Graduate student lounge closure causes unrest

Michael Ball/Staff
Michael Ball/File

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On March 31, UC Berkeley graduate students received an email from Dean of the Graduate Division Andrew Szeri stating that the Stephens Hall Graduate Student Lounge, which has been in operation for more than 90 years, will close May 16.

The email cited underutilization of the space and insufficient ADA accessibility as reasons for the space’s closure. Many graduate students have opposed the decision, creating a petition and insisting the decision should not have been made without student input.

“Students need to be involved in the decision-making process to allow us to incorporate our input into the decision and give people notice before decisions are irreversible,” said Max Gee, president of the UC Berkeley Graduate Assembly. “The decision was (Szeri’s), and it’s his space to control, but we would like to be included in the process.”

Located at 440 Stephens Hall, the wood-paneled room is reserved exclusively for use by UC Berkeley graduate students and staff. The space, filled with natural light, is equipped with numerous study areas, and coffee and cookies are available for purchase.

Denise van der Kamp, a graduate student in the political science department, has used the lounge for the past three years. She believes the space is valuable not only because of its accommodations, but also because it allows graduate students to have a communal space on campus.

“This space brings together graduate students from all different departments, which is something that doesn’t happen anywhere else on campus,” van der Kamp said, adding that she was “horrified” when she heard of the lounge’s closing.

On April 17, the UC Berkeley Student-Workers Union voted to actively oppose the decision, asking students to voice their concerns directly to the administration.

Earlier this month, students launched a petition outlining several major complaints that has garnered about 400 signatures. Students dispute the claim that the space is underutilized, as visitor data collected by Stephens Hall staff show that between 20 and 50 students use the space each day. Additionally, students insist no other spaces on campus are comparable in terms of size, amenities and purpose and condemn the administration’s failure to consult students.

While students claim there are no comparable spaces on campus, Szeri insists existing spaces — such as Graduate Student Services and the Dissertation Writing Room in Doe Library — are perfectly suitable spaces. Additionally, in the 2014-15 academic year, the Graduate Division will repurpose a room in Sproul Hall as a “meeting and resource space,” Szeri said.

Szeri added that as the space will no longer be under the purview of the graduate division, he could not comment on its future uses.

“I realize that students who have enjoyed the amenities of the Lounge are unhappy at the loss of certain conveniences,” Szeri said. “I am sympathetic to their concerns and will work to address them as I can.”

Matty Lichtenstein, a doctoral student in the sociology department, says the issue is symbolic and highlights the struggle for students to be treated as active players in the university.

“It has been a fight for a sense of community in scholarship,” said Alex Roehrkasse, a graduate student in the sociology department. “I think if the space were repurposed without an adequate substitute, graduate students would suffer.”

Contact Michelle Pitcher at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @michellepitcher.