Writing about the 106th commencement at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth raises a serious question: in a country fascist in all but name, with institutions brimming over with corruption, ignorance, racism, and violence, where even a small victory like finishing a bachelor’s degree should be celebrated and notice given to the skills and kindnesses of faculty and staff, how can one express outrage that marks your university as special and deserving of notice, one which sinks deeper in this rotting social milieu?
Certainly my journey through higher education hasn’t been a model of timeliness or efficiency. However, exposure to many different academic settings, from public community colleges to a sub-Ivy League private college, has given me a keen appreciation of institutional values. I’ve come to recognize the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, as an example of how to devolve a degree-granting institution into a culturally-bleached wafer of conformity and acquiescence.
When I first applied in 1989, Southeastern Massachusetts University was an interesting and independent place, diverse in race and class without the need to advertise as such, and offering a wide variety of programs at an affordable price. My attendance elsewhere by necessity did not erase this first, positive impression, and I returned there in 1997 to witness a campus turning away from its public mission: “improved” admission standards were closing off access, especially to people of color, and the joining of the UMass system had resulted in a staggering increase in fees (over 300% during the first biennium, if memory serves) the proceeds of which continue to disappear, Mafia-like, into some dark recess. The names and amounts of these fees, which evade both the state-mandated limits in tuition increases and serious public analysis, went through some gyrations before reaching the current state of accounts, as follows, for a full-time Massachusetts resident student:
Curriculum Support Fee $6069
Athletics Fee $200
Students Fee $135
Campus Center Fee $160
Health Fee $55
College Fee $210 – $505 depending on major
Health Insurance $979 (if one has no other coverage)
MASS PIRG Fee $14
Throw in one-time orientation and transcript fees and you’re north of $8000 per year, exclusive of housing. Only the MASS PIRG fee is waiveable, if you prefer an atom of financial accountability to help wash down the rest (I never found out how that money was spent on campus, either). Amid a culture of administrative contempt, underscored by examining bloated salaries in the library’s archives, a student’s love of learning and desire for advancement, held so rhetorically high, is regularly smashed with the bludgeon of financial brutality and harebrained priorities. Again, the question: does UMass Dartmouth stand out from the rest of this country’s public universities?
A recurrent theme is double standards. The electronic commons is a prime example. Leave aside for the moment the craven surrender of academic sovereignty over the music file-sharing issue of recent years; the policy release of Computing and Information Technology (CITS) was heavily cribbed from the RIAA, though ironically uncredited. Even as simple an issue as spam escapes understanding. For my thoughtful response to spam, a 1970’s-era feminist lesbian now ensconced in a position of authority, complete with Pastor Martin Niemoller’s famous quote in her office, found it more advantageous to attempt to intimidate me than fairly address the issue at hand. Score one for jackbooted Baby Boomer liberals with political memory loss.
Another vacant file on campus is the student newspaper. On three separate occasions, I labored in vain to contribute an informed response to a policy or issue at hand: taxation and support for public higher education, the history of the fee structure before and after the UMass takeover (complete with closed-door meeting between the student representative and chancellor), and the file-sharing fiasco mentioned above. Not only was The Torch unequipped to edit and print informed dissent, but had trouble identifying it. Gone are the years of The Graffiti, an independent student newspaper. Score one for institutional memory loss and the embedded, Emmy- and Pulitzer-whoring reporters of tomorrow.
Nonetheless, for those lacking educational choices, time spent at UMass Dartmouth could be stimulating: watching the bureaucracy and buildings grow like bacteria in null-gravity; taking a class on race almost entirely filled with white students; narrowly avoiding another class putatively about the environment but dedicated to twisting the truth about the same; witnessing an expensive, unnecessary, and inept computer software package imposed, apparently “because”; wondering how many overpaid bodies could be hidden in the wasted architectural space of perhaps the ugliest campus in North America (a friend who grew up in East Germany attended commencement and confirmed, yes, it is truly hideous). Indeed, the distance between reality and policy is where my UMass heart will always be.
Which brings us back to commencement. Never expecting in a dozen lifetimes that I would actually muster the patience (or stifle my spirit enough) to graduate, my expectations of the day were modest. Like several seniors I know, were it not for proud family members’ attendance, a day gardening or hammering nails into one’s own feet was more appealing. Then, in April, the commencement speaker was announced: the president and CEO of the New York Times Company would come to speak at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Amphitheater. Er, make that the Vietnam Veterans Peace Memorial Amphitheater. On reading the press release that this locally-grown aide-de-empire would descend on us, I said “Where’s the Peace?” A message to public relations yielded no response or correction to this splashy homepage announcement. Ahh, this must be the UMass Dartmouth commencement speaker!
In the event, it didn’t matter much. There was no more talk of Vietnam or Peace than there was of skateboarding on Mars. The Chair of the UMass Board of Trustees spoke of the “incredible” chancellor (How about ‘invisible’? I could have grown potted plants in her reserved parking space) and the need to challenge established principles and push the envelope… and mind the chancellor’s admonition to put aside our own feelings about two illegal invasions and just support the troops who are clearly killing and being killed in support of the ideals of higher education. The President of the Alumni Association assured us of the huge community of successful UMass graduates, none of which was available to stand in for the CEO graduated from a private religious university, and told us of the blue and gold blood that pumped through his veins. Capping off the bit players was the Vice President of the University of Massachusetts thundering that “people LOVE this place.” Through the nausea, I thought hopefully to myself ‘Perhaps he’s talking about another place.’ To my fellow students, I often did.
The CEO spoke about choices. Specifically, eight kinds of them, presumably to be made in a timely fashion by people other than herself. The keynote was FDR’s response to the ruling class gnawing on itself as The (First)Great Depression got underway. The stock market and banks were shut down, and average people were informed and angry enough to take action. “As the newly-elected President, he could assume wartime authority and call out the Army to keep order. Or…he could assemble a private force of veterans to enforce a kind of martial law. But to do either would deal an extraordinary blow to capitalism and to democracy.” (Hmmm… perhaps then.) But by using the radio, FDR worked his civic magic and “In the words of a New York Times editorial dated March 14, 1933: “The fear and panic… appear to have almost entirely passed.” Clearly this woman was not a history major or familiar with her flagship property’s atrocious record on just about any public issue of import.
Still, we could choose to quote from Winston Churchill, keep learning (as she claimed Tom Friedman did before penning his odious “The World Is Flat”), change your mind (strictly about your career, that is), be ethical (choose a friend’s health insurance over a career move), and work for the greater good (as long as it doesn’t endanger your career). Aside from being a corporate accomplice to two illegal invasions and other civic crimes large and small, with such noble ideas one could argue that she deserved to be released from prison sometime before the end of her life.
The graduates cheered the imminent end of her appearance and the Class of 2006 walked across the stage to accept their degrees. I shook the hands of two officials who had earned my respect and gratitude. Afterward, a friend quipped that the commencement was like my undergraduate work: long, arduous, and frustrating, but finally over.
To end on a positive note and make clear the obvious, public higher education is of dire importance to the working class and must be made accountable to the same. There were certainly enough disgusted students at UMass Dartmouth to have chosen this course of action. But as with the United States, the pain or desperation have not reached high enough levels to overcome indoctrination and prompt unified corrective action. The times I valued the most at UMD, again, like the nation which I have widely explored, were the small acts of rebellion or humanity which freely rejected the otherwise numbing dehumanization of the place (I omit details to prevent the stifling of such crucial outlets).
If the culture of contempt which strangles humanity will be overturned, it will not be by asking politely or quoting from past struggles now safely in history. To those that assisted the Class of 2006 both on and off campus, it’s the only repayment in kind that will do.
David Patten ’06 graduated magna cum laude from the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth. He can’t be reached, but you can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org
— Copyright 2006