UMass exploring creation of satellite center in downtown Springfield
President Caret calls it "a critical next step" in outreach process
The University of Massachusetts yesterday issued a request for proposals to lease classroom space in downtown Springfield where it is considering locating a satellite center that would provide additional access to a high quality, affordable education to western Massachusetts residents and accelerate the University's growing presence in the city and region.
He continued, ``we view the issuance of the RFP as a critical next step in this process. We're hopeful that the responses to it will begin to provide us with the clarity we need to move forward.''
A study conducted last year by the UMass Donahue Institute, at President Caret's request, identified Springfield as a prime site for a satellite center in part because UMass Amherst, which would take the lead in overseeing it, already has a significant presence there. A number of UMass Amherst faculty and staff are engaged in Springfield in various ways, conducting research, teaching or working in administrative capacities. They work in a variety of areas including health, fine arts, creative economy, natural sciences, engineering and green industries, as well as management, sports, and education. UMass Amherst faculty and staff are involved in more than 120 programs in Springfield. UMass Amherst is also in the process of moving its public radio station WFCR from Amherst to Springfield. Last month, the Pioneer Valley Life Sciences Institute, a partnership between UMass Amherst and Springfield's Baystate Medical Center received a $5.5 million grant from the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center.
But UMass officials would like to take the engagement a step further by establishing a base in Springfield that would serve as a general portal to resources of UMass Amherst and the entire UMass system. The satellite center concept envisions courses being provided by at least several and possibly all five of the UMass campuses. Officials said that the RFP process should reveal whether UMass is able to obtain space in a suitable location at an affordable price, which will help determine whether UMass can move forward with the satellite center project.
President Caret first raised the possibility of UMass establishing satellite centers during his October 2011 statewide bus tour, after business and civic groups in various regions across the state that are somewhat distant from UMass campuses expressed interest in seeing UMass expand its presence in their areas.
It was an idea President Caret had some familiarity with. Before coming to UMass two years ago, he was president of Towson University in Maryland, where the University System of Maryland established two ``system centers'' to meet emerging demand for public higher education in local areas. The Universities at Shady Grove in Rockville, for instance, is a collaboration of nine higher education institutions with the University of Maryland College Park as the lead campus, a model that was examined by the Donahue Institute as part of its study.
The study notes that the UMass system has more than 75 staffed locations across the Commonwealth that house academic and training and research programs - this in addition to the system's five main campuses. But the study also identified several areas of Massachusetts where there was unmet need, including in Springfield.
A second Donahue Institute study noted the multiple projects moving forward in or near downtown Springfield, including the State Data Center and the Union Station Intermodal Transit Center, and said these new investments and the presence of a UMass satellite center would ``work synergistically to help create a more vibrant and dynamic downtown Springfield.''
In addition, Springfield focus groups organized by the Donahue Institute provided evidence of broad support for a satellite center among employers, local government, civic and business leaders, and young professionals. Aside from the economic development boost it would provide the city, those interviewed emphasized the important role a satellite center would play in increasing high school graduation rates and removing barriers to employment for skilled workers. They also spoke of the need for a more highly skilled technical workforce over the next five to 10 years, including in engineering, computer science, health technology, and precision manufacturing.
Henry M. Thomas III, chairman of the UMass Board of Trustees and a Springfield resident and civic leader, agreed that support was strong in Springfield for a satellite center in downtown. ``I hope we can find a way to move forward because this project would enhance the University's ability to apply its many strengths in ways that help spark the revitalization of this region. It would be a win-win for the University and for the city.''
If the University is able to move forward with a satellite center in Springfield, it would offer academic programs in a blended manner that allows students to access courses on-site and through UMassOnline. While academic programming is still in the planning stage, a satellite center would potentially offer two-year associate degrees leading to bachelor's degrees in partnership with community colleges -- and undergraduate and graduate degree programs may be offered in business, healthcare, education, public health, and creative arts in partnership with other public and private higher education institutions. The satellite center would also serve as the new home for the UMass Amherst-Springfield Partnership, a project designed to promote Springfield as a center of environmentally beneficial green industries, boost the city's arts and creative economy, and expand relevant university teaching and outreach initiatives.
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