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

 

Open Letter to UMass Boston Interim Chancellor Newman

February 20, 2019

Dear Chancellor Newman,

Since you were unavailable to meet with the union and student delegation that visited your office on February 6, and since you have not accepted the CSU and PSU request for a meeting, we are sending you this open letter.

As we see it, your administration is at a crossroads: it can reach an agreement with the union coalition that would maintain more affordable parking for students and lower wage employees while bringing in sufficient revenues to cover all operating costs and assist in paying down the garage debt, or it can implement your administration’s proposal which would add to student debt, deepen the economic inequities on our campus, and financially punish part-time parkers.

We hope you will take the time to read this letter and not dismiss it as ‘inappropriately’ raising bargaining issues. There is nothing inappropriate about raising these concerns with you, the Chancellor of our institution, the person ultimately responsible for the impacts of campus policies on every member of our community.

The question we had hoped to discuss with you is this: why won’t your administration accept the union coalition’s proposal?

The union coalition’s proposal is better for the entire campus community in the following ways:

1. It establishes more equitable parking costs for students and lower-wage employees.
Many of our students and employees were already struggling to buy monthly passes for $96. Our proposal would reduce the monthly pass costs to $80 for students who choose to park at Bayside only. This reduction would also be available to employees earning less than $40,000 annually, with parking costs increasing gradually up to $128/month, depending on employee salary. Parking rates at all other lots would range from $112/month (for students and employees earning up to $40,000 annually) to a maximum of $192/month (for the highest paid employees).

By contrast, in your administration’s plan, Bayside monthly rates range from $126 to $160. On-campus rates under your plan are even more punishing for your staff: while students and faculty would be charged $122.22/month, charges for staff would start at $180/month for those earning less than $40,000 per year, and would climb to $240 for those earning above $100,000 annually. (See the chart at the end of the letter.)

The administration’s plan is inequitable. You have publicly committed that students and those earning the least should pay the least, but under your administration’s plan, every employee and every student would pay more than tenured faculty. Does that seem equitable to you?

2. It provides equitable discounts for part-time parkers, ensuring that they do not have to pay the daily “cash” rates simply because they drive to campus less frequently.
More than half of our students take classes only two or three days a week. Your administration’s pricing structure makes it more costly for them to buy a semester pass than to pay the new $9 or $15 daily rates. Similarly, many full-time employees only park on campus a few days a week; on the other days they telecommute, take public transportation, or commute to other locations as required by their jobs. They too will be forced to pay the high daily rates.

At the last Town Hall meeting you assured a concerned student that nobody would have to pay $9 or $15 a day, yet your administration’s proposal forces a significant portion of students and employees to do just that. Accepting the unions’ proposal to continue an equitably priced multi-use pass would address this flaw in the administration’s proposal and drastically reduce the number of students and employees who would have to pay the full daily rates.

3. It ensures that lower cost parking will remain available to our community regardless of how Bayside is developed.
With the UMass Board of Trustees’ decision of February 14, 2019, this is no longer a question of ‘if’; we now know Bayside will be developed in the next few years. We have heard words of assurance that your administration “doesn’t want to sell us a pig in a poke,” so why won’t you agree to maintain at least the current ratio of parking available at lower rates?

4. It raises sufficient revenue to cover operating expenses and pay down the debt.
The University’s consultants put the annual cost of staffing, operating and maintaining all parking areas, purchasing new equipment, and contributing to a “sinking fund” at a yearly total of $2.7 million. The same consultants predict that the unions’ plan would bring in $5.3 million annually. So the revenues from our proposal would cover all operating expenses and make a significant dent in the debt payments for the West Garage, while at the same time reducing costs for students and lower wage staff, and providing discounted parking for those who park less than four days a week.

5. It ensures that parking rates will be renegotiated if the campus is relieved of debt.
You have said publicly that it would be “a tragedy” to use proceeds from the lease or sale of Bayside to pay the debt for the new garage, and that you do not want to take the MA legislature off the hook for paying for our crumbling substructure. We have been working for the past two years to hold the Legislature accountable for our campus’s legacy debt, and we would welcome working with you to make that a reality.

Yet, in the meantime, it seems that you are willing to leave students and employees on the hook for the West Garage debt. Are you? Do you recognize the tragic consequences of making students and employees bear that burden? Your administration’s refusal to agree to simply reopen negotiations over parking fees should the Legislature or Board of Trustees act to provide the campus with debt relief certainly implies that you are comfortable with us being left on that hook, and that you are comfortable with the consequences of higher fees on working class students and low-wage employees.

Your administration’s insistence on its plan of high rates, no multi-use passes, and no commitments regarding future changes in parking availability or campus finances, appears to be a bald attempt to take as much money as possible from students and employees, apparently without concern for the impacts on those at highest financial risk. It is shortsighted, greedy and cruel, and all the more so for being unnecessary, since there is a viable alternative awaiting your approval.

We hope you will take the time as UMass Boston’s Chancellor to delve into the details of this situation with as much rigor as you apply to your own research into inequality in the larger society. Inequality is no stranger to our campus. The campus parking policy offers you an opportunity to address it. Please don’t ignore that opportunity.

Sincerely,

Anneta Argyres, Professional Staff Union
Janelle Quarles, Classified Staff Union
Juan Blanco, Graduate Employees Organization

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Join the Coalition to Save UMB for a Halloween Parking Parade

By now you know UMass Boston Administration is threatening to impose an outrageous parking fee increase on our community. For our workers, this amounts to wage theft in disguise and for our students this is yet another financial burden they will be paying off for years to come.  The proposed parking fee increase will have a devastating impact on students, staff and faculty and threatens our efforts to protect UMB’s affordability, accessibility and urban mission.  This is a fight we must win! We need faculty and librarians to be visibly involved!  

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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).