Shortly after celebrating our fiftieth anniversary, UMass Boston entered a prolonged crisis whose roots are as deep as the pilings supporting our buildings on the landfill. While our campus was ground zero for the 1970s MBM corruption scandal, even the Ward Commission in all its detailed glory didn’t fully grasp the time-bomb planted in our substructure.

Facing legislators who were timid about taxation and willing to look the other way as the cost of higher education was transferred from the Commonwealth to individual students, successive UMass Boston administrations struggled with the substructure. The ultimate result of those efforts was the campus master plan of 2009-2011, which was over-optimistic in its expectations for both enrollment and associated revenue, and which also revealed a campus administration and a Board of Trustees far too willing to pass the debt for construction of public buildings on to the backs of some of the UMass system’s poorest students.

How far back we go depends on how much truth we can stand. Reading the recent President’s office review of the UMass Boston budget process, one might think the roots of our crisis lie in nothing more than the recent budgeting and accounting incompetence of our previous administration. And listening to our Board of Trustees chairman, one might believe that (and I quote) “the campus was mismanaged for a decade, and there was a culture that was corrupt.” We of course have studied the KPMG report for even a shred of evidence of corruption, in the absence of which an apology seems in order.

But proximate causes aside, the root of our crisis remains the scandal of our original construction and the excessive debt and depreciation following in its wake. And the fact is, our master plan—with all its high hopes and misguided principles—is owned not just by our campus administration, but also by the Board of Trustees, which we believe approved every major step the campus took. Thus the KPMG report appears to serve a dual purpose: to pillory the previous campus administration while absolving the trustees of all responsibility.

The chairman has urged us to face up to the reality of our campus’s mismanagement, and we are perfectly prepared to do so. But the trustees need to face up to another reality: that your punitive approach will not work and risks destroying the UMass system’s diversity flagship. Behind all the happy talk about moving forward, about fiscal stability and positive operating margins in 2023, and about bright, shiny new chancellors, the dominant message to our campus remains one of discipline, retrenchment, and austerity. And this will lead not to stability, but to chaos and despair; not to recommitment, but to retreat.

Sooner or later, the central office will be forced to rescue rather than punish. That rescue will inevitably require some contribution from the central reserves—we have proposed 5 million right now—coupled with a legislative effort in order to complete some iteration of the master plan without destroying the campus’s mission and morale. The substructure must be dealt with, and the effects on the campus budget of construction debt and depreciation must be addressed, and while better budget managers will help, better leaders will help even more.

In the meantime, we need all take stock of the damage being done. I have heard at several trustee meetings a call to “change work rules” in exchange for the supposedly generous salary increases proposed to campus unions. Let’s leave aside the fact that the increases on offer are well below the expected rate of inflation and even below that being offered all other state employees, and that “work rules” mean one thing in higher education and another in the real estate or financial services industries. I submit to the Board that work rules at UMass Boston are plenty flexible. They are flexible enough to allow the employer to terminate someone like Bobby Carroll after 30 years, Debbie Williams after 35, John Kenyon after 37, Barb Graceffa after 34, Jon Hutton after 35, Sandra Parkin after 33, Rita Campbell after 33, Jill Griffin after 31, Sonia Weir after 30, Paul Breslin after 28, Lisa Williams after 27, and Peggy Patel after 25. These dedicated employees have all given their entire adult careers to advancing their small part of the UMass Boston mission, and discarding them as collateral damage leaves scars on our campus community as wide and deep as any construction pit. Any more flexibility like that, and UMass Boston’s human resources will be reduced to rubble.