On a recent morning, security guards made their rounds in black SUVs crisscrossing the idle campus of UMass Amherst Mount Ida in Newton. Four years after the state’s flagship university bought this prime property, dozens of Adirondack chairs glowed empty in the sun and 1,200 dorm beds remained vacant.
“This campus has been in flux since it was taken over by UMass Amherst,” state Rep. John Lawn said as he walked across the quad.
When UMass Amherst bought the campus, administrators said it would house students doing internships in the Boston area. Then the pandemic hit, derailing those plans.
Lawn sees a new life for this dead space as a potential training ground for the next generation of healthcare workers, including nurses and physician assistants. “There was a shortage before the pandemic, and we’ve seen the healthcare workforce leave in droves,” he said.
The global medical hub in Massachusetts, like the country, is experiencing a massive shortage of health professionals, with more than 20,000 full-time vacancies in the state’s hospitals.
The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated Baby Boomers’ decisions to retire. That’s one reason Lawn, who represents Watertown, Newton and Waltham, has filed a budget amendment that would allow UMass Amherst to explore opening a new health care school on the former campus of Mount Ida College, which closed in 2018. The amendment offered by Lawn, who chairs the Joint Committee on Health Care Financing, has already passed in the House and faces a vote in the Senate this week.
“I think we’re strategically located near so many of our hospital systems,” he reasoned.
If approved, UMass Amherst would enter a crowded market of health care training programs that already includes UMass Boston, Bunker Hill and Roxbury community colleges, Northeastern University and Emmanuel College. In March, to meet growing demand, Massachusetts General Hospital created a school of health care leadership.
Just the idea of yet another health care school in the Boston area has raised questions from local and national educators in the field. They dispute the notion that the state’s current programs are “at capacity” as Lawn suggests, even though most schools report the number of applications they receive exceeds available admissions spots.
Deborah Larson, president of the Association of Schools Advancing Health Professions said Massachusetts should invest in existing programs and medical clinics where their students receive hands-on training.
“There is a shortage at the moment, so I think people think, ‘Oh, we’ll just start a new program without considering whether the area can provide support for the program and also the need for qualified faculty, which is probably as critical a limiting factor as whether there are clinical spots,” she said.
Some local health care administrators and faculty agree.
“I don’t think it’s necessarily wise to start from scratch,” said Eddie Miller, who chairs the gerontology department at UMass Boston.
Sitting inside the new integrated science building on the Dorchester campus, Miller said he worries a health care school at the Mount Ida campus would compete with UMass Boston for students. When UMass Amherst bought Mount Ida, administrators promised the suburban campus would not replicate programs offered at Boston’s only public research university.
With just over 100 students enrolled, Miller said, his UMass Boston program is not at capacity and, with more faculty members, it could expand easily.
“We have the infrastructure to help meet this need,” he said. “I think it requires greater investment in excellence. I don’t think establishing a new school will necessarily get us to where we need to be. We want to build on what we have already.”
Staring at empty buildings on the UMass Amherst Mount Ida campus, Representative John Lawn admitted the shortage of healthcare faculty is a challenge but maintained that as the pandemic drags on, the state could still use another school here in Newton.
“I would argue that we need to really expand it and look at it,” he said. “I don’t know how we’re going to do it any other way.”