Mention the words “Student Activity Center,” and student government leaders will salivate with anticipation. Mention it to Wisconsin Union officials, and watch them cringe.
Passed by the slimmest of margins in an October 1999 student referendum, the proposed $22.8 million Student Activity Center could be the future home of University Health Services and approximately 150 student organizations (nearly a quarter of all UW student organizations). The building, to be placed at the current University Square, would usurp many of the roles currently served by the Wisconsin Union, including being the meeting center for UW’s 600 student organizations.
Given UW’s current budget crunch, it seems obvious UW should hold off on such ambitions. But even without the budget crunch, UW should rethink its plans.
This proposal would never have gotten off the ground had it not merged two huge campus groups: UHS and ASM. UHS desperately wants to upgrade its 50-year old facilities, while ASM officers want to deliver to their main constituency: student groups.
Of the two, UHS’s plight is far more sympathetic. UHS’s current physical status is intolerable — the only thing working well is the five-year-old fire alarm system. However, whether UHS needs to abandon its present home is less convincing. A far more efficient and effective solution would be to build several satellite offices while keeping the main laboratory, pharmacy and radiology offices at a renovated 1552 University Ave.
ASM’s campaign for new office space is much less reasonable. UW currently features over 600 student organizations with 36 student organization offices (6 percent). But that number is deceptive — the vast majority of student groups are fully capable of organizing and meeting without an office. There is no evidence that giving office space to the Model U.N., College Republicans and Chess Club would improve student activism.
If more student office space is required, a much better alternative would be to use existing space in the underutilized Union South. Specifically, the Union should transform the 14 hotel rooms at Union South into student organization space. The revenue would hardly be missed; the Union South hotel grosses only $160,000 annually (compared to the six rooms at Memorial that gross $110,000), and it goes without saying that $160,000 a year (plus remodeling feeds) is dramatically less than $22.8 million.
Doing so would also provide a much-needed shot of student life in the unpopular Union South and would preserve the Union’s current role as the center of student life on campus.
With the student-fee referendum victory in hand, the Student Activity Center proponents are quietly working their way through the university’s nebulous budget process. However, before administrators give the current plan a green light and raise seg fees yet again, they should consider a different vision of what a Student Activity Center could be.