After years of having their own space, groups of University of Massachusetts students are struggling to find a home in the new Student Union. Renovated from 2019 to 2020 with an annual student activity fee increase of $ 100 per student, the new student union has come up with a new process that has significantly disrupted student organizations.
In the fall of 2017, the Student Government Association and the University of Massachusetts administration consulted with student groups on campus and decided that registered student organizations should reserve meeting space as needed.
“In the old Student Union, all the groups had a room that they could make their own. In this building, it is not the case, declared the secretary of the registry Shayan Raza. Raza, a major in Legal Studies and Economics, is responsible for overseeing over 200 RSOs and their meeting spaces in the new student union.
For example, the Muslim Student Association lost its permanent prayer room. “They had a space dedicated to Bartlett. It was a very safe space for people to observe their religion. In this space, that room no longer exists, ”said Raza. There are interfaith spaces within the new student union that the MSA can reserve for prayer, but their request to create a permanent space within the union was denied.
“The board of directors has decided not to approve [the] request and instead give MSA priority use of the space as a prayer room. This decision was intended to support the activities of the MSA and any RSOs that may have similar needs, ”said Mary Dettloff, deputy director of information and media relations, in a statement.
“For RSOs, state laws are such that if we provide a resource for an RSO, we must have the same needs for all RSOs,” explained Raza. If the University were to provide the MSA with a permanent prayer space, it would be required by law to provide a permanent space for all other student groups.
The UMass Theater Guild has experienced similar issues.
“When the student union started building, we moved into an office in Bartlett Hall. Bartlett Hall worked, and he kept our things safe. Now the new student union has reopened and they’ve taken our office and put our things in another office in Bartlett which might as well be a meat locker, ”said UMass Theater Guild Secretary Ali Farina. “The office is locked and someone else has to come and unlock it when we need to access our things.”
Farina learned from secondary sources that Bartlett was going to be demolished at the end of the semester. “This is our only rehearsal space… we hadn’t been contacted about it and all of our stuff is in Bartlett,” said the major theater major.
Student agencies and businesses, which were guaranteed a space in the new student union before it was built, are having issues with their space and the new policies of the University.
“It’s a bureaucratic nightmare,” said WMUA executive director Zoe Kaplan, a communications major. As an agency, the student-run radio station operates under different guidelines than the RSOs, allowing them permanent space. However, the space they were given was not what they had in mind.
“We were completely ignored and almost all of our requests never made it into the final space,” Kaplan said. Although they received two new podcast studios, they were given little storage space, which led to the new studios being filled with boxes of vinyl records and other items.
“We’re in the process of getting rid of a lot of our vinyl,” Kaplan said. “We just don’t have enough space. “
Stricter policies were imposed on student agencies as to how they might provide their space. “We’re also not allowed to put up large works of art, we can’t put anything up without control strips and nothing can be put on the window,” Kaplan said. According to Kaplan, a university employee patronized the WMUA editor that a sticky note stuck to their large window “amounts to vandalism.”
Some student groups are struggling to maintain RSO status due to COVID-19 disrupting the usual transfer of leadership between school years. Without active RSO status, a group of students cannot book rooms in the new student union.
“The first time I found out we weren’t an active RSO was when I tried to book a room,” said Kenny Wright, president of Alpha Phi Omega. APO is a fraternity of service, which shares more similarities with other clubs on campus than with traditional fraternities.
Without a functional leadership group within an RSO, the student group may lose RSO status. “Nobody communicated it to us,” Wright said. With APO’s transition into leadership disrupted due to COVID-19 last year, he had to experience firsthand the inner workings of RSOs. When he contacted the University for help, he was regularly refused help and was referred to other administrators. “The theme of this is ‘ask someone else’… there is no one to turn to.”
Due to the loss of RSO status, Wright was unable to access student activity fee funds, which are paid by students and distributed to RSOs. “We are operating at $ 0,” Wright said.
Nick Weiske, a leader of the Young Democratic Socialists of America, experienced similar complications. “There’s nowhere we can actually find important information… they should make things a lot easier,” said the major junior in math and economics.
“We haven’t had a response from them yet,” said Farina, who also experienced a lack of communication from the administration. “We sent emails from our RSO account, our personal email accounts, and we tried to call … nothing.”
Kaplan hopes the Student Union can return to its former glory. “The old student union was very social… it feels like a library here,” she said.
“RSOs and student groups are perhaps the most important part of the college experience. You don’t get that anywhere else, ”Farina said. “We are talking about student unions as the hub of the student organization. And it is not. At all.”
Lucas Ruud can be contacted at [email protected]