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Setting a Course of Action

UMass Chancellor Will Make Proper Planning a Priority

COVERart0313bAs he talked about UMass Amherst and the course he projects for the school he now serves as chancellor, Kumble Subbaswamy summoned a well-worn quote from Dwight Eisenhower: “plans are nothing; planning is everything.”

Those words were uttered in reference to preparations for D-Day, the largest amphibious invasion in history, but they’ve been borrowed by leaders in virtually every field, including academia, to describe the difference between having a plan on paper and engaging in effective, thorough, sensible planning.

There is a new strategic planning initiative underway at the Amherst campus, said Subbaswamy (known to colleagues as ‘Swamy’), one that will provide a detailed outline of where this soon-to-be-150-year-old institution needs to be with regard to everything from the life sciences to economic-development initiatives within the Commonwealth; from increasing the volume of research initiatives on the campus to improving graduation rates.

 

The faculty-led initiative, which should be ready by the summer, will shape the school’s trajectory for the next several years, said Subbaswamy, who came to the Amherst campus last July.

“Eisenhower was correct — planning is a forcing mechanism for us to think seriously about where we want to go,” he told BusinessWest. “Without planning, anything goes.

“This is a time when economic development is on a lot of people’s minds,” he continued, while juxtaposing the school’s current mission against the one it started with as one of the institutions created through the Land Grant Act of 1862. “Globalization has had an impact on what it means to be a 21st-century economic power; we still have a lot of assets that the state has invested in that can produce direct benefits to the Commonwealth and beyond, and we will be articulating that as part of our strategic plan.”

But planning has become a far more challenging assignment in the current fiscal climate, one in which state contributions to the state university have been declining, said Subbaswamy, adding that the funding situation leaves many question marks about everything from further progress in what has become known as the ‘Springfield Initiative’ to efforts at the university to help the state’s businesses become more globally competitive.

“If the expectation is that planning means that new resources will suddenly and magically appear, that’s unrealistic; that’s not what happens,” he said. “But if the goal is to say, ‘whether new resources come in or not, we want to prioritize where we spend our money,’ then the planning exercise is a very important one and a necessity.”

Moving forward, he said the school, its administrators, and faculty will be addressing what he called some of the “new challenges” facing those in higher education today. He put on that list such matters as the emergence of online education and what it means to residential institutions to continuously hone the model for a successful research university.

Meanwhile, one additional challenge for the UMass Amherst campus, and it’s not a recent phenomenon, is making its various programs and reputation for excellence as well-known within the state as it is outside.

“Sometimes, it feels like UMass Amherst is the best-kept secret inside the Commonwealth of Massachusetts — it has a far better reputation outside the state,” he explained, adding that this is likely due in large part to the Bay State’s many prestigious and well-known private institutions — Harvard and MIT top that lengthy list — which often overshadow the state university’s flagship campus.

“But I think people are beginning to recognize the difference between the publics and the privates,” he went on, “and, in particular, the important role that public institutions play within the Commonwealth. When you get into deeper conversations, you see that there is high and growing regard for UMass Amherst; people recognize, for example, that admission standards have gotten pretty high, and they recognize that the Commonwealth Honors College is a destination place for the best and the brightest inside the state and outside it as well.”

The Commonwealth’s stock of private schools may also play a role in what many have described as a less-than-passionate alumni base when it comes to the university, said Subbaswamy, who didn’t exactly disagree with that characterization. He said the school suffers from geographic challenges — many of its graduates live and work across the state, which is not a huge distance comparatively, but certainly psychologically — and also from a lack of what he called “connecting points.”

And he placed in that category everything from buildings and features on the campus itself — perhaps the most historic and best-known building, the chapel, has been closed for more than a decade — to a big-time sports program.

For this issue, BusinessWest conducted a wide-ranging interview with Subbaswamy, one that touched on everything from rising in the ranks nationally among research institutions to possible expansion into downtown Springfield — and how it all comes back to planning.

 

Class Action

After arriving last summer after a stints at two other major public schools — the University of Kentucky’s Lexington campus and the University of Indiana’s flagship campus in Bloomington — Subbaswamy said he commenced a lengthy, and in some ways ongoing, series of “meets and greets” with individuals and groups at both ends of the state.

The constituencies involved were both internal — faculty, staff, and students, among others — and external, ranging from alumni groups to state legislators to the Cranberry Growers Assoc., which, while based in Wareham on Cape Cod, boasts many members from the UMass School of Agriculture, and certainly isn’t among those lacking an appreciation for the state university.

“Among the cranberry growers, there is true adulation and respect for the institution,” said the chancellor, “because they readily admit that their business would not be what it is today without the continued work on the campus.”

In some respects, these meetings involved varying degrees of what Subbaswamy called “repairing relations” — his predecessor, Robert Holub, was essentially forced out after three years at the helm, and there has been considerable turnover in the chancellor’s office in recent years — but he told BusinessWest that this work is essentially done.

“Part of this work was reassuring our support base that everything is continuing on campus, that the positive momentum generated by my predecessors has not been slowed down, and that we’re on track to dealing with the new challenges in public higher education,” he explained. “The other was securing their continued support as we commence our 151st year.”

Those aforementioned constituencies have moved on, he explained, to the broader topic of what to expect from the school’s new leader.

And the answer to that question is clouded by a number of issues, but mostly the challenging fiscal situation, said the chancellor, adding that those who have expectations should manage them appropriately given the financial landscape.

And this mindset applies to both aspects of how a flagship university impacts economic development, he said, referring to both the narrow focus — the jobs at the campus and the spending it generates, for example — and the broader role stemming from transferring research into business opportunities, assisting existing businesses with becoming more competitive and moving in new and profitable directions, and drawing new businesses to the region.

“This is a role than can only be played by major research universities, public or private, and in this region, we’re it,” he explained. “And in a climate where the state has been reducing our appropriation over the past five or six years, we don’t have the resources that we can come up with to play that additional role in economic development.

“We have the knowhow, we have the expertise, and we have the desire,” he continued. “But we have a very limited ability to get engaged unless we find resources, whether it’s through the state, the local region, or federal assistance, to do it on the scale that’s needed to be a true catalyst.

“And we’re only one element in bringing about systemic change,” the chancellor went on. “The local government, local businesses, the state government, and the private sector — they all have a role to play in this. We’re ready, and we have a track record of getting involved with social change and economic development, but we can’t do it without resources.”

Quantifying matters, Subbaswamy said the university has been coping with a 26% reduction in state appropriations over the past several years. A current proposal from the governor to reverse the course of state assistance would certainly help, he went on, but it wouldn’t put the university even back to where it was five or six years ago.

Meanwhile, the campus infrastructure continues to age and deteriorate, he told BusinessWest, adding that the vast majority of the buildings are now more than 50 years old or fast approaching that number — there was a huge building boom in the ’60s and early ’70s, but then virtually nothing for the next 30 years — and there is currently $1.6 billion in deferred maintenance that needs to be undertaken.

The school has responded with efforts to become more efficient and cut fat where possible, but higher tuition and fees have also become reality, bringing the school dangerously close to limiting one of its historical assets in the Commonwealth — access to all economic classes of students.

 

Progress — by Degrees

The ongoing fiscal challenges are also going to play a role in the university’s involvement in the region’s largest community, said Subbaswamy, adding, again, that there are expectations about what the institution can and should do with regard to the City of Homes.

The Springfield Initiative has a number of moving parts, involving everything from the arts to biosciences (the Pioneer Valley Life Sciences Institute); from creating an active presence in the downtown — the university’s Design Center was relocated to Court Square — to work with Davis Foundation on issues involving education in urban settings.

The most recent talk, or speculation, has centered on broadening that downtown presence with a satellite facility, said Subbaswamy, adding that terminology, not to mention expectations, must be put in proper perspective.

“Somehow, the expectation that a large campus can be created suddenly, and without a comprehensive needs analysis, is unrealistic,” he explained, opting to use the phrase ‘satellite center’ to describe what, if anything, could develop. “Different people have different views on what they expect from UMass, and, in general, these expectations need to be managed properly.”

Elaborating, he said that many area officials have an ‘if-you-build-it-they-will-come’ thought process when it comes to a UMass facility in downtown Springfield, while he considers smaller, phased-in growth to be more practical, especially in these times.

“If you want to grow organically, and start with what we consider to be the highest priorities — how can we make a difference,” he said, “and then, based on that success and additional resources, grow more, I think that’s a much more realistic approach for today’s financial climate.”

And this brings him back to the subject of planning and the ongoing initiative at the university to chart a course for the years and decades to come.

UMass already has a number of stated priorities and strategic initiatives — some more clearly articulated than others, he said, adding that putting such matters within a plan, with clearly stated goals and methods for measuring results, makes it easier to achieve progress with those goals.

He cited work within the broad realm of life sciences as one example.

“We understand that the life sciences are of major importance to the state at this time, so we will have a focus on life-sciences research and development in this plan,” he explained. “We’re already doing [work in that field], but we haven’t explicitly stated it. By stating it, that allows different colleges and departments to align their resources in this general direction.”

Moreover, the strategic plan in progress will not only prioritize matters and provide a road map for reaching certain goals, it will ultimately leave the university better prepared for when the financial skies clear, said the chancellor.

“When you make an argument for new resources, having a cogent plan allows you to make an argument for those resources better than if you simply said, ‘give us money, and we’ll do good things,’” he told BusinessWest. “I’m sure we’ll do good things, but what is the benefit to society; what is the benefit to the Commonwealth?”

While undertaking this strategic planning, the new chancellor will look to address some of the other priorities that were reinforced during those meet and greets. These include making the school less of a well-kept secret within the Commonwealth and getting graduates more engaged with their alma mater.

The school’s almost-year-long sesquicentennial celebration may provide one of those key connecting points for the alumni base that Subbaswamy described.

The chancellor said the planned events, including a Founder’s Day that will be expanded into a Founder’s Week, will offer a springboard for fund-raising efforts that have been delayed by the change in the chancellor’s office, with the so-called ‘public phase’ of that initiative set to begin April 27. Meanwhile, it will also dovetail in many respects with the strategic-planning initiative and offer opportunities to show how, while the school may have changed in countless ways since 1863, its overall mission really hasn’t.

“When the Land Grant Act was passed 150 years ago and our campus was created, there were specific expectations about educating the general populace and conducting relevant research and making sure that this research translated into benefiting society,” Subbaswamy said. “As times have changed, the role of research universities has also evolved, but land-grant universities have maintained that original mission — teaching, research, and outreach.

“This will be a time for reflection on where you’ve come from,” he continued, “and also an opportunity to rethink how you want to focus for the future.”

 

School of Thought

As he talked about where the Amherst campus has been, where it is, and where it’s going, the chancellor didn’t borrow another famous Eisenhower quote — “unless we progress, we regress” — but that was the essence of the message he left with BusinessWest.

The school does, indeed, have the same mission it had when it was launched at the height of the Civil War, but education, technology, and the global economy have all changed in myriad ways.

Subbaswamy has many items on his to-do list, but proactive response to those changes are at the top of the chart — along with the constant planning that is, as Ike said, everything.

 

George O’Brien can be reached at obrien@businesswest.com

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