read more: Boston Herald Article

[password]Alina Lindblom could have attended any number of colleges or universities. But when it came time to choose a school, the Northboro native (who scored 780 on her Critical Reading SAT) chose UMass-Amherst. Lindblom, now a political science major with a 3.9 grade-point average, says three things led her to UMass-Amherst: Its economic value, the extensive opportunities to study abroad and, most significantly, the Commonwealth Honors College.

The Board of Higher Education created the honors college in 1996 to provide a more intensive, interdisciplinary curriculum for students with a demonstrated record of excellence. The honors college’s average SAT (1334) and GPA (4.16) for incoming students compare favorably to some of the best colleges and universities in the country.

“I would not have applied to UMass if it didn’t have an honors college,” said Dan Burke, an accounting major from the Cape. Burke, who graduated second in his high school class, was offered admission to Georgetown and Cornell, but chose UMass. Now a junior with a 3.99 grade point average, Burke has traveled to Italy, Ireland and Brazil on UMass programs and describes his college experience as “life changing.”

The honors college’s smaller classes and challenging course work are part of what attracts high-caliber students like Lindblom and Burke to UMass-Amherst. Throw in Amherst’s idyllic New England setting and it’s easy to see that the campus has much to offer our best and brightest.

Since coming to campus two years ago, Chancellor Robert C. Holub has tried to capitalize on these strengths with the goal of pushing the campus into the ranks of “public ivies” like the University of California at Berkeley, the University of Virginia, the University of Texas at Austin and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. To do this, he must enhance the Amherst campus’ role as the flagship of the five-campus University of Massachusetts system.

What are the hallmarks of a premier public flagship? It has to be the leader in research and graduate education; provide the largest menu of academic offerings in the system; host the top sports programs and serve as a beacon for top undergraduate students. To be sure, other campuses in the fleet must also strive for excellence. But, while a flagship’s scope is broad, the scope of the sister campuses must remain targeted and distinct (such as UMass-Lowell’s emphasis on applied science and technology).

UMass-Amherst is now at a critical juncture – it faces not only budgetary constraints but also political pressure from a destructive culture of forced egalitarianism. Over a decade ago, Robert M. Berdahl, then chancellor at Berkeley, issued this warning:

“In the name of fairness, equitable distribution of scarce resources or regional politics, there is a subtle, but dangerous, effort to weaken flagship campuses. No one will admit that it is happening, but it is.” Thus, although Gov. Deval Patrick pays lip-service to the concept of a flagship, he privately has questioned the value of elevating one campus over others in the system. The governor won’t say he wants to take anything away from the Amherst campus. But his support for the proliferation of duplicative programs throughout the system, his desire to make the honors college more accessible to a greater number of students (read: less selective) and his support for the acquisition of an unaccredited law school by UMass-Dartmouth are a waste of scarce resources. More precisely, they threaten the UMass brand and risk creating a system plagued by mediocrity.

The state and the University of Massachusetts are at a crossroads. This November, we will elect our next governor. By June, the board of trustees will select the next president of the university system. Let us pick leaders of both who will invest in the flagship and in the Commonwealth Honors College it houses. For both our state and our university, let’s choose excellence over mediocrity. Alina Lindblom and Dan Burke deserve nothing less.

Jennifer C. Braceras is a lawyer and political commentator. She is a graduate of UMass-Amherst and a member of the university’s Board of Trustees.[/password]