After the excitement over University alum Stephen Ross’s record-breaking donation to the Ross School of Business and the Athletic Department, Charles Munger’s April donation received more than a little scrutiny from graduate students Wednesday.
At a forum hosted by Rackham Student Government at graduate school’s flagship building, students heard from some of the University’s top administration about the upcoming construction of the Munger Residence Hall. The project will be funded by a $100-million donation from Charles Munger, a University alum and vice chairman of real-estate giant Berkshire Hathaway. Munger also donated $10 million for graduate fellowships.
RSG President Phillip Saccone facilitated the forum as E. Royster Harper, vice president for student affairs; Henry Baier, associate vice president for facilities and operations; Deanna Mabry, associate director for planning and design at the University; and Linda Newman, senior director for university housing, made their pitch for the new residence hall to the group of about 30 disenchanted graduate students.
Baier described the plan’s emphasis on community spaces and cooperative living due to an increased need for group work spaces as graduate programs push for further collaboration among students. While the presenters didn’t bring a mock-up or blueprints of the plans, before-and-after photos of the University Lawyers Club were used as an example of past graduate housing renovations. The Lawyers Club was also funded by a donation from Munger.
The design for the graduate residence involves most rooms forming blocks of seven single bedrooms with personal bathrooms, with all seven tenants sharing a common kitchen, living area and dining area. Despite the enthusiastic pitch, students questioned the layout and probable cost of the rooms.
Concerns focused on the seven-room design, with several students expressing concerns about the community-living style and audience members saying the graduate lifestyle is different than the undergraduate residence-hall experience.
Several of the graduate students said the major selling point for the graduate residence hall should be price competitiveness. The rough estimate of $1,000 per month for the residence hall is significantly higher than many other housing options in Ann Arbor.
“When you’re still working from, in a lot of cases, a research stipend or something like that, you have to be pretty frugal with what you’re spending on housing,” said Michael Hand, a Rackham student and RSG representative.
Saccone said the cost and room-complex design were the primary concerns he received from an online forum and other graduate students he’d spoken with. He added that he was disappointed by the limited student involvement in the planning of the dormitory — which is unlikely to see major reshaping, according to Baier and Harper. Harper has hosted one preliminary planning session with a four-person student advisory board and assisted in a larger focus group of about forty students weighing in on the design.
“We’re just really concerned that the project might not be going in the right direction and, ultimately, we’re trying to help,” Saccone said. “We’re really here just because we feel that the people who have been involved in this project perhaps have had a little bit of a ‘group-think’ mentality and could use a little bit of outside sourcing.”
Harper said the residence hall will not be for everyone, calling the design ‘experimental.’ Harper said Munger Residence Hall intends to cater to students in a variety of graduate programs. However, the residence hall will not be suitable for graduate students with families and children.
Harper stressed repeatedly in response to suggestions for plan changes from the audience that she and the administration had to remain within the wishes of Munger’s vision for the residence hall, as he continues to be deeply involved with the planning process.
“If this were ‘just us’ and the funding were ‘just us,’ we would have some different kinds of options,” Harper said in response to a student’s suggestion to lower costs by eliminating some of the costlier room features proposed. “But I think when you are in partnership … you make some agreements about what you’re going to offer, then we have to honor those agreements.”
In an interview after the forum, Harper and Baier both said they expect the residence hall to be highly successful, despite mixed reactions from students.
“It has this wonderful combination of your own privacy — your own room, your own bathroom, your own study space — and then you come out and you have this fabulous living space,” Harper said. “What it feels like is you get to be at home when you want, sort of in your space, and then you can be in a kind of ‘coffee shop’ if you will with people that you know and like.”
Harper said there would likely be opportunity for students to choose roommates, though there is currently no plan for room assignment or other logistics, like parking. Many students voiced concerns to the administrators about unplanned details. Former RSG President Michael Benson said he wouldn’t live in the soon-to-be-built complex.
While Saccone and other students expressed their misgivings with the proposal, most offered their gratitude for Munger’s gift and thanked Harper and the other administrators for tackling the problem of graduate housing space.
Harper said she and everyone involved in planning was happy to have Munger’s input on the design and credited him for helping kick-start a previously stalled graduate housing effort. The project is scheduled to be completed in 2015.