Renovations in motion for Coffman’s second floor

A student committee will work with designers over the next two semesters.

by Simon Benarroch

In one of the most decisive moves in a two-year process, the University of Minnesota recently issued its request for proposals for the $2.5 million renovation of Coffman Union’s second floor.

The remodeling of the student group space, to conclude with planned construction next summer, has raised questions of diversity, student leadership and inclusiveness.

“I like that it was a lengthy process,” Board of Governors head Allan Kerandi said, “… not a rushed process to get a quick fix for a problem that has been a part of Coffman from the beginning.”

In 2010, Jerry Rinehart, vice provost of student affairs, charged the Board of Governors with changing the second floor to accommodate more student groups.

Student Unions and Activities director Maggie Towle said at the outset members of cultural centers were concerned for their space “for good reason.” But in the months since, the decision-making process has been very inclusive — thanks, in part, to the formation of a Second Floor Advisory Committee. Most students “were pretty excited about being able to work more collaboratively,” she said.

Rinehart approved the BOG’s space allocation proposal in May of 2011.

According to the SUA website, the plan would provide short-term, mixed-use spaces for student groups that have never had offices on campus. Cultural centers and student government will, the website says, maintain the same amount of space they’ve always had.

Towle said SFAC, made up of representatives from each group currently housed on the second floor, is hoping to achieve an environment that promotes flexible, collaborative exchange.

To achieve this, 75 percent of the walls on the finished second floor will be moveable, according to the plan posted on the SUA website.

Towle said SFAC will reconvene as soon as fall semester starts and will be working with a design team to figure out the details of the project.

“Hopefully we’ll have a plan ready to go by spring 2013,” she said.

Discussions of the renovation have evolved significantly since 2010. Rinehart had been pushing for the renovation because of the Student Services Fees Committee’s accusations that the second floor was not “viewpoint-neutral,” or that the current arrangement favored long-standing second floor groups over newcomers.

Many members of the cultural centers felt threatened that their space was being taken from them.

Lolla Mohammed Nur, a former member of the Second Floor Advisory Committee, was among the students against the renovation in 2010. She said she originally felt “disrespected” by the plan, but her perspective has shifted over the past two years.

Mohammed Nur is a former Minnesota Daily columnist and, before that, a reporter.

She, along with three other student leaders, formed a group called the Cultural Centers Coalition, which met with key decision-makers in the renovation, including Towle and Rinehart.

“I realized they were very supportive,” she said. “We have a representative of each cultural center on the committee.”

Special arrangements, like improved ventilation for the American Indian Student Cultural Center’s sage burning, or private spaces for members of Al-Madinah Cultural Center to pray, were mentioned in these meetings.

“Everybody was very receptive to that,” she said.

Towle said she is excited about where the SFAC discussions will go this next semester.

“We’re creating a whole different type of space that no one in the country really has done before,” she said.