by Hank Walter, IMU Executive Director
On a college campus, I always embrace the fall. The beauty of the leaves, the buzz around football and Homecoming, the enthusiasm of students and energy that comes with swarms of students rushing to and from class, lunch, or activities, or even just the sound of music as I dodge students on the sidewalks on a Friday evening when students always seem not to have a care in the world.
Of course, none of that applies this year. The campus is relatively quiet all week. I find myself happy that the number of people entering the Union each weekday has grown to more than 4,000, which is still almost 10,000 short of normal. Most classes are virtual, and even those that aren’t have made it possible for students to attend virtually. Faculty come to campus to teach their classes and zip home as soon as it’s done. Almost all campus meetings are virtual, including Union Board, and those that aren’t require social distancing. The pandemic has meant so many changes for the Union, which is still working to be a community center, despite the fact we can’t bring the community together.
Both a college union and student activities lend themselves to specific challenges:
- how do we serve as a community center when public health requires keeping people spread apart and even lounges and meeting rooms must be de-densified?
- How do you help students develop connections with each other and with the University, without shared experiences that normally help them do so?
- What is campus life like without those kinds of activities?
- How do we do things in groups smaller than 150 (outside) and 50 (inside) and still serve a student body of more than 42,000?
And yet, this fall has strongly demonstrated the value of a college union, student activities, and a campus community. I’ll cite two examples:
- Students complain, and even file lawsuits, arguing to have their tuition and fees reduced and speak passionately that the main reason is missing the in-person campus experience, the connection with others, the activities and events and out-of-classroom experiences that cannot happen on a Zoom call or computer screen;
- The weekend before classes started, I received two calls from IU administration with a message that can be summarized as: I know what I told you before, but we need more student events and programs ASAP. What can Union Board and the IMU do?
Students need a chance to gather, spend time together, work, and have fun together, and many learn as much or more in that setting as in the classroom. Virtual just isn’t the same for IU students, as I’m sure many of you may have concluded in your own life. We have added outdoor tents and seating. Since the Tudor Room can’t operate as a restaurant, we’ve turned it into a study lounge. We have run three outdoor films simultaneously in different locations around campus, to help students have a good time safely on weekend nights, because students desperately need these things, and the Union is best equipped to help make student life better in these ways.
The constraints necessary to keep students safe from the Coronavirus have hurt more than just the student experience, though, they have decimated our financial health. At the IMU, we have long been proud of the fact that the Union earns its own revenue, which pays for just about everything but the Union Board program budgets. The hotel, events, and dining pays for everything from Union Board advisors’ salaries to the couches in the South Lounge to repairs to heating and cooling systems, and that, in turn, helps keep the cost of an IU degree down because we do not ask students for fees, like most other college unions. But in 2020, the hotel isn’t operating in order to protect the campus ‘bubble’, events aren’t happening due to public health regulations and university budget reductions, and all of that brings decreases in dining too.
We have reduced expenses, and are pursuing a loan from the University, but the shortfall in revenue will continue until we can reopen the Biddle Hotel. In the meantime, we will be limited in our ability to do many of the things that make the Union special: the amount of support for some of the programs and activities that add to campus life, updates to rooms and spaces, training and recognition for student leaders on Union Board, and special events.
Unfortunately, at this moment in history, the Union cannot be who we want to be, and what you remember it as, without support from alumni and friends. In the coming months, we will be asking for you to help us keep the student experience special at the IMU and with Union Board. Thank you.