GET BREAKING NEWS IN YOUR BROWSER. CLICK HERE TO TURN ON NOTIFICATIONS.

X

For UMass Lowell, a report card to look at the last decade of growth, change

And a future back on campus in the wake of a pandemic

The renovated and expanded Coburn Hall at UMass Lowell South Campus, originally the Lowell Normal School, founded to train teachers. (SUN/Julia Malakie)
The renovated and expanded Coburn Hall at UMass Lowell South Campus, originally the Lowell Normal School, founded to train teachers. (SUN/Julia Malakie)
PUBLISHED: | UPDATED:

LOWELL — Ten years ago, UMass Lowell got input from about 250 members of the community and created an ambitious set of goals for the school called The 2020 Plan. Once a year since then, the university issued a report card on the plan’s progress.

With 2021 here now, Chancellor Jacquie Moloney presented a long-term report card late last month to a gathering of local legislators who vote on the school system’s budget. The annual report card is also due out soon.

“We set 25 benchmarks for ourselves and said ‘if we follow these and if we accomplish these we will take the university to new heights,’ which is what we did,” Moloney said. “We’re about to publish our 2020 report card and you’ll see the tracking of all those data points.”

Some of the details of what has changed from 2010 to 2020 were startling — 18 new or renovated buildings on campus, 2 million square feet of new space, a move from Division II to Division I athletics, a 6-year graduation rate that went from 51% to 70%, expansion from 14,686 students to 18,400 students, and a $16 million increase in external research funding.

The university went from being an unranked, regional university, to being ranked among the top 100 public universities in the country. A slide presented to legislators described the school in 2010 as an “inwardly focused university,” and “a solid public, regional option,” while a 2020 slide described UMass Lowell as having “entrepreneurial operations and curriculum” and a focus on economic development and business incubation. The presentation says the university now has a $1.2 billion economic impact on the area.

But Moloney said the most important development over the decade was an increased focus on students and the education the university offers.

“The first and most fundamental change is the very strong commitment to our students in terms of the transformational education that they receive,” Moloney said, pointing to more innovative teaching methods and work to create a more engaging campus with more applied learning and on-campus housing.

“I’ve been doing this for a long time and have always said that if you put the students first you’ll always make the best decisions,” Moloney said. “Little did we know in 2010, when we launched The 2020 Plan, that we’d be ending it in a pandemic, but despite the past year the accomplishments have been remarkable.”

The report cards will be issued just as the school prepares for a return to campus unlike any other in history.

The university announced last month that it plans to return to full on-campus operations in the fall semester, and Moloney said a recent uptick in COVID-19 cases has not slowed those plans.

The decision was made in large part due to what the university expects to be high vaccination levels among students and staff, and Moloney said the school will be taking gradual steps toward a full return over the summer, moving slowly and making sure testing and monitoring systems in place are working.

“The way our students conducted themselves this past year on campus — we test every week, student athletes three times a week and our positivity rate never went above half of a percent, and here we are in a city that was up to 7% or 8%,” Moloney said. “It’s a testament to how seriously students took the challenge. … They were quite disciplined and I couldn’t be more proud of them for the way they conducted themselves. That also contributes to our confidence.”

Discussing the university’s $615 million overall budget request for fiscal 2022, which starts in July, Moloney said she hopes to never again have to make cuts like those that were needed in fiscal 2021 due to the pandemic. The university had to make about $45 million in nonpersonnel cuts, and about $35 million in personnel cuts via layoffs, furloughs and freezing positions.

“I pray I don’t have to make those kinds of cuts again. Last year was pretty devastating because of the pandemic,” Moloney said.

She said the university’s focus on entrepreneurship and expanding its funding sources helped cushion the blow, but with the university operating the Tsongas Center at UMass Lowell and the UMass Lowell Inn and Conference Center, there have also been struggles.

“We’re very hopeful we’re on a good track for next year. It will be a very challenging year for certain. We don’t know exactly how it’s going to work out so we have multiple scenarios in place, but we don’t expect it to be anywhere near as bad,” she said.

One of the only requests for increased funding that the university is making this year is for an additional $4 million for mental health services. Moloney said that request came because despite the university long focusing on mental health and being recognized for it, student leaders helped her realize even more was needed.

“A significant group of student leaders really urged us — even before the pandemic — to enhance and expand what we offer, and they articulated that we weren’t doing enough to help. So they came to us again during the pandemic and said ‘chancellor this is a huge problem, students are feeling isolated, some are living at home in very complicated home life situations that are not ideal, some have housing insecurity.’”

Moloney said a major concern as the campus returns this fall will be healing from the pandemic.

“I believe just about everyone I know has suffered both personally and professionally. This has cost everyone a lot and it isn’t just financial, so I’m looking at how do we heal our campus, how do we heal our students, and how do we come back as a community and overcome the fear we have all been living with for a year,” Moloney said. “We’ll be working with our students to think about that.”

Moloney also touted the university’s work with the city of Lowell, Lowell General Hospital and other local partners to respond to the pandemic.

“I’m just proud of all the players at the table because I think we really made a big difference in the Merrimack Valley,” she said.

Moloney also touted the campus’ rating as the most green in Massachusetts and said she hopes to move forward with a collaborative effort with city government to make the entire city more sustainable.

Sen. Ed Kennedy and state Reps. Tom Golden, Vanna Howard, Colleen Garry, Jim Arciero, Christina Minicucci of North Andover, Sean Garballey of Arlington, and staff from Reps. Tram Nguyen and Dave Robertson’s offices, attended the presentation.