Madisonproves bars strengthen unions

by By Ed

Memorial Union at the University of Wisconsin has been serving beer since 1933. Coffman Memorial Union is as it’s always has been; dry as a tumbleweed. An antiquated University policy prevents beer from being served in Coffman, and it is time for that policy to change.
Why? Memorial Union today is what Coffman Union ought to be, not simply because they serve beer, but because Memorial Union is the center of a vibrant campus life. It is the destination on campus. People come for concerts, plays, distinguished lecture series, movies, game rooms, recreational classes, etc. — all of which are programs created and implemented by students. Yes, students.
It is the place to take a break, meet friends, or make new ones. Another draw is that adults have the option of buying a beer while eating or relaxing. It is time for University of Minnesota students to have that option as well.
Why not? There is no solid argument for continuing prohibition. When I was president of the Coffman Union Board of Governors, the argument I heard against it was twofold: the social pressure to drink beer irresponsibly is already too great and allowing alcohol to have a presence on campus would further that pressure. Second, the campus community should not be further subjected to deviant behavior from drunken fools emerging from Coffman. Both points are misplaced.
The outside world has seen to it that the University has already reached its saturation point with messages promoting irresponsible drinking. Who would argue that an alcohol-free student union has wrung out a single drop of social pressure to drink irresponsibly? More to the point, a student-controlled alcohol policy at Coffman could promote responsible drinking, which is certainly the case at Madison. There are no beer “specials”, beer advertising, nor any beer promotion at Memorial Union. It is managed like any other drink product that supports lunch hour, dinner hour, and most importantly student managed programming. With these priorities, Madison’s union “pub” is probably the first exposure many young students have to see adults treating beer as the harmless product it is, when responsibly consumed.
This leads to my second rebuttal, that there will be no drunken fools emerging from Coffman because it serves beer. At Memorial Union, ID’s are checked and rigidly enforced. No beer is served after 10:45 p.m. Sunday through Wednesday and 12:45 a.m. Thursday through Saturday — well before the 2:00 a.m. last call of bars in Madison. The key ingredient, however, is that the atmosphere in the student union doesn’t encourage drunkenness.
When you create an environment where beer is not a forbidden fruit, it will rarely be abused. Because of this atmosphere, security problems are virtually nonexistent. I must emphasize the point that allowing beer at Coffman is not a magic bullet that will resurrect campus life or even be the key ingredient in Coffman’s renaissance. There are several factors involved to create a great student union, with the quality of a student-created programming schedule chief among them. Also crucial is the outcome of Coffman’s renovation, a subject of current debate.
Now is an opportune time to develop a floor plan that places student organization and union programming space in high traffic areas, creating an atmosphere that encourages passing students to get involved in activities. At Memorial Union, if a person’s destination is the dining hall, he or she is often drawn to the college band playing nearby. If someone enters the union to buy an item in the gift shop, that person is likely to see a student organization advertising an upcoming event on the way. The entire floor plan is designed to get people involved in campus life. What a mistake it would be to place the commercial, revenue generating spaces in Coffman front and center, while we shove to the side student organization and programming spaces.
Coffman has made measurable progress in the last few years, and there is potential for a full renaissance. While not a magic bullet, having beer in Coffman is a step in the right direction. For this and other improvements to happen, students need to take action. Call or e-mail the Coffman Student Union Board of Governors and give them your opinion at 625-9470 or [email protected]

Ed Beckmann attends the University of Wisconsin Law School. He attended the University and graduated from CLA in 1996.