In a mock groundbreaking ceremony yesterday, University of Massachusetts faculty and students used a garden spade spray-painted gold to break ground on the “new” University Health Service’s building.
Attendees were protesting a proposal to reduce UHS’s hours as well as eliminate the lab and pharmacy, cuts that were allegedly made to help raise revenue to build a new UHS building.
The protest was followed by a catered forum on UHS in the Cape Cod Lounge, where speakers representing different groups presented their feelings on the changes, experiences and ideas.
The unofficial ceremony, which was attended by approximately 130 people, started on the steps of the Student Union. Students, graduate students, representatives from unions and representatives from UHS gathered at 3 p.m. to deliver speeches, chant and collect signatures for pre-written letters to the Alumni Association pledging not to donate if the changes are passed.
“We are not going to be giving any money as alumni because we are giving money now,” said graduate student Jocelyn Silverlight, vice president of the Graduate Employee Organization.
While standing outside, organizers distributed blue nurses’ masks with the phrase “I can’t afford to get sick” handwritten on them, to protesters.
“Hopefully, the masks just get across the message that we now can’t even access regular services at UHS without being forced to pay money we can’t afford [to pay] on top of the price of insurance here,” said graduate student Kate Losey, who joked about considering making a full body suit to further illustrate the point.
Holding picket signs and chanting cheers such as “No ifs, no buts, no health care cuts,” the group marched from the Student Union to North Pleasant Street through Hagis Mall and then to Memorial Hall, where the Alumni Association is housed on campus.
The group then gathered around at Memorial Hall’s front door cheering, before sending in two representatives to talk to the Alumni Association and deliver a box of yellow letters signed by students saying “I have already made my contributions to the University and that I do not intend to give as an alumnus/alumna.”
The Alumni Association declined to comment at the time of the protest.
According to graduate student and representative of the GEO Jeremy Wolf, the Alumni Association did not know in advance that the protesters would march to their front door.
After the delivery, the group walked back to the Student Union where event organizers from the GEO laughingly used the shovel to “break ground” on the new building, after many of the protesters had already gone inside.
“We are doing a mock groundbreaking for the new building because the new building is kind of an excuse that they are using to get all of us to pay for it and to cut our services and the lab and the pharmacy,” said Graduate Student Senate member Thomas Herndon, who is serving on Chancellor Robert Holub’s committee to update the student health insurance plan.
“We are going to break ground first because we paid for it already,” he added.
After the groundbreaking, a slightly smaller group attended a forum on University Health Services in the Cape Code Lounge at 4 p.m. where the GEO provided pizza, sandwiches, fruit and cookies.
“I am here to learn more about it because I would like to be informed,” said junior Allison McGrial. “Hopefullly we can do something to change it and go back to the way the health insurance used to be, which seems to be the goal.”
Other students, such as Social Thought & Political Economy major Zoe Talkin, were there to show their support for UHS and protest the changes. Talkin claimed that UHS saved her life once and said if the changes were to happen, she is not sure they would be able to do it again.
“I went there late at night and I was received by nurses who ran me through lab sources. We are looking at the possibility of those kinds of services not being there anymore,” said Talkin.
Talkin added that she thought the changes are a “travesty” and proof that the University “does not care” about students.
At the forum, preselected speakers spoke about the status of the UHS building, their experiences working at UHS and UHS’s ability to handle the number of patients it receives.
Kathy Rhines, administrator of contracting medical services and diagnostic imaging and project development for UHS, came to the protest to show her solidarity.
“The changes don’t make any sense to all of the clinical providers,” said Rhine in an interview. “It doesn’t make sense why you would cut out services that are primary to diagnostic and treatment, and the lab and pharmacy are primary to that. Everyone has that and for us not to have that, I think is a mistake.”
Rhines, however, is “optimistic” about the committee that Holub formed in December, saying that she believes it will be more than an implementation committee.
“I am actually optimistic because I really think the community has a right to basically talk about what kind of services we need and the providers are really saying that they will not be able to practice appropriately. I think the Chancellor has responded to it well,” said Rhine.
GEO president Derek Doughty said that he hopes that the protest will capture the administration’s attention and convince them to resist cutting hours and eliminating services at UHS.
“If we are successful, then there won’t be anything like this planned [again]. If not I have something up my sleeve,” said Doughty.
The event was organized by the Graduate Employee Organization, Graduate Student Senate, Professional Staff Union/Massachusetts Teacher Association, University Staff Association, Public Higher Education Network Of Massachusetts and the Center for Education Policy & Advocacy.
Katie Landeck can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Steffi Porter and Diana Alsabe contributed to this report.