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OPINION: In support of Umass Dartmouth Chancellor Mark Fuller

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The following is an opinion sent to New Bedford Guide. It does not reflect the opinion of New Bedford Guide, nor is it an OP-ED. In fairness and objectivity, we share opinions from our readers whether we agree or disagree with their opinion.

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By Massachusetts State Representative Christopher Markey.

The most challenging part of public service is saying “no” to the people you like and care for. Authentic leadership in public service regularly leads to these difficult situations. Making those tough decisions is uncomfortable and challenging. Yet standing up for what is right, regardless of personal consequences, earns you respect. Chancellor Mark Fuller and his handling of the Star Store situation earned my respect and confidence.

The decision Chancellor Fuller inherited in the Star Store was undoubtedly difficult and hurt good people, but it was carried out for the betterment of the University. Since then, he has faced unrelenting criticism that is without an appreciation for the circumstances or reasoning behind the closure.

He made a choice I wish he did not have to make. A decision was thrust upon him with few options and even less time. It was a decision that would never make everyone happy, but ultimately, it had to be made. We have entrusted Chancellor Fuller with the health of our University, and he has distinguished himself as a worthy caretaker.

The circumstances surrounding the Star Store closure have been utterly unfair to students, and my deepest sympathy is with the members of the CVPA program. We must commit ourselves to providing these students with the support and education they paid for. With growing confidence, the University is working towards solutions that will give the CVPA students the facilities they deserve and require.

However, the facts matter when discussing the program and the University’s future. Frankly, I have been disgusted with the quality of discourse surrounding the Star Store closure. The blame for this situation does not fall squarely at the Chancellor’s feet. It was a situation brewing for 24 years.

Warning signs have been present since the creation of the Star Store campus. Please don’t take my word for it; take the word of the Inspector General. He is quoted in a September 30, 1999, letter to Commissioner Hines of the Division of Capital Asset Management:

“……it is important to point out that in 1996, this Office [Office of Inspector General] had strongly recommended that Governor Weld veto the legislation that created the entire process [the redevelopment of the Star Store]. Therefore, this letter should not be interpreted to mean that the public interest is protected in this transaction.”

The last several chancellors did not create this concerning deal; it was dropped in their laps. Regardless, the Chancellor did his part to try to preserve the Star Store campus by advocating for the $2.7 million rent in the state budget. Unfortunately, when the funds did not appear in the state budget in mid-August, he was left with little choice and less than a month before the start of the fall semester.

UMASS Dartmouth was forced to weigh the benefits of taking on a damaged building and all its liability against the needs of 7,457 students studying at a school with over $600 million in deferred campus maintenance. Assuming ownership of the building would cost the school $3 million in upfront maintenance costs. That equates to an additional and unexpected $25,000/ student in the CVPA program. The assumption of ownership is a high-stakes investment that could jeopardize the fiscal well-being of the University. Given the circumstances, Fuller chose the thousands of students who tied their futures to UMASS Dartmouth.

Given UMASS Dartmouth’s resources, Chancellor Fuller has demonstrated a unique skill to maximize the University’s strengths and value to the community. Mark Fuller has an acute understanding of the promise and opportunity at UMass Dartmouth. Under the leadership of Chancellor Fuller, the University has enjoyed a renaissance that has attracted some of the best students in the world looking for a diverse and enriched on-campus experience.

UMass Dartmouth currently provides 61 majors and 42 master’s degree programs. It has students from 51 countries and 46 states, and over 80% of its students call Massachusetts home. It provides top research education in mechanical engineering, marine science, business, and nursing. The University produces skilled professionals in the industries essential to the economic well-being and future of the South Coast.

Of these future professionals 38% are students of color and 57% are first-generation college students. Furthermore, UMASS Dartmouth ranked as the third-best Massachusetts school on the Social Mobility Index. Education is the single greatest creator of wealth in our society. UMASS Dartmouth provides an affordable education and training to many in our community. This foundation has allowed thousands of individuals to excel in business, engineering, science, medicine, and the arts.

Rest assured; the importance of this mission is not lost on the Chancellor. Mark Fuller is a first-generation college graduate who has dedicated his professional life to working for the betterment of the higher education system. He rescued the Eisenberg Business School, raised millions of dollars for public universities, and brought positive and focused leadership to UMass Dartmouth.

UMASS Dartmouth’s leadership team has turned around a campus experiencing a consistent decline in enrollment and retention. Between 2010 and 2019, enrollment at UMass-Dartmouth fell 16%. Yet hope is on the horizon as the class of 2026 is the largest enrolled at the University in 3 years.

An energized spirit on campus exposes students to cultural activities, school sporting events, and thousands of community service hours. The campus community is thriving; we should all be excited about that. While I appreciate the emotion attached to our current situation, there is a larger community for which Chancellor Fuller is responsible.

The Star Store campus was undoubtedly essential to the school’s connection to downtown New Bedford. Our governor, state delegation, mayor, and city council will work with the Star Store owner to maximize the building’s use for our community and the arts.

The building’s absence is disappointing. However, the closure is not a symptom of the impending collapse prophesized by fearmongers. While Chancellor Fuller is a convenient rhetorical boogieman for sweeping speeches and hatchet-job editorials, the facts reveal that he was a responsible steward of the University. Simply put, when you need a new roof for your home, you can’t spend your money on an addition.

Let’s be clear on the purpose and mission of UMASS Dartmouth. This public university is tasked with providing cost-effective education in a broad range of fields and professions. Despite recent claims, the Star Store was not a miracle cure for post-industrial economic downturn, years of systemic racial inequities, or any other ills that plague our society. However, the University can provide a high-quality education to the leaders of tomorrow. Those students are the school’s most valuable asset. Those students will continue the march of progress and growth far longer than any brick-and-mortar building. Their access to education is paramount to our community and reliant on the sustained financial well-being of UMASS Dartmouth.

We can all agree that UMASS Dartmouth is the cornerstone of our community. It enriches the lives of our young people while providing our local neighborhoods with skilled professionals. Like anything, the school and its facilities are not perfect. We will continue the work of improving our University and finding solutions to support our displaced CVPA students. As we labor through this unfortunate situation, I hope we focus on solutions rather than fabricating convenient villains to fit our reactionary narratives. Chancellor Fuller is a talented leader who deserves our support as he navigates this difficult moment for the University.

About Michael Silvia

Served 20 years in the United States Air Force. Owner of New Bedford Guide.

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