Student Leaders Question Strategic Investments

Everett Beals, Scarlet Staff

The 7.3-acre lot pictured here at the corner of Park Ave. and Maywood St. was recently purchased by the university for $6.95 million. Photo: Everett Beals ’24 for The Scarlet

Clark students expressed concerns over potential tuition hikes and building accessibility during a recent meeting at which a prominent administrator discussed the university’s acquisition of a neighborhood property west of campus and its plan to invest $100 million to help fund the construction of an on-campus building for the new Becker School of Design & Technology. 

Vice President for Planning and Strategic Initiatives David Chearo appeared before the Clark Undergraduate Student Council (CUSC) on November 4 to field questions from students and student leaders. 

Dahlia Mella-Goris, a sophomore at the meeting, questioned whether Clark’s “aggressive plans” for expansion might lead to another tuition spike. 

“Clark raised its tuition by almost $2,000 and did not compensate me to help,” Mella-Goris said, referring to last year’s tuition increase following the establishment of the Becker School of Design & Technology at Clark. 

The meeting came on the heels of two announcements last week that the university recently purchased a 7.3-acre vacant lot at the intersection of Park Avenue and Maywood Street and hopes to gather $100 million to make “essential improvements,” including a new academic building next to the Strassler Center that would house the Becker School and other programs. 

The university would secure the funds through “capital markets financing” – essentially, a way for the university to raise a large sum of money over time through debt and equity, Chearo said. The administration has not announced plans for the new property.

At the CUSC meeting, Mella-Goris suggested that the university’s plans would mean that tuition would continue to rise, with no signs that financial aid would make up the difference.

Chearo did not address whether tuition would be raised to fund the plans though he said he believes “financial aid should be increased when tuition is increased.”

Sammi Bosque, a sophomore representative, argued that the compact nature of Clark’s campus would make the recent property purchase and future property acquisition difficult to properly integrate.

“A big thing I’ve noticed at Clark is when things are out of the way of the main campus, it’s kind of isolating,” Bosque said. As an employee for the university, Bosque found that “Clark students don’t go” to the Becker campus “if they don’t have a class there.” Clark currently rents the Becker campus for classes and office space. 

The property Clark purchased is “not that far” from campus, but it is “out of the way” and not easily accessible for all students, Bosque said. Chearo agreed, saying plans for the site should include improvements to “sidewalks, lighting and trees along the pathway.”

Accessibility within Clark’s existing facilities was raised as a concern by a number of student representatives. For example, at least three of Clark’s residence halls – Dana, Dodd, and Hughes – do not have elevators. 

“I’ve heard a lot from students about accessibility,” Chearo said. Clark is “really behind on [accessibility],” he said, especially as “a very old institution that hasn’t done a lot of investment in physical infrastructure in the last 20 years.” 

The recent announcements do not include specific plans for improving accessibility on Clark’s campus.

Beyond the property acquisition and new academic facility, Chearo said that the Strategic Framework for the university, which is under development and soon to be released, will likely place “residence hall modernization… classrooms… and connectedness – affinity spaces and gathering spaces” as guiding priorities for campus investment. Modernizing residence halls, Chearo hopes, will help make Clark’s campus more accessible. 

Chearo told CUSC representatives that about $9.3 million – the university’s depreciation each fiscal term for the last five years – should be spent “each year on improving facilities.” 

Chearo framed Clark’s future planning primarily as a matter of balance. “That’s a balance of current needs – things that the community needs now,” he said, “and future opportunities,” which may be created through investment. 

“Over the past five, perhaps as many as twenty years, we really have not spent the amount that we should be spending… on facilities,” Chearo said. The money has been saved or invested elsewhere because administrators have been primarily concerned with balancing Clark’s finances. 

He told student leaders that revenue – 56% of which is drawn from net tuition and fees – has increased in recent years and has met the university’s growing expenses.

Clark Purchases Empty Lot on Park Avenue

President Fithian announced on November 1 that Clark would purchase the nearby property that “has laid in fallow in our neighboring community since 2010.” It was formerly the site of an auto dealer, the Worcester Telegram & Gazette reported. 

Clark has shown interest in purchasing the site since last year, according to a December 29, 2020, article in the Telegram, which reported the property was managed by Kelleher & Sadowsky Associates, a Worcester-based real estate broker. 

“For Clark, this land represents an extraordinary opportunity,” Fithian wrote in the email announcement, and said it brings “opportunities to work with community and city leaders” on what Clark’s presence in the Main South neighborhood might become.

Student leaders questioned the purchase’s impact on the neighborhood. 

“We’re surrounded by a residential area that we’re not looking to take over,” Chearo said. “We’re not going to buy a whole block of the neighborhood” already occupied by homes, “just to build a new residence hall or athletics center,” he said.

Chearo argued that because no other open land was available for purchase in the area, “we thought it [was] the right thing to do for Clark in the long run.” The property had “sat on the market for seven years,” he said.  

The purchase may “afford us the potential of more green space on our campus,” Fithian said in the announcement, and noted that university leaders “are considering a range of options,” including a recreation and athletics facility, academic space, student housing, and health services. Health services is currently located across Park Avenue from the new lot. 

Chearo suggested that part of the $100 million may be used for a new athletics center on the property that would be “more public facing.” He said the Kneller Athletics Center “is in really tough shape.” A new facility would allow “for a broader number of people in the community to use our space,” he said. 

A new athletics center would, in turn, allow for the replacement of the Kneller Center with a student-oriented building, he said. “We know, for example, that the dining hall is totally taxed out, so far as capacity,” he said. “We have no place for a new dining hall,” so opening up space “provides us many opportunities to do something new.”  

$100 Million Investment Made for New Academic Building

The President’s office announced on November 3 that the university is “working to secure $100 million in capital markets financing” dedicated to making “essential improvements to our university.” A portion of the new borrowing would be put toward refinancing “$56 million in debt.” 

Funds will be spent on the construction of an “interdisciplinary academic building” to house the newly created Becker School of Design & Technology, which remains on the former campus of Becker College on Sever Street. 

Becker, founded in the same year as Clark, offered 40 undergraduate degree programs that closed last year after which Clark acquired some of its faculty and its renowned Interactive Media and Game Design program. 

The new building at Clark would also house the Department of Computer Science and “certain programs within the Department of Visual and Performing Arts,” the announcement said. 

The announcement did not say whether the funds would cover the entire cost of construction though it mentioned that “fulfillment of our overall strategic plan will require even greater resources,” in terms of “new funds raised through… generous philanthropy.” 

The new building would be located just East of the Cohen-Lasry House, home to the Strassler Center, between Hawthorne and Woodland streets. It would create “new opportunities for synergy in teaching, research, and innovation,” Fithian said in the announcement. 

The block, currently bounded by storefronts and apartments on Main Street owned by Clark, as well as the Woodland Street Administration building, will be the site of a “new quadrangle” in development, the announcement said

The announcement did not invite comments from students on the $100 million investment nor did it make clear when construction of the new building would begin. 

Everett Beals is a sophomore at Clark University and a member of CUSC.