To Build or Not to Build?

Photo by Karl Jonson

Photo by Karl Jonson

Taylor Fife

After Chancellor Michael F. Collins took his post last year he jokingly referred to dorms as a “four letter word”. During his convocation speech on September 14, he made sure not to offend anyone with inappropriate language and instead spoke of “living learning communities.”

“I’m excited about how these living learning communities could potentially change the campus” said Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs Patrick Day in an interview with The Mass Media. “I think [residence halls] have the potential to significantly build campus life and school spirit.” Since Chancellor Collins arrived last year one of his biggest priorities has been to create a stronger feeling of community and increase participation in events on campus.

Vice Chancellor Day also commented that residence halls had the potential to instill in students “a different sense of ownership about the institution.”

Chancellor Collin’s choice of the term “living, learning, communities” was not only a way to avoid the word ‘dorm’, but was also a deliberate way to place the emphasis of residence on their contribution to academia at UMass Boston.

“The chancellor was clear in framing this discussion about housing in terms of living learning communities. And a potential housing option that would add and compliment our academic programs, and the general educational experience that students have at UMB,” said Associate Vice Chancellor Ed Hayward.

Dorms also have the potential to improve the area in Dorchester around UMass Boston. Day mentioned that residence halls would have the potential to increase student involvement in community service. Students living in the area could also provide a boost to the local economy.

Patrick Day also stressed the positive impact that dorms could have on the success of students, noting that students often perform better when they live near campus and with other students.

“[Building residence halls] has the potential to increase retention and graduation rate,” said Day. This is an especially important point as even though recruitment has been up this year, enrollment has decreased. For Chancellor Collins to achieve his goal of a 15,000 student population by 2010, dorms may be the only way.

The focus of the discussion on residence halls, of course, needs to focus on the students who attend. “First and foremost we have to do what’s best for students,” Day said.

Some students, including James DiLoreto ’08, a political science major, are reluctant to the prospect of dorms on campus. “I am not a fan of dorms.” He said “The entire UMB dynamic is centered around the fact that we are a commuter school. When every student commutes it creates an extremely diverse atmosphere; people of all ages, races and economic backgrounds. Once dorms are in place you really begin to inadvertently restrict most of that.”

Access and availability of the dorms is a major issue. “The key to making sure this is a positive change in terms of campus life and the urban mission is that any dorms that are built are affordable to the average UMB student,” said Student Trustee Alex Kulenovic. If dorms are priced higher than poorer members of the surrounding community can afford, there could be serious impacts on the demographic makeup of UMass Boston.

When former Chancellor Gora announced her plans to build residence halls on the Columbia Point campus controversy erupted. Although the plan was backed by then UMass President William Bulger, many other local politicians and residents opposed the plan. The $218 million dollar project was eventually halted by Governor Romney.

This time around it is clear that Chancellor Collins and university administration are going to be more tactful. No official plans for residence halls have come forth, no price estimates, and there has never been a statement declaring an intention to build dorms.

Vice Chancellor Ed Hayward made it very clear that at this point in time the administration is only in the fact finding stage. “What the chancellor talked about, was taking a look at the student need for housing,” said Hayward. “How do they satisfy their need for housing now, and would it make sense to explore providing housing options somewhere in the future.”

Vice Chancellor Patrick Day also expressed that residence halls will only be built if they can prove to be valuable to students and if members of the UMass Boston community want them. “Let’s ask the question,” he said.

Besides students’ concerns that dorms may change the make-up of the campus, there are a number of other reasons that members of the UMass Boston community and surrounding areas may oppose them. Local residents fear that importing thousands of college students in the area may create an unruly atmosphere. Others are afraid that having dorms will take the mission of the campus away from serving the immediate urban area and would cause the university to serve students from further away instead. Perhaps the most important reason that neighbors would oppose to the creation of dorms would be that having a number of students move in would increase the demand for housing around campus as more students sought to live near each other. This could potentially have an impact on housing prices in the area and have a negative impact on local renters’ budgets.

In addition, with problems such as a crumbling substructure and turmoil in CPCS, some argue that dorms should not be at the top of the to-do list. However, the administration is confident in its multi-tasking abilities. “There are always a number of priorities facing the campus, and some issues are further along in how they’re being addressed. You can’t let one issue dominate the agenda because there are a lot of important things that need to be done,” said Hayward.

Getting students and the community involved is absolutely necessary to the success of any plan for residence halls, and the administration has been working hard to hear all opinions. In the future plans will be created for gleaning information from the student body. Focus groups, comprehensive surveys and discussions with student groups and leaders will all be part of this process.

The day of the Chancellor’s convocation address there was a reception with members of the community to ensure that channels of communication will be open. “We’re certainly aware that different constituencies are interested in the issue, and we’re going to engage in a discussion about this issue with people that want to talk about it,” said Hayward.

When asked if community members will be involved in the decision making process Patrick Day remarked that “we’re part of a community, that’s what UMass Boston is about.” Newly elected UMass Board of Trustees Chairman Stephen Tocco also appeared supportive of looking into dorms saying that “A study is worthwhile so long as it is inclusive and involves everyone in the community.”

It is important to remember that UMass Boston students and community members will not be the only ones affected by these decisions, but also future students. “We’ll be building these for students who are still in high school and students who are sill in elementary school,” said Vice Chancellor Day.