At the Point, January 28, 1974

Richard Sobel

Community Member


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Opening Day at the new University of Massachusetts Boston and all the clocks are stuck at high noon. For 5700 students and 400 faculty (descendants of a group of several hundred that started in “temporary” quarters in 1965) it was time to move. (The days in the shadow of huge UMass Amherst are virtually over).

Like Alice when she drank from a wonderland bottle, the original Boston UMass got uncomfortably bigger. From old Gas Company offices, the downtown “campus” grew in a decade into an unintended-school-without-walls spread from Copley Square to the Combat Zone. Now after four years of construction on new facilities, old “UMass Gas” is being abandoned for a real campus. (The few hundred members of the newest college remain temporarily in town.)

The Opening, delayed an extra six months by construction problems, and strong community concern over university impact, was a kaleidoscopic occasion. Hundreds of students, faculty, administrators and staff filed by information tables, multi-colored signs, and semi-permanent workmen and apropos posters from Alice in Wonderland.

Poster Between Science and College II:
Alice and the Cheshire Cat
“Would you tell me which way
I ought to go from here?”
“That depends a good deal on where
you want to get to,” said the Cat.

Confounded by lost classes, confused schedules, an unclear academic identity and two unenthusiastic nearby communities, the newcomers faced not only the second half of their school year but a new era.

In a period of tight budgets and college closing, this may be the last new campus of the century. Challenging New England’s traditional bias towards private college, the development of the University of Massachusetts in Boston is a significant event for higher education. The first major public university in the “Hub,” UMass Boston is meant to serve the children of the working people of Boston. With tuition of $300 a year, it will educate many not usually bound for college. Most students will be over twenty-two. Many of them and their faculty will split their days between academics and jobs in the real world.

While a significant step for Massachusetts public education, its direction isn’t clear. Though UMass Boston has a basic concern for good mass education, with a stress on minority needs, the school is in a quandary. Over a period of time, there has been a “struggle for the soul of the university.” Academic traditionalists, like recently departed dean, Paul Gagnon, favor a liberal arts orientation, with professional training at the graduate level: “a Harvard of the Poor.” Others, including President Robert Wood (former HUD under-secretary) favor undergraduate career training in technical areas and practical work experience, along with liberal arts: “As good as Harvard but different.” Carlo Golino, the new Chancellor from tuition-free City College of New York, and somewhat traditionalist, is concerned with the practical aspects of getting a job and minority cultural affirmation.

In a period when many universities are questioning their central purpose, UMass Boston’s lack of consensus is certainly understandable. But the ramifications of following the wrong course could be serious. Perhaps best expressed are Gagnon’s fears that lowering traditional academic standards and the narrowness of technical career training will have broad adverse affects. The prospect of UMass students filling the lower echelon jobs in a society still run by Harvard kids looms large.“ In a rush to be liberal and democratic, they are being anti-democratic and perpetuating the class system of education,” Gagnon has been quoted as saying. A ladder at UMass Boston on day one inscribed “I love it” may becomes a symbol of frustrated ambitions if what is called “diversity” leads to long-run stratification. On the other hand, traditional standards often mean education limited to traditional students.

While the university’s central thrust and its implications are still unclear, emphasis for the new “College of Public and Community Service” is settled. Joining two essentially liberal arts divisions, “College III” will be the epitome of the counter-tradition, combining urban career orientation with the best of liberal arts. An interdisciplinary, competency-based program, it will stress work experiences. Ironically, the new college of urban problems hasn’t joined Colleges I and II at the new campus yet. Its faculty and 300 students still occupy the almost empty downtown campus, though much of their time is spent elsewhere. (Colleges IV and V are being planned.)

Whatever the educational thrust, UMass Boston’s commitment to Boston and working class families will be a struggle to meet. No more than 40% of the student body can be expected to come from the archaic Boston school system, according to a consultant. Though the Mayor wants a commitment for 50%, the percentage could go as low as 15 by 1980. (A UMass Boston Institute for Learning and Teaching for parents and teachers of the Boston schools may affect this.) At least as this time, UMass Boston does serve metropolitan Boston, if not the city proper; 94% of the present 6100 students from a 15 mile radius. A pressing concern, however, is that as private college costs escalate better students seeking less expensive public campuses may drive out the projected working class clientele. And enrollments at private colleges in Massachusetts have already begun to decline.

If academic problems weren’t enough challenge, the college’s new location is another source of conflict. The complex shares an isolated peninsula with a huge Black and Puerto Rican public housing project. The nearby working class neighborhoods of Dorchester and South Boston are unenthusiastic about possible university effects on their area. Local residents, on the other hand, look to UMass Boston for employment, use of facilities like the gym, and education. So far the university has filled about half its jobs from the area through its two Field Offices, purchases from local and minority businesses, and will share some facilities. But, as UMass sees itself as primarily an “educational institution,” how satisfactory its community efforts will be is another uncertainty.

Besides concerns about the purpose of the college and its impact, traffic, housing and location are major issues for the new campus. This is a “commuter school you can’t commute to.” It’s out of the way for public transportation, yet travel by car is discouraged by prohibited parking in Dorchester and a $1.50 a day parking fee at UMass Boston. (This price will be raised even higher if the 1700 car garage is regularly filled to capacity.) Though there are free (paid from possibly-diminishing parking revenues) shuttle buses from the MBTA rapid transit a mile away, subway travel is time-consuming and involves frequent transferring.

For exasperating example, MBTA travel from Quincy, in the south, involves changing to a local, riding by the campus stop to the next station, and then taking a reverse train! (Boston’s amusement park, Wonderland, on the other side of town, is as easy to reach.) Even with additional direct bus service, travel for students and faculty, especially those commuting to and from jobs, will prove frustrating. Unexpectedly, there were no major traffic or transit jams the first day.

It would be more convenient if people could live nearby, but that’s not feasible either. There is no university housing, and none, as such, even planned. The only units within a mile are the 1500 public housing apartments of the Columbia Point project. These are unavailable to students and faculty for income, waiting-list and other reasons. The Mayor of Boston proposed last March that UMass Boston take over 300 units of the project, where numerous vacancies exist (perhaps intentionally). Though UMass demurred, many project residents are concerned about their future as the rent ceiling was raised in April from $105 to $165. The latest factor in the situation is a January ’74 plan for a major commercial and community/university housing redevelopment of the Point. Though supported by the City, UMass Boston and some community, the idea is unfunded and long-range.

Dorchester, which is the closest neighborhood community, is opposed to student influx. The Dorchester Tenants Action Council has been actively organizing and pressuring the university against adverse effect on the area. Dorchester, and South Boston, residents fear a “Cambridgization” of their areas if too many students, faculty and staff move in. Abetted by a few profit-seeking landlords, rents would rise and evictions might become a common threat. A similar process has been happening over the years in Cambridge because of Harvard and MIT influences. (Ironically, the UMass situation may increase the problems in Cambridge, since UMass Boston students may move near the most direct MBTA line, which comes from Harvard!) Other parts of Boston have felt the effects of the area’s 57 colleges and universities, 175,000 students and aggressive real estate businessmen, and the neighborhoods near UMass Boston don’t want to be next.

At this point, the UMass Boston Housing and Transportation Office (HTO) won’t give out the apartment listings it has collected in the “high impact area.” As people in that office indicate, however, the policy is under review. One employee, who supports restrictions now, thinks that Dorchester and Columbia Point may eventually accept the idea of student residents.

Since Dorchester is a cohesive and significantly owner-occupied community, a student influx into the area may never occur. But pressures will increase. After experiencing the problems of travel and facing a full school year, many more students may try to find housing in the area next fall. Just as neighbors feared, some landlords have already subdivided buildings in the predominately three and four-flat community. Though the HTO bulletin board prohibits ads for the impact area, there have been a number in the Boston newspapers. And a basic fact remains; UMass Boston’s enrollment will double in 6 years to 12,500.

A new downtown campus would have avoided these problems and been easier to reach. But the UMass Boston location was a major political and financial power decision. The John Hancock Company, who owns part of an ailing shopping center at the Point, threatened to leave Boston if the campus was built in town at Copley Square, where they are now finishing a “plywood” skyscraper (so-called for the board which replaces scores of blown-out windows – divine retribution?). Also, the City was opposed to letting more valuable downtown property become tax exempt. So the new facilities were built (one by the firm of former Governor Volpe’s brother) on an out of the way, windy garbage dump along the noisy flight path to Logan Airport.

Whatever else, the $135 million, 121 acre mega-campus is an impressive sight. Though not quite a superblock, it could well be called UMass for its incredible size and bulk. ($200 million more building will be added to the site.) Juxtaposed to the six clusters of the Columbia Point project, the six campus buildings look like a battleship followed by PT boats when viewed from across the water. One approaching student suggested the campus looked like an Edison electric plant or a factory. (Walkways connecting buildings do give the impression of conveyor belts.) When his shuttle bus was greeted by two campus police, the student reevaluated the catwalks and compared the complex to a prison. Viewed from the other side of the Bay, “the campus by the sea” does look something like Alcatraz. Some people find it stunning.

As an architectural critic put it, the complex “looks in on itself, not out towards its neighbors.” Among the rather monolithic family of six red brick buildings, there exists, moreover, a sense of physical community like that of prairie wagons pulled in a circle on fear of Indians. Each of the interconnected buildings has a separate function; completed now are a 10-story library, administration, service and science buildings, and home for Colleges I and II. The views of all downtown Boston and the Bay area are spectacular. Visible this far off are the medieval fortress library of the old campus and the “plywood” skyscraper, built where this campus might have gone. The 25 un-ivory towers of the Columbia Point project are visible off to the north and Dorchester peers at UMass Boston’s every move from its rise Morrissey Boulevard. The Boston Globe, which ran a supporting editorial and three articles (and various ads for Dorchester apartments) in both the opening Sunday and Monday editions and is a co-sponsor of the proposed peninsula development, is just across the highway. On three sides are Dorchester Bay and beyond.

Though six more buildings are yet to come, the complex is already endowed with lounges, activity spaces, cafeterias, a gym and a pool to augment academic areas. Pigeon hole mailboxes near the elevators will help communications as lockers on the walls (though somewhat reminiscent of glorified high school) make commuting easier. Building areas inside are color-coded and systematically numbered; everyone was supposed to get advanced programming. (Similar materials about housing, however, hadn’t arrived yet, and when it did it contained nothing about the impact area rental policy) The spirit of the coding, if not the letter, worked on one lost soul who inquired, “If this is College I, then where is College II?” The system failed for other like the embarrassed student who asked “what floor is this” just before a fellow inquired “what building is this?”

Poster on the Library Wall: Alice to herself
“Dear, dear! How queer everything is today.
And yesterday things went as usual.
I wonder if I’ve changed in the night.”

The Alice posters, high-noon clocks and still active workmen highlighted the sense of a new beginning sliding into the midst of things already in motion. There was a somewhat strange type of confusion, for even those who weren’t lost were buffeted. One teacher, for instance, having finally found her classroom had to get the locked door opened, only to discover a closet! Leaderless classes, filled with anxious students, were the order of the day. Perhaps the elevators were symbolic; taking so long to arrive, they closed too quickly for many to get into.

But the chaos and mill-in were mainly amusing on the first day. Few people seemed upset. At least by moving at midyear, there were no (or few) college neophytes battling both the beginning of their higher education and a new complex. The day’s confusion was manageable with humor and a sense of camaraderie. As stairways were almost impossible to find—while community was sought against the confusion – elevators with seventeen people already packed in had room for still more to be invited on one of many minority students chimed in as we ascended, “now you know how it was on the slave ships.”

In these years of quiet campuses, an interesting aspect of the first day at UMass Boston was the various radical political groups already active. The Young Socialist Alliance, Young Spartacus, and the Committee Against Racism (CARS) (the busy administration information table’s only competitors) had something to say on both local and world matters. CARS, perhaps most community-oriented, featured a year-old booklet “UMass a Columbia Point, A Housing Crisis” and petitions opposing a current urban college trend, arming the campus patrol. Day one was also graced with a small student demonstration. Placards and protestors challenged the university’s expressions of concern for the area. One sign ready simply: “A Good Neighbor?” A group from Dorchester also demonstrated the first day; passing traffic on Morrissey Blvd. was greeted by signs of “Knock on Wood, not on us” and “We won’t go.” Since cooperation with community groups is a goal of the campus political groups, the day’s events could be signs for the future.

By the end of day one, of course, some things had cleared. Even a “COLLAGE” sign, so appropriate to that morning, had been turned into “College II” by some rationality-seeking scribbler. The school will settle into a routine soon, be it wonderland, academic factory, or Alcatraz.

A number of questions remain. Will competition for the ride up on the crowded elevator drive out the sense of community inside? How wills this urban, working class university finally fit into public higher education in Massachusetts?

Will UMass be able to deal with Columbia Point and Dorchester like a good neighbor? Or will it, despite its attempts so far at cooperation and service, try, under stress, to retreat into a fortress or attempt to cut itself off from the area and become an academic island? In sum, has UMass Boston learned the lessons of the ‘60’s or will it be a re-creation of a Berkeley or Columbia of the past decade?

With all the people, problems, restrictions, and possibilities involved, it’s not easy to do more than wonder. One prophet of day one had an idea: “Next year it’s going to sink into the sea.” One thing is sure: UMass Boston at Columbia Point-Dorchester can’t disappear down a hole or afford to wake up and discover it’s just been dreaming.

[Submitted to Change magazine. Tentatively accepted but wanted changes which would have necessitated totally rewriting and making the Alice theme irrelevant.]

© Richard Sobel 2014