2016 2016: Interim Chancellor Peyton R. Helm: The University and the Community

2016 2016: Interim Chancellor Peyton R. Helm: The University and the Community
Interim Chancellor Peyton R. Helm: The University and the Community

In his op-ed for The Standard-Times, Dr. Helm highlights the many ways in which UMass Dartmouth is "deeply, firmly rooted in the SouthCoast."

In Greek mythology the giant Antaios was invincible as long as he kept his feet firmly planted on his native soil.  Once Herakles wrestled him into the air, he lost his strength and was easily defeated.

I have always thought this a good metaphor for a regional university like UMass Dartmouth.  Stay rooted in your community and you remain strong. 

But what does it mean to “stay rooted in your community?”  During my first month I’ve encountered anxiety among some of our neighbors about the University’s commitment to and engagement with the SouthCoast area.  I still have a lot of listening to do, but let me share my initial reactions.

Some worry that an emphasis on research will divert UMass Dartmouth from its primary mission of “education,” while others strongly advocate for the importance of research in advancing social, cultural and economic development.  Happily, these priorities are not in conflict, and indeed enrich each other.

A distinguished physician once told me, “If all I knew about medicine is what I learned in med school 20 years ago, I would be guilty of malpractice.”  Tomorrow’s leaders will need to know how to continue learning, how to analyze and solve new problems, how to keep their skills and knowledge sharp.  Collaborative research with faculty is the best way to develop this ability.

Some worry that UMass Dartmouth is shying away from its access mission. Yet almost 94 percent of our students are from Massachusetts, a third from the SouthCoast.Half of our students are first-generation college students; approximately 40 percent of them receive federal Pell Grants, which means they come from economically stressed circumstances.  Our tuition is a bargain considering the excellence of the education we provide about half the cost of comparable private institutions.  Yet even so, we provide nearly 5,000 students with $50 million inneed-based financial aid each year. For families making the median income of New Bedford and Fall River, the average grant award is $10,500 – which is supplemented by loans and work study grants.  UMass Dartmouth has earned its national reputation as a leading institution for social mobility.

As the only Massachusetts research university south of Boston, UMass Dartmouth massively benefits the local economy.  A 2013 study by the UMass Donahue Institute calculated UMass Dartmouth’s annual impact on the regional economy through employment and the purchase of goods and services as half a billion dollars, creating more than 2,400 jobs beyond the university’s 1,400 positions. The 220,000 hours of community service annually performed by our students is valued at close to $6 million.

Our Colleges and Centers further strengthen the regional economy. 

SMAST researchers help the fishing industry refine fishing gear, assess the health of regional fisheries, analyze diseases that affect shellfish populations, and provide facilities for fishermen to practice the use of safety gear. 

Our College of Visual and Performing Arts enriches downtown New Bedford’s historic arts district, makes it a magnet for artists from all over the country, and produces graduates who combine their art with entrepreneurial skills to start and manage small businesses.  More than $90 million has been invested in downtown New Bedford since the CVPA was opened.

Our Law School provides free legal clinics for the disadvantaged, and the Justice Bridge program is a place for new justice-centered lawyers to develop while serving more than 1,000 civil clients of modest means.  Our engineering faculty and students mentor a regional high school robotics team heading for a global competition, and our Charlton College faculty leads an annual startup competition for students and local entrepreneurs. Our nursing faculty and students combine research and outreach to address multiple community health concerns, and our College of Arts and Sciences research ranges from identifying the cancer-fighting properties of cranberries to confronting growing violence among girls.

Our best-funded Center, The Center For Portuguese Studies and Culture (together with our Ferreira Mendes Portuguese-American Archives and Department of Portuguese) promotes understanding of the contributions of the Portuguese and Lusophone diaspora. The Center for Marketing Research connects students to local organizations; the Public Policy Center helps the Commonwealth and area communities confront vexing economic and social challenges; the SouthCoast Development Partnership convenes civic, business, and education leaders to develop a consensus regional economic agenda; and the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship in Fall River incubates new businesses.

These are just a few examples. I could go on and on. 

For a newcomer this portfolio of engaged teaching, research and impact is impressive by any measure and both the University and region should celebrate it. We should never lose sight, however, that the education of our students as future business leaders, entrepreneurs, scientists, policy-makers, nurses, teachers, lawyers, etc. remains our greatest contribution.

UMass Dartmouth  is deeply, firmly rooted in the SouthCoast.  Our fortunes are linked.  During my time here, I hope to see us all thrive together.