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Mixed messages about the future of CLA

I’m not sure how many of you know about the situation I am about to talk about. As we enter the new semester, it seems urgent to make sure everyone is aware of what is—and what may be—happening to the College of Liberal Arts. The CLA is by far our biggest college, so any changes made to it are obviously hugely important. Whatever goes on at CLA affects a giant portion of the student population and a lot of faculty members too.

If you are a CLA faculty member or even a student, you might already have an idea of what I’m talking about. For those of you who don’t, I’ll give you a quick rundown.

Essentially, Provost Berger has initiated the process of what is being called an “academic reorganization” in an apparent effort to realign the focus and goals of UMass Boston. An organization called the Academic Reorganization Task Force, or ART, has been working for the past year to make recommendations on how this could be done. According to a letter that the provost sent out to faculty entitled “Update on Academic Reorganization,” there are currently two scenarios.

The first scenario is a “status quo,” with some minor changes and “internal adjustments” that honestly aren’t crucial enough to discuss right now.

The second option involves the largest changes and is understandably concerning to many faculty members and students in CLA. Basically, three departments would be moved out of CLA and into what is currently known as the McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies—sociology, political science and economics—and gerontology would be moved out of MGS and into nursing and health sciences. The McCormack School would be rebranded as a full undergraduate and post-graduate college. I will refer to this as “full academic reorganization.”

Yes, you heard that right—three major departments that have traditionally been associated with the liberal arts would be taken out of CLA and placed into a “policy and global studies” college. Evidently, the idea is that UMass Boston will be able to further its mission as Boston’s only public research university and better represent its new “For The Times” slogan by flooding our school’s existing public policy research sector with more departments and students.

Personally, I don’t quite understand why this is necessary. Departments don’t have to belong to the same college to collaborate; that’s the entire point of a university. It seems like the provost is simply trying to raise the status of UMass Boston by hyper-charging a sort of public policy think tank.

However, MGS is currently a tiny handful of departments with barely any undergraduate offerings, so actually, this isn’t the worst idea ever. UMass Boston could use a new, shining public policy research initiative. But is now the time to do so? UMass Boston has a lot of issues to iron out right now. Plus, I don’t think shuffling around undergraduate programs, making advising more complicated and taking away resources for our biggest, most in-demand college is the way to do it.

Interestingly, the letter from the provost shows that ART actually suggested creating a “College of Graduate Studies.” Such a college might be able to institute departments that do this exact sort of thing without disrupting undergraduate programs at CLA. Why isn’t that an option?

Honestly, I think a lot of it is economic in nature. UMass Boston is in debt, and instead of shutting down departments and schools entirely, the provost thinks he can shift things around to make things more financially efficient. Essentially, it seems that he wants to maximize the quantity and quality of UMass Boston’s research output to attract more investment in the university. This is borne out by the fact that he has written that decisions shouldn’t “solely” be based on “resource efficiency,” implying that efficiency is definitely part of the equation. This obviously isn’t a bad thing on its face. But for some reason, the provost just can’t seem to come out and admit this.

In an interview with myself and our news editor, the provost told us that this reorganization initiative was “not driven by finances and efficiency.” He told us ART has implied that “merging and collapsing colleges and [having] fewer schools” was a potential solution to the school’s financial problems, and the fact that he is not willing to go down this route is proof of this lack of financial motivation. This seems like a complete misrepresentation.

Think about it this way. Why would ART be tasked with determining how to go about an academic reorganization and come back with such a fiscally-minded report—and possible recommendation—if the original impetus hadn’t been a reaction to UMass Boston’s financial debt? I’ll hand it to Provost Berger for not going down this path; I certainly would prefer a reorganization to a downsizing. And I will concede that he may have decided he could turn a financial crisis into a positive opportunity. However, to act like this is nothing more than an attempt to better align with UMass Boston’s goals and values is just disingenuous.

In fact, this isn’t the only thing that the provost has been somewhat disingenuous about. When I asked him about his personal stance—whether he was in support of the full reorganization or the status quo—he told me, “I am prepared to do both. I have not made a decision yet. I think it is a viable option […] we need to have further consultation…” Yet when I read the update letter he sent out, I got a very, very different picture of Provost Berger’s opinions.

In the letter, the provost decided it would be apropos “to emphasize that the status quo is not optimal for our campus or achieving our strategic plan and mission.” He even goes on to depict the status quo as maintaining “an excessive imbalance of contributions [to the goals of UMass Boston]” and “does not address resource inequalities.” Provost Berger certainly chose his words carefully in our interview, yet it’s obvious to me that he was obfuscating his true feelings with some carefully picked language. He has indeed made his own decision—that the full academic reorganization is the best option.

Here’s another thing that struck me as somewhat of a “tailored truth.” Provost Berger told me that he has been having meetings with both student governments and “with the deans who are involved to make sure that we’re getting student input as well.” But let me ask you all something—how many of you have had direct contact with the student governments? How many of you have heard from your dean about this development? How many of you have heard about this “Academic Reorganization Task Force?” Have you been asked for your opinion on anything by any of these people? Do you know anyone who has? I don’t, and it seems like a lot of faculty members haven’t either.

What’s even more interesting is that, according to Berger, the reorganization has been considered for the past three years or so. But it seems that this too is news to the majority of students and a lot of faculty members. The reaction to this letter and information gathered from a round of faculty meetings with the administration has come as a sudden surprise to many.

Yet, in our interview, Berger emphasized many, many times that this whole process has been sufficiently collaborative with both faculty members and students being involved. It certainly seems like this is an exaggeration. Actually, it seems like this process was exactly as collaborative as the administration deemed it could be while remaining as low-key as possible and not raising any alarms.

Indeed, it appears like the administration has been terrified of this getting out. They seem to think that simply making these decisions and processes transparent, and regularly updating faculty and students, would cause mass panic or something. We are all too sensitive and unreasonable to handle the truth until the very last minute.

Provost Berger’s willingness to be interviewed by members of The Mass Media is commendable. However, it seems that Provost Berger, despite all his talk of including students in this process, is largely content with treating students as an afterthought—not worth fully informing or fully including in decision-making. I think this is incredibly sad and decidedly disappointing.

What’s strange is that even the dean of CLA seemed to have been petrified that the provost’s letter got out to students when I contacted him, requesting an interview. His reply to me was quite curt, saying that all questions should be directed to the provost. I told him that his perspective and opinions on such a potential reorganization are crucial, especially where his opinion is being seriously taken into account by the provost; that CLA students should hear from their dean about this development; that journalistic fairness dictates that I get his side of the story—and, by extension, CLA’s side—as well as the provost’s side. He made no reply.

One other thing that stuck out to me: I asked Provost Berger about how the full reorganization would affect advising, as I have it on good authority that people are worried placing CLA majors into the McCormack college would seriously disrupt the student advising process. He told me that efforts were being made to improve advising in general—which we do desperately need—but didn’t really answer my question about how the transition will work. In fact, according to the provost’s letter, ART has “recommended the creation of a ‘University College’” to improve advising. Evidently, he has discarded this idea due to an apparent lack of “resources” and instead launched yet another committee to discuss the issue instead of actually doing something. I think this is a great shame.

Now, let’s be perfectly clear. This is, ostensibly, still up in the air, according to the provost. He has assured me that conversations are being had with faculty members about how any transitions will be handled to best suit the students, which is obviously a good thing. He has also insisted that no decisions have been made yet. But he himself told us that, “ultimately, it’s my decision as provost,” and judging by his letter, he has indeed made his own personal decision about what he wants to see happen. Also, according to the letter, he is proposing that the changes should be “implemented” by Sept. 1, 2023. So, unless the seemingly blindsided faculty members put up a strong fight this semester, it seems like the full academic reorganization is likely going to happen.

Provost Berger told me that students currently enrolled in the affected departments will continue on as normal, which is also a good thing. But this will still affect students and faculty members alike, no matter their status. As I have said, I personally don’t think that full academic reorganization is a terrible idea; however, I do think this is probably the wrong way to do it and the wrong time to do it.

In our interview, the provost repeated over and over that we are a “mission-driven” university, emphasizing the idea that this is a mission-driven decision. Well, it seems to me that UMass Boston’s number one mission should be to serve its community. Ripping away a chunk of CLA—the biggest, most popular college at this university—and placing it into another college is a step away from that goal. Public policy research might influence large, overarching trends on a national or global scale, but the quality of our college offerings will affect all of us in this local community immediately, tomorrow and into the future.

About the Contributor
James Cerone, Opinions Editor