The Music, the Mayor…and the Urban Mission: Reflecting on UMB Convocation 2019

By Joseph G. Ramsey, English and American Studies

convocation walsh

In preparation for this year’s Convocation guest speaker, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, UMass Boston music professor and chamber singers conductor, David Giessow, prepared a special program of music and an accompanying slideshow. Framed by harmonized Irish blessings–in recognition of the Mayor’s Irish immigrant heritage–the heart of the presentation was a moving rendition of Emma Lazarus’ famous poem, “The New Colossus,” set to music arranged by Irving Berlin.

While the chorus sang, their words appeared on the projection screen above: “Give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Bring these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door.” As the undergraduate soloist’s melody cascaded into blended waves of choral harmonies, the slideshow above moved to powerful images accenting the song’s theme.

convocation chorus

First: black and white photos of Irish and other European immigrants coming ship-bound to American shores at the turn of the 20th century. Then second: color images of contemporary refugees, mainly from Latin America, seeking asylum in the USA, some locked behind cages of wire. And then after that came quotes from the Boston Globe, and then from Mayor Walsh himself, about the importance of making Boston a “sanctuary city,” a place that is welcome to people from all across the world–in stark contrast to the nasty xenophobic border fascism being pushed by the current US Executive-in-Chief.

convocation slideshow

It was an incredibly moving way to start 2019’s Convocation ceremonies here at UMass Boston, where our student body hails from 140 different countries, and where we try to take ideas like inclusion, diversity, equity, and social justice seriously. What a terrific blend of musical performance, history, education, and ethical principles. What a powerful reminder of what UMass Boston is supposed to be about–and why folks like Marty Walsh should be doing all they can to support us, being himself a child of working-class immigrants, and a first generation college student.

convocation chorus giessow
But then, after presenting this humanistic, moving musical/visual/historical montage, Professor David Giessow did something else. He spoke, briefly, about how this very chamber singers’ course that had just done UMB proud and moved us to tears, how this very class–as of a few months prior–was on the verge of potentially being cancelled for “low enrollment.” Earlier in August, when he was first asked to have his chamber singers present at Convocation, there were only 8 students enrolled, a fact that–in these days of bean counting and budget cuts–too often puts liberal arts classes at UMass Boston, our state underfunded, debt-burdened public university–on the chopping block. Luckily, for us all, the chamber singers were not cut–at least not this time around—and, even luckier, Giessow was able to recruit another dozen diversely talented singers to his course. And we all benefited today, from the Mayor on down.

But what about next time? What about the coming round of “belt-tightening” that we have been promised?

With this mix of music, images and timely comments, Prof. Giessow offered us a powerful testament to what is so precious about the mission of UMass Boston–a mission that goes well beyond the current dogma about “workforce development.”  And he also reminded us of something else: how the very music that moves us is being put at risk by the climate of austerity and cutbacks that continues to reign on our campus.

enough is enough

 

Save UMB Coalition Braves the Heat to Oppose Parking Fee Hikes

by Joe Ramsey, English and American Studies
jgramsey@gmail.com

 

“Dorms? Yes! Austerity? No!

These Parking Fees Have Got to Go!”

At least a dozen UMB faculty began the semester at the end of August, joining over 120 staff, students, and community members on campus to oppose oppressive parking fee increases. Braving the 100-degree heat behind a banner proclaiming, “We Can’t Carry UMB’s Debt,” students and staff led a spirited march to the doorstep of a ribbon ceremony for the new campus dorms, where a lively picket line drew attention from event attendees and local media.

(See local coverage here.)

A small but stalwart faculty group was also represented.

“I was very happy to participate in the protest and to see other faculty members doing so,” said Nayelli Castro-Ramirez, faculty in Latin American and Iberian Studies. “I hope that I will be able to keep participating and showing my solidarity in other actions throughout the semester.”

With UMB Admin planning to impose dramatic parking hikes any day now, further campus action and faculty solidarity is certainly needed if we are to reverse a decision that threatens the public accessibility of our campus, and that represents a back-door pay cut for staff and faculty alike.

Steve Striffler, faculty in Anthropology and Director of Labor Studies, summed up the baseline feeling: “$15 a day for parking is crazy!”

Despite the withering heat, the picket line held strong, anchored by drums, focused chanting, and punctuated by street theater. To the mock hisses of the crowd, UMB workers staggered beneath the symbolic weight of painted black boxes labeled “GARAGE DEBT, as an “Administrator” walked behind, swinging a giant ruler.

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Organized by the Coalition to Save UMB, the purpose of the demonstration was two-fold: not only to resist the planned parking fee increases, but also to demand legacy debt relief for our campus, which continues to be hobbled by bills dating back to corrupt state-managed construction of the substructure-garage in the 1970s.

Police prevented the debt-box theater from entering the ceremony room—at one point physically pushing a veteran faculty member back from the door. Protesters responded by plastering signs to the windows for all inside to see. Attendees inside the ribbon cutting reported that former Professional Staff Union president Tom Goodkind’s drumming resonated loud and clear as the official programming proceeded.

Meanwhile the chanting continued:

“Students and Workers are Under Attack…Get this Garage Debt Off Our Backs!”

“WHAT Kind of University? A PUBLIC University!”

“Cut the Ribbon

AND the Parking Fee!

Don’t Drive Students from UMB!”

As such chants underlined, the point of this protest was not to oppose the new dorms.

Case in point: David Giessow, faculty in Music and Performing Arts attended the protest, even as he was excited about what the new dorms will mean for student involvement in performance groups on campus. “I think it is great for these students that they will save hours every day which otherwise would have been spent commuting.” Nonetheless, David remains concerned about the parking increase: “Doubling the parking fees is a real threat to our urban mission and will limit access for many of our students.”

He is not alone. Many see the jacking up of parking fees on campus from $6 to $15 per day as emblematic of the way that working-class and low-income commuter students are being pushed out of our institution, even as new residential students are being enthusiastically welcomed.

Garage Debt Relief for UMass Boston could quickly alleviate the “need” for the present parking fee hikes, helping our campus to flourish for ALL our students, not just those who can afford to pay for dorm rooms.

The Caucus for a Democratic Union (CDU) is committed to involving more faculty in the campaign to defend affordable parking on campus. We stand in solidarity with our sister unions in the fight to win the state-support and debt-relief our students deserve.

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*Get involved! The next major demonstration against the parking-fee increase will take place at Convocation on Sept. 20th, where the Save UMB petition against the parking hike, signed by thousands, will be presented to UMB admin as well as UMass President Marty Meehan.

*You can RSVP for Convocation here.

*Those who want to plug into the mobilization against the parking fee can do so via this link. Save UMB organizers have made special efforts to accommodate difficult schedules. People can sign up for any block of time they have free.

*Those wanting to connect with the Coalition to Save UMB can find us on Facebook as “Save UMB” or on campus at our regular meetings in the Labor Resource Center (Wheatley 4-151).