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Campus Insider

Public colleges seek university status

Email|Print| Text size + By Peter Schworm
Globe Staff / November 25, 2007

Massachusetts' public colleges are aggressively lobbying lawmakers so they can be called universities, saying a simple name change would give them a stronger brand name and a springboard to greater status.

Bridgewater State College and Salem State College are leading the charge for the university designation, which administrators say will attract students, resources, and prestige.

With the help of a state lawmaker, state college presidents are stumping on Beacon Hill for a state university system that would unite the nine public colleges. They recently took their case to the state Board of Higher Education, which is mulling the idea. The change requires legislative approval.

In addition to the Bridgewater and Salem state colleges, the nine public colleges are Fitchburg State, Framingham State, Westfield State, Worcester State, Massachusetts College of Art and Design, Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, and Massachusetts Maritime Academy.

The state's public colleges are not allowed to offer graduate doctoral programs, but would be permitted to do so as universities. Only Bridgewater State and Salem State are ready to immediately offer doctoral programs. The other seven colleges support the university designation in the hopes of improving their public image.

"It's a marketing and branding issue," said Robert Antonucci, president of Fitchburg State College. "People have this perception that universities are better than colleges, and we want to be on a level playing field."

Antonucci said all but five states call their public colleges universities. He said the change would not increase costs or change the colleges' focus or structure.

Patricia Plummer, chancellor of the Board of Higher Education, said she remains "open-minded" about the change but wants more information about whether the change would increase costs or encourage small private colleges to request the "same type of competitive rebranding."

The board's approval is not required, but its recommendation would presumably carry weight with the Legislature. Representative Peter Koutoujian, a Waltham Democrat and Bridgewater State graduate, filed the bill to establish the university system. He said lawmakers seem to be "very interested in the idea."

"This is about being competitive with other states," he said.

Most of the colleges would probably decide to become universities, but the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, and Massachusetts Maritime Academy would probably keep their current names.

UMass milestone: The University of Massachusetts system has passed a pivotal milestone by topping $400 million in spending on research and development.

The $404 million spent on research and development across the system's five campuses last year made the university the third-largest academic research institution in the state, behind the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University, according to new National Science Foundation figures released last week.

Research and development spending is considered an important measure in judging the scope and quality of scientific research, and it provides a snapshot of academic merit.

The research budget increased by $27 million from fiscal year 2005 to 2006, a 7 percent rise that outpaced the national average increase of 4 percent. University officials said generous research spending is helping the university attract and retain top faculty, compete for grants, and develop drugs and technologies.

Of total spending, 60 percent went to life sciences, 20 percent to physical sciences and engineering, 6 percent to mathematical and computer sciences, and 5 percent to environmental sciences.

By campus: UMass Medical School spent $191 million; UMass-Amherst, $140 million; UMass-Lowell, $29 million; UMass-Boston, $22 million; and UMass-Dartmouth, $20 million.

Nationally, the system ranked 36th. Johns Hopkins University led the way with $1.5 billion, followed by the University of Wisconsin-Madison; the University of California, Los Angeles; the University of Michigan system; and the University of California, San Francisco.

Campus Insider runs on alternate Sundays with Ask the Teacher, an advice column. To submit tips to Campus Insider, e-mail Peter Schworm at schworm@globe.com and Linda Wertheimer at wertheimer@globe.com.

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