Contemplating the new ComCol complexSince its inception in 1999, Commonwealth Honors College has been an abstraction referring to a set of requirements, rather than a college with its own physical buildings.
The honors experience at the University of Massachusetts in recent years has been largely defined by a required freshman seminar, a grueling Capstone project and free Antonio’s pizza every Tuesday.
This fall, the CHC is set to enter a new era. With the completion of a $186.5 million residential complex, the school hopes to attain the sense of cohesion and community it has historically lacked by granting its students exclusive access to the Commonwealth Honors College Residential Community.
Located between Boyden Gymnasium and the Recreation Center, the complex’s six buildings will offer single and double rooms for freshmen as well as suites and apartments for upperclassmen. Further amenities will include classrooms, an advising center, staff and faculty offices, an events hall, a café and an art gallery.
Without a doubt, the addition of 1500 beds will alleviate the fierce competition for on-campus housing, and the university’s demonstrated commitment to honors students will strengthen its image.
The six new dormitories, charmingly named after native trees (Birch, Elm, Linden, Maple, Oak and Sycamore), will likely draw many students seeking a refined dormitory experience in a convenient location.
However, will the new residential community actually enhance the honors student experience? Moreover, will the complex have a positive effect on the greater university community?
The answer to both questions is no.
One of UMass’ greatest strengths is its diverse student body. Segregating certain student populations in designated living areas of campus is counter-productive to promoting an integrated and inclusive campus culture. While community formation is important at a large school, grouping students together based on their high school GPA is a cheap and snobbish way to build community.
Granted, the prospect of living in the new complex may act as an alluring incentive for students to gain admission to the Honors College. However, there are other ways of incentivizing high academic performance without creating a divided campus community.
Instead of providing honors students with an exclusive living area, the university should simply assign them higher priority numbers in the housing selection process. This alternative would similarly demonstrate the school’s strong commitment to its honors students, and even more appealingly, would spare students the awkwardness and pure absurdity of having to reject a desirable roommate simply because he or she is ineligible to live in a certain dormitory.
Admittedly, as a naive freshman entering CHC in the pre-complex era I was initially surprised by the lack of distinction honors students receive in daily campus life.
I soon realized, however, that UMass had achieved something rare and remarkable: by integrating the Honors College into the greater university, the school had succeeded in providing a select group of students with more challenging coursework without creating the sense of elitism that usually comes with the word “honors.”
The CHCRC is in grave danger of creating the very sense of elitism the school has previously managed to avoid.
Future students in CHC will be attracted to the prestige, modernity and physical convenience of the new complex.
However, they will be woefully unaware that by choosing to live there, they will deprive themselves of a richer college experience where they learn to form a sense of community based on common interests and values, rather than past achievement on a standardized test. To view their college years as an opportunity to interact with a diverse population of students and realize that intelligence, strong work ethic and admirable personal character do not always correlate with high grades and test scores.
The University administration needs to seriously reconsider whether making the new residential complex exclusive to students in the CHC is conducive to an integrated and inclusive campus environment, and whether the honors experience at UMass will in fact be enriched by providing honors students with their own separate living area.
A long and careful contemplation of these questions may allow them to realize otherwise.
Merav Kaufman is a Collegian contributor. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.