Student groups struggle to survive in the new Student Union

“A bureaucratic nightmare”

McKenna+Premus+%2F+Daily+Collegian

McKenna Premus / Daily Collegian

By Lucas Ruud, Collegian Correspondent

After years of having their own space, student groups at the University of Massachusetts are struggling to find a home in the new Student Union. Renovated from 2019 to 2020 with an increase in the yearly student activities fee of $100 per student, the new Student Union came with a new process that significantly disrupted student organizations.

In the fall of 2017, the Student Government Association and the University of Massachusetts administration consulted with student groups on campus and decided that Registered Student Organizations would have to reserve meeting space on an as-needed basis.

“In the previous Student Union, all groups had a room they could make their own. In this building, that’s not the case,” said Secretary of the Registry Shayan Raza. Raza, a legal studies and economics major, is responsible for overseeing more than 200 RSOs and their meeting spaces in the new Student Union.

For example, the Muslim Student Association lost their permanent prayer room. “They had a dedicated space in Bartlett. It was a very safe space for people to observe their religion. In this space, that room no longer exists,” said Raza. There are interfaith spaces within the new Student Union that the MSA can book for prayer, but their request to set up a permanent area within the union was rejected.

“The management board decided not to approve [the] request and instead give MSA priority use of the space as a prayer room. This decision was intended to support the activities of MSA and all RSOs that may have similar needs,” said Deputy Director of News and Media Relations Mary Dettloff in a statement.

“For RSOs, the state laws are such that if we provide one resource for one RSO, we have to have the same needs for all RSOs,” explained Raza. If the University were to provide the MSA with a permanent prayer space, they would be required by law to provide a permanent space for all other student groups.

The UMass Theater Guild experienced similar issues.

“When the Student Union went under construction, we got moved into an office in Bartlett Hall. Bartlett Hall worked, and it kept our stuff safe. Now, the new Student Union reopened and they took away our office and put our stuff in a different office in Bartlett that might as well be a meat locker,” said UMass Theater Guild Secretary Ali Farina. “The office is locked and someone else has to come unlock it when we need to access our things.”

Farina heard from secondary sources that Bartlett is being torn down at the end of the semester. “That’s our only rehearsal space… we had not been contacted about this and all of our things are in Bartlett,” said the senior theater major.

Student agencies and businesses, who were guaranteed space in the new Student Union prior to its construction, are experiencing issues with their space and new University policies.

“It’s a bureaucratic nightmare,” said WMUA General Manager Zoe Kaplan, a senior communications major. As an agency, the student-run radio station operates under different guidelines than RSOs, which allows them a permanent space. However, the space they received was not what they had in mind.

“We got completely disregarded and almost all of our requests never ended up in the final space,” said Kaplan. While they did receive two new podcast studios, they received little storage space, which lead the new studios to be filled with boxes of vinyl records and other items.

“We’re in the process of getting rid of a lot of our vinyl,” Kaplan said. “We just don’t have enough space.”

Stricter policies were placed upon student agencies as to how they could furnish their space. “We’re also not allowed to put up any large art, we can’t put up anything without Command strips, and nothing can be put on the window,” said Kaplan. According to Kaplan, a University employee patronizingly told the WMUA news editor that a sticky note pasted on their large window “amounts to vandalism.”

Some student groups are struggling with maintaining RSO status due to COVID-19 disrupting the usual transfer of leadership between school years. Without active RSO status, a student group cannot book rooms in the new Student Union.

“The first time I found out that we weren’t an active RSO is when I tried to book a room,” said Alpha Phi Omega President Kenny Wright. APO is a service fraternity, which shares more similarities with other clubs on campus than with traditional fraternities.

Without a functioning leadership group within an RSO, the student group can lose RSO status. “No one communicated this to us,” Wright said. With the APO transition in leadership disrupted due to COVID-19 last year, he had to figure out the inner workings of RSOs on his own. Upon contacting the University for assistance, he was routinely denied help and redirected to other administrators. “The theme of this is ‘ask somebody else’… there’s no one person to go to.”

Due to losing RSO status, Wright could not access funds from the Student Activity Fee, which is paid for by students and distributed to RSOs. “We’re operating at $0,” Wright said.

Nick Weiske, a leader of the Young Democratic Socialists of America, experienced similar complications. “There’s nowhere where we can actually find important information… they should make it much easier,” said the junior math and economics major.

“We’ve yet to hear back from them at all,” said Farina, who also experienced a lack of communication from administration. “We’ve emailed from our RSO account, our personal email accounts, and we’ve tried calling…nothing.”

Kaplan hopes that the Student Union can reclaim its old glory. “The old Student Union used to be very social… it feels like a library in here,” she said.

“RSOs and student groups are maybe the most important part of the college experience. You don’t get that anywhere else,” said Farina. “We talk about student unions as a hub of student organization. And this is not. At all.”

Lucas Ruud can be reached at [email protected]