Image by Kent Buckley

October 5, 2015


This week’s column is a codicil to last week’s column on the need for local policy wonks and politicians to stop proposing major public infrastructure projects in parts of Boston that are going to flood during the increasingly frequent global warming-driven super storms slated to hit us in the coming decades. Which, together with rising oceans, stand a good chance of wiping our city off the map if we don’t begin a “strategic retreat” now.

Despite this very real and looming crisis, hapless Boston Globe columnist Shirley Leung devoted her latest missive to the idea of building dorms for UMass Boston. The wildly unpopular Boston 2024 Olympics she flacked for revived a wildly unpopular plan to build dorms at the campus (in the form of an Olympic Village for athletes), and now Leung is trying to help manufacture a groundswell of support behind the original plan for 2,000 dorm beds — complete with positive quotes from some select bigs who are already on the way to making it a reality.

I’ve long been opposed to dorms at UMB. The school was founded with an “urban mission,” that dictates that its primary purpose is to educate Boston residents. Most residents being working and lower middle class people of color who often can’t even afford one of our increasingly expensive community colleges, let alone one of our increasingly expensive state universities. Not without crushing and criminal lifelong student loan debt.


UMass Boston was specifically created as a commuter school with a mandate to educate and uplift the people of the city. And a commuter school it should stay. Having sat on a campus advisory board for future infrastructure development as a leader of the UMB graduate student union in 2006–2007, I believe that the biggest reason for wanting to build dorms (beyond sadly typical sweetheart deals with private developers) was — and remains — to attract young white upper-middle class suburban students whose families can afford to pay an outrageous sticker price for what should be a free (or at least cheap) school. Thus allowing the UMass Board of Trustees, the Mass. Board of Higher Education, and the state legislature to absolve themselves for their rank irresponsibility in refusing to fight for proper funding for the state public higher education system. All of which primarily benefits big “private” universities like Harvard, MIT, BU, and Northeastern that don’t want public competition for the huge amounts of federal and state money they suck up every year.

That said, there’s another reason why it’s a bad idea to build dorms — or indeed any new construction at the current UMass Boston campus: Because the campus is right on Boston Harbor, and therefore just as much at risk for future super storm destruction driven by global warming as proposed coastal projects like the North-South Rail Link that I criticized last week.

It’s time for UMass Boston and other public institutions to think seriously about the flooded future that climate scientists are predicting for the Boston coastline, and start moving their operations inland to higher ground. A sensible step for UMass and state higher ed leaders would be to start buying up property on hills near the present site of UMB — with an eye toward building a new campus. But having attempted to debate with some of them in the past on this very issue, I’m not holding my breath for any of them to do the right thing until it’s too late.

In the meantime, students, faculty, and staff in the UMass system might also change the conversation by pressuring those leaders to do the right thing. And if anyone gets some campus action going on this critical political front, I’m happy to help publicize the effort. I can be reached, as ever, at

Apparent Horizon is the first column syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ network director.

Copyright 2015 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.