Dorms take backseat to other growth in UMass presentation

UMass-Boston is more than halfway through its 'strategic' planning process, but with a progress report due at the end of this month, officials had little concrete information to present at a community forum Tuesday evening.

Several university officials reviewed the structure of the strategic and master planning initiatives for an audience that included a high percentage of Dorchester's more well-known neighborhood activists and representatives for many local elected officials.

Officers from each of the neighborhood's most active civic associations were present, and many wondered aloud before the meeting began whether dormitories would be a topic of discussion

"My perspective is that it was a nice presentation," said Tom Gannon, president of the Fields Corner Civic Association. "I still didn't hear an adequate representation of the potential for dorms and I'm still questioning the focus of this institution wanting to get away from its core urban mission."

The possibility of constructing student housing, long a point of contention between the university and Dorchester residents, was raised again this fall in a back-to-school address by Chancellor Michael Collins. Community opposition to dorms is the most contentious facet of what may be a growing divide between neighbors and university leaders over the mission and future of the city's only public university. Many Dorchester residents and quite a few neighborhood leaders are alumni, and they say that preserving UMass-Boston's accessibility to working class city residents and their children is the ideological basis for their resistance to dorms.

"This university is trying to change the mission away from the focus on the working stiffs in this community," said Gannon. "I think this does nothing but hurt the working stiffs and every person that lives in Roxbury, Dorchester, and Quincy."

While alumni and neighbors like Gannon have are interested in preserving UMass-Boston's urban and commuter identity, university leaders have made it clear throughout the strategic planning process that recasting UMass-Boston as a research university with a national and international reputation is a top priority, with all the changes to funding, faculty, and student life changes that might accompany such a shift.

"We must grow in every aspect &endash; enrollment, faculty recruiting, development efforts, funding &endash; in order to remain competitive with other institutions," said Collins.

He and other university officials have said repeatedly that while dorms, or "living-learning communities" may be a part of the university's future, they are not the focal point of the strategic planning initiative (scheduled to conclude with a final report this June) or of the master campus plan that will be developed with input from the strategic plan. A new academic building is the top construction priority.

Despite a lengthy question and answer session with Deputy Chancellor Drew O'Brien in which attendees asked about issues ranging from off-campus parking to student enrollment, the only person to use the word "dormitories" at Tuesday night's meeting was Collins himself.

"I know that in the past, some have questioned a hidden agenda. There is no hidden agenda; there is no secret plan," said Collins. "I know that last time there were some hurt feelings, some problems. I would like to think some of that has disappeared."