Newly hired UMass neighborhood liaison takes to the streets to improve town-gown relations

By Colby Sears

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Photo by Robert Rigo

Robert Rigo/Collegian

When the University of Massachusetts appointed alumnus Eric Beal as its first neighborhood liaison in August, he wanted to make sure students would view him as a friendly resource rather than a police force.

Beal, a 45-year-old Amherst attorney and former chair of the Amherst Zoning Board of Appeals, has been hired to improve relationships between off-campus students and local residents in surrounding neighborhoods. His position began Aug. 3.

“My hope is to work very closely with students and learn about their experience of what it’s like to be at UMass and what it’s like to live off-campus,” he said. “At the same time, I’ll be interacting with the neighbors in different neighborhoods. … I want to get both sides of the story and try to foster some understanding.”

The position was created based on recommendations made in the Ed Davis report following the 2014 Blarney Blowout, which detailed to campus and local officials how to best handle off-campus student disturbances.

Similar outreach positions have proved to be effective at Boston College and Georgetown University, according to a news release.

Beal’s duties will include offering advice to students, educating them on how to be respectful of the local community and mediating conflicts between students and local residents.

He also hopes to hold office hours in downtown Amherst, where anyone can talk to him about anything.

“I think initially I want to go meet as many people as I can. … That is really going to be one of the fun aspects of this position,” he said.

UMass offered Beal the job after an extensive search that began last spring. The work he will be doing is just one part of a larger sum of outreach efforts put in place by the University, according to Director of Community Relations Tony Maroulis.

This includes resources like the Off Campus Student Center, as well as programs like Walk this Way and Positive Presence, both organized efforts to encourage respectful student behavior.

“It’s not about someone being out there looking to crack down on students, but it is someone that will try to encourage and promote positive behavior and at the same time will be working with law enforcement and other town agencies,” said Maroulis, who chaired the liaison search committee.

He emphasized that Beal will not be a patrolman, but will rather be “creating linkages and connections” within neighborhoods.

Beal has “hit the ground running” in preparation for the beginning of the school year, according to Maroulis, and has already met with a number of public safety officials. He will mostly be working weekend nights and will be on duty in neighborhoods starting in early September.

Though he will be working alongside all off-campus students, Beal said he would have a focus on neighborhoods around Sunset Avenue, Fearing Street and Phillips Street, along with areas in North Amherst.

Maroulis said “quite a number of people” applied for the position, which required a bachelor’s degree and at least seven years of applicable experience, preferably in law enforcement or conflict resolution. Negotiation and mediation skills were also emphasized.

Luckily for Beal, especially with his familiarity of the Amherst area, he fit the bill. He has lived in North Amherst for 10 years now, not including his time as a student at UMass.

“(Beal’s) deep knowledge of the neighborhoods around campus both as a resident and as a former zoning official (made) him uniquely qualified for this new and important position,” said Nancy Buffone, associate vice chancellor for university relations, in the release.

Beal said his time on the ZBA, which, according to its website, serves to promote the safety, health and general welfare of Amherst residents, gave him a good sense of issues in local neighborhoods and tensions between property owners and non-student residents.

“The university is not going anywhere,” he said. “The colleges are, in my view, economically and culturally the main engine of the Pioneer Valley … and I think that’s what makes this area so attractive.”

After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in sociology from UMass in 1983, where he worked as a resident assistant in the Southwest Residential Area, Beal later moved to Connecticut. He graduated from the University of Connecticut School of Law in 2000.

He also has experience as a mental health counselor in the Holyoke area.

“For me, this feels a bit like a homecoming to back in university. I have very fond memories of being a student here … and I always knew I wanted to raise my family here,” he said.

Colby Sears can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @colbysears.