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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

Dorm Disinterest

In an attempt to increase retention rates by attracting “more traditional freshmen” to UMass Boston and build a sense of community on the campus, the university is continuing a feasibility study of student housing. The study, conducted by Sasaki Associates, is scheduled to be completed in June.

Sasaki Associates were chosen to conduct the study based on their extensive experience in building student housing. According to The University Reporter, Sasaki Associates has worked with over 300 colleges and universities throughout the country in designing and planning campus facilities. Stephan Chait, an assistant vice chancellor of Administration and Finance, stated, “The study is being funded through UMB borrowed funds, UMass Building Authority. We will pay this back later somehow.”

The design team recently presented their progress in the study, primarily focusing on possible locations of the housing. Potential sites include the field by the entrance to the university and south of the new campus center. To accommodate 2,000 beds, “at least two or perhaps three sites” will be selected and the final decision will take into consideration cost, land use, and the requirement to “replace what is displaced.” Construction of the buildings is scheduled to begin in August 2004 and will progress in three phases. The first phase will culminate in the completion of 600 to 800 beds, and by the end of the third phase, 2,000 beds will be built. Chait explained, “The cost of building will be covered by room and board fees.”

At a time when Boston is facing a housing crunch, Stephanie Janey, dean of Student Affairs, pointed out, “All of the schools in the area have been asked to help with housing.” Chancellor Jo Ann Gora explained that after talking to students, “We have data that indicates that a significant percentage of students leave because we do not have residential housing. We are hoping to increase retention of undergraduates.” However, she stressed, “We will always be a primarily commuter campus,” citing that for a campus with approximately 13,000 students, 2,000 beds will serve only a small percentage of those in attendance.

University administration continues to seek out student input during the planning process. Janey stated, “We attempted to do focus groups, but there was no student response except for one student who called after it was cancelled. In late March, we held a meeting with a group of students from athletic programs and a small group of honors students and tutors in an access program to get their preferences about amenities.” Janey continued, citing that these students expressed a preference for semi-private bathrooms and suites or modified suites, “over other arrangements.”

“We are meeting with student center leaders, who represent the student body and are a good, diverse mix,” Janey reported. This meeting was held on Monday, April 29, 2002. According to Michael Rhys, The Mass Media editor, “In attendance were Dean Janey, two women from Sasaki Associates, Carla Francazio, Janet Stegman, and about a dozen center coordinators.” At the meeting, students voiced concern over problems that would come with students living on campus such as violent crime and increased demand for parking, as well as the administration’s focus on traditional students. When an unidentified student asked, “When will the policy be determined about who gets beds?” Janey responded, “I can’t say exactly when we’ll get to that discussion,” and when asked when the administration would “come back” to the students on the issue, Janey concluded, “We will let you know.”

Following the meeting, Steve Kelly, coordinator of the Veteran’s Student Center, commented, “They did ask for input, but it was mostly a token gesture. I think this will drastically change the face of the university at the expense of inner city, veteran, minority, and non-traditional students.” Kelly explained that he plans to request that five beds be put aside for homeless veterans attending UMB, a move he sees as in-line with the university’s urban mission.

Some UMB faculty members, who see non-traditional students already attending UMB as a better group than potential traditional freshmen to target as residents of student housing, also feel excluded from the discussion. Michael Stone, professor of Community Planning and Public Policy, and a UMB faculty member since 1973, sees “a failure to draw upon our own resources.” He expressed concern that while “housing is [his] area of expertise,” he and several colleagues of similar experience “learned of this project from The Mass Media” last fall, and were not invited to participate in discussion of the housing study until they received a general e-mail announcing that Sasaki Associates were presenting their study on April 24, 2002. Stone stated, “While we are not opposed to student housing, we are concerned that expertise within our own institution is not being looked at, the historical commitment made by the university to the surrounding community is being reinterpreted, and the proposal to build dormitories for young students strikes me as problematical in relation to our urban mission.”

Timothy Sieber, Associate Professor in the anthropology department, stated, “One of the things that I am most proud of as a 28-year faculty member at UMB is that we have always had a commitment – however imperfectly fulfilled – to being one of the nation’s leading urban universities. Right now, Boston is in the midst of a severe housing affordability crisis. This is an opportunity for us to fulfill our university’s potential with innovative, creative, socially responsible solutions to our own university’s, and the urban community’s housing needs. I’m not sure what solutions are possible, but I believe we are capable of imagining far more creative responses than conventional college dorms for 18-year olds.”

Stone echoed this concern and offered an alternative response to the housing need, stating, “If the administration is trying to retain students, they should assist those who are struggling the most,” citing that older working students with families to support struggle more financially than “younger students with parental support.” Stone suggested that small apartments with congregate cooking facilities and childcare could be discussed and considered, and “would be exciting for children as well as parents, and a national experiment in public policy,” concluding, “I hope it is not too late to open up the process to address basic things. There are some on this campus who are interested in democracy only at a textbook level and some who believe democracy should be practiced in all areas – on campus and in relationships with our neighbors. Some of us believe democracy leads to better substantive outcomes.”

Gora answered to concern about incorporating the surrounding community, stating that in an effort to give area residents a voice, “External Liason Committee representatives from all neighboring communities meet on regular basis. The goal of that committee is to bring everyone into the conversation and give them a chance to express their concerns.” However, one area resident group, the Columbia/Savin Hill Civic Association, stated that since Gora “announced the university’s dramatic plan to add on-campus housing” at a meeting in December, “The university has not considered the neighborhood impacts of this plan. Nor have they adequately included the community in discussions about their proposal or future plans in general.”

Jean Pishkin, a member of this association, and newly admitted transfer student said, “Although the Chancellor created a committee including community members, members of the Columbia/Savin Hill Civic Association were not informed until after the committee had already been set up. Luckily a member of our civic association was included.” Pishkin expressed concern that the impact of 2,000 residential students on her community would be heavier traffic, a strain on “already stretched area resources,” crime, particularly underage drinking, and the solicitation of student business, stating, “We do not want this to become the next Allston-Brighton. Students come and go, but residents have to stay.”

Pishkin also worries that UMB student housing is not being considered “in the context of everything else that is happening in the community,” namely 333 new apartments that are being built by the Corcoran Jennison Company on Mt. Vernon Avenue. If each apartment houses at least two people, this along with students who will eventually live in UMB student housing will add nearly 3,000 new residents to the area in a very short time period. Pishkin pointed out that it may not be realistic to expect an area that recently spent $10 million on repairing its beaches not to feel an environmental impact, saying, “When they add even a few feet of land here, the currents change, which leads to silt drop and marsh grass. We just finished fixing the problems caused by the land filled to put these buildings in, and now they want to add more buildings.”

Pishkin noted, “The biggest crux of the problem is the population explosion on the point,” but also wonders how the university will staff and “fill the loco parentis role” in student housing at a time when existing staff are being cut. She concluded, “The original concept of UMB was to create an urban commuter campus for working people. It was never conceived of as a traditional residential experience. This is a public university. The whole idea of a state school is so the public at large can get an education. People come here because it is their only choice. It would be nice to know that when student housing does become available it is available to the neediest students, not just to those fortunate enough to afford traditional student housing.”