Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Contemplating the new ComCol complex

By Merav Kaufman

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Maria Uminski/Collegian

Since 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 [email protected].


9 Responses to “Contemplating the new ComCol complex”

  1. Stella on March 5th, 2013 6:14 pm

    I completely disagree. I think this is a great idea. I was enrolled in the Commonwealth College Honors Program and I think MORE attention should be given to the program, not less. I do not think it is “snobbish” at all for students to be “segregated” based on the fact they have high GPAs. The fact that there is a small community of higher-achieving students should be celebrated, especially if the university wants to improve its image and attract higher-achieving applicants. The attitude among many on campus, at least when I attended a few years ago, seemed to discourage, rather than encourage, academic success. If anything, I would feel looked down upon because I DID do well in school. When I would visit friends at private liberal arts colleges in the area, where students are known for being “high achievers,” there seemed to be far more interesting conversations that did not just revolve around getting “wasted” every weekend.


  2. beek drinker with birkenstocks on March 6th, 2013 1:35 pm

    Bro, not cool


  3. Sanjay on March 6th, 2013 5:32 pm

    Stella, I find an issue with you saying you are okay with being “segregated” at all, due to the historical implications of the word, but also because, after leaving UMass, one cannot simply hide and “segregate” oneself based on one’s ability to achieve high grades and/or do well on exams. Merav made a great point that college provides “an opportunity to interact with a diverse population of students”. I find that one of the greatest and fulfilling aspects of my college career (currently a senior) was the opportunity to meet with people of all socio-economic backgrounds, religions, cultures, races, genders, and sexual orientations. This “segregation” of honors college students that you seem okay with supporting will actually rob honors students the ability to live with, and interact with, students from diverse backgrounds.

    Lastly, Stella, I find your generalizations about non-honors college students to be disrespectful and, frankly, absurd. As a non-honors college student myself, I find it very disrespectful that you make the generalization that “there is a small community of higher-achieving students” at UMass Amherst. This implication that non-honors students are not higher-achieving students is both elitist and incorrect. There are many students who have the grades and the chance to get involved in the commonwealth honors college who choose not to. It may be because they have received poor reviews of the college, it may be because they simply do not have the time, or it may be that they see no real benefit in joining ComCol. I can personally say I have very meaningful discussions and engagements with other non-honors students “that did not just revolve around getting ‘wasted’ every weekend”. And even if conversations about drinking alcohol arise, is partying not a feature of most universities? Do you imply that the best way to deal with it is to hide from it?

    Being a member of the honors college, in my opinion, is a signal. It’s a signal to graduate schools and to future employers that “I am a high academic achiever”. For me, my grades, extracurricular involvement, and personality & work ethic are the signals with which I hope to differentiate myself to graduate schools and employers. I do hope that you broaden your understanding of the non-honors student population, Stella.


  4. Bruce P on March 6th, 2013 9:51 pm

    Well written piece Merva, that I agree with it totally. If you read the documents written by the founders of this school and several planners and early presidents you will find explicit references to wanting this school to be something other than a typical higher educational institution of the day that fostered elitism.

    I think this a major part of what sets UMass apart. For the current administration to foster internal elitism is a step backward in my opinion.

    The Commonwealth College kids bring their own gifts to the campus. They do not need special help or symbols in the form of this college to make sure everybody knows.

    Perhaps they are the least needy members of the student body.

    I think holding them out via exclusive privileges will just make the rest of the students see themselves as people less valued by the University. Why on earth is this something the University would want to do to the majority of hard working tuition paying students here?

    These buildings are great but they should be a resource accessible to all.


  5. Stella on March 7th, 2013 12:20 pm

    Sanjay- First of all, I put “segregated” in quotation marks because that was the word the author of this article used in reference to the new dorms. Also, I do not think that living in the honors college’s dorms necessarily implies there will be a complete lack of diversity. When I was at UMass, Butterfield was for ComCol kids only. I met a ton of diverse, interesting people who were neither straight, nor white. To imply that all of the students who would live in the ComCol buildings would be straight, white people is absurd and frankly, insulting. Not that this makes it any better, but you don’t think the campus is already “segregated” in a sense? When I was there at least, it was the liberal arts kids who lived in Central, athletes in Southwest, etc. This even translated to a lack of ethnic diversity in the dorms, which I thought was wrong and needed to be fixed. I think though, that having a few honors dorms would not present a problem if UMass say, placed all freshmen randomly in different dorms. I think UMass was moving towards this, which I think is good.

    I did not imply that ALL or MOST of the non-ComCol kids aren’t into doing well or even foster the “let’s get wasted” mentality above all else. Hence, why I used the word “many.” I certainly engaged in my own shenanigans on campus, which I think was good. I just felt there was something lacking that I found more often at other schools.

    Fiiiinally, I found it interesting that you said that after leaving UMass one can’t hide behind their GPA, etc. Yes, and no. Many people, such as myself, will leave UMass to go to graduate/law/med school. Here, there will only be people who have high GPAs/test scores as well. When I graduate, I will be surrounded by many people in my profession with similar credentials as me. So… yeah. Being around people who care as much about school as you do, (again, this doesn’t imply that there AREN’T people who AREN’T around you who do not care about school,) is healthy, normal, and encouraging.


  6. Tori Ericson on March 7th, 2013 5:13 pm

    Stella–Sanjay expressed that one of the most fulfilling aspects of college is “the opportunity to meet with people of all socio-economic backgrounds, religions, cultures, races, genders, and sexual orientations.”
    Your self-congratulatory response that you “met a ton of diverse, interesting people who were neither straight, nor white” while living in an all-honors dormitory reflects that you do not understand the true definition of “diversity.” A truly diverse environment entails not only people of different races and sexual orientations, but also of different socioeconomic backgrounds, ethnicities, religions, and cultures—aspects which Sanjay aptly included in his definition but which you chose to blatantly ignore.
    Due to a number of structural factors (including but not limited to the persistent income and race gaps in SAT scores- see the honors college population at UMass is notably less diverse than the overall campus population—especially on a socioeconomic level. This socioeconomic division will only be accentuated by assigning honors students to live in the new dorms, which will be notably more expensive to live in than the other dorms on campus.
    To argue that such division would not be damaging to the greater campus environment is completely absurd.
    “Fiiiinally”, I completely lost you on your argument in your last paragraph… “So… yeah.”


  7. Sanjay on March 9th, 2013 5:57 pm


    Since Tori acknowledged most of the flaws in your argument, I will focus on your final paragraph. While you argue that people who continue to graduate/law/medical school will typically work in professions in which they are surrounded by co-workers with similar credentials, you fail to acknowledge that one’s professional career is not the sole aspect of one’s success. One who has had the opportunity to live with and learn from people of different socio-economic backgrounds, religions, cultures, races, genders, and sexual orientations will be a more enriched and informed citizen. I think that many of the issues pertaining to society today stem from a disconnect between people in positions of power and the communities most impacted by their decisions. This disconnect can most obviously be seen in politics but it also applies more generally to all people in positions of influence. Bridging the gaps among students at UMass Amherst is a step towards developing better quality leaders in American society.


  8. Zac Bears on March 13th, 2013 11:59 am

    The Commonwealth Honors College is not an elitist institution. I am a CHC student and I do not think less of any other student on this campus regardless of major, interests, or CHC status.

    CHC, however, does have a responsibility and opportunity to attract the most intelligent students from around the state to improve the University of Massachusetts’ standing as the top public research institution in New England. Providing new housing where there is close contact with professors, advisors, and peers with a common interest will invite some of the brightest students to consider UMass over Harvard. When these students achieve whether in research or study, they provide a service to the community and make this University better for it.

    CHC students pay a fee in their tuition that funds the operations of the college. CHC students will pay higher prices to live in the honors dormitories. CHC students are paying for a service and deserve to have that payment work for them.

    This new community is not elitist. Due to its proximity to Southwest it will incline students that have never been on this side of campus to eat together (at Hampshire or Berkshire), work together, and create new bonds that will unify this University better than having an abstract CHC of which most students are unaware.

    Improving student discourse and the academic abilities of the University is most certainly not elitist and this community will bring benefits to the entire University.


  9. Kennedy on May 17th, 2013 6:11 pm

    What this says to me, an incoming freshman at umass who was in the top 20% of my class, had high sat’s, but did not get into the honors college, is that I am not good enough. I am not good enough for the new fancy dorms. Or to live with the smart kids (Eventhough I had a 3.8 gpa in highschool, but went to a very academically stacked school). Or to even be graced their presence. The better-than-you snobby honors kids are all bragging about their fancy new dorms (they even have their own facebook page so they don’t have to communicate with us “norms”). This is not the UMass I signed up for. I didn’t sign up to be segregated. I’m pissed.


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