In search of a better union

Robin Huiras

Imagine a tire with a slow leak. In the long run, fixing the tire would be easier than putting air into it every day, but the leaky tire does its job.
Coffman Union is like a leaky tire. But rather than air, it bleeds $1.8 million in per year in student services fees. Unless students approve an initiative and drop the cash to permanently fix the problem, it will continue to consume money until it becomes irreparable.
Coffman’s Board of Governors has asked for $50 million to renovate the union, $45 million of which will come from student service fees.
It is a pay-me-now, pay-me-later situation, said Jorg Rivera, president of Coffman’s Board of Governors. If the money is not given in a large sum, Coffman will continue to nickel and dime students for each repair as it comes up.
At this point, the union offers several services. It is a place to hang out, study and sleep. It contains most of the cultural centers and all of the student organizations, and is the arena in which the Program Council holds many campus events. It serves food and beverages. Copies and postal stamps can be bought there. A game room boasts billiards, bowling and ping-pong, and a theater shows movies most weekends.
While these services seem profitable, Coffman does not bring in any money. In fact, it makes less than half of its total operating budget in profits from services. Student service fees make up for its losses and maintain its crumbling infrastructure.
Coffman costs about $3.5 million to operate annually and makes approximately $1.7 million on services. This leaves $1.8 million in annual losses covered by the $29.41 in fees students pay each quarter to the union.
The original tire
When Coffman Union was completed in 1940, it was a sight to behold. The expansive atrium was filled with tables, chairs and davenports. Art deco filled the building, which stood on the same foundation as the current union.
Before the union existed, students had no central meeting place where men and women could gather together, said Maggie Towle, director of Coffman Union. Additionally, there were student movements nationally to build unions. At that time, the student population was roughly 14,000.
By the mid-1960s the University’s population had grown to about 42,000 and complaints abounded about the union. There wasn’t enough space to meet the needs of the large population. Although the foundation of the building was not changed during the building’s only renovation, two wings were added and the grandiose atrium was separated and halved into levels. Basically, the building was modernized, Towle said.
The reconstruction in the 1970s destroyed the art deco style and created many dim areas. It also resulted in a 36-year bond from the University to finance the renovation. Although the bond kept student fees low, Coffman officials are still paying it off.
Today, the needs of the students have surpassed what the union has to offer. But this time students have to be more proactive; the funding options available in the late 1960s are not an option now.

The leak begins
“Coffman Union as it is, is dark,” said Rivera, board of governors president. “It is like a dungeon. It is not very inviting and it is separated.”
Among several other suggested changes is opening up the union to expose the original design. This would improve lighting and give patrons the ability to see what is going on around them — vertically as well as horizontally.
“There is a lot more Coffman could be used for,” said Brett Rowlett, the student life co-chairman of the Minnesota Student Association. “It is important entering the 21st century to make the building more adept.”
Stephanie Perrin, a senior at the University, was at Coffman Thursday evening with her friends to partake in a salsa lesson, sponsored by Coffman’s Program Council.
She doesn’t use the union very often and only recently learned that a game room existed in the basement. She said the renovation is unnecessary, and she would rather see the money going to other types of renovations, like refurbishing academic buildings.
“I don’t have a need or desire to come to Coffman, said Jack Tomczak, Perrin’s friend and University junior. “It doesn’t offer me anything.” Tomczak also learned the salsa Thursday evening at the union.
Towle said the renovations are making up for past mistakes. “I really feel the biggest need is to create a much better environment for students — homier, loungier, warmer, with places to sleep.”
Although the ground floor and lower level of the union are filled with couches and tables for studying and lounging, it is often difficult to find a place to sit. For those students who do find a place to sit, it is often too loud and dim to concentrate.
“Occasionally I come here to study, but not so much anymore,” said Brian Carey, a third-year electrical engineering major. “It is quieter in the electrical engineering building.
“The union is pretty packed — that is an issue,” Carey said. “But it is one of those types of issues that, given the hours that there are people on campus, it is the only place to eat.”
The renovations will open the top two levels of the union for student use. Currently, the Alumni Association leases the area, but the group is moving out when construction of the University Gateway is done.
Another problem with the union is the food service. Eating on campus is a necessity for many people, especially at a school with a high commuter population. However, the main cafeteria closes at 3:30 p.m. and after 6:30 p.m., the only place to buy a sandwich is out of a vending machine.
“I’m not asking for super-convenience.” Carey said. But keeping a restaurant open at least until the last night class is not unreasonable, he added.
Students want variety and selection, Towle said. They also want to know what they are getting for the money they pay. The renovations attempt to alleviate this by opening a 24-hour food service and bringing in local and national franchises.
As it stands, most students feel the price they pay for the food exceeds the caliber of the product.
Karen Umali, a junior in biochemistry, said the food is really overpriced for the quality. However, Coffman is the only place on campus she can study and eat at the same time.

The new tire
Complaints about Coffman abound, ranging from dirty couches to wasted space. These complaints, however, will continue to circulate until the problem is solved. The controversy about the renovation is whether or not Coffman, with all of its problems, is worth fixing, especially when most current students will not have the opportunity to use the new facility as students.
“Coffman has always been funded by students,” Rowlett said. “If anything is going to be done, students should step forward. You have to give a little to get something great back.”
If Coffman receives the amount of money it is asking, students will spend roughly $180 throughout the next three years — that new tire isn’t cheap.
“The fees request is questionable,” Carey said. “I can’t squander money at all. I have to be frugal about it. But in a broad sense, it would be good to see how (the renovation) would benefit the student body.”
Renovating would give students and future generations a place that suits their needs, like a 24-hour computer lab. The University wants to make Coffman a place that won’t need another renovation in 20 years, Towle said.
“If you compare Coffman now to other student unions, it doesn’t compare,” said Michael Holland, the president of Coffman’s Program Council. “This should be the cultural gathering place and we should definitely be able to take pride in the union.”
Holland added the people who don’t use the union are the people who don’t realize the potential their money has. Improvements would be made to squelch complaints of students now and in the future.
“I don’t think the renovation is necessary,” said Josie Roder, a freshman in elementary education, “but, of course, things need to move on, things get outdated.”
Like the leaky tire, Coffman will degrade until it is eventually useless — either a new tire is bought, or the old one goes flat.