An advisory committee presented preliminary plans for Coffman Union’s second floor —home to several student communities at the University of Minnesota — Wednesday night.
The presentation included two different layouts of the second floor for all students to vote on and contribute ideas. Though the unpopular redesign plans were first unveiled last spring, no decision will be made until April, and even then, the Student Unions and Activities’ Board of Governors could still keep the debate going for another year.
Despite months of planning and talking to groups, only one student said they actually liked the designs presented Wednesday night.
Since October, the Second Floor Advisory Committee has held meetings to come up with a lasting solution for the second floor space issue — despite groups’ hesitation to move forward with any changes.
“There’s been a lot of time and dedication put into this by students who currently have space on the second floor, students who are losing space and people representing students who currently don’t have space on the second floor,” said Alec Bronston, the committee’s chair.
In 2010 the space allocation process was under scrutiny by the Student Services Fees Committee due to concerns raised by members.
According to the Student Activities Office, there are currently 810 registered student groups on campus today. But only 29 are housed on the second floor, and 34 groups have applied for space and been turned down in the past five years.
The SSFC members sent a letter to Vice Provost for Student Affairs Jerry Rinehart in March 2010 requesting that he look into whether the current process was fair and what criteria each group has to meet in order to obtain space on the second floor. As a result, the vice provost asked the Board of Governors to look into the space allocation process and history of the second floor.
Following these requests, the BOG launched an extensive review to sort out these issues and released its final recommendations last spring.
The board recommended 68 percent of the second floor be designated to cultural groups, 8 percent to student government and 4 percent to commuter students. The remaining 20 percent of the space will be designed as mixed-use, shared short-term office space, lounge and storage space to be available for all registered student groups.
They decided in order to keep the main cultural centers, the cubicle area of the second floor — also known as the Student Organizations Activities Center — would be used as the mixed-use office space. According to their plan, 15 student groups will no longer have designated space on the second floor.
Among those groups losing space is the Hmong Minnesota Student Association.
HMSA secretary Nancy Xiong said she thinks of the group’s space in Coffman as a symbol.
“We’ve established ourselves here in Minnesota, and that’s important,” she said.
Since Minnesota has such a large Hmong population, the group serves an important function on campus, she said. But she doesn’t know where the members will go without the space.
“We’re very upset, but we’re trying to make light of the situation.”
Uriel Rosales Tlatenchi, a member of La Raza Student Cultural Center and a representative on the advisory committee, said he remembers when the cultural centers sat down with SSFC members to explain why the groups are so important to the University.
“People have fought for theses spaces, and many students choose the University because of these cultural centers,” Rosales Tlatenchi said. “It’s very important that, while the University says that they have a commitment, they also invest in it.”
Baza Haile-Selassie, a member of the Black Student Union, said she thinks it’s a “lose-lose situation.”
“The students that were complaining about the situation aren’t getting what they want out of the redesign,” she said. “No one is really getting what they want.”
Groups still have reservations
The committee spent months surveying the students and conducting case studies of similar institutions to find the best possible solution for the space.
They found that the No. 1 priority for student groups is flexibility. To accommodate for this, one of the suggested features of the redesign is movable walls.
Bronston said they want to provide a space that has some hard walls but is also more accessible to allow for more people.
“Instead of having a group gathering or open-house outside of Coffman, they can open that space up and share [it] with other groups here on the second floor,” he said.
During the meeting, many students were unimpressed with the presentation. They brought up concerns over how this will satisfy groups in the long term and about how most student groups are still resistant to any change at all.
Grace Kelley, a staff member with the Women’s Student Activist Collective, said she was disappointed that the conversation was still going on after the students already spoke out last year.
“To be honest I don’t know why we’re still talking about it,” she said. “It means we’re all going to get pissed off again and come back out.”
She says a much simpler solution would be to allow current student groups to share the space they already have with groups that need space or provide more space elsewhere on campus for groups.
But with all these changes, many groups worry about losing their mark on the space, including the iconic murals that adorn the walls of the second floor.
“It’s something to respect that each cultural group has its own special mural,” freshman Black Student Union member Lashawnda Warpinski said. “It’s an honor of who we are today and why we’re here.”
Bronston said the committee doesn’t have an answer for them yet. They are considering using special techniques to peel the murals off the wall and preserve them or taking pictures of the works and framing them.
He said the most important part of the redesign is its ability to accommodate more students.
“It’s a prime space on campus, and we wish we could give it to everybody, but we have to work within our charge and within our means,” he said.
Up until now, the committee has focused primarily on the layout of the space, but once there is a consensus, they can address the specific needs of student groups.
Some groups like the Disabled Student Cultural Center and the American Indian Student Cultural Center have specific needs for their office space.
The AISCC requires both an enhanced ventilation system for smudging and a sound-muffled room for drum groups.
Before all of their events, the group burns sage and goes around the room to wave the smoke over themselves as a cleansing process called smudging.
“It helps to create a more positive environment, not just for ourselves here physically, but also spiritually,” AISCC President Emmy Her Many Horses said.
Without the extra ventilation, the process would most likely set off fire alarms in the building.
The committee won’t know the cost of the redesign until the plan is finalized, but Bronston said the SUA has money in its reserves for it.
“However, if it’s outside of those reserves we will request more student fee dollars be allocated for the redesign of the project,” he said.
The next step for the redesign will be to analyze the public’s feedback and decide what to put in the mixed-use space.
They will make their recommendation to the BOG by the beginning of April and the board will vote on whether or not to extend the advisory committee into next year.
Depending on what happens, Bronston said construction will likely take place during the summer of 2013.
But it’s the construction that Kelley is concerned about. She said members of WSAC swore they would chain themselves to the door if crews tried to touch the hard-walled offices.
It’s a thought shared on the second floor.
John Ballesteros, a junior in the Asian-American Student Union, said he will most miss the group’s current room.
“The atmosphere, the history that’s here in the walls, that’s what’s going to change,” he said. “That’s one of the hardest things that we’re going to miss next year.”