NEW BEDFORD — After rushing up to Boston to confront the governor on a live radio program, and after publicly releasing a letter sent to Chancellor Mark Fuller that seeks reimbursements, a group of art students displaced by UMass Dartmouth sat around a small table last night in the private studio they’ve been working out of and looked at each other.
On Tuesday, students released a letter they sent to Chancellor Fuller and other administrators on Sept. 22, because they said the university has ignored their requests to meet, ask questions, or demand accountability for the education they are not receiving after UMass Dartmouth vacated the Star Store campus at the beginning of this academic year.
The letter, signed by 17 MFA students, reads, “Today is the 39th day without the facilities we are paying for and the 16th day without the education we are paying for. We believe UMass owes us the education we purchased.”
Students have asked for an in-person meeting by Friday, Sept. 29 to discuss their demands, which include financial reimbursements and post-graduation support “to compensate for the ongoing dismantling of our careers as emerging professional artists.”
Administrators have not responded, and a spokesperson has not responded to The Light’s request for comment.
In only the past few days, Fallon Navarro and Jill McEvoy — two of the students at the center of ongoing protests — have seen a flurry of activity: on Monday, the editorial board at the Boston Globe wrote an opinion that described their ordeal as “callous treatment” and “abandonment” by the university, then they appeared live on WGBH radio’s Tuesday evening “Ask the Governor” program to seek Maura Healey’s support, and meanwhile they’ve started working with a public relations firm, on pro bono terms, to handle the growing campaign to save their school.
“We’re doing all this instead of receiving the education that we’re paying for,” said Navarro. “What am I paying for?” she asked again.
In the month since the Star Store campus shuttered, the public arts college has transformed into a smattering of private studios across homes, borrowed basements, cramped apartments, and privately purchased workshops from Providence to the Cape.
Classes in painting, ceramics, and sculpture have been taking place on Zoom, as the new Bed Bath & Beyond location is not yet ready for occupancy. McEvoy said one professor, Rebecca Hutchinson, welcomed ceramics students into her home. Some students are trying to paint in their apartments. Others have bought private studio space, but the university said it won’t reimburse them for it.
“It’s really painful actually,” said Navarro. “We’ve been cut off from the community that we came here for, and we’ve been taken out of the studios where we work.”
Yet, without any communication to indicate otherwise, October midterms are approaching. It’s unclear how the university or its faculty will assess the performance of classes that haven’t been taking place as scheduled and work that hasn’t been created.
In the absence of any timely communication from the university over the last few months, graduate student organizers have filled the void. Even faculty members have been coming to Navarro and McEvoy for updates on the status of building occupancy permits and class schedules, the students said, because the professors themselves aren’t hearing anything from the school.
Altogether, McEvoy said people — both students and faculty — feel trapped.
“Most credits wouldn’t transfer, so you’d be losing thousands of dollars going elsewhere,” she said. “But most of us had already signed leases here, and it was too late to apply even if we wanted to leave.”
“We’re just … stuck,” McEvoy said.
Students say the disruption to their lives will have permanent effects. “I was supposed to be applying for grants and fellowships and working on my thesis,” Navarro said. “This was supposed to launch our careers, and I haven’t been given any of the opportunities that I was promised.”
McEvoy added: “This name,” by which she meant UMass Dartmouth, “will be associated with our degree, and it doesn’t feel good.”
Despite the recent high-profile media appearances, today, like most days, there’s not much to do besides wait. So Navarro and McEvoy are back in the private studio they’ve found for themselves on Hatch Street. The room has become a makeshift home for clay-spinning wheels, salvaged artwork, beat-up furniture, and personal effects for six displaced graduate students.
“We’re grateful for this space because UMass can’t take it away from us,” they said.
Meanwhile, friends and professors are scattered across the region in other temporary accommodations. Even in some of the more formalized spaces, like the New Bedford Art Museum, which donated a classroom for ceramics students, there are new obstacles.
For example, McEvoy teaches an undergraduate ceramics class in the Art Museum, but a special bus route needed to be added so her students could get to class, which took time to set up, plus she had to rewrite the syllabus because it was now impossible for students to complete assignments.
Among all the challenges, do these organizers have hope? “It’s rough,” is all Navarro could muster.
But on live radio Gov. Healey did make them one promise: “We’ll make sure you get that meeting.”
Editor’s note: This story was amended on Sept. 28, 2023, to clarify that students requested “financial reimbursement” in their letter to UMass Dartmouth administrators.
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