A By Chuck Hernick
fter nearly three years of construction, an increasingly apathetic student body awaits the reopening of the Coffman Union. Frustration is high – an unavoidable consequence of student displacement. Coffman was host to more than 600 programs brought to campus by the Twin Cities Student Unions and home to the University’s cultural centers and student groups. In a campus surrounded by two major cities, the challenge of keeping students on campus, unified and active, is immense. Student groups, cultural centers, even the unions compete with the plethora of activities offered in the cities every night. The student unions and all of the Minneapolis campus have sorely missed Coffman. So who, or even better, how could anyone have justified closing Coffman in the first place?
The students, that’s who. The reasons were many-fold, but in 1999, the Twin Cities Student Unions Board of Governors requested that the Student Services Fees Committee address the pending need to renovate. Students made the decision to renovate and students have made the decisions at every level and every stage since then. Student unions are a critical aspect of collegiate life; they have a long history, both globally and at our University. Simply put, Coffman was not cutting it. Students wanted more, and come the first day of classes this spring semester, students will get more. The Board of Governors is pressured to reopen Coffman after this semester. More than 250 men and women constructing and painting the interior on a daily basis are working hard toward completion. We are now at a point where three floors are complete and the rest is close behind. Preparations have begun to move the relocated student groups back, starting in late December.
During Coffman’s hiatus, many student groups and activities moved elsewhere. St. Paul has seen an influx of students using the St. Paul Student Center, and the fact that many programs have moved there has undeniably strengthened the sense of community on the campus. The bowling alley is busy, students still sleep through classes in the lounge and buy food, books, magazines and coffee to make it through the rest. Outcomes like these were expected. Still, the biggest outcome of the closing was not.
Students, now more than ever, have vocalized their need to unite. The paradox lies in the fact that they were not vocal about it until the facility was no longer there. The need for a central student gathering space is critical; this is what a union provides. Any student group that called Coffman “home” before the renovation would say that. And now we are on the brink of recreating that reality.
Student activism can change the course of nearly anything. The Minnesota Student Association, for example, successfully brought the U-Pass to our campus just a few years ago. The current administration is working to increase voter turnout in the all-campus elections and striving to unite the students at large. A revamped student services fees process will make it easier for students to be involved and understand what it means to deal with such an important and large amount of money.
The Board of Governors’ goal is to promote community, lifelong learning and pride at the University. When Coffman reopens this winter, it will centralize student life in Minneapolis. At a variety of levels, University students have indeed made a difference.