The university recently announced the receipt of a $5 million gift to be used as part of a $15 million plan to renovate Rush Rhees Library. While I applaud any effort seeking to improve the River Campus, there are areas of UR more urgently needing this capital ? particularly our student services and student union facilities.
Collectively, three buildings represent what would be a complete student union center at UR. These are Wilson Commons, Todd Union and the Frederick Douglass Building. Together, they provide the majority of students’ dining, entertainment and retail options as well as spaces for students to gather. Yet, the fact that all of these services are decentralized among three buildings inhibits a clear center of student life at UR. Students are required to trek to at least two of the three buildings daily to just to check their mailboxes and grab a bite to eat.
Wilson Commons has the most promise as a student center and was built over 20 years ago in an attempt to solve such problems and centralize student life. However, because of architectural and logistical issues, it has become little more than a glorified snack bar. Only through major renovations which would move the post office and bank into Wilson Commons and connect the bookstore could WC actually be a successful student union.
While Wilson Commons is an architecturally impressive structure, as a student union, it is currently inadequate. Nearly half of the tables where students might enjoy their food ? those at the Hirst Lounge and outside, between Douglass and WC, are two flights of stairs up from the Pit where most students get their meals. Further, most of the dining furniture in WC has needed replacement for years. It is not uncommon to see a group of students moving from table to table in order to find one that is steady enough to eat at. Students are also often disappointed with Dining Services’ lack of food items in stock, yet this problem stems from Wilson Commons’ lack of needed storage space in the Pit.
Aside from these particular problems, as a building, Wilson Commons’ layout is counter-intuitive. Where else could you find a building with a bar on the third floor and a coffee house in the basement, yet almost no utilized space on the main level?
University officials have stated that plans have been made to address the problems with our student life facilities that include major renovations of Wilson Commons and Douglass. Yet, the timetable for these plans has yet to be announced because the capital needed for these renovations has not yet been raised. As the university renovates Rush Rhees, already one of the best maintained structures on the River Campus, they need to also focus on the urgent needs of students and work to create a student union that truly is the center of college life at UR.
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