Dorms Doomed?

Gin Dumcius

As students steeled themselves for the Long Terrible Week of Finals, UMass Boston administration officials were experiencing a hellish week of their own, when Governor Mitt Romney canceled a bond sale that included money for dorms.

One can imagine the tension and frustration up on the Quinn Building’s third floor, and the nightmares that probably followed the officials home; nightmares of a horned red Romney looming over dorms sinking into Dorchester Bay like an Atlantean stone.

UMass Boston Chancellor Jo Ann Gora called the week “very disappointing” and said she was “saddened that what we’ve been working at the last seventeen months is all of a sudden off the table.”

Romney last Monday cancelled the bond sale, worth $371 million, through his Administration and Finance Secretary Eric Kriss, who called it “fiscally unsound.” $218 million was set to go to the dorms, a controversial project since its inception.

UMass President William Bulger, acting with authority given to him by the Board of Trustees to prioritize projects, decided to pull back from dorms, personally calling state Senator Jack Hart with the news.

Some students, faculty, politicianswhich include UMass Boston graduates Mayor Thomas Menino and city councilor Maureen Feeney–and a nearly unanimous Dorchester community have been dead set against the dorms. Students and faculty have said it would compromise the school’s urban mission-that of serving the non-traditional, older population- and the community cites a promise made long ago when the school was first built that the university would never build dorms and remain a commuter school. The Dorchester Reporter has extensively covered the issue.

Talks between the university and the community have been steadily breaking down, with many in the community seeing the university as plunging ahead with dormitories, regardless of outcry or concern, and without an impact study.

The university had scheduled meeting at the IBEW Hall on Monday, May 12, which was quickly cancelled after the news hit the wires.

“We cancelled the meeting because we felt there wasn’t the same urgency,” said Gora. “But we want to continue conversations with the community and with the civic associations and try to continue to explain why it is important to the university and why it is appropriate for the university to be able to build on its own footprint.” With “more conversation and more interaction there’s always more understanding,” she said.

An April letter from the Office of University Communications was sent out to UMass Boston students and Dorchester residents, informing them of the May 12 meeting. “Whether you are for, against, or undecided about our hopes to build residential housing, I would be most appreciative if you could join me and my senior staff at the meeting,” wrote Chancellor Gora.

Scheduled college events were changed because the meeting, like the Athletic Department’s Annual Athletic Awards Banquet, which was moved back an hour so people could make the meeting.

Charlie Titus, director of athletics, wrote in a letter to student-athletes, “I believe a strong presence [at the meeting] by student-athletes and members of our staff will make a positive impact on the efforts of the UMB administration toward the development of student housing opportunities.”

Asking them to join him at the meeting and promising transportation from the Athletic Department to and from the meeting hall, Titus wrote, “We have the opportunity to provide strong support for our administration and play a critical role in the future of this institution and UMB Athletics.”

A cancellation notice was mailed out May 9, this time from the Athletics Department, thanking people for their consideration to attend.

The nixing of the dorms has had mixed reactions on campus.

“As an international student, I think it was a good idea,” says Omar Bukhari, the student trustee-elect. “[Dorms] would attract students from across the globe.” Out of state and international students comprise 12% of the student population.

Dorms would also satisfy the needs of those who want to have the full college experience. According to an internal Fall 2001 survey, 34% of Fall 2000 freshman who left, left for a college with residential housing. Now with dorms indefinitely “off the table,” Chancellor Gora says the university will be thinking of other ways satisfy those students’ needs.

Colleen O’Malley, of the Queer Student Union, and student senator-elect, is against the dorms, and feels the focus should be on maintenance and the urban mission.

According to The Boston Globe, Secretary of Finance Kriss, along with calling the bond sale dangerous to the economy, has said the bond sale does not jibe with Romney’s “fix it first” policies, suggesting that maintenance should come first, rather than construction projects like dorms.

Donna Neal, associate director of student life and Dorchester resident, said, “Obviously it’s not a time to build dorms, especially when the specter of tuition, fee increases and layoffs and course offering cuts looms. [We] have to try to maintain current services as we can.”

While declining to say whether she’s in support of dorms or not, exiting student trustee Heather Dawood said she supported Bulger’s decision to withdraw funding for dorms at this time, and revisit dorms at another time.

The bond’s cancellation was seen by many as another escalation in the bitter battle between the governor and Bulger, a former Senate president. When Romney unveiled his plan to reorganize higher education several months later, Bulger’s $5.6 million dollar office was targeted for elimination. Romney stated that nearly $14 million would be saved, which would go to scholarships for students.

According to Bulger spokesperson John Hoey, the elimination of the central UMass administration would cost more, not less, since all of its affairs would have to be diverted to each of the five individual UMass campuses.