A Modest Proposal

How about a college campus on the Vineyard? UMass MV could solve a lot of our problems.

After my first three winters of living on the Vineyard, I felt something missing from my previous life in New York’s Hudson Valley. It wasn’t teaching or academic administrative work. I’d enjoyed both for nearly 40 years, and was happy to have the freedom to write year-round on the Vineyard.

What I missed was how a college campus enriches a community with lectures, concerts, readings, plays, forums, and exhibitions, all free and open to the public. Even more invigorating was the annual influx of energy that young people — students between the ages of 18 and 22 — inject into everyday communal life.

Why shouldn’t the Vineyard have the pleasure of a college campus, more specifically a branch of the state college system, namely the University of Massachusetts on Martha’s Vineyard, or colloquially, UMass Vineyard or UMV?

UMass now has five campuses, at Amherst, Boston, Dartmouth, Lowell and Worcester, with a satellite in Springfield. The university’s mission is to provide affordable and accessible education of high quality, and to conduct programs of public service that advance knowledge and improve the lives of the people of the commonwealth, the nation, and the world.

I can envision the Vineyard making a splendid contribution to this mission with a campus emphasizing marine biology, environmental studies, and creative writing.

The Vineyard offers a perfect locale for the study of marine biology, and could further UMass’s current commitment to oceanography and its school for marine science and technology. Students will immediately recognize such study and research as appropriate to an island with close access to the Department of Fisheries Oceanography in New Bedford and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, as well as an immediate worldwide identification with a logo in the shape of a shark.

Environmental studies programs around the country view islands as efficient laboratories for field trips to observe the interrelationships between ecosystems and communities, giving rise in recent years to programs and degrees in island studies, an interdisciplinary pursuit involving biology, geology, geography, botany, history, economics, sociology, anthropology, and other fields. The Vineyard would provide an onsite location for such interdisciplinary study, and ultimately contribute to the kind of knowledge that nature writer David Quammen says we’re coming to recognize: “We are headed toward understanding the whole planet as a world of islands.”

A doubly appropriate connection between the Vineyard and UMass in environmental studies lies in the commitment of both to the study of agriculture. The university was initially established as the Massachusetts Agricultural College, and maintains its “Mass Aggie” origin with a Center for Agriculture at Amherst and extension offices and farms around the state, but not on the islands. The Vineyard’s Island-Grown Initiative in all the schools is already one of the country’s leading programs in helping students understand local agriculture in relationship to health and a sustainable community. Its mission suggests a natural connection with the UMass Center for Agriculture.

We need the arts. In advocating an emphasis in creative writing, I’m pushing my own field as well as one that will generate considerable interest among aspiring writers. Programs in creative writing that now include “creative nonfiction” along with poetry and fiction have exploded across the country in the past dozen years. Any issue of Poets and Writers Magazine reveals hundreds of recent programs, residencies, and institutes. Applications to the Vineyard’s summer programs at the Noepe Center and the Institute of Creative Writing signal the enthusiasm that would greet the study of creative writing on an island already identified with a tradition of accomplished writers ranging from the Harlem Renaissance to the present.

A four-year college could bring such programs to the Vineyard. An early effort to introduce “college-level courses for adults of all ages” did begin locally in 1972 with the Nathan Mayhew Seminars, a form of adult continuing education held in two buildings across the street from the Vineyard Haven library. For two decades the Mayhew Foundation sponsored an impressive range of popular programs that enriched Island life, until its leadership “basically ran out of steam,” as former president Ted Box explained. “There was attrition. Some of the founders realized that they were getting old. When you start pushing 90, something’s going to give.”

A renewal of the Mayhew Seminars would be welcome. Similarly, a two-year community college, which draws mostly from a local and occasionally an older population, would also be a wonderful addition at some point; right now I’m advocating for a four-year college and an influx of energy and youth from off-Island. Some MVRHS graduates would attend, but most students would be from elsewhere in the state and beyond. At UMass Amherst, 22 percent are from out-of-state.

What a pipe dream! you say. Really? If so, then consider this: The five existing Massachusetts campuses also began as pipe dreams. Reality starts with vision, and as scriptures remind us, “Without vision the people perish.” I’m aware that you may see Vineyard college programs evolving in a different way, and they certainly may, but my hope for suggesting what could happen is to stimulate ideas for what will happen.

What would it take? It’s first necessary to see the need for an additional campus. The pressure of enrollment at the five campuses has become intense. Applications at UMass Amherst alone have soared. Ten years ago, 80 percent of applicants were accepted; now it’s only 60 percent, compromising the university’s mission to provide “accessible education.”

One way to begin on the Vineyard might be to follow the method of establishing a satellite or semi-satellite campus. For the past 45 years, the University of Massachusetts consisted of five co-equal campuses — that is, until last year, when the ribbon was cut on a new UMass Center at Springfield, the university’s first satellite campus, offering 40 courses plus online courses, bringing, as the governor said, “vital educational and economic growth to the area.” Boosters certainly liked the governor’s words, as well as the additional $5.2 million investment he later announced for completion of campus construction.

“A UMass campus in Springfield has been a long-held goal of city officials,” the city’s mayor said. “This is economic development, a game-changing presence for downtown Springfield, something my administration has been working on for six years.” The mayor praised the governor for his “stick-to-itiveness,” and university officials for their commitment to the campus. A key person in bringing the campus to Springfield was the chair of the UMass board of trustees, who happened to be a Springfield native. The mayor added that having college-age students downtown would help the city retain young professionals, and perhaps even encourage them to live downtown.

In 1862, according to early reports, the first college to later become the University of Massachusetts “struggled to define its mission and defend itself against the stubborn skepticism of some politicians and citizens.” No doubt UMass Vineyard would face a similar struggle, although a big obstacle generating sensible skepticism is as obvious as a beached whale: Where will teachers and students live?

Affordable housing is a gargantuan Vineyard problem. UMV would have to provide dormitories for students and affordable housing for faculty. Vassar College, where I taught, provides a variety of student housing: dormitories, apartments, and townhouses — and even a hippie-style communal cooperative option, designed by the modernist architect Marcel Breuer, all on campus.

When I arrived at Vassar, most faculty rented college-owned houses or apartments on campus or nearby. Later, the college offered to sell the houses to faculty, but not the land, with a buy-back guarantee, thereby providing housing at an under-market rate. Rental apartments remained available in ground-level complexes and double-story buildings, all on campus.

Let’s suppose that some Vineyarders decide to get the ball rolling for an Island campus by donating a chunk of land they own, say, in Chilmark. What if voters, selectmen, and the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, which regulates Island-wide building, environmental, and aesthetic concerns, all approve the idea? With the three members of the UMass board of trustees who are regular visitors to the Vineyard leading the way, along with the university president and the chancellors showing a “stick-to-itiveness,” and a governor who gets the job done, we’d be all set.

The entire Island would benefit from the intellectual and cultural spinoff of the University of Massachusetts on Martha’s Vineyard. Use of local firms and workers during construction and future employment possibilities for residents present economic side benefits.

Summer programs could offer something different. Don’t think dorms might be turned over to house the student workers who flood the Island in the summer. Colleges don’t work that way. Vassar opens its campus in summer for New York Stage and Film to develop new plays and movies. UMass Vineyard could also offer a summer school like Harvard’s, which draws outside, non-Harvard faculty and students from around the country for open-enrollment, pre-college, and secondary school programs. There would be no problem attracting faculty and students, and some of those students will need on-Island jobs.

In the fall, college-age students are what UMV would bring to the graying Vineyard, those students who miraculously and perennially remain for the most part between 18 and 22, year in and year out. Right now there are more people on the Vineyard over 70 than of college age. In fact, there are more people over 80 than there are between 10 and 20, or 20 and 30, or 30 and 40. Almost half the Island is over 60, and there are more residents between 60 and 70 than in any other age bracket.

Let’s hope it won’t be long before all the Vineyard grayhairs, and I’m one of them, see younger heads of more vibrant colors and styles, maybe even some with streaks of turquoise and magenta, if those tints are still in fashion when the ribbon is cut on the University of Massachusetts on Martha’s Vineyard, more familiarly known as UMass Vineyard, or simply UMV.   

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