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The University of Massachusetts system has attracted a lot of attention on this blog lately — whoring after bone marrow, whoring after Adderall, upsetting the neighbors, adding – at a time of low employment for new lawyers, and in a state with plenty of law schools – an unimpressive new law school

Some of these things are typical university events (the drugs; annoying the neighbors) some are weird (the marrow) and some are bafflingly self-destructive (the law school). When you put them all together, they suggest a system adrift.

A reader, Jeremy, sends UD this article from today’s Boston Globe about the “oversubscribed classes and faculty shortage” on the Amherst campus. They’ve gone seriously adjunct and way-seriously online. “Only half of UMass Amherst students graduate in four years, and 66 percent do so in six years.” We know that the online course completion rate is much lower than the in-class, so these numbers will almost certainly rise. A sociology professor summarizes: “The expectation has cheapened.’’

Students are sitting in dorm rooms teaching themselves by watching movies with their professors in them.

Eventually the state of Massachusetts will see the light. It will shut down the physical U Mass campus and put the whole thing online.

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8 Responses to ““We’re offering less than we could,’’ said Sigrid Schmalzer, a history professor. “This is a cheaper way of selling degrees, but I really worry about what’s happening to the quality of our education.’’”

  1. bfa Says:

    I’m both an alum of UMass and a native of the state, so I’ll lend some perspective. There are a number of unique factors in UMass’s dysfunction.

    Massachusetts is the only state where the majority of higher ed students are in private rather than public schools (40-60, against a national rate of 80-20), and the general opinion is that UMass is for students who are too stupid or too poor to go anywhere else. It’s seen as a very large community college. This attitude is probably inevitable when you share a state with Harvard, MIT, Amherst, Williams, etc.

    The main campus at Amherst is in Western Massachusetts, which is sparsely populated (800,000 residents in four counties, versus about 5 million in the eastern half of the state) and culturally very different from the rest of the state. As a result, attempts to improve conditions there are often sabotaged by officials in the east. The other four campuses are in poor communities dominated by recent immigrants (Lowell, Fall River/New Bedford, Worcester, Dorchester), and so have basically zero clout.

    The legislature is dominated by graduates of more prestigious schools (especially Boston College), who don’t see any reason to direct money to UMass. The legislature also uses the UMass administration as a place to dump friends and relatives looking to pick up or extend a state pension, former president Billy Bulger being just the most egregious example. As a result, the campus is constantly plagued by scandal and inefficiency.

    Despite all that, the faculty have great esprit de corps, and I got a great education there. I’ve never felt that the fact that I went to UMass limited me in any way (except the way that everyone who didn’t go to a famous name school is limited). Everyone makes the very best of the resources they’re given, and UMass has been on the forefront of online and hybrid education. The UMass way is to sigh heavily about the shitty hand you’ve been dealt, and then make due.

  2. Margaret Soltan Says:

    bfa: Many thanks for providing so much good background.

    The only part of what you’ve said I have trouble with is the idea that because one’s state has many excellent private institutions, public institutions will suffer. I’m not sure why this would be inevitable. Shouldn’t a rising tide, etc? Couldn’t the presence of all those great schools just as easily put pressure on the public system to better itself?

  3. bfa Says:

    Well, it does put positive pressure on faculty, who feel they need to live up to those standards (which is why, for instance, UMass’s programs in linguistics and computer science are excellent- gotta keep up with MIT), but it has the opposite effect on public opinion and the legislature. It’s a class thing. There’s an insufficient number of upper and upper middle class students attending UMass to give it any kind of prestige. Where I live now (Missouri), enough children of the wealthy and almost wealthy attend Mizzou to give it some kind of influence. But in Mass, virtually no one who has a choice attends UMass- they go to SLACs, or tonier Us like BU and BC, or even to out of state publics like UNH and UVM.

    You could see it among the people I went to high school with, or the students I had when I taught high school. Children of the working and lower middle classes went to UMass or (god forbid!) one of the regional universities. Children of the upper middle class went to BU, BC, Connecticut College, Quinnipiac, UConn, Mt Holyoke, Bowdoin, Hamilton, Providence College….anywhere that wasn’t a Massachusetts state university. Those are for the have-nots.

    So, instead of a rising tide, you get a system that is very much bifurcated by class.

  4. bfa Says:

    I’ve decided my previous post doesn’t quite make the point, so think of it this way:
    Massachusetts has many good private schools, so the perception has always been that we only need a public system to take care of those too poor to afford private school- no one has ever made the case that having public universities might be a good thing in and of itself (which is a sad, sad thing in the home state of Horace Mann). So the public system is seen as exclusively for the poor. And I don’t need to tell anyone what happens to institutions that are seen as serving low prestige communities.

  5. Mr Punch Says:

    A very distinguished academic (MLA president, etc.) who had spent most of his career at public universities and knew Massachusetts well once suggested to me that UMass’s problem was that not only wasn’t it considered the university of the elite, it wasn’t the “people’s school” either because that role was filled by the Catholic colleges. Historically it was the farmers’ school (MIT is our “mechanical” land-grant), and of course we don’t have many farmers (and many of those we do have are ex-hippies out of Williams and Smith).

    UMass seems to be about to move to FBS football, by the way, so there’ll be one more thing to beat them up over.

  6. Margaret Soltan Says:

    Oh goody. I mean the FBS thing. I didn’t know.

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