In the pandemic, UMass Lowell needs to be mindful of its core values

 In General
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By Anthony Szczesiul | Aug 25, 2020, 1:45am EDT

As anyone who lives in the Merrimack Valley region of Massachusetts knows, the University of Massachusetts Lowell has undergone a complete transformation over the past decade. The most noticeable difference is the campus itself, with over a dozen state-of-the-art buildings appearing over the years. These physical changes have kept pace with UMass Lowell’s tremendous rise in the national university rankings, emerging as one of the top public universities in Massachusetts.

However, in the face of a global pandemic, UMass President Marty Meehan and the UMass Lowell administration have forgotten that it’s the people, not just the buildings, that are essential to our university’s future. UMass Lowell needs to preserve its workforce if it is to emerge from this pandemic with its core educational mission, and its core values, intact.

The UMass Lowell community of workers includes the university faculty such as myself, along with the hundreds of staff members charged with supporting and promoting all aspects of student life and wellbeing. These workers provide students with critical resources outside the classroom: guidance on academic and career paths, advice and support on financial aid options, a rich array of extracurricular opportunities, and much more.

The workforce includes the graduate student workers and part-time faculty members who earn too little and do too much, but who show up every day because they believe in the ideals and value of higher education. And our campus wouldn’t be whole without the university police who respond to emergencies, the food service workers who feed the students, staff, and faculty, and the maintenance and trades workers who keep the campus clean, safe, and welcoming for a full educational experience especially now, as the university prepares an eventual return to campus.

As a whole, we make the university’s core values and mission possible. Ten years ago, when current UMass President Meehan was Chancellor of UMass Lowell, the university outlined these values in our 2020 Strategic Plan, which named five “Pillars of Excellence” that have guided our work over the past decade. Chief among these pillars is “Entrepreneurial Stewardship,” which claims that an “entrepreneurial approach to stewardship of human, physical and financial resources (would) … be the hallmark of UMass Lowell’s approach to building a healthy and sustainable future.”

When the 2020 Strategic Plan was initiated, there’s no way anyone could have predicted that the timeline would culminate in 2020 with the challenges of a global pandemic. Still, “entrepreneurial stewardship” would suggest that the university draw on its greatest resources — its human resources — to overcome the many new challenges we face. The university has a wealth of faculty expertise on issues of public health, work environments and safety. It also has world-class engineering faculty who are trained to engineer solutions to complex problems, and it has a staff of skilled maintenance workers and tradespeople who can put these solutions in place.

Instead, UMass President Marty Meehan has chosen to go it alone, taking the “austerity” route with top-down, corporate-style decisions, and with personnel cuts that will have a profound effect on both student education and campus safety. President Meehan’s actions have disproportionately damaged our workforce and eroded the trust between the university and its community of workers. At UMass Lowell, a five-day furlough of one of our maintenance and trades workers only saves the university about $800, but even as the union was working to negotiate alternative ways to achieve comparable savings, the administration began unilaterally laying off its workers.

These same “essential workers” also had to pressure the university for months for appropriate protective equipment during the pandemic, even as the university’s Advancement Office was producing “River Hawk Face Coverings” as a fundraising strategy. These actions have damaged the uniquely collaborative, can-do culture that had become a hallmark across campus over the past ten years. They have also jeopardized the talent and resources our campus will need most to navigate a safe passage through the challenges of the pandemic.

It is easy to take pride in one’s stated values when times are good, but it’s more important to act according to these values when times are challenging. Instead of whittling away at the university’s greatest resource, Marty Meehan and the UMass Lowell administration need to listen to faculty and staff and work with us to secure the resources we all need to keep our campus safe and preserve its future.

Anthony Szczesiul is a professor in the Department of English at UMass Lowell, researching American poetry, 19th and 20th century American literature, and Southern literary and cultural studies.

Read the full article on the Lowell Sun.