Taking back UMass
As the lights dimmed, over 50 University of Massachusetts students watched hundreds of current and former students storm the Whitmore Administration Building.
UMass junior Rosie Walunas, 20, of Sunderland, Mass. has been working on-and-off on the production of this film for about two years. After deciding this summer to make the over 20 hours of footage she had from the march into a documentary, Walunas sought out interviews with current and former students, administrators and activists who were involved in the march. Though she was a student while filming, Walunas said she is non-biased, hoping to show both sides of the protest and allow viewers to take their own stance on the issues.
Students had four issues they were fighting for; cops to not be infiltrating the dorms undercover, the university to decrease student fees, more funding for diversity and student control over student housing.
Though filming starts with the march, students including former Student Government Association President (SGA) Malcolm Chu, an organizer of the march explained the years of student unrest over issues. Leading hundreds in the chant, “Ain’t no power like the power of the students, because the power of the students don’t stop.” Chu spoke of how the administration has ignored them for years and they needed to create a movement that couldn’t be brushed aside.
Students within the documentary tell stories of UMass Police dressing as delivery personal, knocking on dorms portraying themselves as students. Only after they found incriminating evidence would they announce themselves, and state that the dorms as state property. When faced with this issue Joyce Hatch, at the time interim Vice Chancellor for Administration and Finance and Budget Director said that the police were not allowed to enter the dorms as students were saying. Barbara O’Connor, UMass Police Department Chief denied that police were ever misrepresenting themselves as students or non-university personnel.
Citing Daily Collegian articles, the documentary shows how the rate of increasing fees was more than 300 percent higher than the rate of inflation each year. Administration explained that they were receiving less funding from the state, Massachusetts being the state with the lowest funding for higher education in the 2007-2008 school year. Students felt this forced them to take a third job and work extra hours, rather than focus on their studies as they wished to.
An African American student spoke during the protest saying that he no longer wished to be a “token” student, elaborating: “I am one of the only minorities here. Not of only African Americans, but of all ethnicities.” Statistics on the numbers of minorities in attendance at UMass revealed that in fact the percentages had been decreasing, as had students from low-income families.
With university plans to create an increasing number of freshman-only dorms, students had many concerns. They felt they were no longer allowed university housing, forcing them to live off-campus and to commute. They were also worried for incoming freshman, citing that they didn’t learn from their peer advisors, but rather from the seniors down the hall. With the possible programs, freshman wouldn’t have the option to live in legacy housing, or to live on the second in 20 floors. Some wonder if the binge drinking of record number freshman this year is in correlation with the freshman-only dorms.
With their demands not met, SGA Senate members and President, Student Board Trustees and other student activists spend weeks organizing a protest and march, notifying the administration of their wishes while they planned. Despite knowing the planned date of the march, the film showed students marching into the Whitmore Building to find then-Interim Chancellor Thomas W. Cole Jr. to be away on business. Acting in his place was Interim Vice Chancellor Joyce Hatch who told students that the Chancellor would have to set up a meeting upon his return and that the chancellor “isn’t familiar with all the issues on campus.”
You have to give him a break,” She said. Students disagreed.
Towards the end of the film members of the SGA met with the chancellor and discussed the 27-page list of student wishes and needs. The university replied with a counter-offer. Eventually an agreement was reached.
“There is a need for on-going communication with students,” Hatch said on Thursday after film. “Students shouldn’t walk away from this film believing that this is the only path to change.”
When asked what she hopes this film will accomplish, Walunas said, “I hope that the passion of the students inspires not only students at UMass but all those who view the documentary.” She laughed as she told the audience of students in Canada who heard of her film and requested a copy.
Samantha Lyon, a 23-year-old graduate student, spoke of how this taught her of the history of campus and that, “students graduate, new ones come in, leaving the administration as the ones who are around the longest, allowing them to shift the attention from these issues. Yet with film, there is documentation, preventing this from happening.”
Michelle Williams can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.