Good afternoon and welcome to the 2022 State of the University address.
This year, I join you from UMass Amherst.
UMass Amherst is one of the country’s original land-grant universities, founded in 1863, with its first classes offered by 4 faculty to 56 students.
Today, 1,400 faculty serve more than 30,000 students on this campus and conduct ground-breaking research within a $220 million research enterprise.
I thank Chancellor Subbaswamy and the UMass Amherst community for hosting me today and congratulate them on their sustained success over the last decade.
Among that progress is the recent announcement of $95 million in public and private funding to enhance UMass Amherst’s Information and Computer Sciences program and facilities.
Governor Baker’s service will come to an end early next year.
Our harmonious and productive relationship with him over the last seven years has served UMass and the Commonwealth well.
On behalf of the entire UMass community, I thank Governor Baker for his partnership and for his brilliant leadership of our state.
Last year, I spoke about the enormous contributions the university made to the battle with the COVID-19 pandemic.
Since then, as we entered the extra innings of that battle, UMass remained at the forefront of the state’s efforts …while managing the ongoing disruption on our campuses here and at UMass Boston, UMass Dartmouth, UMass Lowell, and UMass Chan Medical School in Worcester.
As we approach the end of the academic year, the student experience on our campuses is currently as close to normal as it has been in over two years.
Our enrollment remains steady, and with the support of our partners in the Massachusetts congressional delegation … as well as the Baker administration … and the Massachusetts legislature led by Senate President Spilka, Speaker Mariano and their colleagues in the House and Senate … we have emerged on sound financial footing.
Our success is also attributed to the strong leadership of our Board of Trustees and our chancellors.
Chancellors Subbaswamy, Suárez-Orozco, Fuller, Moloney and Collins … as well as to the hard work, dedication – and yes – the sacrifices – of our students, faculty, and staff.
Your commitment to public health practices … to taking the necessary steps to keep each other safe … is a shining example of how the UMass community always rises together to face challenges and inspire others.
On behalf of your university, I thank you.
As we … hopefully … transition to the endemic phase of COVID-19, we must acknowledge the challenges that will outlive it.
For instance, the pandemic only highlighted the already mounting student mental health crisis on college campuses across the country.
According to the American College Health Association, more than 80 percent of college students last fall reported moderate or high stress in the previous year and 30 percent sought mental health services, both up significantly from pre-pandemic levels.
We’ve certainly seen evidence of these trends on our campuses.
In response, I’ve asked system and campus leadership to direct additional resources to student mental health, including expanding access to counseling and increasing well-being, mindfulness and peer support programming.
And to support this effort, I’ve made student mental health a priority in our state budget request.
UMass is well-positioned to lead in this area, and we’re implementing innovative strategies to support our students.
As one example, here at UMass Amherst, the campus has partnered with The Benson-Henry Institute and Home Base Veteran and Family Care, two subsidiaries of Mass General Hospital, to offer courses where students learn mind-body practices and self-care while receiving credit toward their degrees.
We will continue to focus on strategies on all our campuses to ensure that students have the support they need to pursue their educational and personal development goals.
Despite the many challenges of the pandemic, I am proud to report that UMass remains one of the most successful university systems in the country.
All of our campuses are nationally ranked by U.S. News & World Report, and for the sixth consecutive year we generated more than $600 million in research expenditures … 687 to be exact.
We are also becoming more diverse with forty percent of our undergraduates now students of color.
And our contributions to the Commonwealth’s workforce remain unmatched.
Last year, 1 in 5 bachelor’s degrees awarded in the state was from a UMass campus … and we launched UMass Global, which will expand online education opportunities for adult learners in the Commonwealth and beyond.
While we expand opportunities for adult learners, we also want to create early college opportunities for Massachusetts high school students, which will lower the cost of college for them.
UMass has recently received a grant from the Smith Family Foundation to scale up high quality early college across Massachusetts.
We look forward to building the partnerships needed to succeed in this important endeavor.
Finally, we have had our greatest fundraising year in the history of the university.
Just last fall, generous alumni and friends committed nearly $250 million through the three largest gifts in our history, including a $50 million gift to all five campuses by Rob and Donna Manning, and a $175 million gift from The Morningside Foundation to endow the UMass Chan Medical School.
Our endowment now stands at $1.2 billion, a quarter of which directly supports financial aid for students.
In summary, UMass remains on a solid foundation, and we are laser focused on our mission to deliver high-quality education, conduct research, and provide service to our communities.
As a public research university, those mission-specific goals – education, research and service – derive from our founding here in Amherst.
The Morrill Act of 1862 established land-grant universities to, and I quote, “Promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes … in several pursuits and professions in life.”
The Land-Grant Act intended to provide education to those for whom it had not been previously accessible and allow those young people to make greater contributions to society.
In other words, land-grant universities like UMass were designed to democratize higher education.
And so, I believe we have a special obligation to ensure that the very democratic principles upon which we were founded are preserved for future generations.
Why is it important to remind ourselves of that now?
Because never in my life – from my time as a student at UMass in the wake of the Vietnam War, through my 14 years serving in the United States Congress, and 15 years in leadership at UMass – have I felt that democracy was more threatened by interconnected forces:
- Political polarization, exacerbated by social media echo chambers;
- Disinformation and misinformation, intended to further divide us;
- Declining media literacy, exploited by extreme partisans;
- An anti-science movement, sparked by climate deniers and accelerated by COVID-19 conspiracy theorists;
- Political violence, defended and normalized, even inside the walls of the U.S. Capitol;
- And of course, the democratic country of Ukraine, invaded and under attack by Russia … presumably because of its embrace of western democratic ideals.
These are threats to democracy, and public research universities – spawned at a time when our own nation was ruptured by civil war – must do our part to address them.
As a public research university:
- We must not let our discomfort with conflict diminish our commitment to open debate and the exploration of difficult topics.
- We must continue to pursue truth and use our positions to defend facts when they are threatened by misinformation, demagoguery or willful ignorance.
- We must vigorously defend our community from acts of racism, eliminate practices that contribute to systemic racism, and support and elevate the voices of our students and scholars who are working toward a more just society.
- We must continue to invest in scientific discovery and science education … while also investing in and promoting humanities research and education which is vital to informed debate and the reasoned expression of ideas.
- We must defend the free press from both government and corporate influence and actively teach media literacy.
- We must work to increase voter participation amongst young people as we are doing through the All-In Campus Democracy Challenge.
- We must amplify the work of our social scientists who are illuminating the dangers of voter suppression … gerrymandering … and other political tactics that degrade a representative democracy.
- And finally, we must protect faculty, scholarship and curriculum from political intervention … and promote higher education as critical to society and the advancement of knowledge.
The role of the public research university in preserving democracy is clear.
And the time to re-commit to the fundamental principles of democracy that undergirded our founding as a land-grant university is now.
In doing so, I am encouraged and emboldened by UMass students.
Our students are engaged, educated on the issues of the day, committed to making a difference and committed to action.
Through their vision, I am reminded of my colleague and friend, the late civil rights leader John Lewis, who I served with in the Congress.
Shortly after he passed in 2020, The New York Times published an essay he had written to be released posthumously.
The essay was titled “Together, You Can Redeem the Soul of Our Nation.”
In it, John was speaking to young people.
He wrote: “Democracy is not a state. It is an act.”
“And each generation must do its part to help build what we called the beloved community … a nation and world society at peace with itself."
I ask you to join in this act … to participate in our democracy … to join the “All-In Democracy Challenge” and the UMass Votes Campaign … and to recognize the power we have as UMass … as the Commonwealth’s public research university … to help build a society more at peace with itself.
Thank you for listening. And thank you for everything you do for the University of Massachusetts.