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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Sunday, December 10, 2023

Editorial: An open letter to University President Sunil Kumar

The Editorial Board offers a list of pressing issues for Kumar to tackle.

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University President Sunil Kumar is pictured in his office on Aug. 30.

Americans increasingly doubt the value of a college education, according to recent reporting by The New York Times. The data show about a 40% decline in American parents who expect their children to attend college over the past decade, with undergraduate enrollment across the country dropping by about 2.5 million young people in the same time frame. As students at one of the most expensive universities in the United States (No. 5, to be exact), this question — “Is college worth it?” — emboldens the Daily to outline our short- and long-term priorities prior to President Sunil Kumar’s Oct. 6 inauguration. Our list is neither extensive nor prescriptive, but we hope it can serve as a guidepost to President Kumar as he envisions the legacy of his light on the Hill.

Housing:

It should come as no surprise that housing is top of mind for residents of Somerville, New England’s most densely populated city. Though Tufts boasts about its 734 beds added since fall 2016, the university is less keen to recognize the 1,307 additional undergraduates — 1,942, counting graduate students — who require a place to sleep. The 398 beds from the new residence hall planned for Boston Ave., while a partial solution, will still not be enough to catch up to Tufts’ rate of over-enrollment. Meanwhile, Medford and Somerville were among the top three Massachusetts communities with the fastest rising rents in 2022.

We commend President Kumar’s promise that Tufts’ expansion of the undergraduate program is done; Tufts is just 101 students shy of its initial 6,600 enrollment growth plan, which was set to conclude in 2026. Our ask now is twofold: first, that this promise is kept, and second, that the university ensures clear lines of communication with Tufts’ host communities while taking advantage of opportunities for collaboration.

Historically, elected officials from Medford and Somerville have voiced their concerns over Tufts’ lack of long-term housing plans. The absence of information provided to Somerville in particular compelled then-City Councilor Katjana Ballantyne to propose an ordinance in 2014 that would require all major nonprofits in the city to submit an Institutional Master Plan to the council. An act proposed by Somerville Representatives Christine Barber, Patricia Jehlen and Erika Uyterhoeven would have authorized Somerville to make this requirement, overriding the Dover Amendment that exempts educational institutions from certain development restrictions, but the bill died in committee this session.

Tufts can still voluntarily submit this information and work with both Medford and Somerville to ensure it does not repeat past faux pas. If you’re looking to get really civically engaged, it’s worth circling back to this Daily editorial from 2017, which advocates for reforms to local zoning ordinances. Most of the Medford/Somerville campus is still zoned with a 100-125 foot height cap. We recognize there is very little room ‘out’ to go when it comes to expanding housing without displacing local residents, so the most obvious solution is building ‘up.’

Dining:

Tufts Dining has recently reverted back to a former meal plan policy which limits students to one meal swipe per retail dining location during a given meal period. With required meal plans that cost first- and second-year AS&E undergraduate students upward of $4,000, a reconsideration of the current operations would align with President Kumar’s stated desire to improve student experience.

While the policy claims to combat infrastructure challenges that high-volume ordering at retail locations like Pax et Lox cannot handle, the persistent lengthy lines that form outside Dewick Mac-Phie Dining Center during the lunch rush around 12 p.m. seem to have been overlooked. In fall 2021, Tufts Dining sent an email addressing student concerns over long lines at its various dining locations. As the problems persist two years later, more tangible solutions to these challenges must be brought to the table.

Although the Tufts Premium Plan provides 400 swipes per semester and an ability to use “up to 10 swipes” per day, we expect most students enrolled in the meal plan on the Medford/Somerville campus are realistically using one-third of that number. Students have reported having hundreds of swipes left over, yet are unable to donate more than six swipes to the Swipe It Forward meal bank program.

Inconvenience is perhaps students’ biggest concern with the reversion of the dining policy. Students are often rushing in between classes to purchase food to last them through back-to-back class schedules. Left with 15-minute periods to get from one part of campus to another, sitting down with a knife and fork at Carmichael Dining Center then heading to class is impossible to fit into these short windows of time. As its title suggests, Hodgdon’s ‘on-the-Run’ model should be kept in mind when thinking about the applicability of the policy change.

Limiting students’ ability to take advantage of their dining plan in the way that is most practical for them leaves us with concerns about high costs, inconvenience and waste. We hope that President Kumar, in collaboration with Tufts Dining, revisits these policies and calls for changes that satisfy students’ dining needs.

Accessibility:

While the placement of our campus atop a hill was certainly not designed for people living with disabilities, that should not stop Tufts from working to make this campus more accessible now.

People with disabilities often struggle to take their seat at the table, as many residential and academic buildings at Tufts lack multiple accessible entrances. Though the presence (or absence) of handicap push buttons may go unnoticed by the average Tufts student, we must remember that every issue is a disability issue, and we never know when accessibility issues may become personal. Additionally, students are often the University’s first line of defense against malfunctioning accessibility systems, which is not a sustainable solution to ensuring their reliability.  

To address this, President Kumar should maintain a system in which the accessibility of campus buildings is regularly evaluated.

Beyond the physical barriers that accompany disabilities, an additional burden is placed on these students: navigating on-campus dining. Tufts Dining has created a system in which students can both formally and informally pick up meals for their friends who use a meal swipe, either in the form of the “Send a Friend” dining hall process or by ordering a meal on the Tufts Dining app to a retail location (which is only an option during the week, as retail locations are closed on the weekends). However, this creates situations in which students are forced to rely on their relationships for access to food when they do not feel well, placing more burden on the students by locating a “friend” who is willing and able to fetch their food for them.

Thus, we believe that President Kumar should seek a solution to expand accessible food options.

With all of this taken into consideration, President Kumar should also support the creation of a Disability Community Center in order to designate a welcoming and accessible place for people with disabilities and their friends to gather, besides the established administrative resources like the StAAR Center and student-run clubs.

Accessibility (the other kind):

Leadership at the top is supported by a strong connection to the base. We have a long history of student activism, and with Tufts claiming to support civic engagement, it’s important that our student body feels heard. We hope that President Kumar will build a relationship with Tufts students that cultivates trust and understanding.

As of now, most of the methods that can be found online for contacting the university president are for former President Tony Monaco, other than the emails of the office staff and the email for the office itself. Of course, the websites will be updated, and we expect to have a personal email for President Kumar, but we also ask that President Kumar try to create more innovative, informal opportunities for in-person contact with students.

All community members will feel more empowered if they see that their leader cares about what they have to say. There could be office hours in Ballou, or even a weekly or bi-weekly coffee hour at one of the campus cafes. We think that consistent availability in a casual environment is the key to establishing comfort and familiarity. However he thinks it would be done best, we simply ask that President Kumar make it a priority to be accessible to and hear directly from students.