Today is the last day to claim our autonomy and decide on a future that will leave a lasting legacy here at the University of Massachusetts. Besides voting for next Student Government Association President, Vice President, and Student Trustee this week, we are voting on a referendum to build a new Student Union. “This is the spark,” said Secretary of Finance and senior Ben Johnson, “a really big spark to make [this] initiative possible.”
This spark has been a long time coming. The last major renovations on the current Student Union were made in 1957 when the student population was less than five thousand. “[Past SGA administrations] were trying for years to get a new building,” said Johnson, but what makes this referendum stand out is the long term planning and recognition that this project would be something that we students need to play a major role in.
The referendum does not only ask for students to vote on getting a new student union – almost everyone, including the UMass administration, recognizes that we need a new building. The problem comes down to how to pay for this project, an estimated $100 million. Massachusetts State allocates money primarily to academic-only buildings, so all other projects need to find funding from elsewhere. As tough as a financial state we are in, building a student union will require the help of the people it is intended to serve. The costs of putting off this project will be far greater: UMass has offered to meet us halfway to pay for the new student union if we vote yes on the referendum.
To finance the project, Johnson created a 25-year payment plan for the students. Raising the $50 million will place a $125 fee per semester on the student body. After twenty-five years an estimated 500,000 students will pass through this university helping to cover half of the building costs with the other $50 million coming from the university. The proposed construction includes completely renovating the current space and expanding over the open area towards the campus center. As Johnson puts it: “this year is the first time that a plan is comprehensive and recognizes that students have to contribute.”
The Recreation Center is a prime example of what students can do for future UMass generations. About 10 years ago, students wanted a new recreation center that was high quality and available to the community. In order to accomplish this, they understood that students needed to pay for something they needed and wanted. Those students who paid the first fees for a new rec center never had the opportunity to use it. But we do. “It was a student-paid initiative; students in the past paid it for us,” said Johnson.
Right now we have a student union in dire need of repairs and hardly a place for all student groups to congregate. Lack of space for RSOs is nothing new. According to Johnson, barely 15 percent of all RSOs have offices in the student union. On top of that, Facility Services owns the building, so students have to pay a fee to use space in our union. A new building would change all that: there will be larger conference areas, spaces for student businesses, breakout rooms, and more. It will be our space, our union. If our school is to continue growing, as it most surely will, we need a union for the 21st century to show it. We cannot afford to wait another ten years or major building damage to force the university into action.
The next two months are my last ones here. I never had the opportunity to be active in a student union that was responsive to my needs a student and the needs of our community. Not even this fall’s incoming class will be able to experience the full benefits of new student union if we vote yes on this referendum. That is not the point though. By voting yes, we are leaving behind a legacy of student action, organizing, and most importantly in these days, our autonomy. Day in and day out, decisions about us are made behind closed doors and without any student involvement. This culture of indifference does not go away over night. It takes time to change a culture, but we have to start somewhere.
Today is the last day to vote yes to buy a new student union. Taking part in a new vision for the future of UMass students is the greatest contribution we can give to this community. When a new state-of-the-art union is finally completed, we will be able to say that we continued the legacy of student activism and initiative 150 years after the founding of our university.
Roy Ribitzky is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.