The University of Massachusetts Amherst is taking deliberate strides to grow with the best interests of its students and its community in mind.
The University of Massachusetts in Amherst houses so many students that some put it into context this way: “We say that we have more people living on our campus than there are in most of the towns in Western Massachusetts,” says Eddie Hull, executive director of residential life, University of Massachusetts Amherst. Hull and the university manage the third-largest residential population in the United States with a housing that can accommodate approximately 13,318 students. First-year students are required to live on campus, in one of 15 first-year-only residence halls. The 2013-2014 academic year was the first year the university did not need to stretch itself into its extended housing program, which converts dorm rooms and lounges into living spaces for students. The reason was the opening of the Commonwealth Honors College Residential Community. At an approximate cost of $200 million and with 1,500 beds, the centrally located housing, which opened for fall 2013, was the largest and most expensive building project on the campus to date.
The university is home to 52 total residence halls and apartment buildings that are grouped into seven residential areas: Central, Commonwealth Honors College Residential Community, Northeast, Orchard Hill, Southwest, Sylvan and North. In addition to the recently opened community, UMass Amherst is undergoing other unique initiatives to help the university’s housing evolve on campus as well as working toward several solutions with the town of Amherst regarding future growth. In April, the city announced it had selected U3 Advisors of Philadelphia to develop a plan to address housing growth in Amherst. The consultants, working alongside the Town-Gown Steering Committee, which was created in October 2013, will focus on reviewing areas where the town and university master plans coincide. They will also examine best practices currently in force in other college communities that could be applied in Amherst. A second focus of the consultants will be to identify university-related job growth and business-creation opportunities. U3 Advisors is expected to wrap up its findings in August.
On campus, the university has just issued an RFP for a consultancy of its own, in which UMass Amherst will receive a detailed audit of all its residential facilities on campus. SHB talked with Hull about these initiatives and about housing a city’s worth of students.
SHB: How often have you gone into expanded housing?
Hull: Not counting the year that just ended, just about every year for over a decade. This year, the new 1,500-bed facility took a lot of the stress off. In fact we were able to essentially eliminate all of expanded housing for this past year, which was very nice, to be able to return our residence halls to what we call design capacity and to restore the lounges and not have to use them as bedrooms for our students.
SHB: Tell us more about the origins and goals of the Commonwealth Honors College Residential Community.
Hull: It opened in fall 2013, our newest facility. It’s the first one that we’veconstructed since 2006 and it houses right at 1,500 students. It is designed to house four classes from first year through senior. We have about 600 bed spaces for first year students in the honors college and about 900 for upper division students in the honors college. When we were able to add those 1,500 beds it allowed us to restore or eliminate about 500 bed spaces we had used as expanded capacity. The Commonwealth Honors College Residential Community is about 510,000 square feet. No older residence halls were demolished. It was built on the site of a parking lot and tennis courts, so we didn’t have to knock down any buildings, but we did take away a little bit of housing as well as the tennis courts, which weren’t being used very much, so it was an easy call. Most of our on-campus housing has been on a perimeter sort of model with the residence halls on the outer edges of the campus. This is basically right along the academic spine of the campus. We did that very intentionally and symbolically to have people understand the relationship between a living-learning community and the academic rhythm of the campus.
There are several other notable things about the Commonwealth Honors College Residential Community: It’s the largest construction project ever done on this campus of any kind. It’s also been the most expensive. All in, the construction project itself was about $186 million. With all the furnishings and other costs, it was a little over $200 million. We’ve used it to launch initiatives that are important to the university. For example, we wanted to provide a higher profile within the commonwealth of Massachusetts and in the region about our honors college. We really believe that it’s something special and that it deserved a home of its own. So we’ve created this special place that is not only a residential community, but we also moved the honors college administrative space into the housing as well as classrooms, a large meeting hall and a 24-hour café that’s built around a courtyard. It’s quite a dramatic space and a wonderful addition to our campus. It was designed by William Rawn Associates out of Boston, a firm that has done housing at Duke, Northeastern and some impressive work at [outdoor performance venue] Tanglewood.
SHB: How are you programming the space?
Hull: We decided not to treat it as a housing project and an academic affairs project. We treated it as a university project. We call it a shared leadership model for the community. The department of residential life and the honors college themselves together act as a team to frame the programmatic experience, the life in the residence halls, the role of the resident assistants, and the way class and other space is utilized not only by the college, but by the campus. We’ve really seen it as a team approach. As a viable way to demonstrate the synergies between student affairs and academic affairs. It’s proving to be quite successful. It’s something that we’re going to continue to work on and hopefully use a prototype for where we go in considering other housing opportunities on our campus.
SHB: In what other areas are you hoping to grow UMass Amherst’s exposure and academic growth? Are international students a focus for example?
Hull: Yes, we have an imperative to increase the internationalization of our campus. There’s a number of ideas we are taking around in terms of using housing to some strategic advantage. There haven’t been any decisions made about it, but we’re talking about the possibility of an international house that could operate 12 months out of the year and provide housing for students, many of whom find it difficult to go home for the holidays or during breaks. This would likely be a conversion of an existing facility, at least at this point in the near term. We’re going to try it as a pilot. We’ll also have several academically linked programs for sophomore students. We have several sophomore communities that are already functioning programmatically in conjunction with three of our colleges: our Eisenberg School of Management, our college of engineering, and the College of Humanities and Fine Arts as the third collaboration. These communities seem to be thriving quite well because of a cohort of students who share a common interest in a field of study. And in a place where we can provide some additional academic support and programming that is focused on those interests.
One of the things I like about our program is that we don’t have a one-size-fits-all or a one-approach-is-the-best-approach way of housing our students. For some students, having a defined residential community makes all the sense in the world, for others, not having that kind of framework is even more sensible. I anticipate that we will continue to have the full range of non-focused and specialty focused programming in our residence halls going forward.
SHB: Tell us more about the new RFP.
Hull: We are just beginning the RFP process to find a consultant to come in and give us a full facility audit of all of our residential facilities. We have a need to understand the condition of our facilities much more deeply than we currently are able to ascertain. We are similar to many institutions where decisions are made about housing operations’ ability to generate revenue versus an overall cost of attendance at the university, and that’s a pragmatic reality we all deal with.
But at a certain point, if you don’t have the funds to reinvest back into your facility in an ongoing manner, there will come a time when it’s time to pay the piper, so to speak, and we think we’re at about that point. We want to get ahead of it so we know how big a challenge that we have and make some strategic decisions accordingly to reinvest in existing facilities. Perhaps allocating to other university uses. We can’t afford to have any net loss in housing, so how would we make it up? Whether it’s a public-private partnership or whether we traditionally go out and build it ourselves. These are some very important questions that, over the next year, probably starting in January, we are going to have some very interesting conversations about.
SHB: How have your residential construction projects been funded, and what are the average ages of your halls?
Hull: All of our residence halls so far have been funded through bonds that have been let through the university system. We pay a big mortgage every year. From the university to whoever the bondholders are. We’ve been self-funded for all of our projects up until this point. Our oldest currently operating residence hall was built in the 1930s. Our newest one opened last August. Most of them were built in the ’40s, ’50s, ’60s, some into the ’70s. The average age is getting a little long in the tooth. So we’re getting to the point where we really need to take a hard look at the guts of the building. The infrastructure. The electrical and plumbing systems, the mechanical systems, the quality of the roofs, exteriors. We’ve been putting about $10 and $11 million into our facilities every year. But that’s basically to try to keep them operating appropriately. We have not done a full-scale renovation here in a long time. When I came here four years ago, I recognized that we needed to start collecting these data, so we could have a more informed decision about what the real needs are. It’s going to be a pretty healthy number.
SHB: Describe the lay of the land for off-campus housing for your students.
Hull: We have an off-campus student center and an off-campus housing referral program. It serves undergraduates and graduate students. We’ve been able to develop a relationship with most of the larger apartment complex owners around the community. We’ll take students out on scheduled bus tours to see them. We’ve done a lot of educating of landlords on what it’s like to be a landlord for college students, and we’ve done a lot of education for students on what it means to be a good citizen, not only on campus, but away from campus because you’re still a representative of our institution. We want the experience to be positive both ways.
There are two colleges here in Amherst: Amherst College is here, which is one of the finest liberal arts colleges in the United States. And then we have the University of Massachusetts. Together, we pretty much dominate the town. Any time you have a situation like that it can sometimes create a love/hate relationship. If the institution is truly one of the economic drivers of the community or the region, with that you can feel good about it, but there also comes some responsibility. Most of the people who work here, who teach here, they’re also members of the community and they want to be able to be proud of their institution, where they live and our students and their behavior have a great deal to do with how the entire institution is perceived.
Amherst is routinely considered one of the best college towns in the United States. Including graduate students, we’re approaching about 28,000 students.
Almost all of them are absolutely wonderful, and you’d be happy to have any of them living right next door to you. Some of them make some unfortunate decisions. From time to time, you hear more about that than you hear about the good things. There’s always a town-gown relationship that requires tending to. Which is why the university and the town have just engaged this past couple of months a consultant to work on a jointly funded effort to understand future growth between the town and the university. We’re really looking for ways to partner with Amherst with outcomes that will make sense to everybody.
SHB: What could some of the possible outcomes of the consultancy be?
Hull: It could be a combination of things. It could be building a mixed-use district, for example. Our administration building is less than a mile from the middle of downtown Amherst. It’s a very easy walk. But in between, there are what used to be residential neighborhoods. Some of which have been converted into student housing by people who would go in and buy these houses and then rent out bedrooms and create districts of housing for students that is not generally kept in optimum condition. And these properties typically don’t have the same kind of oversight the university would have in its residence halls. That creates a bit of an issue with the town, particularly if you’re a homeowner. Housing here is very expensive. You don’t want to see the value of your lifelong investment be negatively impacted because of where all the students are starting to live.
So part of the study is going to examine what kind of a deliberate effort can be made to develop the area between town center and the university in ways that really celebrate the best of both worlds, so it could be a combination of commercial and maybe some little pocket parks, but really turn an area many people think is a headache into a real positive that not only benefits the town, but the university also.
SHB: Who are local landlords who run the apartments?
Hull: They’re all independent. Many of those property owners who have purchased former family homes and converted them into student rental houses are absentee landlords. Right now there’s a law that prevents the university from entering into a public-private partnership for housing purposes. That’s subject to review. We’re hoping that we might be able to have a reasonable conversation about that because it would be one method of adding housing that could be financed differently than our traditional mode.
SHB: What aspect of your work do you like most?
Hull: The reason I do this work is I really believe that a campus that has residence halls is uniquely positioned to support students in their success. Not only in the classroom, but in their personal development. I’ve been in the field long enough to see significant differences in a transition from the old dormitory style housing to contemporary living learning communities.