A new locus of debate at UR

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Students walk past the proposed site of the Newman Center Building. (Photo by Henry Litsky)

Plans for two religious sites on the University of Rochester campus are at the center of student debate. While both buildings have been in the works since 2015, their impending construction has stirred questions of exclusion, land use and urgent housing needs. 

Students in favor of the Catholic Newman Center Building and the Greenbaum Center for Jewish Life believe these buildings are necessary for them to practice and engage with their faiths. Members of the “Stop the Build” student coalition group say, however, that the projects should, at the very least, be interfaith and non-denominational. Ideally, they contend, UR should use the land for student housing, which has become a pressing need over recent years.

Already this divide has manifested in a protest and a town hall meeting between UR administration and STB, which failed to reach a compromise. Now, the student group’s plans include a camp-in occupation during the height of prospective students’ touring season.

“With increasing admission rates and limited housing capacity, students are facing extremely high competition for on-campus housing,” STB’s “Public Statement & Demands” reads. “By not prioritizing housing as a student need, the University forces increasing numbers of students to search for housing in the predatory rental markets near campus and is complicit in the further gentrification of surrounding neighborhoods.”

STB is emphatic: It does not have an issue with religious worship (many of its members are Catholic or Jewish), but opposes the exclusionary nature of the buildings. Those in support of the Newman and Greenbaum buildings say Catholic and Jewish student populations have outgrown the space at UR’s Interfaith Chapel, built in 1970, which serves many religious communities. 

“The undergraduate student body has increased by more than 30 percent since 2006, and growth in the Catholic student population has outpaced all other religious groups. Twenty-five percent of our undergraduates today identify as Catholic,” the Newman website reads.

The Rochester Beacon reached out to officials at the Newman and Greenbaum centers for comment. They directed the Beacon to UR. 

Eight years in the making

A 2015 assessment of religious groups’ needs on campus, which included a review of current space, identified the need for the Newman and Greenbaum building projects. The Interfaith Chapel, where several faith communities gather to worship, has limited options for expansion.

“The chapel was originally built for three faith communities and today it houses 12,” observes Sara Miller, UR spokesperson, who stresses that Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Hindu and other faiths are all welcome in the Interfaith Chapel and currently use the facility despite its severe limits. “Hillel and Newman have very unique and critical needs not being met in the Interfaith Chapel, which is affecting their ministry to students.”

Hillel International is the largest Jewish campus organization. Worldwide, it serves more than 140,000 Jewish students. 

The Newman and Greenbaum projects were proposed and approved as the solution to help alleviate the pressing space needs of the Interfaith Chapel at that time. (They are still viewed by officials as a way to increase opportunities for all religious groups on campus by opening more space for all denominations.) The projects, however, needed private philanthropy to get started on construction, including dollars for maintenance for each building. Lead donors helped launch both projects. Fundraising for both centers is led by Hillel and Newman board members, alumni volunteers, and friends, with support from UR advancement, Miller says. 

No university funds have been directed toward the projects, which are primarily funded through donors. This has been interpreted by STB as placing alumni wishes over the wishes of current students.

“Are we prioritizing what the wealthiest alumni want over the desires of current students?” says Somes Schwinghammer, a member of STB and Students for a Democratic Society. “What alumni might think is important is not what students think is important.”

Miller says students from across UR, including those who are non-religious, were engaged as part of the process early on and as conceptual renderings were developed, giving critical feedback and input. 

If engagement did occur, STB says, it was with students who have already matriculated out of the university, not those currently attending the school.

“We don’t have any way to know who they asked or what they asked them or if it was representative,” says Hannah Witkin, an STB member. “And we think there has purposely not been an effort to get that information out there by the university, so we still don’t know these details.”

According to STB members, many students have had no knowledge of project details or even the planned construction. This can partly be attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic, which blocked off a natural flow of information from upper to lowerclassmen. STB says the school did not actively publicize the projects either.

“We’re being told we’re coming in too late because it started (eight) years ago. But it’s not like we could have started any sooner because we just learned about the project through an offhand comment made to the (Student Association) president and vice president,” Witkin says.

A growing base

According to the Newman Center, its ministry engages more than 450 students in programming and Mass weekly, engaging students in leadership roles. Having “a place to pray, a place to gather, a place to grow” extends a long tradition on campus. Newman currently operates in the same limited space used since it was established in 1963.

Former UR President Joel Seligman approved the Newman project in 2017. Alumnus Joseph Mack became the project’s lead donor with a $1.5 million gift. The Newman building project set a goal in 2018 to raise $7.6 million. According to the center, the effort has raised $5.8 million, or nearly 80 percent of its goal.

During a public phase Zoom session in late 2021, Mack, who praised Newman’s work, noted that 75 percent of college students lose their religion while in college. He views Newman as a rare constant in an ever-changing campus environment.

A rendering of the Newman Center (Image: Newman Center/UR)

The new building’s proposed location is near the pedestrian gateway to campus and close to student residence halls. At 8,300 square feet, the center will feature a dedicated Catholic chapel, a pastoral care center, and a multipurpose room and kitchen space. 

“The Newman Center will have a chapel where I can go to visit Jesus every day,” says Maria Makula, a sophomore student, practicing Catholic and a member of Newman. “This is the single greatest thing the university could do for me. I know it may be difficult to understand for someone who’s not religious, but for me and many of my peers, our religion is the most important part of our lives.”

Like their Catholic peers, Jewish students also engage with their faith at the Interfaith Chapel on campus, through a partnership with Hillel International. Both Newman Centers and Hillel International have a presence on more than 800 college and university campuses around the world, Miller notes.

In April 2018, UR announced a lead gift of $2.5 million from alumnus David Greenbaum and his wife, Laureine, toward the construction of the Center for Jewish Life. The Max and Marian Farash Charitable Foundation established a $500,000 challenge to encourage others to support the project. 

A rendering of the Greenbaum Center for Jewish Life (Image: Greenbaum Center/UR)

Named for the Greenbaums, the proposed Greenbaum Center for Jewish Life will house a lounge, multipurpose program space, two state-of-the-art kosher kitchens, a conference room, staff offices, and a Beit Midrash study and prayer space. 

“If you look at a map of campus, you have a river on one side and a graveyard on the other side. Where else do we have the land to build the housing that we need?” says Witkin. “We have this prime location, which the proposals place close to residence halls already.”

Taking action

As construction nears, some students continue to challenge the projects. At the end of February, students voiced their dissent, asserting that the construction infringes on the university’s “Meliora Values” of inclusion by excluding other religious groups. Others believe that the land and resources should be put toward spaces that benefit all students like more housing, another dining hall, or more academic support. The demonstration drew 50 students and got roughly 100 signatures in support of STB.

“Building these two buildings for two very specific religious groups alienates students of other faiths, which further creates division among students,” said a student, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, during the February protest.

A Hindu sophomore student, who also asked to stay anonymous, said, “I feel it is unfair because the Interfaith Chapel was built for all religions to come together and many of the spaces in the Interfaith Chapel are not well suited for the type of worship I do in my religion as it is not custom to sit in rows or pews so there is a lot of adjusting we have to do. Also we don’t have nearly as many resources.

“There is a priest that works for the Interfaith Chapel and that leads Mass and worship,” the Hindu student added. “However, in my case we don’t have anyone to lead our worship and even though we are in the minority it feels as if we are tossed aside along with the other small religious groups.”

UR says these projects were developed in response to the stated needs of expanding its support of the Interfaith community as a whole and will include more available spaces for faith-based communities.

Witkin, speaking personally and not as an STB member, says she finds that claim hard to believe. She thinks the buildings have the potential to discomfort students. Witkin, who is Jewish, says she has never felt welcomed by Hillel because of “Hillel International’s alignment with an apartheid government.”

“There is Judaism beyond Zionism and Hillel does not speak for all Jewish students’ experiences,” says Witkin. “I felt, especially as a Jewish student, I would be able to make this argument. Because a lot of non-Jewish students were called antisemitic or were afraid of being called antisemitic, and were shut down. We’ve seen that happen at this university before.”

Even with her background, Witkin says she was not immune to accusations of antisemitism. Because of a personal social media post criticizing the Greenbaum Center, she says an individual student lodged a formal complaint against her earlier this year. Witkin was not surprised, but felt lucky that her campus employment supervisor understood the situation. Otherwise, she could have risked losing her job on campus.

STB has found the UR administration’s approach to student criticism as both patronizing and unhelpful. Schwinghammer believes they are using bureaucracy to slow and break up the student movement. 

For example, after the protest held by STB, administrators agreed to a student town hall meeting last month where they promised to take student concerns about the buildings into consideration. It took nearly a month for STB to receive an official response following that meeting, however, which ended up being a denial of their requests.

Even then, Witkin believes it was STB’s social media post, rather than a desire to communicate, that prompted administrators to send their response.

“A lot of their answers were non-answers or ‘That was decided before we got here, so it wasn’t our decision,’ which is not a satisfying answer,” says Witkin. “I didn’t feel like they were at the town hall to listen. I felt like they were at the town hall to show, ‘We were there and we sought feedback so we’re doing our job.’”

Pressing issues

UR leaders are aware of the constraints on student housing. The university is starting to plan how to develop new student housing and make existing housing work better for students, Miller says. 

“Students will play a key role in this process, but to be clear, the locations being proposed for the new Greenbaum Center for Jewish Life and the Catholic Newman Center cannot support the infrastructure of a single large building, such as campus housing,” she says.

Schwinghammer has heard that argument before and disagrees. He believes even a small number of units means that many more people will not be in danger of becoming housing insecure.

In the 2022–23 academic year, UR had 12,197 students enrolled; full-time, there were 6,428 undergraduates and 3,754 graduate students.

Like other higher-ed institutions, UR requires undergraduates to live on campus for their first two years with some housing units set aside specifically for first-year students. Based on available floor plans for the First-Year Hill and First-Year Quad buildings, capacity could be estimated at around 1,500 students.

On the heels of historic admissions classes in 2017 and 2022, UR has gotten very close to that limit with more than 1,400 accepted students in those incoming classes. In 2021, the university exceeded its estimated capacity with over 1,600 accepted students.

Both Schwinghammer and Witkin have heard of “forced triples,” cases where three students are placed together in what was traditionally a double unit with little prior warning.

“So, you have a double, basically a 11-foot by 12-foot cube, split into thirds now,” says Schwinghammer, who has heard others complain.

In addition, letters suggesting upperclassmen forgo their rental agreements on campus were sent out to students, likely in an effort to clear space for incoming students.

In general, according to both UR capacity counts and floorplans, UR appears to have an undergraduate housing gap. An estimate for total capacity is about 4,300 and includes options on the River Campus; Southside, a residential community located on the south end of campus; and across the Genesee River. This means a gap of as many as 2,300 students from 2016 to 2022 was left.

While Innovation Square in downtown Rochester is another option for UR students, it has a total capacity of 450, and is shared by six other colleges and universities.

“There’s just not enough room, which means students are going to live in the 19th Ward and PLEX communities where landlords are charging exorbitant rates that single-income families can’t afford to compete with,” Witkin says. “So there’s a concern of students displacing families.”

“If you look at the College Town development, that was supposed to be a playground basically for these college students. Not something like affordable properties for the communities already living there,” Schwinghammer adds as an example of ways UR students have already altered that part of Rochester.

The issue of displacement and gentrification hits close to home for Schwinghammer, who comes from a single-parent household and readily acknowledges he is able to attend UR only because of a scholarship. 

He says the 19th Ward reminds him of the neighborhood where he grew up in eastern Portland, Ore. Schwinghammer attended a school with a diverse student body. The number of students eligible for a free or reduced lunch at his former high school has shrunk, however, from over 66 percent in 2013 to 36 percent in 2019. With the influx of new wealthier families, the school building has changed, says Schwinghammer, who visited it recently.

“They tore down the cafeteria, remodeled a bunch of the old parts of the school,” he says. “It looks like a typical suburban high school now. Like Pittsford, but in Portland.”

While blander but higher-quality facilities are not an inherently negative development, Schwinghammer says it has come at the cost of displacing families from the neighborhood. He fears the actions of UR students could have the same effect in their surrounding community.

During a discussion attempting to explain these issues of gentrification to a fellow UR student, Schwinghammer was bothered so much by a comment that he wrote it down: “I think SDS are the only ones who care about that.”

“I think about the possibility that I displaced a family that couldn’t afford the higher rental rates and went homeless,” he says. “If (UR doesn’t give more housing options), that possibility will just continue to increase and increase. We should all care about that.”

Most listings through UR’s Places4Students rental assistance page are located in the 14611, 14619 and 14620 ZIP codes. While only a small sample size, available rental data from Zillow showed all three areas had an average monthly rent of nearly $100 or more above the average (around $1,200) citywide.

The current situation

Both the Newman Building and Greenbaum Center are still far from completion, with fundraising in progress. Plans to upgrade the Interfaith Chapel are also in the cards.

“We also plan to deploy more immediate upgrades to enhance the space within the Interfaith Chapel and continue to explore the needs of different faith communities,” Miller says. “These buildings were not only meant to create new spaces for specific groups of students, but to also allow us (to) meet the needs of all students in new ways as our student population has grown and continues to diversify.

Still, students involved with STB want to keep the fight going for as long as the development continues. They are generally optimistic about their mixture of upper and lower classmen, which makes it less likely that organizers will graduate and cycle out.

At the very least, Witkin is glad they have passed on some lessons in organizing when it comes to standing up against the university.

“Now, (first- and second-year) students know they have a role in checking the university. If there’s another project like this in the future where they could ask for student feedback, it’s important for students to be there at the beginning,” she says.

This week’s camp-in occupation is an opportunity to educate prospective students about UR and issues that the university will not advertise to the world, Schwinghammer says.

“We need more housing, yes, but we also need better housing too,” he says, recalling recent flooded apartments and rat problems. “And we also need more classroom space. There are lecture halls shoulder to shoulder.” 

“Not to mention (University Health Services) has filled out their space. They need more resources,” he continues. “We don’t have enough therapists and mental health workers so students get sent off to strain the already drained resources in Rochester.”

Jacob Schermerhorn is a Rochester Beacon contributing writer. Alexandra Lajo Leonardi is a student at the University of Rochester. Beacon managing editor Smriti Jacob, adjunct faculty at UR, assisted with this article.

The Beacon welcomes comments and letters from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name. Submissions to the Letters page should be sent to [email protected]

3 thoughts on “A new locus of debate at UR

  1. After a re-read I took a long hard look at the person carrying the sign. What was written was immaterial and made so by headlining the demanding aspect. The fact that this person thinks he/she has the audacity to “DEMAND” anything,…in incomprehensible. A demand is an in your face, or a method, of asking for something forcefully with no consideration of refusal. What if I were to demand that that sign carrying individual is interfering with the mission of said university? You and I know how that would be met, which is stepping up said demanding with a broken window or two which graduates to escalation with police. It goes on from there and we don’t seem to get that escalation aspect, if demands are not met. Since most students are in the leaning stage at colleges and universities, I would like them to study and become qualified in their chosen field and then to be a productive individual in this society.

  2. Ah yes, Spring has come to Rochester and the Far Right conspiracy claims are sprouting. The debate over the utilization of some scarce U of R real estate can’t possibly be what it appears to be, simply a local difference of opinion over how to maximize the use of that space for the benefit of both the student community and the entire Rochester community, it MUST actually be, “part of a national movement, which is the effort (to) distance our nation from a republic and systematically closer to socialism”.

    Then we have the traditional, if early on the calendar, “War on Xmas” (pardon me, “War on Christmas”) claim that this opposition MUST be driven by anti-religious motives. Those who oppose the proposed Hillel and Newman centers (damned liberals and socialists all!) are dismissed as being “still wet behind the ears”, and having, “way to(o) much free time on their hands to even bring up the religious concerns.” Assumedly the student supporters of the centers have dry ears and only the amount of free time necessary to support the new buildings. Of course, given that this accusation comes at a time when the antisemitic attacks by the Far Right have been setting records over the past years, it would seem to misrepresent where the attacks on religion are coming from.

    One wonders if this same degree of support for brick-and-mortar religious freedom would be forthcoming from the Far Right if it were a Muslim center and a Center for Freedom from Religion which were the subjects of the debate?

    Oh, and on a side note, I did enjoy how allusion has been made to the recent disclosure by the absurdly named, House Republican “Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government” (I believe their motto is, “First we conclude, then we investigate”), which has taken a single memo from a low-level staffer in the FBI’s Richmond office proposing ways in which right wing Catholic groups might be monitored for possible connections to known Far Right extremist groups in the US, and is attempting blow it up to a full-fledged conspiracy to overthrow religious freedom in the US. Guess we’re expected to conclude that a devoutly-Catholic president is behind all this and that the FBI’s time would be better spent investigating those U of R students and faculty who, for whatever reasons, opposed the construction of the two religious centers.

  3. Oh….where do I begin. The goal here is simple. There is an element that just doesn’t want any “brand” of religion anywhere at anytime. That element doesn’t converse nor negotiate that issue,….they demand. Barely able to speak with any intellect on any subject, their goal has nothing to do with displacement of families when it comes to their housing needs. There is no need to take out your hankie and wipe away your tears. Using that as a reason is creative, but simplistic. Their stand, however, is anti-religious in nature. They are still wet behind the ears when it comes to education, a self supporting career and yet know all. If they don’t get their way, trust me on this, they will demonstrate and demand (already in that phase), then take that to a new level, violence and if the desired results are not met, destruction of property. All that under the banner of peaceful protest. This has played out over and over from the same old playbook. It is so predictable.

    In addition, in their minds there is no place for religion. That is thee issue. The “anti” mind set. It’s all part of a national movement, which is the effort distance our nation from a republic and systematically closer to socialism. They are not alone. The FBI probe into Catholics was recently leaked so it is an issue from the bottom up and top down. It is what it is. They will win in their effort to exclude the proposed religious buildings on campus. They are clearly winning that battle nationwide.

    But consider this, those opposed are U of R students for four to six years and then move on. Many have their education paid for by parents. Why is this religious argument or debate even an issue? By the time any ground is broken they will be well on their way else ware. They have way to much free time on their hands to even bring up the religious concerns. I would be pounding the books. Unless……..unless the effort is part of a greater effort. The effort to silence.

    It will be interesting to see how the University of Rochester will respond to this effort. I’ll be watching, but realize the outcome. I won’t live long enough to see these changes grip this nation, but my children and grandchildren will. I fear for their future.

    Semper Fi.

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