A room of our own

Elizabeth Klingen/Staff

Graduate students hold up our university. They provide the teaching and grading labor that makes quality instruction possible. They also produce scholarship — both here and throughout their careers — that allows UC Berkeley to call itself a world-class site of cutting-edge research. The path to becoming a scholar, however, is a hard one. Students face financial deprivation and long days and nights of solitary work for the sake of producing new knowledge. And now, one of the rarest and most important resources available to support the needs of graduate students is under threat. The administration has decided to close Stephens Hall Graduate Student Lounge — a unique and cherished workplace for countless young scholars — without consulting graduate students or providing an adequate replacement.

Berkeley’s first student-union building opened in Stephens Hall in 1923. The union has since changed location, but the Graduate Study Lounge has remained a resource space for graduate students at all stages of their studies. Modeled after an Oxford common room, it is outfitted with the natural light, communal space and the amenities necessary to support graduate students during the challenges of producing original scholarship. An average of 20 students use the lounge every day, with the numbers swelling as high as 50 on busier days. Entire dissertations have been written in this room.

But after more than 90 years of service to graduate students, Stephens Hall is losing its last student space. In an abrupt series of emails, students were recently informed that the student lounge is closing May 16. This is a devastating decision for the many students at UC Berkeley who use this space to do their reading, writing and research. There is no comparable space on campus where students can store their books, enjoy food and work in a supportive communal environment. The spaces the administration has cited as alternatives are simply not comparable. For example, the Dissertation Writing Room in the Doe Library is less than a third of the size and cannot accommodate the number of students Stephens’ lounge serves on a daily basis.

The decision to close the Graduate Student Lounge reveals a cavalier disregard for the needs of graduate students in another respect. The Graduate Assembly was not consulted, and the administration has evinced no interest in any student input. Moreover, administrators have insisted the decision is “final and beyond appeal,” and no information has been provided about future plans for the lounge. This style of decision-making sets a precedent for the disenfranchisement of graduate students.

This is not just a matter of tables and chairs: It is a question of protecting the livelihood of this university. As the administration would agree, UC Berkeley thrives by producing research and training researchers it can call its own. But shortsighted, cost-cutting strategies like the proposed closure destroy the resources necessary to achieve that imperative. First-rate scholarship requires long, solitary periods of difficult labor. Absent a space with universal access, basic amenities and an ethos of communal support, graduate research will suffer, and so will UC Berkeley. The Stephens Hall Graduate Student Lounge is the only such place on campus, and it must be protected.

A petition demanding a reversal of the closure decision has already garnered more than 300 signatures from graduate students, faculty and alumni. Please consider signing the petition as well as contacting Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Claude Steele and Vice Provost for Graduate Studies and Dean of the Graduate Division Andrew Szeri directly to express your feelings about the decision.

Matty Lichtenstein is a doctoral student in the sociology department at UC Berkeley.

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