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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

An Open Letter to Barry Mills

Dear Chancellor Mills,
The world turns more smoothly with sympathy to guide it. As such, I want to start this open letter by admitting I don’t ever want to have a job like the one you’ve had this past year. I cannot imagine what it is like to be in your shoes.
This is a letter in which I wonder about your ability to imagine what it is like to be in mine and my fellow students’ shoes.
I have received a number of emails from you throughout this past year during which you have been the interim chancellor at UMass Boston. In general, I appreciate these emails. I’m one of the students who actually reads them.
I am a second-year graduate student at UMass Boston. I am in the history department. I chose to attend grad school after five miserable years of mostly minimum wage jobs. Of course, it wouldn’t have been so miserable had I not graduated after a national recession with over $70,000 in debt thanks to a small private college with similar tuition and fees to Bowdoin where you were formerly the president. As you well know, that I only graduated with $70,000 means the total cost was actually offset substantially. But it’ll be over $90,000 when I actually pay it off because of high interest rates prior to 2008. Unwilling to take out any more loans, I chose to go to UMass Boston primarily because I could pay its low in-state tuition up front with the financial support of departmental assistantships.
This following letter is primarily a response to your email about cutting university funding to the Centers and Institutes, which I received on March 26, 2018. I was not surprised to receive it. To be fully transparent, I currently benefit from the existence of one of these centers in which I am a well-paid intern. Unsurprisingly, I was dismayed by your choice to cut all subsidies to the Centers and Institutes, although as you repeated several times in your letter, the center at which I work has been able to muster the resources, not to mention the confidence, to ensure the security of my internship. As you implied, I have them to thank for that, not you.
However, in your letter, you called upon me and my fellow students to see the bigger picture, which would assure me of your help. You stated:
“With UMass Boston nearing fiscal recovery—but needing to preserve that hard-earned status—and given the importance of protecting core academic programs and affordability—we are reducing funding for the centers and institutes that have required the largest university subsidies. At the same time, we are asking those centers and institutes to take steps to replace university funding by means that could include attracting grants, contracts, or private philanthropy.”
I think the bigger picture you’re exhorting me to comprehend here was more succinctly and bluntly stated by President Meehan, who you quote in the letter. He said: “Affordability, which is central to our mission, is no longer guaranteed by our status as a public university.”
I must admit, I’m confused. You stated that the cuts to the centers and institutes could protect affordability. President Meehan contradicts this, saying affordability basically cannot be protected.
Let’s assume President Meehan’s statement is the more accurate and realistic statement. If affordability is central to our mission, why is it no longer guaranteed? Isn’t this a both or neither situation? If affordability is core to the mission of the school, then it is guaranteed. If it is not guaranteed, it is no longer a core part of the mission.
Setting logic aside, the question buzzing in the back of my head is, “Why isn’t affordability guaranteed anymore?”
In your letter, you outline various national and regional factors that contribute to the decreasing affordability of higher education. But in your explanation, no one seems to be responsible for it. Your letter cites a report by the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center. In it, “The report connected rising debt [of public university students] to declining levels of state funding for public higher education…”
Who is behind declining levels of state funding? I assume from your letter you don’t want me to think it’s you. And of course it wasn’t. You were at a private university with an endowment of over $1 billion dollars while state funding decreased at UMass Boston. But are you representing us at the state government level now, demanding we receive more state funding? I don’t fully know the answer to that. Maybe you have. Nonetheless, what I do know is you come from a distinctly private-sector background. I assume that informs statements of yours like this one: “As the leaders of our centers and institutes will rightly note, they are doing important work—and important work finds funding and a future.” 
I am reminded of something a longtime Dorchester community organizer has often said to me since the political turn toward conservatism following the 2016 elections. The rhetoric since that time has reminded him of the ethos underlying Ronald Reagan’s administration, which he summarized as
“take stuff away from people and they will find a way to get it if they really need it.” This, of course, is the American bootstraps mentality.
As I read and re-read your letter, I sensed you and I have different opinions about one of the defining elements of UMass Boston, which is that UMass Boston is a publicly-funded university. I want it to remain that way. Between saying you want the school to remain affordable and cutting funding to centers and institutes that I deem (maybe you do not) essential to the university, it appears you do not feel as strongly about maintaining and increasing state funding. I realize challenges to this have been many—the national recession in 2008, the national recession in the early 1990s, and, of course, the pernicious history of corruption that saddled the school with burden from its literal foundations. And really, let’s face it, almost the entirety of the history of universities in western civilization is against publicly-funded universities. They were established in the Middle Ages to serve an extremely small percentage of the population who came from backgrounds of substantial privilege. Though bastions of knowledge that would, in many ways, illuminate the world, the system itself was dependent on private, privileged, and moneyed interests.
The idea of the public university is relatively new. The idea of the majority of a nation’s youth attending institutions of higher education is even newer. I know because I am a representative of this trend. My parents’ commitment to sending me to any college I desired paired with their experiential ignorance of its cost is one of the major reasons I have so much debt today.
Supporting a publicly-funded university, as the history of UMass Boston proves, is extremely challenging. More challenging than I can begin to imagine. As you state in your letter, many of those challenges rest squarely on your shoulders. In closing, I ask you to recommit to advocating for state-funding for UMass Boston. Believe in this revolutionary and still largely-unprecedented idea of publicly-funded higher education.