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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

Dorms at UMass Boston? Proceed with Caution.

Jason Campos

Jason Campos

As the school year draws to a close, I thought I should weigh in on an issue that has cropped up in the on- and off-campus media with some frequency in the last few weeks: the possibility of dorms at UMass Boston.

There has always been some undergraduate student support for dorms since the UMB Harbor Campus opened more than 30 years ago. But it has never been a majority position. Far from it. Since the bulk of UMB students have traditionally come from Boston and its immediate environs, and since UMB’s “Urban Mission” is about offering the best possible and least-expensive education for students from Boston’s neighborhoods-who may otherwise not have a chance at getting a university degree-it is unsurprising that there was not much demand for on-campus housing from people that already live nearby.

Plus, there has always been significant resistance from surrounding neighborhoods who wish to avoid the 24/7 craziness that large numbers of students can sometimes bring with them. And there has been a strong progressive political position staked out by many students, faculty and staff that dorms would quickly move UMB away from the “Urban Mission” by changing the campus constituency to a majority of middle-class suburbanites who would be most likely to afford dorms-who are, to be blunt, mostly white. Such a constituency would not see the “Urban Mission” as one of its core interests, accelerating the existing process of watering it down year-by-year.

Although some research needs to be done to add some hard numbers to this debate, I don’t think there’s any question that UMB is becoming too expensive for many Boston students-who are, to be blunt yet again, mostly students of color. I’ve written frequently about that problem and will continue to do so. Yet, in my last two years on campus-including stints in undergraduate student government, various clubs, and now running the Graduate Employee Union-I have never heard a clamor for dorms from the vast majority of students I speak to about issues of the day.

I have only heard dorms raised as an issue from a small number of white middle-class students from the suburbs. Earlier this year I took note of the formation of a student club “Housing Options Today” that wants dorms at UMB-whose listed officers are a student from Rockland and a student from Hanover. I recently spoke to a student from Beverly who did her own unscientific straw poll that claimed strong support for dorms from about 500 students. Student government leaders from the North Shore, South Shore and MetroWest, plus suburbs of other US cities round out the list of people I have heard supporting dorms.

I am not hearing a push for dorms from students I talk to on a regular basis-who are mostly working-class students of color from right around Boston. So I want to say that I am extremely curious about why this issue is suddenly getting on the public radar screen in a big way. I question the fact that Undergraduate Senate President Mike Metzger decided to push this issue after participating in meetings with high-level UMB administration officials as part of the Chancellor Michael Collins’ Strategic Planning Task Force process (which, full disclosure, I am also participating in). I question why tiny student groups pushing dorms are suddenly getting favorable attention from the administration-and why Metzger suddenly moved for, and got, a pro-dorm vote in the Senate a couple of weeks ago.

Even weirder was the fact that said Senate vote suddenly appeared in a glowing puff piece in “The Boston Globe” within a few days-when more critical UMB issues like the ongoing evisceration of the College of Public and Community Service never get similar attention. And now the administration is running focus groups on dorms and hiring off-campus pollsters to do a survey of student attitudes on dorms. As a social scientist in training, that makes my “Spidey Sense” tingle like crazy-since the most important thing to ask about surveys is always: “Who is writing the questions?” And “What is their agenda?”

Perhaps I wouldn’t be so concerned about these signs and portents were it not for the fact that a) “Globe” columnist Derrick Jackson just reported that Governor Patrick gave a mandate to public college presidents to raise more money from outside the state budget… dorms would bring in just that kind of money…and b) Chancellor Collins has made abundantly clear that the image he wants to make UMB into looks an awful lot like the private Catholic schools he once attended, a sort of “Holy Cross on the Harbor” as one wag of a professor recently put it to me. Dorms would fit quite well into such a vision.

So, I just want to warn students that this drive for dorms has all the makings of a carefully orchestrated UMB administration PR campaign. I believe that high university officials, and likely UMass and state officials further up the political food chain, have as-yet-unstated reasons for wanting dorms-some legitimate (like the whole “living-learning” argument), some not. American politicians, including university chancellors, have a long tradition of building artificial consensus for things that don’t really benefit their constituency. Like, perhaps, dorms at UMB.

I therefore enjoin fellow students to go slow on this one. I think we should work with some social science professors on campus to do our own housing survey-a nice project for undergrad and grad students alike. I think there needs to be a whole lot more debate, on-campus and off. And I think we really need to hear more from Boston students-the students that UMB was created for. Do Boston (and Cambridge, Somerville, Everett, Chelsea, and Quincy) students really want dorms? No disrespect to suburban students, but many of you all have the ability to go to other schools with dorms, if that’s what you really want. For many urban students, it’s UMB or nothing. Are dorms really a priority? Or are issues like making this school really affordable again more important. You all need to be the judges. But I think you can see where I stand.

Jason Pramas is a doctoral student in Public Policy, and Chair of the Graduate Employee Organization/UAW Local 1596-UMass Boston Chapter.