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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Sunday, June 16, 2024

Cummings School receives $5 million from Commonwealth for FY16, sparking debates

The use of state funding for some Cummings School operations has sparked debate.

On July 30, Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine was granted $5 million from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts for the 2016 fiscal year. The Cummings School, located in Grafton, Mass., has received money from the Commonwealth for years, and recent budget negotiations have prompted a debate about why any public money goes to a private institution like Tufts.

Ian Aug. 28 open letter in the Somerville Journal to Senator Patricia Jehlen of SomervilleRepresentative Denise Provost of the 27th Middlesex District and Representative Christine Barber of the 34th Middlesex District, Somerville resident Jim Bossi questioned why Tufts receives any state funding.

“I find it very hard to understand why a school with an endowment of almost $2 billion would receive any aid at all,” Bossi wrote.

Provost answered Bossi in a Sept. 2 open letter in the Somerville Journal and explained how Tufts had come to receive the $5 million.

"The FY 2016 budget, which the legislature sent to [Governor Charlie] Baker, had an appropriation for $5 million for the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University," she wrote.

According to Representative David Muradian of the ninth Worcester District, he and about 20 of his colleagues proposed an amendment to raise this appropriation to $5.5 million, which is the amount that the Cummings School received for the 2015 fiscal year. Through a conference committee, the Senate, which had proposed $3 million for the Cummings School, negotiated with the House to set the appropriation at $5 million, Muradian said. 

According to Provost's letter, Baker then vetoed $1 million of this appropriation, lowering the amount down to $4 million. The House overrode this veto 144 to 10, finalizing the appropriation at $5 million.

According to the state's final budget for the 2016 fiscal year, Tufts is allowed to use the money on several conditions. The budget stipulates that "[the] funds shall be expended under a resident veterinary tuition remission plan ... [and] shall support bioterrorism prevention research related to diseases that can be transmitted from animals to humans."

The budget also requires that the Cummings School "work in consultation with the Norfolk County Agricultural High School on veterinary programs."

Muradian explained that a large budget deficit required Baker to utilize his veto power in this instance.

“Unfortunately, Governor Baker had to [veto some of the Cummings School appropriation] to try to balance the budget," Muradian said. "He came into the legislature with a $750 million budget deficit, so he had to make some tough decisions.”

Barber, one of the House members who voted to override the veto, explained the importance of the Cummings School’s contribution to public health.

“I think it is important that we have a vet school here [in New England] for a number of reasons, but the biggest one for me is, honestly, the public health component," Barber said. "The Veterinary School is able to treat and study infectious diseases which of course can move from animals to humans and affect the health of people as well. So I think it's helpful to have a school that's focused on that."

Muradian also emphasized the contributions of the Cummings School to Grafton, the hometown of both Muradian and his predecessor George Peterson.

The Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine is in my community ... [In my work] over the last seven years, I've come to have such a great appreciation for the Veterinary School and all [it does] for the Commonwealth," Muradian said. "It's an amazing...public-private partnership between the university and the Commonwealth ... Tufts University [has]…really the only veterinary school in the northeast, and I would argue it's one of the most...known throughout the world."

Muradian said that the Cummings School is a special case, as no other private institutions of higher education receive funding from the Commonwealth.

“I think that this is a unique situation [because] there's not a public veterinary school within the Commonwealth, so...that's why individuals recognize the need for it,” he said.

While Provost acknowledged the value of the Cummings School, she explained that just because it is the only veterinary school in New England, that does not necessarily mean it should receive state funding.

“There are a lot of other programs that are not available through the public system, and we don't make direct appropriations to those programs,” Provost said. “The state doesn't offer, for instance, a Master of Library Science degree [or] a Master of Social Work degree. Private institutions do, but we do not fund that directly … It's certainly important to have trained people for a variety of professions and occupations, but, you know, we don't fund other private institutions to provide a training which is not available in the state system.”

In her Sept. 2 open response to Bossi's letter, Provost expressed her agreement with him.

“I do not believe that the taxpayers of the Commonwealth should be providing operational funds to a private university with -- as you point out -- a substantial endowment,” Provost wrote.

According to Kim Thurler, director of public relations at Tufts, it is common practice for veterinary schools in the country to receive significant state funding.

“State funding is very important in helping to ensure [the] Cummings School’s future," Thurler told the Daily in an email.

Thurler said that the Cummings School provides important services for the surrounding community.

“The school not only educates future veterinarians, many of whom are Massachusetts residents, but it also serves as an important catalyst for economic development in central Massachusetts and provides critical services for the life sciences sector in Massachusetts,she said.

She added that when the Cummings School opened in 1978, there had been no veterinary school in Massachusetts since the 1947 closing of the one at Middlesex University.

According to the Cummings School’s website, tuition for Massachusetts residents is subsidized by about $5,000 a year, contingent upon funding of state appropriation.

Over the past several years, state funding for the Cummings School has increased steadily, from $2 million for the 2012 fiscal year to $5.5 million for the 2015 fiscal year, seeing a slight dip with the most recent $5 million appropriation, according to the budgets posted on the Commonwealth's website each year. This growth is in part due to Muradian’s efforts.

“If you look back in the last 20 years or so of funding, we're actually at one of the highest marks that we've ever had for the veterinary school, which I'm proud to say is through my advocacy and obviously [that of] the previous Representative George Peterson," Muradian said. "I think that we both hold Tufts near and dear as we know what an asset it is to the Commonwealth and especially [what an asset] the veterinary school [is] to my community in Grafton."

Muradian is appreciative of the support he has received from other state representatives and will continue to push for state funding for the Cummings School.

“I'm thankful that…the overwhelming majority of my colleagues were on board to support [the amendment]," he said. "I'm in hopes that there [are] no...cuts that will affect it, but if there [are], I'll certainly continue to advocate for the restored funding to the veterinary school."

While the Cummings School is set to receive the $5 million appropriation,Provost is working to enact other legislation that would direct the flow of money from private institutions to the state. In January, Provost filed a bill, H. 2668, that would impose a one percent excise tax on all private university endowments of $1 billion or more. This bill was heard before the Massachusetts Joint Committee on Revenue on Tuesday, Oct. 20.

Provost explained what this bill would do should it be signed into law.

“Every year those institutions which have an endowment of [$1 billion or more] would pay one percent of that amount into an earmarked state fund for public education,” she said.

Barber, a co-sponsor of H. 2668, explained that this bill is an important step in supporting educational access.

“It's incredibly important that all students have equal access to education," Barber said. "And we have a number of universities in this state -- Tufts is definitely not the only one -- that have very large endowments and are nonprofit universities. And this [bill] is a way of helping them do their part to help provide education to all students."

Thurler expressed Tufts’ strong opposition to H. 2668. The bill, she said, is unconstitutional and fails to consider the logistical aspects of managing Tufts’ endowment.

“We believe it is an unconstitutional tax that singles out a small segment of colleges and universities," she said. "Furthermore, much of our endowment is directed for specific purposes and programs specified by our donors, and we are legally obligated to spend those funds for those specific purposes.”

Thurler went on to explain that the passage of H. 2668 would require Tufts to raise more money to make up for the loss.

“This bill would mean that we would have to raise millions of additional dollars to pay the tax rather than spending money on financial aid and other important purposes that have long-term benefits, such as increasing...access to a Tufts education," she said. "For example, 20 students from Somerville currently share more than $700,000 in Tufts financial aid grants."

On Oct. 19, the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities in Massachusetts (AICUM), comprised of 58 independent colleges and universities, including Tufts, published an explanation of its opposition to the bill, asking that the Revenue Committee reject it.

House Bill 2668 would apply to only nine institutions, which is a constitutionally flawed and stunningly inequitable attempt to solve the state’s fiscal problems,” Robert McCarron, vice president for Government Relations and General Counsel for AICUM, wrote in the testimony to the Revenue Committee. 

Additionally, the bill would harm the communities that the revenue of these universities ultimately supports, McCarron explained.

“Private colleges and universities in [Massachusetts] generate more than $33 billion in economic activity each and every year," he wrote. "This economic activity gets reinvested in Massachusetts families. Last year alone, AICUM institutions awarded more than $560 [million] in financial aid to Massachusetts students and their families -- and much of that money came from endowment income.”

Aside from financial aid, salaries are one of the largest expenses for universities, according to the AICUM’s testimony.

“The resulting job losses and/or cuts to financial aid will negate any potential revenue benefit the Commonwealth may accrue via this unconstitutional tax,” McCarron wrote.

Responding to the claims made against H. 2668Provost said colleges should contribute to the community's education.

“So, what provision of which constitution (state or federal)…prohibits the state from expecting different contributions based on wealth?” Provost told the Daily in an email. “Colleges and universities have lots of ‘important purposes’ to spend money on -- but one of them should be contributing to the general education of the whole community from which these institutions benefit -- currently tax-free.”

Ultimately, despite the ongoing discussion over the direction in which public and private money should flow between the Commonwealth and Tufts, Provost resists seeing the public funding for the Cummings School as an exception.

“There are private institutions that do have unique programs in the Commonwealth," she said. "I think Simmons College has the only Master of Library Science program…in Massachusetts ... That's another vital need … Why pick veterinarians who…once they graduate, are presumably good earners the way that doctors and dentists are[?] Why pick their institution for a direct subsidy? ... I have not heard a rationale.”