Student input important for Coffman renovation

By Maggie

During the last week of classes I was off-campus attending a national conference of the “Association of College Unions International,” where I spoke with many colleagues about challenges they are facing on their campuses. It was both reassuring and alarming that we are all facing similar challenges — from deteriorating buildings to balancing the student union role with economic concerns related to commercialization.
Although these issues are problematic, the good news on the horizon is that many campuses are starting to realize the important role a college union plays in community-building and recruitment and retention of students. A March 3rd article in the Wall Street Journal “New Marketing Magnets: Student Unions,” discussed how campus are starting to put dollars into developing state-of-the-art unions. “Today student centers — once little more than dingy lounges with banks of vending machines — have become among the biggest and most lavish buildings on college campuses, often housing state-of-the-art health clubs, computing centers, food courts, art galleries and working fireplaces.”
After spending time with my professional colleagues and attending many sessions about student union renovations, I returned to campus ready to roll up my sleeves and get down to more detailed planning of the Coffman Memorial Union renovation. Upon my arrival, I reviewed the past week’s Daily articles on the Coffman renovation and U2000 goals, and a few articles expressing concern about the new private/public University food service venture.
The political reality facing the renovation of Coffman once again smacked me in the face. Part of me is thrilled that the renovation is such an emotional issue for the University community, but the other part of me gets frustrated because for several years I’ve heard comments such as, “Coffman sucks, needs better food, warmer environment, longer hours, etc.” The disheartening thing is now that the University is finally taking a serious look at improving Coffman, many people are resisting any change. Suddenly Coffman is fine the way it is.
Frankly, the infrastructure of Coffman is failing and becoming too costly to maintain. The new public/private partnership the University Food Service is pursuing should finally provide a bigger variety of food. If it is done right, the union will be able to provide more and better student services, such as registration and financial aid outlets, computer labs, student organization space, study and lounge space, and a variety of interesting programs and entertainment. It’s time to revitalize Coffman Memorial Union and make it a neutral gathering place for the University community to discuss, debate, eat, entertain and have fun.
The renovation planning and financing is still being discussed. During spring quarter, I will be working with our board of governors and inviting members from the University community to serve on focus groups to discuss the goals of the new Coffman and to further explore what this community wants out of its union. In addition, we are forming a Coffman Memorial Union Alumni group to further support the goals and future direction of Coffman while also reminding us of its rich history.
Anyone is welcome to become involved in either the focus group discussions or the alumni group. Please call me (525-7666) or e-mail me at [email protected] if you are interested.
Please join me in being a part of rebuilding a student union that has a rich history. Let’s make it a building to be proud of — a place we will all want to hang our hats. Nothing lavish, nothing sterile … a comfortable family room with great food in the kitchen.

Maggie Towle is the director of the Minneapolis Student Unions.