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UMass officials propose $3.1b in new construction, upgrades

By Mary Carmichael
Globe Staff / September 29, 2011

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AMHERST - University of Massachusetts trustees approved a $3.1 billion plan yesterday to build and renovate science labs, dorms, and athletic facilities, even as the school carries substantial debt from previous construction projects.

The proposal came less than six weeks after UMass president Robert Caret testified before the Legislature, urging it to boost funding for higher education.

UMass pulled in $110 million in donations last fiscal year - the third year in a row it raised more than $100 million - and has nurtured its endowment from $45 million to $527 million over the past decade and a half. The fund’s performance last year was the second best in its history.

Yet the system is still struggling in the face of cuts in funding from the Legislature, said UMass trustee Victor Woolridge at yesterday’s board meeting.

By assuming debt and boosting philanthropy, UMass has shouldered much of the cost of capital projects over the past decade, a far greater share than that carried by other state universities. The new plan calls for almost doubling - to 29 percent - the share of capital costs covered by state government dollars.

“Continued economic stagnation and reduced state support are partially responsible for the university assuming such a large share of its capital requirements,’’ said Woolridge, who chairs the system’s finance committee. “This situation has placed strains on our operating budget. We must call upon the state to restore the balance.’’

UMass spokesman Bob Connolly said hopes for more government funding grew out of recent discussions with the Legislature and Governor Deval Patrick.

“We think there’s a desire on the governor’s and Legislature’s parts to step up and take on a bigger share of our funding,’’ Connolly said. “But it’s understood that it’s unlikely that every project on the list for the next five years will actually be accomplished. The X factor here is the availability of funds.’’

The proposal approved yesterday is larger than a similar plan the system approved last year, which clocked in at $2.5 billion.

Almost a third of the construction budget is set aside for the flagship campus in Amherst. Among new projects on that school’s list are an $80 million physics building and a $30 million upgrade of the football stadium. The school is also hoping for a $179 million housing expansion and $157 million for science labs.

Other proposals include a $350 million research center at the UMass Medical School in Worcester, a $152 million science complex at UMass Boston, $115 million for deferred maintenance at UMass Lowell, and a $75 million renovation of residence halls at UMass Dartmouth.

Yesterday’s meeting - the first of the academic year and the first attended by seven new trustees and Caret, now in his third month as president - was not focused on financial issues. But they dominated the discussion. Christina Kennedy, a student trustee from the Amherst campus, addressed the group, echoing Caret’s legislative testimony.

“Everyone is looking for a handout,’’ she said. “So let us make sure that we are the ones to get it.’’

Caret also gave a wide-ranging introductory speech, touching on everything from a new annual progress report the system will start publishing next year to his personal plans for promoting the school. Next week, he will embark on a statewide bus tour, and in December, he will appear on “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition’’ alongside a Springfield family that has received scholarships from UMass.

After the meeting, several trustees joined other officials and professors to launch the search for a new UMass Amherst chancellor. Search chairman Philip Johnston said the committee would look broadly for a successor to Robert Holub. “We’re not going to do a global search,’’ Johnston said. “We’re going to do an intergalactic search.’’

Caret also announced what he would like to see in a candidate: “We want somebody who can walk on water.’’ But in his next breath, amid laughter, he amended the statement: “At the end, we’re probably going to have to take someone who’s going to sink a little.’’ He added that he hoped a new chancellor would stay longer than five years. UMass Amherst has had three chancellors in the past decade.

The search committee concluded its deliberations with a short presentation on the state’s open meeting law - a session mandated by Attorney General Martha Coakley, who accused the UMass board in August of breaking that law during the search that led to Caret’s selection. Several committee members said they wanted to make the new process as transparent as possible.

“We are committed to open, transparent, comprehensive, and diligent searches, and we will live within all the frameworks that the attorney general feels we should,’’ Caret said. “I’m not going to comment on the previous search committee that hired me - because, uh, I was hired and I thought it was a pretty good process - but we do understand that she feels there were some things that could be tightened up.’’

Mary Carmichael can be reached at Her Twitter feed is mary_carmichael.