Underscoring Squeezes

Caleb Nelson

With $125 million in new funding for renovation and expansion projects from the Higher Education Bond Bill resonating through the minds of UMB officials and student enrollment figures exceeding expectations, UMB is moving forward on its expansion plans.

These plans look 25 years to the future at a wider, greener and less fortress like campus organization said DeWayne Lehman, the Director of Communications at UMB, who has written articles on the UMB expansion projects.

“Right now on the drawing boards, the university is working with Goody Clancy, which is an architectural firm, on the programming and preliminary design of a new integrated sciences complex. Then next spring we hope to begin plans for another academic building,” Lehman explained. “The target date for completion of these buildings is September 2013.”

New campus structures are one aspect of a comprehensive strategic plan – commissioned by UMB Chancellor Collins in fall 2006 and completed last year – entitled, “UMass Boston Renewal: Building the Student-Centered, Urban Public University of the New Century.” The plan is as broad as its title.

Increasing student enrollment is one of the more specific sub-objectives of this plan, Lehman said.

“We completed the strategic plan last year, one of the goals in which is to increase student enrollment. The figure we came up with was 15,000 students by 2010,” Lehman said. “Given the kind of growth and interest we are seeing right now we anticipate reaching that possibly next year [2009].”

Student enrollment at UMB has been increasing by at least 500 students a year since 2005 when 12,362 students enrolled in classes. In the fall of 2008, 14,117 students enrolled. Kathleen Teehan, the Vice Chancellor for Enrollment Management at UMB, insisted that this increase has not been at the expense of admissions standards.

“In fact this year our standards had to go up,” Teehan said. “Last year we had too many qualified applicants, and were able to admit more students than we hoped.”

Statistics put out by the Office of Institutional Research and Policy Studies, on umb.edu, affirm that UMB is drawing from a larger trough of applicants than it has in past years. In 2008 the number of freshman applications increased by 14.9%, while the freshman acceptance rate went down 3.3%.

UMB’s ability to increase its enrollment without loosening its academic standards may have to do with the poor economy Len von Morse, a UMB professor, suggested.

“In a bad economy people go back to school,” von Morse said. “It seems like grad school applications are going through the roof because people can’t find jobs.”

Despite the growth of the student population class size caps have remained the same, von Morse explained. Still, the classes seem larger.

“There is clearly a desire to increase enrollment in classes so we can take full advantage of the resources we have. It’s important to distinguish between caps and enrollment. The caps remain the same, but now more classes are filling to capacity.”

Another UMB professor, Mara Martinez Earley, said that there has been talk of lowering class caps despite the increasing enrollment.

UMB is one of the few public institutions that maintain small class sizes in most subjects, she elaborated. The administration is proud to be able to provide small classes, and would like to continue doing that especially in the English department where she works.

“25 is a lot of students for a writing course, just because of the amount of personal attention required for each student,” Earley said. “It’s great that there is more enrollment, but I think that they should open more sections rather then letting the classes get so big.”

In order to accommodate the increasing student population the administration rolled class times up half an hour to 8am at the beginning of this semester. This allowed for more classes in a day, said Ellen O’Connor, the UMB Vice Chancellor for Administration and Finance.

“When we were changing the class times to 8 o’clock people were saying, ‘oh forget it, the students will never want to come that early.’ Are you kidding? Those classes are packed, because now students can go to class for an hour, then go to work. They couldn’t do that before.”

This extension of class hours is part of a plan at UMB to make better use of its facilities, by keeping them active for more hours a week, explained O’Connor. Incorporating features like cafes and internet lounges into the existing buildings, she said, is important and the administration would like to see more of these in the new structures going up.

“What makes a good social community at a school are the resources each building can provide,” O’Connor pointed out. “Successful buildings have features that keep them alive from early in the morning to late at night. Those are the sort of buildings that we are shooting to build in our strategic plan.”

The expansion of the school, from O’Connor’s perspective, hinges on the affective use of classroom space and resources available whether it is in the old buildings or the newer ones.

“I’d like to see these new buildings open for at least 120 hours a week.” O’Connor said laughing. “The hope is to provide for enough of these other student needs in each building to keep people on campus and to build our campus community.”

The building costs for expanding the school will be taken mostly out in mortgages, O’Connor said. Right now 7% of the operating budget of UMB goes to pay for the mortgages for the new buildings.

“The sources of revenue for UMass have been kind of on a rollercoaster. The amount that the state used to contribute 20 years ago was about 85 cents on every dollar that we spent. Now it is probably down around 31 cents. State support [of UMB] has diminished considerably, and the student tuition and fees have been filling that gap.”

Despite the university’s reliance on student funds O’Connor insisted that tuition would not be raised by thousands of dollars at a time.

“There is not going to be some big new tuition hike because of this mast plan,” she said. “Even if we do put up the tuition and fees some we will put up the amount of financial aid we offer.”

Increasing enrollment is one way of fattening the budget, and written into the strategic plan is the financial stability that a larger student base can provide. This O’Connor sees as essential to the realization of the universities goals, and she feels strongly that there is room for the 15,000 students that the strategic plan calls for on campus now.

“If the question is do we have enough space to teach 15,000 students Tuesdays at 10 am and Thursdays at 10 am, the answer is no. We don’t. But if we use our spaces from Monday morning to Friday night, reports from an educational consulting firm we hired show that yes we do have the space.”

Tiffany Nguyen, a UMB junior, feels that the current affects of this transition and the extension of class availability are undermining the present UMB community.

“I try to schedule my classes back to back so I can get home quicker,” she said. “It’s not worth it to try to stick around campus. It’s just too busy.”

Because UMB is such an affordable school, Nguyen claimed she would not consider leaving. But her life at her apartment in Harbor Point and her life on campus are not connected.

“I only come to school for class. The computer labs are usually too crowded to study in – I’ve left after waiting before because no one wanted to give up their computer – and there is no good reason for me to go back on campus late in the evening when they are free.”

In the computer labs or at the Campus Center is where most people spend their time between classes, said Deepika Ika, a UMB senior. In her opinion everything has become centralized, packing people into the newer areas, and drawing them away from the classrooms.

“There’s just not enough room here for everyone at lunch time,” Ika said about the cafeteria. “It becomes a battle to get a table, so I usually try to eat at home. I miss the grill they had last year in the Quinn building. It was nice to eat away from the hubbub in the cafeteria.”

The primary concerns addressed in the strategic plan, according to Vice Chancellor O’Connor, are those of the students and faculty at UMB. She urged students to make their schedules for each semester thoughtfully, and to take advantage of classes at less busy times in the week.

“I’m sure you’ve been here late at night. We’re here till 10 o’clock some nights,” said O’Connor. “The first need we are concerned for is that of the commuting students and faculty at UMass Boston… What we are gearing toward is attracting the same sort of diverse student body and faculty we have always attracted.”

UMB officials are aware of the changes that are taking place in the university. Their hope is that the changes will be positive ones, so growth at UMB can continue.