Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Q&A with Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy

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On Jan. 23, University of Massachusetts Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy—who has been in his position at the University since 2012—talked with the Collegian about a wide range of issues on campus. From the recent Meningitis outbreak to the even more recent lawsuit filed against UMass for its Speech Zone Policy, Subbaswamy answered an array of questions posed by the Collegian.

Jackson Cote: As the University was entering winter break on Dec. 20, UMass News and Media Relations sent out an update regarding the Meningitis outbreak, saying that University Health Services plans to schedule another set of clinics early in the Spring semester for students who need either their first or secondary shots. UHS came out with another update again today [Jan. 23], specifying when those vaccinations are scheduled for.

How has preparation gone for those clinics and how did the initial clinics go? As UHS has provided the Meningitis B vaccine to more than 7,700 students.

Kumble Subbaswamy: First of all, anytime there is any kind of infectious disease breakout, no matter how complex or how simple, the first job is to try to vaccinate as many people as possible and make people aware. I must say that I’m really proud of our UHS personnel, both when they caught the first instance and saved the life of a student essentially.

We’ve been in constant touch with the Center for Disease Control and are taking every possible step and precaution. Fortunately, you know, the outbreak has not been severe, and I think part of that is the steps UHS has taken and the cooperation that we’ve had from our students.

So, during the break, there were more conversations about “Do we continue and do we do both initial and follow-up vaccinations?” And I think they’ve come up with a protocol, and we hope more students take advantage of it.

JC: Are there any updates on it being declared an outbreak? Is it still considered an outbreak by CDC and UMass?

KS: Definitely. I think that’s the definition that essentially triggers — where inoculations or vaccinations are covered because it is an outbreak. It’s a technicality, but nonetheless it’s something that is a precaution recommended by CDC. That is the term used. It sounds a little severe, but that’s the technical term, even when there are only two cases, but they seem related, and so you’re always on the side of caution.

JC: Following the announcement by the Trump administration in September of 2017 of the rescindment of DACA, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Program, you came out with a statement saying that you wanted to reassure the entire campus community that you will do everything within your power to provide the support necessary for the most vulnerable students to pursue their educational advancement. Before then, in February of last year, following President Trump’s executive order with the travel ban, you came out with a statement vowing to protect the rights of immigrant and international students, as well as joining Western Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey in a lawsuit against Trump. And then more recently, in December, you announced that you would be joining the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration. Earlier this month, you and other UMass system leaders issued a statement calling on Congress to find a permanent legislative solution to protect DACA recipients. Even more recently, you came out with a statement to the campus community, saying that the University is offering support to individuals seeking to renew their DACA status in the wake of the most recent federal court ruling.

Do you view openly supporting students with DACA status and immigrant students as a responsibility in your position as Chancellor at a major state-university?

KS: So, I start with the premise that all of our community, all of our students, all of our staff and faculty are our responsibility, that we owe it to do our very best to support all of our students, faculty and staff.

The ones who are the most vulnerable are in fact the ones that we need to pay the most attention to. So, without any question, in the past year, DACA students, the “Dreamers,” have been the ones that have been the most vulnerable. The government gave them an assurance to come out of hiding, so to speak, and identify themselves and suddenly, the government changed, and that protection is in question.

As long as they are our students, we will do everything in our power; it is in that spirit that we have made sure that at every step of the way, whatever steps we think we could take, including calling upon our attorneys and joining the larger higher education community and talking to legislatures, doing everything possible to do the right thing in the case of the “Dreamers.” I think there is near unanimity in the country — 89 percent of the people in a recent poll support some kind of an action to legalize [the “Dreamers] presence in the country. So, until that happens, we need to make sure our students can complete their education in as safe and supportive environment possible.

JC: In October, the Graduate Employee Organization, a labor union of graduate students at UMass, sent you a strongly worded letter, in which they proposed an 18 percent wage increase over the next three years, arguing, “UMass has yet to provide us with a substantial wage increase proposal which will provide the kind of material changes our members need to make it through grad school.” The GEO called for you to instruct your negotiators to bargain in good faith with them.

More recently, in November, the GEO held a two-hour long “child-in” outside your office to call for more affordable childcare on campus. They have held other rallies to demand better working conditions. Has any bargaining occurred with the GEO? Do you believe any of their concerns and demands were met? What is your relationship like with the GEO?

KS: First and foremost, I want to always assure all of our unions that our bargainers always bargain in good faith. I think to demand that we bargain in good faith is superfluous, because we always bargain in good faith. And indeed, with the GEO, there have been continuing negotiations.

Look, during negotiations, unions certainly want to make a strong point, and I certainly respect and welcome their demonstrations and demands, but the bargaining happens at the bargaining table, and it happens very respectfully and very cognizant of the importance of the unions and their members.

Also, considering that the funding for any [wage] increases does not come from the state. It’s paid for from our general resources, meaning what other students pay. So, I think we have to balance the demands of GEO against the burden on our student body at large and what the general national climate is and what’s the general pay increase for our other employees. For example, what we have on the table is more than what the state has set as the increase for our other unions, which is paid for by the state. So, I think it’s [the bargaining] been more than both respectful and done in good faith.

JC: As you probably know, the Young Americans for Liberty is suing UMass. They’re a conservative student activism group, and they’re arguing that the University’s Speech Zone Policy violates the First and 14th Amendments.

I was curious how you and the University are responding to the lawsuit? Do you foresee any change in policy?

KS: Obviously we’re completely bound by state and federal laws. We never violate any kinds of laws. We’re law abiding as an institution, as a public institution particularly. We believe that our standards and policies and practices for using our facilities for demonstrations and free speech our consistent with how the Supreme Court has interpreted constitutional rights. We’ll certainly make that case in the court, and we expect to prevail.

JC: Demonstrations, rallies, speeches, they’ve been happening all the time. Especially last year, they happened fairly frequently on campus. Has this policy been an issue before? If so, has it been disputed?

KS: Again, not in a systematic way. There are national movements currently trying to challenge everything on campuses, so what we’re seeing on our campus is really part of a national movement to try to challenge what is seen by conservative groups as a liberal bias, but as you point out, our campus is well-known for demonstrations and protests of all sorts, and we welcome them, and we consider that to be a point of pride for our campus.

JC: Almost daily on campus, you can see construction going on. The most visible sites include the new Isenberg Innovation Hub and the Physical Sciences Building, both of which are scheduled to be completed by early and mid-2018.

I wanted to ask, how close to completion are these buildings?

KS: In fact, they’re all on schedule, and so, by the end of next Spring, all the current construction will come to an end. Unfortunately, we still have close to a billion dollars in deferred maintenance, and so, we’ll continue to seek funding from the state, capital investments, but we’re very proud of being able to provide our students and faculty state of the art facilities whenever we can. I think a lot of progress has been made along those lines in the last 15 years of investment, thanks to the board of trustees making a decision to combine what the state gives with some additional borrowing.

JC: The Isenberg Innovation Hub is a $62 million project, and the Physical Sciences building is a $101.8 million project. Obviously, this is a lot of money and obviously a lot more money goes into new construction sites.

Does the administration view creating new buildings on campus a worthwhile investment?

KS: I guess in some sense, it’s a question of do you want the University to continue into the future or not? Buildings have finite lifetimes, 30 years generally, and after that they either need major renovations or, if the University has grown in size, you need more capacity. If the state builds a building and doesn’t do much for the upkeep of the building, then you end up 30 years later or 40 years later with huge amounts of backlog, and that’s what we’re dealing with.

The answer is, obviously there’s only so much we can do on the backs of our students, so it’s time for the state to come up with another higher education bond bill and make more significant investments, and that’s what we’re arguing for.

Portions of this interview have been edited out for length.

Jackson Cote can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @jackson_k_cote.

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