Campus Center doesn’t feel the same

By Eli Gottlieb

Nick Bush/Collegian

The first time I came to the University of Massachusetts, the sight of all the vendors in the Campus Center impressed me. Sure, I didn’t really want any jewelry or fake African sculptures, but they bespoke a campus full of life and diversity. On occasion, I even bought something from them, such as my wool-and-fleece winter gloves. Without them, the Campus Center just doesn’t feel the same; it feels sterilized, controlled, without actual life because everything living has been regulated out of existence. Oh, hasn’t everyone noticed? The administration kicked the vendors out.

I’ve heard that Auxiliary Services plans to replace the space used by non-RSO tabling and vendors with more dining options, as they did when they opened French Meadow. Honestly, I don’t see why we need more food shops. The Campus Center and Student Union complex already has the Blue Wall, the Hatch, the vending machines, the French Meadow stand, Earthfoods, the People’s Market and now it has the Central Cafe selling sushi and sandwiches as well (without taking my YCMP swipes to boot). Given all that, why has the administration thrown out the non-RSO tabling and vendors in favor of yet more dining?

Of course, UMass claims that it has kicked out the vendors to make way for more RSO tabling, but how many RSOs actually table on any given day? Usually one just sees a few sports, and maybe a larger bunch of Greek-life organizations. Sometimes, there are religious groups tabling, or occasionally one of the two major political parties. Twice a year, the Mass Games Club tables to promote Humans vs Zombies.

In sum, I don’t think anyone is using so much space in the Campus Center concourse that we really needed to throw out the vendors. It’s probably just about the administration wanting more revenue from dining options, as signaled by the addition of all the dining tables to the Concourse. By the way, as I recall, these vendors paid $70 a day in order to vend inside the Campus Center, so we can’t exactly pretend that UMass didn’t make money off this. Quite to the contrary, they provided valuable public space and entrepreneurial opportunity, from which quite a many people built functioning businesses. Why should those people lose that livelihood?

They shouldn’t. We need to bring them back, not just because we can afford to do so but because many students actually enjoyed patronizing the vendors. Whatever I thought of the merchandise, lots of people bought the stuff. Yes, even the pretend-African elephant sculptures, and even the jewelry. Tons of people I know bought those winter glove-mittens, and when I got a pair they turned out to keep my hands warm better than my sheepskin gloves or my Polartec fleece gloves. A friend of mine bought his first gift for his girlfriend from a Campus Center vendor. Real people shopped at those vendors on a daily basis and those vendors were real people doing their best to make a living by providing goods that people wanted to buy.

Or, to put things in economic terms, the Campus Center vendors were independent entrepreneurs and exemplary capitalists. The Auxiliary Services folks who told them to go away have acted as corporatists, restricting the free operation of the market while also taking over public space. One need not adhere to a specific school or ideology to see who they should support here. Let’s go further with this. Greater competition between individual, independent vendors leads to increasing variety of products at decreasing prices. Greater monopoly power wielded by Auxiliary Services has already shown its result: more expensive food shops that don’t even take swipes. One of these two things works how capitalism should work; one of them works exactly how everyone wants capitalism to stop working.

The non-RSO tabling did not even come entirely in the form of vendors. There were also simply members of the local community tabling for causes they happened to believe in, such as Dade Singapuri and her “peace and social justice table.” UMass students used to stop by and help table at these themselves, demonstrating a clear student interest in community participation at our campus’ public space rather than participation only for RSOs.

The administration tells us that they have not actually made a new decision, merely enforced an old rule: that only RSOs can table in the Campus Center. We have to ask, however: If this rule has existed without enforcement for entire decades and its ubiquitous violation has shown no actual ill effects, why keep it? A rule without purpose should be removed, so let’s have vendors and community tabling back in the Campus Center.

Eli Gottlieb is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at [email protected]