The mayor, the music, and a mission under threat
At this year’s UMass Boston Convocation ceremony, special guest Mayor Marty Walsh was greeted by a multimedia musical performance that captured both what is so precious about UMB and what is now under threat.
First came the music: The UMB Chamber Singers, led by professor David Giessow, welcomed Walsh with harmonized Irish blessings, recognizing the mayor’s own immigrant heritage. They then proceeded to a moving choral rendition of Emma Lazarus’ famous poem, “The New Colossus,” a tribute to Boston’s designated status as a “sanctuary city.”
While the chorus sang, Lazarus’ words appeared on a giant screen: “Give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore…” Then, above the cascading harmonies, flashed black and white photos of ship-bound 19th-century Irish immigrants, followed by more recent images: of 21st-century Latin American refugees, seeking asylum, but locked behind wire. Finally came blow-up quotes from Walsh himself about the importance of making Boston a place that welcomes people from all across the world.
It was a moving way to start the year at UMass Boston, where our student body hails from 140 different countries and where we try to take things like inclusion and equity seriously—even as state disinvestment from public higher education makes such ideals more and more difficult to realize in practice. Professor Giessow’s singers, by mixing history, music, poetry, and social justice, gave us all a powerful reminder of what UMass Boston is supposed to be about and why folks like Marty Walsh should be doing all they can to support us, being himself a child of working-class immigrants, and a first-generation college student.
But professor Giessow didn’t stop there. After presenting this moving musical montage, he did something else. He spoke up, briefly, and told the story of how this very chamber singers’ class that had just done UMB proud had—only a few months prior—been on the verge of cancellation for “low enrollment.” As late as August there were still only 8 students enrolled, a fact that often puts a UMB class on the chopping block in these days of bean counting and budget cuts. Luckily, for us all, chamber singing was not cancelled.
But what about next time? What about the coming round of “belt-tightening” that we have been promised at UMB?
Marty Walsh’s own convocation speech followed the music, with the mayor detailing his personal struggles finishing his degree (via night school, in his 30s). Students laughed along as Walsh admitted that he “must have quit school a thousand times in my head,” distracted as he was by partying and scared stiff of writing essays.
Thankfully, though, Walsh had a professor, one “Mr. Murphy,” who saw him struggling and was able to meet one-on-one in office hours, guiding him to graduation. Crucially, “Mr. Murphy” taught Walsh to overcome his fear of writing and to have confidence in telling his story.
Without such one-on-one faculty attention, by his own account, Walsh may never have finished college. Without the support of his writing teacher, the outspoken mayor of Boston may never have gained the confidence to overcome his working-class writers’ block.
But here’s the bitter punchline the Mayor didn’t throw. Like Giessow’s chamber singers, the kind of one-on-one faculty attention that enabled Walsh’s success is under threat at places like UMB. Short-sighted budget cuts, deemed “necessary” by years of state underfunding, are driving administrators to increase student-to-teacher ratios and to shift toward large lecture classes. Meanwhile steep parking fee hikes (now as high as $15 per day!) push working-class commuter students to take online classes, where face-to-face faculty mentorship is still harder to find.
Dear Mayor Marty Walsh,
Don’t all of our UMB students deserve the same kind of personalized support that allowed you to finish your degree? Don’t our working-class, immigrant, first-generation college students deserve the same kind of one-on-one attention that taught you how to share your voice with the world?
If so, Mr. Mayor, what are you willing to do to make sure that Boston’s only public university gets some financial relief, so we can avoid yet another round of harmful budget cuts?
The music that moves us is being put at risk by the climate of cutbacks.
Will you, Mr. Mayor, help us fight for the funding that can allow the working-class, immigrant voices of our campus to ring out loud and clear?
You came to our campus, and heard our song, Marty Walsh. We hope you were listening.
Joe Ramsey is a senior lecturer at UMass Boston and a founding member of the anti-austerity Coalition to Save UMB.