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Owning our Past: Learning from the Turbulent History of UMass Boston and Columbia Point


Owning our Past: Learning from the Turbulent History of UMass Boston and Columbia Point

Tim Sieber, Professor of Anthropology and Executive Committee Member, Faculty Staff Union1

Nothing is worse for a collectivity of any kind – and that can include a university – than to lose sight of its own history – to disregard, even deliberately discard its own past, to forget its past struggles – all in the interest of claiming new status, or as a way to rationalize complacency over current conditions, as if they were stable or even normal…instead of contingent, contested, even fragile. We should know better at UMass Boston. The cumulative struggles and sacrifices of so many, and the courageous risk-taking over such a long time that have made us what we are today need to be remembered, and celebrated with sober gratitude, and no little amount of pride. Acknowledging these past struggles, not actually so distant, helps us perceive our embeddedness within a broader social and economic fabric, and can clarify the origins of many of the problems that also continue to impede us. Owning our own history also allows us to recognize our own resilience, and to draw significant purpose, conviction, and energy for today’s ongoing strivings toward a more just and inclusive university, city, and society.

It’s easy to forget the troubled past here on Boston’s Columbia Point, where today things seem so calm in this cultural and office park our presence has helped to create, where we now find ourselves with distinguished educational and heritage institutions, and with about 6000 residents in all – between Harbor Point, the Peninsula, our dorms, and Hub 25 near the T, mostly students and middle-class professionals. New plantings are flowering everywhere, and most of the dirt piles are gone. Our past, however, was anything but serene.

Despite all our continuing problems and challenges that we experience today, our city when UMass Boston was founded in the 1960s, and then moved its main campus to Columbia Point in the 1970s, was caught up in incredible social conflict and political turbulence. It was evident in what happened on campus and in the neighborhood and city at the time. The university was founded in 1964, and took in its first students in 1965.

Located temporarily in downtown Boston in Park Square at Arlington and Stuart Streets, only a block away from the Public Garden, we were an upstart university, created by mostly Irish-American politicians in the legislature, instead of the patricians who founded most other local universities, and we were meant to serve the working class, ethnic minorities, and immigrants. We and our political advocates were ridiculed as pretentious and incompetent, including in media coverage of the university, and still are perhaps.

Every local university opposed our creation. So did UMass at Amherst. This was true even though the post-World War II baby boom’s bulge in 18 year olds in the early 1960s had meant there was not enough space at UMass in Amherst to take in all the high school graduates who had actually met the requirements for entry. Thousands were denied opportunity that the rules said they deserved. Another UMass campus, at first called a “branch,” was needed to serve the state’s main population center in eastern Massachusetts. The small Boston State Teachers College was not adequate to the task. It would later be absorbed into UMB in 1982.

Robert C. Wood, who was president of the UMass system from 1970 to 1977, said then that Boston had been deeply underserved, and in the 1960s had a lower rate of college attendance among its high school graduates than even the state of Mississippi! Income and wider class inequality had long been a feature of Boston, as it continues to be today. It was thus the 1960s urban crisis, and the popular demand for equity in educational opportunity, that gave us birth, especially in a time of transition to the new, more service- and information-based economy emerging then in Boston. Deindustrialization had set in decades before: textiles had left our region by the 1930s, and shipbuilding and repair, and the port trade, beginning in the late 1940s. These labor force changes, and the need for urban public higher education, were present in other cities all over the country, of course, and many other urban public universities were created during this time for the same reasons. We were even part of a formalized, national network of such new universities, called “The Urban 13.”

We were a bare-bones, no-frills university, but with lofty academic goals of offering a quality, mostly critical liberal arts education to those who had never had much access to that kind of education, the type usually reserved for the elite. For almost a decade we were housed in rented space in a former gas company building, a hotel, and an armory located around Park Square. It was a time of ferment in the anti-Vietnam War, civil rights, and later the women’s and gay rights movements. Our campus was in as much ferment as any, with student demonstrations, strikes, sit ins, and activism. We had also opened our doors to military veterans from the American war in Vietnam, gave them a great deal of support, and reputedly had more Vietnam vets than any other university in the nation. These mostly working-class veterans, often troubled at what they had seen in Southeast Asia, had their own trenchant critiques of the American assertions of empire at that time.

From 1965, there was an eager search for a permanent home for us. Finally, campus planners found what they thought was just the right place — the area to the west of Copley Square, a zone of underused railyards right in the heart of the city – but… it was decided in the end that the land there was too valuable for us! It would later become Copley Place Mall, and the Marriot and Westin Hotels.

Instead we were sent to Columbia Point… and what kind of place was that? Well, it was on the other side of the tracks, literally, of the Old Colony rail line from Boston southward, now the MBTA tracks. The Point – a former pasture for cattle –  in the 20th century had been empty, mostly wasteland.  There was a field of gas tanks, a pumping station for pushing the waste from Boston’s sewers out into the Harbor, and after the 1930s, an extensive landfill, a dump with a 30-foot-high mound of garbage, the city’s main destination for all its trash. The area was contaminated with a great deal of toxic waste, which with successive campus construction projects over the years, has been surfaced again and again. As little as two years ago in 2017-18, a gigantic pile of excavated soil contaminated with asbestos had to be kept covered and carefully removed from behind the Science Building. Not many people on campus noticed, but trucks carrying out the waste had to have their wheels washed clean of contamination before exiting toward Mount Vernon Street.

UMB’s new home: Boston’s garbage dump with Columbia Point housing in the background, photo from mid- to late-1960s (Courtesy of University Archives and Special Collections, UMass Boston).

Earlier in the 1930s when Columbia Point was mostly abandoned land, homeless squatters had built and occupied for a while a “Hooverville,” what they called shantytowns during the Great Depression, “on the other side of the tracks” of the Old Colony rail line, along what would be today’s Morrissey Boulevard.  In the 1940s, there was a prisoner-of-war camp for Italian soldiers at what is now Bayside. The Point was a polluted place, and one where they put people who were considered inferior – society’s castoffs.

All this, of course, explains why Columbia Point Housing was sited here. In 1954, Massachusetts’ largest public housing project was built here, with 1500 units. Neglected by the city, the project deteriorated, and buildings became closed and abandoned, until only 150 families were left. By 1975, a court declared the Boston Housing Authority an unfit landlord, and the Housing Authority was put under federal receivership, also for its policy of racial discrimination in housing assignments for families. The project also became stigmatized on account of the crime that took place there. Some people called it “Sin City” and “Shame City.” UMass Boston had a “field office” on Columbia Point, to give support to the public housing tenants there, and our oldest partnership as a university was the Columbia Point Community Partnership. It was mostly nurtured by the old CPCS. Remnants of it still exist today, thanks to Professor Joan Arches. Of course, in 1983 the Columbia Point project was privatized under Hope VI federal funding into a market-rate rental development, though 400 “affordable” units were preserved for low-income tenants, and still remain today.

The Catherine Forbes Clark Convocation and Athletic Center was named for “Kit” Clark (1919-1977), a Savin Hill activist, former President of the Savin Hill Neighborhood Association, and long-term director of senior services at the Dorchester Neighborhood Houses. UMass Boston had its own board of trustees at that time, and Clark was a member of it.

During this early period, in a low-income area where few opportunities existed for safe, well-equipped recreational spaces for children and youth, UMass Boston’s first “new” building after the campus’ 1974 opening was the Catherine (“Kit”) Forbes Clark Gymnasium, finished in 1981. Our Athletics program, under the long-term leadership of Vice Chancellor for Athletics and Recreation, Special Projects and Programs Charlie Titus – still the only campus senior administrator we have ever had who grew up in Columbia Point Housing – has been a model of community outreach and service to the neighborhoods around the university. Mr. Titus has served the University for more than four decades, and during the 1981 opening of the Clark Gym made clear how it fit the university’s mission of urban engagement. In his opening remarks at the dedication as quoted by The Boston Globe, he noted: “This facility means a lot to the campus community, and we want to make a strong point that it will be available to youth and adult groups, and individuals from…Dorchester, South Boston, Roxbury, Quincy, or any area where people want to use it. All it will take is a phone call or a letter, and we will work things out.”

Vice-Chancellor Charlie Titus, in a recent photo. He and our campus have received national recognition, and numerous awards and distinctions, through his creating a sports program with a distinguished record of consistently engaging student athletes in community service and mentoring of urban youth. Titus also stepped forward to sponsor and fund the campus Urban Mission Coordinating Committee for two years in the early 2000s, during a time when no other senior administrator was willing.

I came to UMass Boston in 1974, the year the Harbor campus opened, and during academic year 1974- 75, the admissions office organized a faculty phonathon where we telephoned admitted students at their homes, and spoke with them and their parents in order to reassure them the campus was a safe place to be. On top of its already bad reputation for crime, in October 1973 just three months before the opening of the campus for classes, a 65-year old immigrant named Louis Barba was stabbed and stoned to death, and robbed by a gang of black youth while fishing near the edge of the soon-to-open campus. The resulting publicity over the horrible crime rivalled what appeared over the later “Central Park Five” case in New York City, and even made it onto the national news.  Racial fear of inner cities and their residents of color, and especially of “predator youth,” was intense throughout the nation.

Our administration worried that the public might be afraid to come to the school. Security was a big concern in those early years, to prove it was safe to be here. Some say that’s why the early campus was built to resemble a fortress surrounded by walls. In the first year or two, the campus was closed tight and heavily guarded at night and on weekends. There was only one checkpoint for entering and exiting campus outside of the regular hours, Monday through Friday, from 6 am to 6 pm. We didn’t have evening classes yet, or any on the weekends. To come in on the off hours, as I often wanted to do so that I could work in my office, it was necessary to walk through a single checkpoint for the entire campus, in the administration building, and to leave your driver’s license or other ID with the police who were supervising. To leave campus, you had to exit through this same checkpoint to receive your ID back. The campus and the surrounding area were considered dangerous and crime-ridden (despite the fact that from the very beginning this campus has always had the lowest crime rate of any college in the City of Boston).

There was also the “MBM scandal,” over corruption and use of substandard building materials in constructing our campus, as the new structures began to fall apart almost immediately – the library façade, the building roofs, the parking substructure. There was a huge investigation by a special state-level “Ward Commission,” and new rules developed to control any future state-funded construction. Political and business leaders were sent to prison over the payoffs and other illegalities. It wasn’t ever our fault, but we are still paying for it today.

All this is what past Chancellor Keith Motley was referring to when he asserted so many times in his speeches, “We were put here to fail!” — and when in one of his last commencement addresses he paraphrased Maya Angelou’s poem, “And Still I Rise,” to offer a long list of the sacrifices that UMass students make daily to pursue their educations here, and the campus has made in order to prosper under adverse conditions. One only has to remember that in this city of world-famous, well-endowed, wealthy universities, including Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the authorities chose to site Boston’s only public and truly accessible university in a polluted, disreputable place that offered so many obstacles and barriers to success. But of course, we chose not to give up – far from it! We succeeded here despite all the barriers and impediments, and the consistently low expectations from the city’s elites.

The struggle for educational opportunity and against racism, and to protect working-class neighborhoods from destruction and displacement, were also major themes during those times in Boston, and our creation and growth were a part of these struggles as well. Brutal urban renewal had destroyed many sections of neighborhoods in Boston in the 1950s and 1960s, involving the West End, Charlestown, Mission Hill, Brighton, Roxbury, Chinatown, East Boston, the South End, Jamaica Plain, and South Boston, as the banks and developers moved to turn Boston into the global city and business service center that we see it has become today. Residents of color also fought displacement, in places like Tent City and Villa Victoria in the South End, winning concessions and building locally-controlled and affordable housing that still exists today a half century later. In the 1960s, newly proposed highways, such as the famous I-695 “Inner Belt” described by Karilyn Crockett in her remarkable book People Before Highways (UMass Press, 2018), threatened to destroy many other neighborhoods inside Boston and the inner suburbs, and generated strong public resistance which proved effective in blocking that project.

Cambridge mural celebrating popular, successful resistance to the “Inner Belt” Highway that would have destroyed many inner-city neighborhoods in Boston by the early 1970s, successfully resisted through the collective action of residents, neighborhood associations, faith communities, students, and progressive university-linked planners.

This was also a time of blockbusting and massive white flight from Dorchester, Mattapan, and many other neighborhoods nearby to Columbia Point. Between 1968 and 1972, just before we opened our “Harbor Campus,” virtually the entire white population of much of nearby South Dorchester’s Franklin Field and of Mattapan fled their neighborhoods and local businesses over racial and economic fears stoked by real estate industry blockbusters, and the redlining practices that were becoming entrenched in the city under the supervision of banks and insurance companies. Blacks were moving into these newly opened areas as property owners, but under unfavorable financial arrangements that soon resulted in a wave of foreclosures, reminiscent of our more recent foreclosure crisis in the late 2000s, leaving more than 1000 buildings abandoned in neighborhoods just south of UMass Boston’s impending Columbia Point location.

DSNI youth from Dorchester and Roxbury active in neighborhood clean-up and reclamation in the late 1980s (Photo: DSNI website

In other areas near to the campus, to the west beginning as close as Upham’s Corner, and all the way down the Dudley Street corridor into Roxbury, redlining and massive real estate disinvestment and abandonment was occurring, with many buildings – some still occupied by families of color – being torched by arsonists. The landlords’ insurance policies made these unsellable buildings more valuable if reduced to ashes than if left standing intact. Through the 1970s and early 1980s, the burnings had left over 1300 vacant lots scattered around Dudley Street. Grassroots movements like the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative (DSNI) emerged to take action to defend the neighborhood, take control of the abandoned land through eminent domain, and organize residents to clean up and start its reconstruction through creation of a community land trust.

Professor of Human Services Joan Arches, originally at the College of Public and Community Service, has spent almost three decades teaching the theory and practice of youth development, and creating support and mentoring programs (such as HICCUP: The Healthy Initiative Collaborative Community-University Partnership) that have brought together UMB students and Columbia Point youth.

Committed faculty and staff at UMass Boston – especially at the College of Public and Community Service – were noticing these developments, and assisting. CPCS had hundreds of “agency agreements” with non-profits and governmental entities to train and upgrade the skills and credentials of their employees – who were in the trenches working on the city’s grassroots problems – through the unique “competency-based” programs of study they offered in useful specialties like Community Planning, Human Services, and Legal Advocacy.

UMB personnel sometimes had valuable, relevant talent for solving urban problems. In 1988, the dynamic DSNI hired its new, second Executive Director from UMB’s Trotter Institute: he was Gus Newport, Senior Fellow at the Trotter, and former African-American mayor of Berkeley, California. In the 1980s, the Massachusetts Legislature’s Black Caucus, hoping for even more engagement from UMB than our administration seemed to be offering, also successfully earmarked state funding for special policy research institutes at UMB – the Trotter and the Gastón – to address and solve problems plaguing Boston’s communities of color.2 Later in the mid-1990s and the early 2000s, the administration would also to create two different multi-year runs of an “Urban Mission Coordinating Committee” to address UMB’s responsibilities toward the city, the first founded by Chancellor Sherry Penney’s Special Assistant on Urban Affairs, Hubie Jones, one of the city’s most important African-American power brokers, and the second rendition by Chancellor Keith Motley and Vice Chancellor Charlie Titus.

Gus Newport, social justice and civil rights leader, mayor of Berkeley, California (1979-86), Senior Fellow at the Trotter Institute, left UMB to become Executive Director at the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative in the early 1990s.

In its early years on Columbia Point, the university was hurt in many ways by the city’s racial tensions. The conflictual racial politics of the Columbia Point area, and the wider city, for example, was on display in the geography of the MBTA public transit network that wove its way through our neighborhood at the time the campus was being built and relocated here. Right at the same time that white flight to the suburbs was accelerating, a convenient new extension to the Red Line was opened in 1971 to carry commuters to and from Quincy and later Braintree. Today’s “JFK/UMass” station was then called “Columbia,” and the station and surrounding area then considered troubled, and coded as black and racially dangerous in public perceptions. When the 1971 South Shore extension began operating, it was decided to connect it to the rest of the Red Line not at Columbia, but instead at Andrew station in mostly white South Boston, where it would go directly to the suburbs in Quincy and beyond, the line skirting Dorchester without making a single stop.

For years after the campus opened, this meant that any South Shore commuters going northward to UMass Boston as students and employees (and there were always many) had to take the Red Line inbound to Andrew, get off the train, change platforms, and then take it back again one stop to Columbia. It was not until 1988 that Columbia station was rebuilt into the renamed JFK/UMass, and the Braintree line link was finally moved to that station.3 Only in 2001 was a third section of the station added to accommodate commuter rail links to the South, including the Plymouth/Kingston, Middleborough/Lakeville, and Greenbush lines, making it easier for suburban commuters from other locations to travel to school at UMB, and to Boston for jobs.

Hubie Jones was Special Assistant on Urban Affairs to Chancellor Sherry H. Penney in the late 1990s. Earlier, Jones founded the Massachusetts Advocacy Center for Children, was instrumental in seeing Massachusetts pass the nation’s earliest laws for educational inclusion of disabled and bilingual children; was long-term Dean of Boston University’s School of Social Work, a President of Roxbury Community College, and founder of the Boston Children’s Chorus. In all he has been a principal founder and/or leader of over 30 non-profit organizations in the Boston area.

In the early 1970s, as construction to build the campus was underway, not surprisingly UMass Boston itself appeared to be just another threatening intruder in the eyes of many locals in the area. Neighborhood residents and leaders here in Dorchester and South Boston were alarmed over the campus’ arrival, and concerned about possible displacement, since town-gown conflicts were already prevalent throughout Greater Boston: in Cambridge because of Harvard’s and MIT’s struggles with neighborhoods there, and in Boston from aggressive BU, BC, and Northeastern expansions. The university, however, presented itself as a good neighbor, set up “field offices” to help project residents at Columbia Point housing and residents of Savin Hill with their problems, and even said it might well develop affordable housing for neighborhood residents in the future (a promise never fulfilled).

Campus leaders especially attempted to reassure locals by promising them we would never build dorms here that might turn this area into a student ghetto, as was already quite evident in Allston-Brighton and the Fenway, where transformations had displaced so many low- and moderate-income families from those neighborhoods. After all, leaders in those neighborhoods understood, once the students are asked to leave dorms after one or two years, where would they likely move? Into the neighborhood! Over time, dorms thus usually promoted student invasion of neighborhoods, instead of preventing it. Landlords also like students because, as studies show, rents tend to rise by 15% immediately after they enter a neighborhood housing market.

K-12 public education was another arena for racial conflict engulfing our area in the 1960s and 70s during the time of our founding and establishment on Columbia Point. Public schools in Boston had long been segregated, and even Dr. Martin Luther King – who lived in the South End in the early 1950s while a doctoral student at Boston University – returned two years after the March on Washington to address the Massachusetts legislature in April 1965, and to lead a group of 12 community leaders in a meeting with the city’s then mayor, John Collins, about their “bill of particulars” on Boston’s racial discrimination.

The next day Dr. King led a “March on Boston,” involving an estimated 25,000 people, from the South End’s Carter Playground to Boston Common in order to highlight racial and economic injustice in Boston. In his speech at the Parkman Bandstand, he spoke about what he called the “focal points of the Freedom Struggle in Boston,” including substandard, segregated housing, poverty, poor educational provision, and the intransigence of the Boston School Committee around desegregation. “Boston must become a testing ground for the ideal of freedom,” he told the crowd in the closing words of his speech.

Less than six months later in September of 1965, UMass Boston enrolled its first class of students. Those new students, faculty and staff were breaking class and racial barriers too, as a part of this broader struggle for educational access and opportunity that had been set into motion by the “urban crisis” and the Civil Rights movement.  Increased educational “Access” as well as “Excellence” were both key goals of the new university.

In the city more widely, decades of protests, marches, petitions, and lawsuits finally culminated in a federal court ruling in 1974 mandating public school desegregation, with busing as the remedy. That September 14, 1974, a week after we began classes at UMass, the federal court’s desegregation order went into effect, and the schools opened with a new, massive bussing program. In our area, most whites boycotted the schools, and many engaged in street protests, and some inflicted violence on people of color – including youth – whom they considered to be out of place. People driving to UMass that day – I was one of them – had to negotiate white mobs stoning busses transporting black children into South Boston through Kosciusko Circle, near the T station. Violence and racial fear would fester all year and beyond.

Even as late as the second year after desegregation, street protests and racial tensions over busing continued unabated in Boston. On City Hall Plaza, on April 5, 1976 this Pulitzer Prize winning photo by Stanley Forman of the Boston Herald American shows attorney Ted Landsmark about to be stabbed with an American flag at an anti-busing rally where pro- and anti-desegregation forces fought on the street. Landsmark, who survived, afterward was long-term President of the Boston Architectural College and is now Director of Northeastern University’s Dukakis Center for Urban & Regional Policy.

UMass Boston stood on the side of the desegregation order from the beginning. Well into the 1980s, to indicate its support of the desegregation order and the wider project of racial equity in Boston, the university flew the flag of the Covenant of Justice, Equity and Harmony, a broad, ecumenical coalition of faith, educational, and civil rights organizations and leaders from throughout the City.

To the left of the Massachusetts and US flags, for years UMB flew the flag of the city-wide Covenant of Justice, Equity and Harmony, indicating its commitment to advancing racial justice in Boston. (Photo: 1981 UMB yearbook. Courtesy of University Archives and Special Collections, UMass Boston)

Some of us on the faculty traveled to South Boston High School to meet with and support students of color attending school there, who were participants in after-school programs like MOSAIC celebrating diversity and racial harmony. Of course, it did not feel safe then for anyone black or brown to go to South Boston High, or walk in the neighborhood alone – so, we walked in groups from our cars, whites accompanying, even circling around, any colleague who might be black. During the busing crisis, UMass Boston also first established official partnerships with public schools in Dorchester, resulting in the Dorchester Education Project, which continues as one of the university’s oldest community partnerships.

Not long after, racial violence erupted again in our neighborhood in 1977 when large angry crowds of whites faced off against blacks, with long lines of Boston police in between keeping them separate, who were trying to integrate an all-white Carson Beach again near Kosciusko Circle. Because of local racial tensions, South Boston whites had become even more intent on excluding black youth from the beach, despite its proximity to the heavily black Columbia Point Houses. Black youth, as explained by a recent UMB graduate, regularly used to play the game of seeing how far they could go down the beach before stones were thrown at them, and they were chased away. The 1977 beach integration attempt succeeded, but tensions remained for years to come. Our area then and for some time after was located, to put it simply, right on one of the city’s sharpest racial fault lines.

Students active in the MOSAIC after-school program at South Boston High School, about 1976 (Courtesy of University Archives and Special Collections, UMass Boston)

Even after these struggles, issues of racial equity and justice were far from solved. Between 1986 and 1988, there was even a black-led campaign to give up on Boston for a large swath of the city called “Greater Roxbury” by its supporters, advocating its secession from the city of Boston and the formation of a new separate, mostly black city that would be called Mandela. It was voted on in a 1988 referendum by the 50,000 voters in the affected district, but lost. That district, by the way, included Roxbury, and parts of Dorchester, Mattapan, Jamaica Plain, the Fenway, the South End, and…Columbia Point! Yes, we were envisioned as being part of Mandela: because of the projects and people living next door, our neighborhood was a black one.

Black-white face-off on South Boston’s Carson Beach, near T station, with Boston Police separating the two sides (1977). In the background Columbia Point housing and UMass Boston campus are visible

Change Requires Updating Our Conception of UMB’s Urban Mission

To conclude, we need to ask ourselves: What are today’s struggles here on the Point, and in Boston more widely? As Boston’s only public university, what is the duty of UMB toward the city? This doesn’t seem to be a time for complacency. Do we still have an urban mission? Many of us in our era of neoliberal solutions and privatization, have witnessed a softening of administrative and wider political support for that mission. CPCS has been systematically dismantled and is gone. The institutes, including those oriented to policy issues affecting communities of color, are losing the university’s financial support and are in jeopardy. There has been no urban mission coordinating committee for more than a decade. But with a student body that is majority people of color, heavily immigrant, and mostly people of low- or moderate-income, it would seem that questions of racial and economic justice should still be as important for us as ever. What responsibility do we have as a university to address the continuing and in some ways worsening problems of racial injustice, exploitation of immigrants, and intensifying gentrification, displacement, and economic inequality that engulf our city today, including right here in our own Columbia Point neighborhood?

At the Bayside site, should UMB as land-owner and partner in development really create another Kendall Square or Assembly Row Mall there, as some have said is the administration’s goal? Wouldn’t that exacerbate the gentrification and displacement already occurring in Dorchester? Or should UMass Boston try something different, something more inclusive, inspired by a more progressive social policy? The signs are not good. Our university’s recent history of management and planning for its Bayside property has been alarming to our neighbors in the area, and railed over in local newspapers – due to the administration’s persistent secrecy in its development plans. Negotiations our own administration carried out to use that site for an “Athletes’ Village” in an ultimately discredited and abandoned bid to bring the 2024 summer Olympics to Boston, and with Robert Kraft to build a professional soccer stadium there, both took place completely in secret – to the chagrin of local leaders and other landowners and stakeholders on Columbia Point. These ultimately unsuccessful plans were discovered by everyone only when they were leaked to the media.

With the university as the landowner at Bayside, what kind of influence is UMB going to exert on the developer to whom it has agreed to lease the site? Will the university make sure there is wide public participation in shaping the design of the new Bayside development, or has it already sold away some of the leverage we might have had? Our current Chancellor has promised the campus and the Faculty Council that there will be wide input from the UMB community and the neighborhood at large. Probably some decisions may ultimately be under the control of the system President’s office and the UMass Board of Trustees, and not simply made at the campus level. As a public entity itself, of course, UMB is not required to submit any of its plans to the same public, more transparent planning process that purely private development projects are mandated to observe, such as Article 80 under Boston Planning and Development Agency regulations for “large project review.”  In the past, despite promises to conform voluntarily to those regulations, the university already has a record of not following through.  Let’s hope that this time, though, UMB keeps its promises to welcome wide community participation.

Do we perhaps need a renewed, more conscious urban mission today, to be discussed and articulated once again across the university? Do we need more stakeholders here on the campus – including faculty, students, and staff – to ask more questions about what is being planned, and what is possible; to demand answers and transparency; and to insist on wide public input into the visioning of the new Bayside? In this effort it also makes sense for all those segments of the university community – students, faculty, and staff – to recognize the common interest we share with local residents of the Point, Savin Hill and wider neighborhoods in Dorchester, Roxbury, and South Boston. It is not only about “them,” however, but also about “us”: many of us here who are part of the “university community” also live in the surrounding neighborhoods, and have an even more direct interest in what happens here on Columbia Point.

However we might look at the current challenges of Bayside development efforts, our history as a university argues loudly for our becoming watchful and engaged as part of the community who will be vetting and working to shape upcoming changes on Columbia Point. We have a history of struggle for advancement, for social justice, for our rightful place in this city, and for showing courage and commitment in helping to shape a more just and inclusive city for everyone. We need to seek engagement regardless of whether the administration itself is far-sighted enough, and true enough to its own history, to welcome our participation. We are part of the city and have a right to be heard.

After-thoughts: Other Stories That Still Need To Be Remembered and Retold

The UMass Boston history remembered here has emphasized the turbulent and conflictual dimensions of our urban setting, especially centered on wider community struggles for racial, economic and social justice occurring all around the university, much of it right here in our own neighborhood. UMB’s own emergence, survival, and growth as a university needs to be seen as one of those struggles for equality and opportunity, for those excluded from educational and economic advancement due to class, race, and culture. This applies mostly to students, of course, but also to faculty and staff who have come to work at UMB. Our embeddedness in these wider transformations has posed clear and persistent challenges for the UMB community from the beginning, and prompted UMass Boston to advance – in its own interest – an “urban mission” of engagement and social intervention. The commitment has always been as much for ourselves, as for others. Today this traditional commitment once again challenges us to rethink and reaffirm our mission in response to changing times.  Is UMass Boston facing a downgrading of its status now within the UMass System, and the media, due to its urban standing and a student body with a new majority of students of color? Why are we having significant cuts inflicted on us in a time when the local economy is booming, and state tax coffers are flush with extra, unanticipated revenues?  Our new austerity conditions are not recession-driven, as in the past.

This glance at our university’s history, of course, has not addressed how our long engagement with the city and its issues of social justice have also penetrated the university and changed us so dramatically from the inside. Inside UMB, we have had our own continual parallel struggles for justice, democracy, and equity, and our own history of racial politics, and struggles for equality, inclusion and representation among those who work and study here. Important moments in our own struggles for internal democracy and justice led to, among other developments, the forging of all of the campus’ labor unions during the 1970 and 80s, including our own FSU. All these decades of transformative internal, institutional history clearly deserve remembering, rethinking, and retelling, too.

The following photo from the late 1960s of the university’s faculty is instructive. It was taken a half century ago, when we were new and our only campus was located downtown at Park Square. It’s obvious that we faculty – taken collectively – look very different today. How did we get from then to now? What have been our achievements, and what kinds of struggles were necessary to win them? Have we come far enough? Does the press of history ever let us feel self-satisfied, exempt us from being aware of past struggles, and give us the privilege to stop caring, and to rest? Without understanding and owning our past, how can we defend ourselves in these troubled times?  How can we ever chart the future?

UMass Boston’s faculty as a group, Park Square campus, about 1968 (Courtesy of University Archives and Special Collections)

  1. These remarks were developed from a presentation first offered at the Center for Innovative Teaching’s December 4, 2018 forum on “This is Where We Live and Learn: Gentrification and Education in Boston,” co-sponsored with the Anthropology, TCCS, and Africana Studies departments. For their valuable assistance in helping with assembling information, I am also grateful to Lew Finfer of the Massachusetts Communities Action Network (MCAN), Jessica Holden of the UMass Boston Healey Library’s University Archives and Special Collections, and alumnus Philip K. Reason, as well as to Natalicia Tracy, Donaldo Macedo, Ken Reardon, Robert Johnson, Jr., Emilio Sauri, Marlene Kim, Jessica Holden, and Jeff Melnick for reading and commenting on earlier versions.
  2. Later at UMass Boston, the Institute for Asian American Studies (1993) and the Institute for New England Native American Studies (2009) were added to this collection of “ethnic institutes.” Additionally, the Center for Women in Politics and Public Policy was transferred to UMB from Boston College in 1994. All were established at UMB with close collaboration and support from relevant caucuses of the Massachusetts legislature.
  3. The General Manager of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority at the time was James F. O’Leary, a 1970 UMass Boston graduate, someone who understood well the university’s transit problems. Shortly after the new JFK/UMass station was open, the University showed its gratitude for O’Leary’s public service by recognizing him at the 1984 Commencement with an honorary degree.