Commonwealth Honors College breaks ground on new residential complex

By Chris Shores

Chris Shores/Collegian

Ground was officially broken Saturday for the University of Massachusetts Commonwealth Honors College (CHC) Residential Complex, a six-building, $186.5 million complex scheduled to open in fall 2013.

For CHC Dean Priscilla Clarkson, Saturday’s ceremony – held overlooking the construction site on the outer concourse of Tobin Hall – was the culmination of a quest that had began years before she became dean in 2006.

“The original intention when Commonwealth College was approved [in 1997], was to have its own facility,” she said.  But when Clarkson was appointed dean five years ago, she described the college as being “spatially fragmented. The student services offices were in Goodell … The residential halls were about as far away from Goodell as possible up the steep Orchard Hill and the classrooms spanned the entire campus.”

Clarkson said that in 2008, the CHC Student Advisory Board wrote a proposal for a complex that would integrate classroom space and offices for student services. She said that the proposal “likely watered the seed planted … years ago for what an honors college could be.”

The University first announced the future plans for the complex a year ago, in November 2010. In addition to providing housing for 1,500 students, the complex will include nine classrooms, a 300-seat conference center, administrative offices and a café.

The complex will sit between Boyden Gymnasium and the Recreation Center, spanning a space of nearly 500,000 square feet. Paul Carney, secretary-treasurer of the UMass Building Authority, said it “is the largest project ever constructed here on campus.”

Tim Alden, the student in charge of the advisory board that presented the proposal to administrators in Whitmore Building, was on hand for the event with his fiancée and fellow CHC graduate Heather DeRoy.

“I absolutely loved living with honors kids and getting to know people that way,” said Alden, who lived on an honors floor in Orchard Hill his freshmen year. “Coming in, there wasn’t a symbol or beacon about what the honors college represents. It was spread out around campus. So I didn’t know what to expect.”

“I didn’t really think about the people aspect, but upon graduating, I think that was the most important thing about it,” he added. “By having these buildings here, it can show the greatest attribute of the honors college, which is the people.”

Alex Nemtzow, a senior and co-chair of the CHC Student Advisory Board, agreed, adding that he was drawn to the college because he was “inspired by the concept of joining a community of scholars.”

“The residential honors complex will serve to strengthen this invaluable community,” he said. “I’m excited for current and future students who will not only receive the support and opportunities which I have received, but who will also be able to reap the benefits of a dedicated honors campus.”

Also in attendance was Susan Ware, a lecturer at the honors college, who said she was “thrilled” upon hearing the news last year.

“I think it will have great intellectual and social benefits for the students,” she said. “When you go home at the end of the day, you’re still a thinker. That spirit of inquiry is with you 24/7.”

Paul Friedmann, a member of the CHC Advisory Board, believes the complex will increase the attraction for potential students.

“If a student has a choice to go to the University of Massachusetts or somewhere else, a lot of that decision is driven by location, cost and quality,” he said. “If you can increase one of those elements – the quality side of it – without increasing the cost side of it, you’re going to attract a different kind of student which will elevate the academic standard of the University.”

The project is being funded in part by bonds, said Clarkson, which will allow the honors college to have rent of the rooms gradually pay off the amount owed. She said that the state’s approval of the project demonstrates an investment in the honors college.

Friedmann agreed, but hopes that the state continues its support beyond the approval of the project.

“Clearly this shows there is a commitment of the state…That commitment, however, can vary from time to time,” he said. “I wish there was more consistency, more of a long-term vision …  I think the state, if it continues to support the University, that’s the best thing it can do.”

Other speakers at Saturday’s event included UMass Chancellor Robert Holub, UMass President Robert Caret, UMass Trustee Richard Campbell, UMass Provost James Staros and CHC Advisory Board Member Melvin Howard.

Chris Shores can be reached at [email protected]