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State Demands Info From Mount Ida College, Seeks Meeting

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The Massachusetts State House.
Paris Alston/WGBH News

Disappointed state education officials want a face-to-face meeting with Mount Ida College executives and are demanding that the Newton college provide critical information by the end of the business day on Thursday.

Executive committee members of the Board of Higher Education, which is vetting plans by the University of Massachusetts to acquire Mount Ida, met in Boston on Tuesday and discussed a deal announced Friday that appears to have taken public higher education officials by surprise.

"We are disappointed with the lack of appropriate and timely communications with our office regarding the closure of Mt. Ida, and with the accelerated timeline that is now in place," Board of Higher Education deputy commissioner Patricia Marshall wrote in a letter to Mount Ida President Barry Brown.

Board chairman Chris Gabrieli, who attended Tuesday's meeting, told the News Service Wednesday that the board sees its role as providing "consumer protection for students" and said Attorney General Maura Healey, who is investigating the deal, has been "great on this."

UMass on Friday announced it had reached an agreement to acquire Mount Ida, and UMass Amherst plans to use the 74-acre campus to host Greater Boston career preparation programs for its students. The university will acquire 24 buildings and 820 residential beds. Mount Ida has about 1,450 undergraduates.

Mount Ida students in good standing will be offered automatic admission to UMass Dartmouth with a clear path to degree completion, Mount Ida and UMass said on Friday, and UMass Dartmouth will also facilitate expedited transfer admission opportunities at the university's Boston, Lowell and Amherst campuses.

In her letter, Marshall indicated the board was aware of a possible Mount Ida transaction in February, but that deal involved a merger with Lasell College. At the time, according to Marshall, she notified Mount Ida officials of state regulations intended to safeguard interests of students when colleges merge or close in Massachusetts.

"April is a tough time to tell people"

Mindful of arrangements announced Friday calling for Mount Ida students to transfer into the UMass system, Marshall cautioned that "the choice of where Mt. Ida students decide to continue their education is up to them, not Mt. Ida or UMass."

"We're not clear that they put together the full range of choices and information that students should get," Gabrieli, who attended the executive committee meeting, told the News Service on Wednesday. He said he's glad UMass is offering placements but feels students should have a range of options.

In addition to requesting Mount Ida's plan for closure, the Board of Higher Education asked the college to provide by Thursday a "degree mapping document" outlining which Mount Ida degrees line up with those offered by UMass Dartmouth and a list of degree programs not offered on the Dartmouth campus, as well as transfer options for students in both categories.

Also by Thursday, the board is demanding that Mount Ida provide information about the number of students admitted to Mount Ida for the fall 2018 semester, including the number who have made deposits ahead of the common enrollment deadline of May 1.

"It is our understanding that these students will not be eligible to enroll at UMass; with many admission periods closed and the May 1 deadline for students to accept offers of admission at institutions of higher education fast approaching, it is likely that many of those admitted to Mt. Ida will be left without an option for continuing their education in the fall," Marshall wrote, adding that the department is prepared to work with these students and Mount Ida.

"April is a tough time to tell people," Gabrieli said.

The board wants Mount Ida's draft plan for closure to be submitted by the close of business on Monday, April 16.

The UMass-Mount Ida deal has generated a wave of headlines since Friday, but education officials have prepared for additional changes in the higher education landscape. In its notice of closure guidelines, the board says it has developed a protocol to protect students "as an increasing number of Massachusetts institutions of higher education are merging with other institutions or closing completely."

Gabrieli said the Mount Ida closure amounts to "unprecedented territory" and officials have asked higher education staff to present information at an April 24 meeting that could help state officials better prepare for similar situations in the future. While problems at for-profit colleges have garnered significant attention, Gabrieli said demographic shifts, combined with small endowments, have put some private colleges "into a tougher and tougher spot."

"We're particularly focused on abrupt change," he said.

In its notice of closure guidelines, the board says the Department of Higher Education "should be the first entity notified of an institution's decision to close." In her letter, Marshall wrote that the board learned of the Mount Ida-UMass deal "through recent press coverage and subsequent conversations with Mount Ida College's counsel."

Mount Ida's closure plan and any UMass plans to open a satellite campus are subject to approval by the state Board of Higher Education, officials say.

Board of Higher Education officials have asked Mount Ida officials to meet with them at 11 a.m. Thursday, April 19, at the board's offices at One Ashburton Place, next to the State House.

"Deep Dissatisfaction"

The UMass-Mount Ida transaction continues to rile one of the UMass campuses in particular.

On Wednesday, about a dozen UMass Boston deans distributed a letter suggesting the facilities in Newton "could be made available to all the other UMass campuses." The deans said they also planned to send a letter to UMass President Marty Meehan "expressing our deep dissatisfaction with the process."

"We have heard and read that many of you are feeling outrage at the manner in which the purchase was finalized and presented to the public," the deans wrote. "We also understand that this purchase, intended to give UMass Amherst a foothold in Boston, has been seen by many of you to be disrespectful to UMass Boston. Our students, as some of you and they have observed, are ill-served by this preferential treatment shown to UMass Amherst and its students. It is not surprising that some of our students might see this purchase as diminishing the value of their UMass Boston degree."

In his own lengthy communication, interim UMass Boston Chancellor Barry Mills said he understands "why people in our community are upset and uneasy," but Mills also offered another perspective.

"Focus on UMass Boston, which really is about to take off," Mills wrote. "Its first-ever dormitories will open in the fall, our seemingly never-ending construction projects are all about to conclude, our admitted-students Welcome Days have been standing-room-only affairs. Students and parents from across the state and all over the nation attended those Welcome Days and, full of excitement, all they were talking about was: UMass Boston."

Mills continued: "UMass Amherst has the right to come to Newton if it so chooses. It is spending its own money to do so. Amherst sees this as the best way to serve its students and the Commonwealth and is willing to take on the risk that comes with this project. We had the opportunity to be part of the Mount Ida venture and still do, but at this point, my view is that UMass Boston should concentrate its efforts here at Columbia Point and at Bayside. We should be focused on what is best for our students, faculty and staff and not act defensively or reflexively. Our focus should be on what is right for UMass Boston. Yes, we need to have competitive realities in mind. One of our great assets is location. We have what no other public university has — a home address in Boston, one of the greatest cities in the world. Which also means that we live in one of the world's most competitive higher-education markets. But, if we focus on excellence and maintain the drive that has gotten UMass Boston to where it is today — we will win."

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