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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

Questions Linger On Nantucket Sale

Negotiations are underway in a $20 million dollar deal in which UMass will sell its Nantucket Field Station to the Nantucket Conservation Foundation.

Members of the UMass Boston Biology Department, who have been the stewards of the property for more than thirty years, remain optimistic that the nonprofit education and conservation-based organization will retain the ecological integrity of the 110-acre spread. However, some have lingering questions concerning the university’s new role as a tenant rather than owner.

The Nantucket Field Station was acquired by the UMass system in the early 1960s, and since then has been an educational and research companion to students and professors both in and out of the sciences. Housing a salt marsh, estuary, oceanfront, fresh water pond, and forest area within its perimeter, the field station has produced significant contributions to the study of Lyme Disease, and has also offered courses ranging from oil painting to oceanography.

UMass Boston senior and former Undergraduate Biology Club president, Jessica Thomas, has taken part in several of the club’s biannual weekends on the island.

“A lot of times people come down there and they don’t really think it’s a big deal,” she said. “Once you’re there and in the field station, there’s no TV, no radio, so you’re basically forced to be immersed in the environment . . . a lot of people come out of that trip really understanding more of what they want to do and which direction they want to go with their science career and even if they’re non-science majors [with] just an appreciation for the environment and Nantucket as a whole, and UMass too. It reflects on UMass very positively as well.”

Thomas reflects on her experiences mucking through the estuary in waders, identifying different species of birds, and discussing current topics over dinner as an important portion of her science experience and a venue for personal connections with students and professors.

Dr. William Hagar, who as a member of the Biology Department has played an active role in field station activities for the last decade, is optimistic that these types of programs will remain after the sale is finalized.

“I’m hopeful that the present interactions that we have with the field station on Nantucket will continue, [that] the research and educational outlets will continue the same way,” says Hagar.

Despite Hagar’s confidence that the pristine nature and educational value of the land will be maintained, he and other members of the Biology Department harbor doubts concerning the way in which the details of the proposed sale is being handled and its ramifications for the future of the field station. In June, during a meeting of the Faculty Council in which UMass President Jack Wilson attended to solicit input on picking an interim chancellor, the discussion was derailed as Biology Department members voiced concerns about the Nantucket deal.

According to Hagar, the Biology Department was not made aware of sales negotiations on the land they have nurtured for decades until months after they had begun. Professor Robert Stevens shares Hagar’s uncertainty, although he is excited about the possibility of endowed chairs as a result of the sale.

“The initial transition is most difficult for us because we were not part of negotiation and not sure about its consequences…. It was a system-wide deal, not a UMass Boston or a Biology [Department] deal,” he explains.

UMass Boston administration officials acknowledge that negotiations began before it became known to the Biology Department. However, they maintain that university trustees are the record owners of the Nantucket property and, as a result of its sensitive nature, not many people were apprised of the possible sale.

They continue that any such sale is at the discretion of the state Legislature and Gov. Mitt Romney, not exclusively the trustees, and the UMass President’s Office staff was involved in the early discussions and was operating under the direction of the trustees and the UMass president.

Another concern of the Biology Department arises from the distribution of the $20 million acquisition within the UMass system. The projected deal calls for $2 million dollars for the Boston, Lowell, Dartmouth, and Worcester campuses, while allotting $4 million to UMass Amherst for endowed science faculty positions. Hagar feels that the UMass Boston’s continued principal role at the field station ought to be taken into account when allocating these funds.

“There is no question in my mind that we were the stewards of this property,” he said. “We had put money into this operation for more than thirty years, to me the distribution of the endowed chairs is a little troubling.” UMass Boston administration officials have stressed that the proposal for the distribution of funding, like the sale itself, has not been finalized.

Interim Chancellor J. Keith Motley, they say, has had conversations with Wilson regarding the amount of money and efforts spent there, and are confident that he will respond to these issues.

“The idea of keeping the footprint of the Field Station the same whilst providing permanent endowed chairs for the UMass system is a good one,” said Hagar. “My concern is the details of the sale in terms of possible restrictions in the use of the Field Station, and why no money was set aside for upgrading the facility.”

Regardless of any apprehensions around the impending sale of the Nantucket Field Station, administration officials and faculty are pleased that both the natural and academic resources alive at the field station will remain preserved, and both look forward to its future contributions to the university.

Dr. Sarah Oktay, director of the Nantucket Field Station, views the sale as a merger and looks forward to continued research in conjunction with the perspective new owner.

The field station will be holding its third annual open house on September 12, offering research outreach, information on classes, guided nature trail walks, and free refreshments.

The event is open to the public, university, and Nantucket communities.