New campus wash stations struggle to get student approval

Spaces made to accommodate Muslim students have proven to be ineffective and unpopular.

The feet washing station in Coffman Memorial Union on Feb. 19. The University opened the stations to better meet the needs of Muslim students who need to wash their feet several times each day and keep them from washing in the sinks of restrooms.

Image by Jake Steinberg

The feet washing station in Coffman Memorial Union on Feb. 19. The University opened the stations to better meet the needs of Muslim students who need to wash their feet several times each day and keep them from washing in the sinks of restrooms.

by Jake Steinberg

The recently installed wash station in Coffman Union is just down the hall from the Muslim Students Association.

In it, a grimy basin waits in the corner behind an non-locking door, and water drips from a hose into a grate on the floor. It’s Friday night, and it hasn’t been touched in hours.

The wash station is one of 12 across campus that can be used for foot washing. The University of Minnesota has been installing the multi-purpose wash stations over the past year in order to meet the needs of its diverse student body. Student governance and Muslim student groups have welcomed prior actions like offering halal dining options and designating prayer and meditation spaces. However, the wash stations haven’t garnered the same praise.

“It’s basically just a supply closet,” said Samia Abdi, Muslim Students Association’s student affairs coordinator. “They literally just attached a hose to it.”

The stations were installed after the University recognized Muslim students lacked infrastructure for Wudu, the ritualistic cleansing of the face, hands and feet before prayer. 

Foot washing rituals are a part of many religions, said Mohsen Goudarzi, an assistant professor of Islamic studies, “but in Islam, they’re particularly important because one of the fundamental obligations of Muslims is to pray five times a day.”

Students are likely to be on campus four of those five times. For most Muslim students, this means they have to wash in public bathrooms, a process students say can be messy, awkward and unhygienic.

Vice President of University Services Mike Berthelsen said the University noticed students were using sinks in public restrooms to wash. “It’s not easy to do and it makes the floor slippery and dangerous,” he said. In addition, he said extra cleaning work is necessary.

Facilities Management identified spaces on campus that could be easily retrofitted to function as wash stations. The most readily available spaces turned out to be custodial closets. “We have more of those rooms than we need full of custodial equipment, and we identified a few of those that already have a faucet, already have a drain,” Berthelsen said.

Berthelsen said the stations aren’t just for washing feet, or any purpose in particular. Anyone can use them for any purpose. Some of the stations are converted, standalone single showers that could be used by people who bike or run to campus. A custodian could use them to fill a mop bucket.

“We really think of them as multipurpose rooms, which can meet a foot washing need,” he said.

MSA secretary Yuristika Salsabila said in an email to the Minnesota Daily that MSA is grateful the University is providing wash stations, but the design is inconvenient. MSA was involved in the location planning of the Coffman space, but not the design. “In the future, we hope to better collaborate with Facilities Management and the departments/offices that wish to set up foot wash stations,” she said.

Abdi said students avoid the Coffman space because it’s uncomfortable and doesn’t feel clean. The practice usually takes several minutes and requires both hands, which isn’t easy when aiming a hose. The water pressure is also an issue. “It’s like 70 miles per hour,” she said. “You basically can’t use it.”

Foot washing stations have been contentious accommodations for other public institutions. Minneapolis Community and Technical College’s plan to install footbaths in 2007 faced accusations of a double standard from a state legislator and conservative bloggers.

Critics say the infrastructure caters to a specific religion and violates the separation of church and state. Proponents say anyone is able to use the stations, regardless of their religion, and that the University is safeguarding students’ constitutional right to practice any religion they choose.

Private universities have more freedom in religious accommodations. When Augsburg University’s Hagfors Center opened in Jan. 2018, Muslim students gained access to the WuduMate, a device tailored to comfortable and hygienic foot washing.

“We did a lot of research around what would fit for our institution. We found one that was perfectly accessible,” said Fardosa Hassan, Muslim student program associate at Augsburg University. “We had a new building being built, why not put that in there?”