Student union head faces challenging work

Paul Sanders

In 16 years, Maggie Towle has gone from making room reservations at Coffman Memorial Union to becoming its director.
“I worked in the room reservations department, unlocking meeting room doors, delivering AV equipment,” said Towle, the recently appointed director of Minneapolis Student Unions.
Towle’s July 8 appointment makes her the first permanent director of Coffman and the West Bank Union since April 1995, when the University declined to renew former director Clare O’Brien’s contract. Towle was interim director for the student unions since November 1995, when she replaced former interim director Charles Rausch.
Towle emerged as the “clear choice” to direct the student unions after being selected from a pool of more than 60 candidates in a national search, said Jim Turman, assistant vice president for Student Development and Athletics.
Turman said Towle’s extensive experience in facilities operations and personnel management within University student unions made her the top candidate for the job.
“She has a clear vision for what the student union should be for the 21st century,” Turman said.
One of the challenges Towle faces as director for Minneapolis Student Unions is working with University administrators and students in the proposed renovations for Coffman, built in 1939.
The aging union was described in 1994 as an uninviting environment by an architectural design firm the University hired to assess the building. Coffman lacks air conditioning and a computer lab. People with disabilities have criticized the building for having poor access.
Proposals to address Coffman’s problems have ranged from renovation to tearing down the building.
In 1994, a $180,000 study conducted by a Pennsylvania architectural firm found that despite the building’s limitations, “people expressed real fondness for the building’s original character and a strong belief that CMU is worth saving.”
Towle, who graduated from the University with a sociology degree in 1981, believes that students still feel the same way about Coffman. “From all the students I’ve been working with,” Towle said, “including the (University Board of Regents), the sentiment is to renovate, not tear down and build a new union.”
It will cost $28.6 million to renovate Coffman, based on a 1992 feasibility study conducted by the University. The renovation costs include structural changes to improve disability access and nearly $10 million for air conditioning.
But Towle said those numbers are old and renovation costs will probably be much higher. “That’s what were going to do this fall — define what the new building is going to look like and start to put together a package for funding.”
The Student Services Fees Committee gave Minneapolis Student Unions $300,000 last year to hire an architect to have conceptual plans put together showing one way Coffman could be renovated, Towle said.
Towle thinks Coffman should have a food court with a selection of fast-food restaurants such as McDonald’s and Bruegger’s Bagels, she said. Tables would allow students to connect laptop computers directly into the Internet.
University student Rebecca Mathern served on the 12-member Student Union Search Committee that recommended Towle’s appointment.
Towle made improvements in Coffman security as interim director, said Mathern, who as a representative on the Minneapolis Student Union Board of Governors worked closely with the new director. Mathern added that she has been impressed with Towle’s commitment to improve Coffman’s food service for students.
AndrÇ Viktora, president of the board, said Towle’s appointment would help revitalize Coffman Union because of her commitment to student interests. The governing board is composed of 14 University students and five staff members.
“She does an excellent job of soliciting input,” said Viktora, a senior in the Carlson School of Management. “She has the full support of the governing board because she has our interests at heart.
“I think you’re going to really see Coffman Union come alive in the next year,” Viktora said.