evaluated the possibility of housing UMass students at other Five College campuses. Students have been housed in local hotels in previous years, namely 2003-2005, and in September 2022, the University again chose to house some students at the Hadley Econo Lodge in an effort to avoid converting double-occupancy dorms into triples.


How would you characterize your administration’s relationship with unionized faculty and staff on campus, especially considering the administration’s attempt to privatize about a hundred jobs in March and the corresponding demonstrations we saw from that? 

We have maintained a really good relationship because we always believe in good faith bargaining. I can confidently say that every interaction we’ve had with all unions has been totally in good faith with the same goals that they have, which is to make sure that our employees are well taken care of. Our responsibility is to do that at the same time as making sure that our students are well taken care of, different other components, our faculty are taken care of and so forth. And so, when we try to balance that, there are going to be disagreements because the union’s point of view will be singular — they care first and foremost about their members, which is, sure, that’s what they’re supposed to do, whereas administration has to take care of the entire community. Inevitably, there will be things that they want that we don’t think is in the best interest of the University. 

This last one, I have to again point out that [the Union’s] description is incorrect, it was not an impetus to privatize an operation, it is recognizing that we have compliance issues with state and federal rules on what percent of time employees in advancement — this specifically applies to anything that’s associated with employment and also some other 501(c)(3)s, it’s a pretty complex set of legal issues. So, we did all the legal analysis, and we’re trying to come into compliance. Our alternative is either going to be come into compliance or completely stop fundraising. 

So, our position is not that we want to privatize. Our position is that we want to come into compliance and we want to continue to make sure that our employees are not at risk of losing their future pensions and we want to continue to do effective fundraising. The union’s belief is that we don’t need to make any of these changes. I can’t operate on beliefs. We have to operate on what the law says and what experts in the law tell us and what the agencies have asked us to do, which is to commit to compliance. 

Fact-check and note: 

  • Massachusetts law allows state employees to spend only up to 25 percent of their time working for private foundations. Non-compliance can endanger the pensions that public employees receive from the state once they retire. UMass administrators expressed concern that advancement staff, who work fundraising money for the school, may have exceeded that 25 percent limit by spending too much time working for the UMass Foundation. The Foundation is a private non-profit affiliated with UMass. In order to come into compliance with the law, University administrators have chosen to dissolve over one hundred advancement jobs and create corresponding job openings in the UMass Foundation. Advancement staff have voiced discontent with the decision, noting that moving to the private sector would make them at-will employees without union protections or public sector benefits.
  • Subbaswamy touted current fundraising numbers saying that, in the upcoming fundraising campaign’s silent phase, UMass has exceeded $370 million. 


Reflecting on your successor, incoming Chancellor Javier Reyes — it’s been documented at his previous university that he has had a perhaps strained attitude toward labor organizing at the University of Illinois Chicago. You mentioned that during your tenure here you’ve had a bargaining in good faith attitude toward unions on campus. Does Reyes’s track record reflect a readiness to continue that bargaining in good faith legacy at UMass? 

To be honest, I know nothing about what’s happened at the University of Illinois Chicago, and I therefore have no opinion in the matter because I just don’t know. 

Note: In January, incoming chancellor Javier Reyes cited financial constraints as a justification for stalled contract negotiations at the University of Illinois, Chicago. Financial statements show that the University had $1 billion in cash reserves boosted by enrollment. 


Would you hope that he would take up that mantle and continue bargaining in good faith? 

I think that’s necessary because we are one of the most unionized campuses, we are one of the most unionized workforces. So, having a good relationship with the unions, a respectful relationship with unions, is critical. 


Over the years, we’ve seen a multitude of incidents of intolerance on campus, ranging from racist and antisemitic acts to instances of sexual assault. Unilaterally, the response from the University has offered band-aids but not solutions. Looking back on the last decade, how could the administration have taken a different approach to addressing incidents of intolerance and violence? 

That everything was a band-aid is your characterization, not mine. So, if you look at, let’s say, race on campus as an example. We started in 2014 to really systematically look at what we need to do, a system of change in order to avoid, prevent, educate, and get to a much better climate. So, there was a large and inclusive group that created a strategic plan for diversity, and if you go to the diversity website you’ll see the actions that I’ve been continuously taking since 2015 onward, always fine tuning from experience and informed by our climate surveys and so on. So, there are two axis here: one is a systematic, trying to get a change in the system of the inside of the University itself to become a more tolerant and more supportive environment for students, faculty, staff of all backgrounds; On the other hand, every now and then, you will have will have horrible incidents that we can’t control, we don’t control. There are always going to be evil players, evil doers.

It truly affects the psyche of the campus, the sense of security that affected student groups feel. At that point, even though we’re on a clear path to try to improve campus and we have lots of interventions and so forth, all the attention is gone to those incidents — rightly, because the affected parties are feeling it emotionally, personally, they’re even fearful of, is this even a campus that is safe. 

At that point, our whole effort is towards trying to address those groups and try to provide the comfort and safety they need to feel like they can stay here and continue to do their work. What, certainly from the outside, it looks like “you didn’t catch the people who did this, these things keep happening anyway, so what the heck are you doing.” I’m very proud of what this campus has done in these circumstances, but the results aren’t always what we all want. We would love to catch the perpetrators and throw them in jail or whatever, but that seldom happens, these people are too clever, they hide behind all kinds of covers. In that sense, all the attention and the headlines are on the bad things that happen however many times a year, but the actual campus climate itself is something we take very seriously. 

Note: Subbaswamy said that privacy concerns influence the school’s refusal to place cameras in residence halls. 


You’re the face of a large public university and many of the choices you make are met with both support and backlash. How do you handle instances when your decisions are met with backlash — what goes through your mind when you hear about or see students’ negative reaction to a decision that came from administration? 

I think as long as I made a decision with as much consultation and as much information as I have available, and if it’s not an urgent decision really it’s incumbent upon me to get more information as well, but it’s not always the case, sometimes a decision has to be rendered with the information I have at hand. When I do that, I know I do the best I can in terms of trying to get the best outcome for the University, and then I really don’t look back. 

To be completely honest, I don’t read the blogs, I don’t read the responses, I don’t read anything from even what the newspapers write because, yeah, I mean it can affect how I think about it. Inevitably, Ed [Blaguszewski] and others will tell me how it’s playing, but in the sense that I’m not worried about the reaction because I can’t be. There are always detractors and there are always supporters. 


What impact do you hope to have had on this campus?

I think in terms of, you know, other than just outcomes — you know we can talk about it like, we went from being thought of as a safety school to being a destination of choice, as the rankings show and the number of applications show, and all of that. But, to me, something more fundamental is that we really turned into a campus that works in terms of continuous improvement. That is, we always look at how well are we doing the different things we do, what’s our plan and what are our opportunities, and what metrics do we have to check to show that we’re actually making improvements, and what interventions do we need. 

So this whole planning mindset is something that I really emphasized when I first came here, I really instilled that in every part of the University. And, once you’re in that kind of a mode of continuous improvement, you will always get better and better and better and we’ll stay competitive and serve our communities the best we can. So to me that is really what I reflect on as being hopefully an impact that won’t  go away — “Ha! Swamy is gone, we can stop planning and using data for analysis and so forth,” I hope they don’t do that.


I think it’s so interesting that you refer to yourself as “Swamy” and have embraced this cult of personality that follows you around. What are your thoughts on how the student body has received you these past ten years? 

Well beyond anything I might have expected, in the sense that I didn’t set out to create this cult of personality. In the sense that I’m genuinely excited when I’m around young people, discussing things with them, learning of their aspirations, learning about their viewpoints. I always loved students when I was teaching in classrooms and got to know everyone’s name and things like that. I think that’s what keeps me interested in being at a university. 

I think that rubs off, and I’m also not very formal, like my name and what have you. I don’t walk around, like many executives do, surrounded by chiefs of staff and a whole band of people, which is forbidding, which is almost like saying “don’t come near me.” I just want to be myself, I walk the campus, and so somehow students appreciated that. Someone at some point added on the bucket list “selfie with Swamy,” and that just took off at that point. 

I feel blessed because, you know, to be offered that kind of, I’ll call it friendship, love, attention — it’s a blessing. 


Would you like to provide a message to the students of UMass regarding your retirement from the Chancellor’s position?

First and foremost, I’m going to really miss the student body here, they’re exhilarating, they’re full of fresh ideas, they’re full of energy and a drive towards creating a better society, social justice is really on the top of many people’s agenda. 

My message to them is go ahead and be revolutionary and change the world, because the world depends on our youth to bring about a great many changes.


Rebeca Pereira can be contacted at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @RebecaPereiraa. Jack Underhill can be contacted at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @JackUnderhill16. Ella Adams can be contacted at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @Ella_Adams15.

Leave a Comment
More to Discover

Comments (0)

All Massachusetts Daily Collegian Picks Reader Picks Sort: Newest

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *