Residents push back after University Village closes Academic Center

sign of University Village
Andrew Kuo/File

Related Posts

When housing staff changed the locks to the study rooms in the UC Berkeley University Village, many residents juggling school and parenthood found themselves unsupported by the graduate family housing complex intended to be a resource and support system.

For resident student-parent Diana Thow, the 24-hour Academic Center near her apartment provided a space where she could work on her doctorate in comparative literature while staying close to her family. While preparing for the spring semester, Thow found that Village staff had changed the locks to the Academic Center one week before the start of classes.

“Myself and a group of my friends who are mothers would use (the Academic Center) up to 30 hours a week to work on dissertations,” Thow said. “It’s really an invaluable space. For them to change the locks right before the semester is part of a larger pattern of how they are trying to sneak these changes in without thinking about the consequences or thinking about the community they are trying to serve.”

UC Berkeley offers graduate students with spouses or children the option to live in Family Student Housing, commonly known as University Village. The Albany-based complex lies about three miles from campus and provides support to such residents by offering housing at below-market cost, as well as academic and childcare resources.

Two years ago, the East Village Academic Center — one of two academic centers serving the University Village — also began holding family-oriented events such as cooking workshops, parents’ circles and meditation groups. Often, scheduled events such as parent support groups would meet while other residents worked off to the side.

Just before the spring 2019 semester began, the University Village administration decided to focus more heavily on such events. It closed the Academic Center, repurposing it for the community workshops and classes as the new Family Resource Center. Now, the facility is no longer being utilized on a day-to-day basis by individual students.

“Due to resident demand, the space needs to be increasingly dedicated for family resource use,” said campus spokesperson Adam Ratliff in an email. “Indeed, we’re in the process of some renovations to increase the programming capability of the space.”

Frustrated by the “abrupt closure,” Thow began an online petition to reopen the Family Resource Center as a 24-hour academic center. As of press time, the petition garnered 31 signatures.

Responding to residents’ concerns regarding the closure of the study area, the Village Office sent out an email on Jan. 16 offering alternative study spaces, many with limited or yet-to-be-announced hours.

The improvised alternatives to the Academic Center were even more of a hurdle for resident and fourth year doctoral student Jennifer Bisha, who used the restrooms in the study center as a private place to pump breastmilk for her 10-month-old child while studying. Bisha said that after being locked out of the study center, she had been referred to spaces such as an unused office accessible only with staff assistance and a restroom that she would cordon off with a sign for the 40 minutes it takes her to pump.

“They shut down the study center so they could support families but this feels like the opposite. When you have limited time and campus housing is so far away from campus it’s so important you have a space,” Bisha said. “They have made it more difficult and I feel like I am up against enough challenges at the beginning of the semester.”

In his statement, campus spokesperson Adam Ratliff said that the village office’s decision to repurpose the Academic Center for family event programming had been made in consultation with the Village Residents Association, or VRA, a funding and advocacy association for University Village residents. Caitrin Olszewski, a former VRA board member, said that she and fellow board members voted for expansion of event programming in the Academic Center two years agoknowing there would be pushback.” Olszewski said, however, that the VRA originally had expected the space to remain jointly used for studying and events.

Olszewski added that, since the vote, the study center’s transition to the Family Resource Center had panned out differently than intended. The VRA, for one, had not been informed that the locks on the Family Resource Center would be changed and made unavailable for day-to-day use. Olszewski had also expected the creation of “suitable facilities” for studying before the conversion. But because of unanticipated structural damage, one such facility — the Academic Center — had to be torn down and was replaced only with a temporary trailer with nine desktops, according to Olszewski. The main study alternative, the West Village Academic Center, is nearly always full and only has one bathroom, Bisha said.

“I believe the solution to this problem is for the university to invest in rebuilding the academic center facility and that I hope all parties can focus their energy in that direction,” Olszewski said in an email.

Brandon Yung is the lead city government reporter. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @brandonyung1.