Capacity limits mean less revenue at UMass campuses

Boston Statehouse

AMHERST, Mass. (WWLP) – The four undergraduate University of Massachusetts campuses are expecting to bring back more students in the spring than the small number who were living in dorms this fall semester, but would all still be operating at less than half-occupancy under estimates shared Thursday.

The UMass campuses in Amherst, Boston, Dartmouth, and Lowell are expecting to operate in a partially remote model in the spring, university treasurer Lisa Calise told the system’s trustees Thursday.

Lower numbers of students on each campus because of that model mean that UMass will take in about $80 million less than anticipated in housing and dining revenue, contributing to a $335 million shortfall the university is managing through this fiscal year.

“What drives our challenges are the way in which we have to operate our campuses in a COVID environment,” Calise said.

According to estimates that Calise presented to the UMass Board of Trustees, the flagship campus in Amherst is looking at housing 5,000 students in the spring semester — a significant increase over its fall occupancy of 1,069, but about 36 percent of its 13,700 beds.

Dartmouth would have about a 40 percent occupancy, with 1,600 students, and Lowell would roughly double the 690 students housed in the fall for 1,400 students and 29 percent occupancy. UMass Boston’s estimate envisions an occupancy of 300 students or 28 percent.

Calise said the estimates are subject to change as data evolves. In Lowell and Boston, the spring semester is scheduled to start Jan. 25. It begins Jan. 19 in Dartmouth and Feb. 1 in Amherst.

UMass President Marty Meehan said there is still “significant uncertainty related to spring enrollment.” The likelihood of any additional federal aid also remains uncertain, Meehan said.

UMass said they are now forced to reduce expenses in all seven affiliated schools.

Executive Communications Director, John Hoey, told 22News, “One of the things we’ve done for instance is is centralize a lot of our purchasing and that purchasing operation rather than have it done by each campus we are doing it more central and that is saving more than $10 million this year.”

While Meehan, a former congressman, voiced confidence that a relief package would materialize this month, the details of what it would contain are not yet clear. He said that as a member of the governing board for the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities, he is working “to make the case for federal investment in public higher education.”

Meehan said he is in regular contact with the state’s congressional delegation and members of Capitol Hill leadership, and spent an hour on the phone Wednesday night with U.S Rep. Richard Neal, the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.

“We are working hard to make sure that we get our just due in a federal aid package, and I’m confident based on those discussions that there will be a package that will be passed before Christmas,” Meehan said. “It will be approximately $980 billion.”

Massachusetts Teachers Association Vice President Max Page, an architecture professor at UMass Amherst who was one of several labor representatives to urge the board to bring back laid-off and furloughed workers, said that when it comes to budgeting, UMass should “slow down and see what federal funding we will win in the coming months and weeks” before making cuts.

Page said union members were concerned that workforce reductions would do lasting harm to the university, and are “demanding that you release the stranglehold of an unnecessarily coercive budget approach that requires every campus to have a completely balanced budget this fiscal year.”

“This year of all years, when we know we will roar back with full campuses in the fall, your demand that campuses completely balance our budgets by June 30 seems designed to extract givebacks from our members,” he said.

Risa Silverman, co-chair of the Professional Staff Union at UMass Amherst, said the cuts were made at a time when students, who are learning remotely, have greater needs for advising and other support.

“The faculty are also needing tech and other support as they navigate these unusual and trying semesters,” she said. “There is a limit to how much extra work people can do, and we have far passed that limit at Amherst. Given this, it makes no sense for any further devastation of the campus.

Furloughs, salary reductions, permanent layoffs, temporary layoffs and furloughs, a voluntary separation incentive program, and leaving vacant positions unfilled add up to $170 million in workforce reductions, according to UMass.

Meehan told the board he recognizes that some would like to see UMass pursue “easier, less painful solutions such as depleting reserves and stabilization funds.”

“But we know that such actions would leave us defenseless going forward, endanger the long-term financial viability of the university and could result in deeper, permanent cuts and layoffs down the road, as well as higher tuition for our students,” Meehan said.

Trustee Michael O’Brien said he wanted “to make sure that the public understands” that UMass doesn’t “have any special dispensation from the Pope or the federal government or state government to be able to not meet our financial obligations, and we have to balance our budget.”

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