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Chancellor Op-ed on October 25

October 25, 2023

I know that UMass Dartmouth’s sudden departure from the Star Store has been disruptive for the roughly 150 students who took classes there and disappointing to everyone who enjoys the vibrant downtown New Bedford arts community. There has been a lot of speculation — and misinformation — about why we had to leave. Here are plain and simple answers to the five questions I’ve been asked the most.

Why didn’t UMass Dartmouth buy the Star Store for $1?

It sounds too good to pass up, doesn’t it? But this was never a $1 purchase. The 20-year lease expired shortly after I arrived in 2021, and I knew we needed to understand what the purchase would mean. An analysis revealed that just operating the building (utilities, security, routine maintenance, cleaning and shuttles) would cost roughly $1 million each year. There was also a huge deferred maintenance bill, which DCAMM (the state’s Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance) estimated could cost up to $75 million, given the state’s new accessibility and energy codes. Add the two together, and it was clear that owning the building would cost far more than anyone imagined — while it was serving half the number of students it had been two decades ago.

With no state or city funds committed to the needed renovations, these costs would inevitably fall on the backs of our 7,500 students in the form of additional tuition increases — now and for years to come. I could not in good conscience buy a building for 150 students that would add such a significant financial burden to thousands of others, when more than half of our students are from working-class families. The purchase would also delay much-needed repairs to the academic facilities on our main campus, including our College of Visual & Performing Arts (CVPA) building. I believe that declining the purchase option was the right decision, and would do the same today.

If you couldn’t buy it, why didn’t you extend the lease?

That is exactly what we tried to do. After determining the purchase wasn’t affordable, we immediately tried to continue the longstanding arrangement. Each year, we spent roughly $3.1 million on the Star Store lease. That was affordable because the annual state appropriation of $2.7 million covered the lion’s share — the university only had to make up the roughly $400,000 difference.  

When the Senate unexpectedly blocked the appropriation in the budget this summer, we were out of options. We could not pay the full cost of the lease, had no insurance, and were at risk of being locked out of the building at any moment. We had no choice but to leave immediately, even though we knew this would be incredibly disruptive, just three weeks before the fall semester. 

How are you supporting the affected students?

There were about 150 students who took at least one class at the Star Store. We were able to quickly relocate the 24 courses serving 116 undergraduates — who already take most of their classes on our main campus — in time for the fall semester.

Meeting the needs of our 25 in-person MFA students who were wholly based in the Star Store, however, has been a greater challenge. We know this has been a painful and frustrating change for these accomplished artists. Here are some of the steps we’ve taken to address their needs:

  • Called incoming new students to explain the situation and asked if they wanted to defer;
  • Created a fund to reimburse graduate students for supplies that couldn’t be moved;
  • Provided six extra weeks for them to decide if they wanted to withdraw and receive a refund;
  • Identified a transitional space that we are building out for this academic year while working towards permanent facilities;
  • Hired architects who specialize in art education facilities to help us prepare a new permanent home for our MFA program.

We understand that the temporary facilities are not what our MFA students expected to have this fall, and will continue to work with them and their faculty as we make further improvements.

Is the university shrinking its arts programs?

Absolutely not. Some leaders try to cut their way out of budget pressure, but my approach is to grow our way out, and I’ve doubled down on recruitment. We have thriving arts programs that are on the rebound, despite what others have claimed. Since I arrived and we restructured and modernized our recruitment processes, CVPA enrollments have grown by nearly 10%. As a research university, we believe that sustaining strong graduate programs, like our highly regarded MFA program, is a crucial part of our mission. 

Is UMass Dartmouth abandoning New Bedford?

Never. From our founding as the New Bedford Textile School and our merger with the Swain School of Design to today — with more than 600 students, 150 employees, and 3,500 alumni living in the city — New Bedford is an inextricable part of UMass Dartmouth’s past and future. That’s why we’re expanding programs that enable New Bedford High School students to earn college credits now. It’s why we invested $35 million in a second SMAST building, where our research supports the fishing and offshore wind industries and protects our coastline. It’s why our Worker’s Education Program downtown is preparing residents for successful careers. It’s why UMass Dartmouth students volunteer for thousands of hours in New Bedford each year, harvesting fresh vegetables for area food pantries, tutoring kids, and holding pro bono legal clinics. 

The university, the City of New Bedford, and indeed the entire South Coast are on the rise right now with so much potential ready to be unleashed. I welcome a serious dialogue about how we can strengthen our bonds in ways that create win-wins for both the community and our 7,500 students.

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