Opposition to UNCG rec center persists despite chancellor’s certainty

by Eric Ginsburg @Eric_Ginsburg

Opponents of UNCG’s planned $91 million recreation center in the Glenwood neighborhood brought the fight to the university’s board of trustees meeting last week, but Chancellor Linda Brady said the rec center is already a done deal.

Dozens of opponents and a smattering of supporters filled up most of the chairs at the board meeting, with the board allowing a public comment period of the meeting about the center.

Former Student Government Association president Katie Marshall said the expansion is sorely needed and wouldn’t be happening “if it wasn’t positive for students.” Two current students spoke in favor of the center, with one — who lives in Glenwood — adding she hopes UNCG allows community access to the facility. Glenwood resident Brian Higgins, the only other person who spoke in support of the plan, argued that neighborhood opposition to the rec center has been minimal and that the school went out of its way to be collaborative.

Despite 10 speakers — several students, a few Glenwood residents and two faculty members — criticizing the plan and other increased opposition over this semester, Brady said in an interview that the project will break ground in the spring.

“I think it was important for the university to allow individuals who have strong feelings about the rec center project on both sides of the issue to address the board of trustees,” Brady said during a meeting break. “Given all the controversy around this issue it was important for the board to hear people’s opinions, [but] the project is moving forward.”

Reade Taylor , UNCG’s vice chancellor for business affairs, said last month that the rec center plan would be carried out “unless the board of trustees determines otherwise,” noting that the board previously approved the project. The board specifically said last week it would hear comments on the rec center but that it was not a dialogue, but a chance to listen. After comments from both sides concluded, the board took a brief recess and then resumed its regular meeting without comment.

Student Jonathan Lyle said he is frustrated with how legitimate concerns about the plan are being ignored, arguing that the fact that the board met during exam week shows it doesn’t care about students’ participation or opinions. Other opponents have previously criticized the decision-making process as lacking transparency and genuine input, saying their voices have been left out or ignored.

Before the public-comment section of the meeting, a spokesperson for Sasaki Associates presented the firm’s design work to update UNCG’s campus master plan. He mentioned the rec center in passing a few times, but a slide about community feedback entitled “What We Heard” made no reference to the center despite its prominence in the plan and public discourse on the university’s expansion.

Faculty members Susan Dennison, who teaches social work, and Stephen Layson, who teaches economics, said the rec center is a misplaced priority.

Dennison said the UNCG chapter of the Association of American University Professors passed a resolution against the center. Dennison said faculty and staff morale is at an all-time low and that departments don’t have muchneeded funds for things like adjunct professors.

“Our academics are going down, and they’re going down seriously,” she said. “The faculty are the life blood of this campus.”

Several other faculty members at the meeting said they attended to support their peers and students speaking out about the school’s priorities. Layson attended the meeting to express his opposition to the project on behalf of students, he said. The rising cost of education, including student fees that would increase to pay for the rec center, would never be approved if put to a popular vote of students, he said.

Student fees are currently $435 a year and will increase by $156 when the rec center opens, Taylor said.

Dennison said enrollment is being negatively impacted by the rising costs of education. Opponents have repeatedly argued that many working-class students at the university can’t shoulder the boost in fees.

Opening the public comment section, Dhruv Pathak outlined the story of his parents immigrating from India, emphasizing that the increased fees will amount to a full week’s pay for his father, who makes $11 an hour. Pathak asked trustees how students in his position are supposed to come up with the additional money.

Chancellor Brady said that she understands the tough financial position students and faculty are being put in, even calling for people to mobilize around it. That fight is a separate issue though, she said, and belongs with the NC General Assembly that ultimately pulls the purse strings.

“We are all concerned about the rising cost of education,” she said, “that obviously includes tuition and fees.”

Brady said she agreed with many rec center opponents’ points about the impact of budget cuts on academics, saying that “people are absolutely right about the loss of adjuncts” and other financial strains on departments and students. Asked about the rec center adding to the cost of education by driving up mandatory student fees, Brady simply said the cost of the center was included in the university’s calculations and considerations for the project.

Dennison said after the meeting that Brady is talking in circles.

Even if funds for the rec center couldn’t be redistributed to academics, it still impacts them indirectly, she argued. Much-needed academic resources come from tuition money, Dennison said, and if fees go up because of the center, fewer students can afford the overall cost of UNCG. That decreases enrollment and hurts academics, she said.

“It makes sense if you pull the fees up this much that it impacts enrollment,” Dennison said. “The bottom line is it impacts enrollment.”

Current students, including Sophia Lucente, are frustrated, too. She said that the lack of support for the music department — like a clock in a choral practice room that remained broken for two months — caused her to switch majors.

“Facilities are desperately lacking,” Lucente said, adding that with depleted resources, additional treadmills shouldn’t be a priority.

Many students across different departments experience issues with classes they were counting on being cancelled and other academic problems, she said. Lucente and another student said opponents collected more than 1,000 signatures to back their cause.

Students and faculty weren’t the only ones voicing displeasure with the university’s plans. Several Glenwood residents, including Nancy Lenk and Lynn Johnson, harshly criticized how UNCG deals with the community.

Their remarks alleging the university’s dishonesty were met with fervent audience applause.

Johnson said the university has purposely misrepresented its intentions in the neighborhood.

“UNCG has not been a good neighbor,” she said.

Other residents have said in the past that UNCG hasn’t upheld agreements it made with the Greater Glenwood Neighborhood Association, though Higgins has challenged the assertion. Johnson, Lenk and others said university officials have ignored residents’ requests to place the rec center north of Lee Street or somewhere on main campus, indicating an unwillingness to make significant compromises.

It is unclear what the next steps for opponents will be in the face of the board’s tight-lipped response and Brady’s statement that the school won’t change course, but they appear resolute and far from giving in.

Just like UNCG. !