Celebrating 50th: UMass Boston’s Urban Beginnings

Students study at the Campus Center at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, (Photo by Andre Ragel)

By Ava Sargent

The scramble of 1,400 inner-city students to get into college in the early 1960s ended in vain when they were rejected from the only University of Massachusetts, in Amherst, because of an expensive tuition and a lack of space on the campus for all of Boston’s students, according to the university’s own website.

The establishment of UMass Boston in downtown Park Square in 1964 resolved this problem, giving the metropolitan area a chance to receive an affordable education. The success of the college in this urban-centered endeavor is reflected in the many programs, scholarships, and improvements made to involve the campus and launch students into the world as innovative workers.

The college started out with next to nothing, on a landfill in Park Square. The downtown area provided the city with money from taxes so many people were opposed to giving away the land for the college at first.
However, Bob Quinn and George Kennelly from Dorchester pushed for the college to come through for the Boston students to have a chance at an affordable, quality education.

The school’s founders were ambitious, and wanted to be equal to the best educations in the area, so that metropolitan students were not deprived of opportunity because of their low incomes. The city itself was searching for an education equal to those of other universities in Massachusetts, but the lack of a college in the Greater Boston area was detrimental to these hopes.

When governor Endicott Peabody signed the bill that established the college on June 18, 1964, it took over a year for contractors to plan the entire campus from scratch, teachers to be hired who were mission driven to provide the best education possible to an urban student body, and for nearby apartments to be renovated to provide a decent place for students to live off-campus. It was to be a college “where kids would trip over opportunities for higher education,” according to DeWayne Lehman, the UMass Boston Director of Communications.

At first, the school attracted a flood of Vietnam War veterans, and an older student body of people going back to school to attain the affordable education that they never had before UMass Boston’s creation. Even then, the school was diverse and non-traditional in its student body.

Today, near 10% of the students are international, but represent 150 different countries. The university remained an urban public research facility mostly for inner-city Boston, but has grown to be more diverse over the years.

Since it is a public university, teachers with PhDs at UMass Boston greatly outnumber teachers at private colleges who have PhDs, and are dedicated to helping the diverse metropolitan student body.

According to Lehman, many people would stereotype the school as a “second choice school, a fallback option.” But the reality is that UMass Boston’s academic standards are higher than other schools in the area, and even freshmen have the privilege of sitting in a classroom taught by PhD certified teachers, who make connections with the students that extend beyond the classroom.

Lehman recalls his own experience at UMass Boston, and is still good friends with one of his first ever professors, Lloyd Schwartz, an English professor.

In 1982, UMass Boston absorbed Boston State College and its wealth of degrees, elevating its presence in the community. Only 7% colleges, UMass included, are categorized as institutions with High or Very High Research Activity by the Carnegie Foundation, which for forty years has developed a classification system for higher education. The Carnegie mission is to develop networks of ideas, individuals, and institutions to advance teaching and learning, according to the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching website.

Today, UMass Boston offers more than 200 degrees, as well as research centers and institutes, community-based partnerships and initiatives that promote learning, and are in the midst of a campus building boom.

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