New building to improve campus

By Yevgeniya Lomakina

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When passing through campus, do you marvel at its architecture? At the height of the buildings, the sturdiness of the cement and the arrangement of the bricks? Prepare for further astonishment, as yet another edifice is about to be erected. The $156.5 million Laboratory Science Building is just one of the innumerable construction projects currently taking place at the University of Massachusetts. It will be ready to open its doors, or rather, just its north wing, in the fall of 2012.

The remainder of the building is planned to be shell space for potential future endeavors. It seems like UMass is continuing in its structural trend: the larger the building, the more prospective students it will fit. With this year’s “biggest ever freshmen class” and the next class, which will perhaps be even bigger, the University could surely use the extra space.

This, of course, is not the true reason for the 310,000 square feet which the new building will occupy. The future of scientific research cannot be predicted, declare the Facilities planning website. The site continues to say that it is therefore, “critical … [to] create large, flexible, and adaptable systems that can easily accommodate growth.” The new building will provide “modern research space” for the university’s science community. The UMass website assures us that the structure will “bring researchers from different fields together” and foster the groundbreaking discoveries that such collaborations may entail. State of the art research deserves state of the art facilities. The new building will include, among other things, radiant floor heating, water reclamation system, day lighting controls and other energy efficient arrangements.

Why the sudden need to expand? UMass has recently launched its branding initiative program, one in which the university attempts to enhance its regional and worldwide reputation. No effort is too small for such a task. Michael Malone, vice chancellor for research and engagement, noted that if UMass does nothing, it cannot hope to rise among the nations’ elite research institutions. The university must therefore, “accelerate growth to gain in the rankings.” While the acquisition of knowledge is still a central part of the university, another challenge has been added: the race for the best.

The desire to compete is not the only reason behind this construction project. Research revenue is an important part of the financial status of a university. The amount of research funds and their source (such as reputable science foundations) express a school’s capacity to adapt to the modern, technology-driven world. As the amount of the public financial support decreases, universities are forced to find another source of revenue to fund the scientific discoveries.

UMass has also been considering the alternative financing options. Malone proposed to create a separate institution that would be independent of the research conducted at the university. It would allow UMass to be able to perform research for businesses. Projects that will favor the business’ interests and not the students’ will be declined, says Malone.

The construction of this new building, however, is only the beginning. The university may choose to increase scientific activity campus-wide. The strategies are numerous and include hiring more professional staff, building renovations and introducing courses specifically focused on grant writing. The multi-part plan, proposed by Malone, is not completely finalized, but it is apparent that UMass is getting serious about the science.

UMass is not the only one. The University’s president’s report website boasts about the immense construction initiatives that are underway in the all four UMass campuses (Amherst, Lowell, Dartmouth and Boston). These institutions encompass, in one phrase, “Twenty first century facilities [which are] the coin of […] research-oriented universities-modern classrooms and labs, the latest instrumentation and technology, [… and] facilities that enhance campus life,” according to the report.

The reality is, as always, far from being ideal. The words “21st century facilities” and “modern classrooms” sound futile when UMass liberal arts majors, while sitting in class, watch the dispersal of a water leak stain on the ceiling by the LCD projector.

Should universities focus on expansion-even if it is at the expense of other disciplines? Before building something new, it is important to take care of what was already there. But this comes at a risk of falling behind on the latest scientific discoveries. It is true that in the modern, technologically dependent world, disciplines outside of the sciences are having difficulty with financial support. It is also true that UMass, from its beginnings was a science oriented university. In 1863, the science was farming. Presently, it is biological/chemical research and engineering. Let the expansion of the sciences begin.

Yevgeniya Lomakina is a Collegian columnist. She can be reached at [email protected]