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One Campus United

By Jennifer Berkshire, union news editor


The protestors stretched from the Chancellor’s office down to the plaza, hundreds of students, faculty and staff lined up to deliver petitions with more than 5,000 signatures, all decrying a plan to hike the cost of parking up to $10 in 2013. The protest was a visible symbol of how the proposal by UMass administrators has united campus groups in opposition to a plan that they say falls most heavily on students and the lowest paid employees.

Marlene Kim, a faculty member in the economics department and the interim president of the Faculty Staff Union, says that the debate over the cost of parking at UMass is part of a much larger issue. “By trying to raise money on the backs of students and people who can’t afford it the university limits who can come here,” says Kim. “The larger question here is ‘are we going to have public education that is affordable and accessible to students?’”

While it remains unclear just what will happen with the proposed fee hike—at press time the university had just closed down the North Lot, further limiting an already insufficient supply of parking spots—organizers say that they’re hopeful about the future of the coalition that has emerged on campus. “It’s really exciting to see all of the campus groups bring such passion to an issue,” says Lorenzo Nencioli, membership coordinator for the faculty staff union. “The groundwork has been laid for us to work together on broader issues of equity and the affordability of public education.”

Stand together

Soon after UMass administrators announced the plan to hike fees, campus unions and other groups formed the coalition known as STOP: Stand Together, Oppose the Parking Fee Increase! STOP, which includes the Faculty Staff Union, the Professional Staff Union, the Classified Staff Union, the Graduate Employee Organization and student representatives, began organizing to fight the increase, but also to call attention to inequities in the university’s existing parking and transportation policies.

A research committee was formed to assess the impact of a fee increase on students and campus staff and compare UMass Boston’s parking fees and transportation policies with peer institutions. A survey of students and campus workers drew 759 responses, real-life stories about the hardships that students already face commuting to a campus that charges more for parking than any other public college or university in the state.

“What really came through is that many staff and students are hurting under the current system,” says Mary Jo Connelly, who works with the Professional Staff Association. “Having to pay $1000-$1500 a year just to park is a real strain for a lot of people.”

The research committee also analyzed stacks of financial documents provided by UMass in response to information request submitted by the campus unions. The researchers’ analysis, says Connelly, found nothing to support the administration’s claim that a hike in parking fees is necessary.

Organizers say that the parking fee increase is symbolic of a larger question about what kind of school UMass Boston is going to be—and what kind of student body the school will ultimately serve. Mitch Manning, the outreach coordinator for the 800 member Graduate Employee Organization, argues that the implications of that debate are visible on campus in the building spree that is currently underway, particularly the $222 million science center. “Can you be a working class school and a top-flight research university at the same time? That’s what it comes down to,” says Manning.

In recent years, state support for public higher education in Massachusetts has dipped significantly. In the past three years alone, state appropriations to public universities including UMASS have dropped by more than 15%. And as public funding is reduced, the burden of responsibility is increasingly being shifted onto individual students—and private corporate interests, warns PSU member and STOP organizer Anneta Argyres. “It changes the whole definition of accessibility when you have a tiered system where students get preferential treatment based on their ability to pay,” says Argyres.

But as Marlene Kim points out, few members of UMass Boston’s existing student body are able to pay more. “Our students are squeezed now,” says Kim, noting that she encounters more and more students who can’t afford to buy books, or who only visit campus when absolutely essential. “I don’t think the university has thought this through—UMass can do better than this.”

STOP organizers says that strong student participation has strengthened their efforts, something they hope will continue as the campus community responds to ongoing questions about access, equity and affordability. Alexis Marvel, the elected student representative on the Board of Trustees, describes the coalition’s organizing as “pretty incredible.” She says that she and her peers are acutely aware of UMass Boston’s special status as the only public university in Boston. “We can’t afford to be shutting students out because the administration has a price point in mind for parking or fees.”