'Community of Scholars'

Graduate students at the University of Michigan object to details -- including the rent -- of a new residence hall funded by billionaire alum.

September 24, 2013
Aparment layout in the proposed Munger residence at the University of Michigan

Graduate students typically don't live in luxury, let alone in space that has intellectual goals. Many grad students feel fortunate to have housing that is reasonably safe and affordable. So why would graduate students at the University of Michigan be raising objections to one of the most ambitious ideas in recent years for graduate student housing? For starters, many say that while some social engineering may be normal for housing college freshmen, they object to the idea of the university -- which has control of so much of their professional life -- telling them where to live, and with whom.

"Most graduate and professional students are adults in their 20s and 30s and […] would not choose to share living space with six other people,” said Phillip Saccone, president of Rackham Student Government, the student body group for the Rackham Graduate School and a Ph.D. candidate in pharmacology, describing the results of a recent organization poll of graduate and professional students on the $185 million project. “Several students went on to say that such a design feels too much like existing undergraduate dorms.”

Additionally, he said, the preliminary price tag for a room – some $1,000 a month -- is well beyond the financial reach of the typical graduate student and is much higher than off-campus living options in the Ann Arbor market. Although there's no "typical" rent in the immediate area, where everything from luxury apartments to older, shared houses is available to students, $1,000 a month could easily secure a student a private apartment. Co-living options can be found for $500 a month per student, before utilities, or perhaps less, depending on situation.

But university officials disagree, saying the new residence's unusual configuration – with seven graduate students assigned to a unit, to foster communication across disciplines – will create a “community of scholars” whose target monthly rent will compete with other local housing options.

“[It’s] a community in which graduate students in many different disciplines come together in a living experience, and through conversation and collaboration, exposes them to the work and research of graduate students in other areas,” said Peter Logan, communications director for university housing.

In addition to intellectual benefits, he said, the arrangement is designed to reduce the isolation commonly reported among graduate students.

“It’s breaking down walls and bringing graduate students together in an environment that’s intellectually and personally exciting to them,” he said. "This is a unique concept in graduate student housing." 

Logan said $1,000 figure quoted by critics was a preliminary estimate, and could change by the time the approximately 630-student complex opens in 2015. But it will be competitively priced for the amenities offered, he said.

Most apartments in the proposed residence will include seven individual bedrooms with a private bath, large shared kitchen and common furnished and dining areas. The building also will contain communal recreation and study areas, including a fitness facility and a sky-lit top floor with a commissary and a balcony that doubles as a track. Logan said it also meet the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED Silver rating for sustainability and exceed standard efficiency codes by 30 percent.

The project is the gift and brainchild of Michigan alumnus Charles T. Munger, a philanthropist who serves as Warren T. Buffett’s vice chairman at Berkshire Hathaway. Munger’s $110 million gift to the university earlier this year came with specific design stipulations, reflected in Michigan’s plan. In an announcement earlier this year, Michigan billed the residence as a "community of scholars." Some $100 million will go toward building the residence on the central campus, and $10 million will be reserved for fellowships for select students living there.

The rest of the project cost -- $75 million – will be funded with lease revenue.

Saccone said many graduate students appreciated Munger’s gift, and that elements of the plan – including his desire to facilitate communication across the disciplines -- were appealing to graduate students, according to the online survey.

But in general, he said, graduate students value affordability and personal space, and “would prefer to interact with fewer roommates in a more intimate setting.”

In addition to the poll – in which 96 percent of 233 respondents (of 8,000 total graduate students) said they would not choose to live in the Munger residence – graduate students voiced their concerns during an in-person forum earlier this month.

"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 Ph.D. candidate in electrical engineering and Rackham Student Government representative, said during the event. Others said spending $1,000 on rent would increase their debt and other still complained about the lack of input sought from the student body in coming up with the design.

Saccone said as much in a letter to the university's Board of Regents, read at their meeting last week. But it still approved the plan, and Michigan soon will move forward with construction.

Logan said he believes the residence will be popular, given that undergraduate dormitories have overtaken several existing graduate student housing facilities in recent years, increasing the already-unmet demand for single graduate student housing. Rent per student for those residences ranges from about $600 for a double occupancy, two-bedroom apartment, to $975 for a 1-bedroom apartment with air conditioning.

A similar project funded by Munger at Stanford University has been full since it opened in 2009. (Munger’s wife is a graduate of Stanford.)

A Stanford spokeswoman said via e-mail that the Munger Graduate Residence is “very popular and always 100 percent occupied  -- as is all of our graduate housing.” Still, that project prioritizes law school students, and most apartments have four bedrooms – not seven. Michigan already has a residence hall dedicated to law students, the renovation of which Munger also helped fund.

Depending on the configuration of the unit, Stanford's graduate housing is $1322 to $1679 per month -- designed to be competitive with the surrounding market, the spokeswoman said, where housing is quite expensive. That could drive more students onto its campus to live.

Nationwide, it's hard to know how many universities offer graduate student housing for single graduate students (some universities also offer housing for married students or students with families). The Association of College and University Housing Officers International doesn't track that data. But select universities are opting to increase their offerings. The University of Nevada at Las Vegas, for example, is considering purchasing an apartment complex next to campus to convert into graduate residences. Proponents say the location will make for safer, more convenient living for graduate students, some of whom work well into the night in labs.



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