“It’s going to take time. Big things like this take time,” Erb Memorial Union Director Dusty Miller@@http://leadership.uoregon.edu/get_involved/governance/502@@ told me. This was 2005, and I was vice chair of the EMU Board of Directors and chair of the Long Range Planning Committee. In those days, the LRPC grew phenomenally concerned with something called “deferred maintenance.”
The LRPC wanted to get to the bottom of these budget issues so that we could figure out better long-term solutions. When we started asking questions, we discovered there was a big financial issue at hand: The EMU had millions of dollars worth of things wrong with it. Literally, the Facilities Department just tapes things up (like pipes) the best they can to get away without replacing things — not out of negligence; it’s just a fact that we don’t have enough money to fix it all.
The EMU Board worked hard to educate students about these issues. I once had the ASUO Senate take a facilities tour so they could witness the leaky bowels of the EMU for themselves. Just as we stepped into one of the mechanical rooms, steam burst out of the duct-taped sides of a pipe. “That’s not good,” said the facilities director as he radioed the problem to his staff. Then we walked into another room and some viscous liquid dripped down on us from another pipe, and puddles of some unknown substance splashed under out feet.
There’s also another troubling phrase we kept hearing: “grandfathered in.” It’s often used in the context of, “The EMU is not up to fire code, and we can’t afford to fix it at this point, but that’s OK because that part of the EMU is so old, it’s grandfathered in, so we aren’t technically in any code violation.” Arizona State’s similarly antiquated Memorial Union burned down in 2007 due to inadequate fire protections systems that were also grandfathered in, costing students $40 million in repairs.
It’s important to remember that the EMU is an auxiliary unit, meaning it was built by students taxing themselves. That was in the early ’40s before former University President Donald Erb@@http://president.uoregon.edu/history@@ died of pneumonia. The EMU is named in his honor, dedicated not only to his work lobbying the State Board for the funds (that the students paid the State back for over time), but also to the students who fought and died in World War II. Because it would be the students of the post-war era who would be inheriting and enjoying the new union.
Students back then had a great number of their own challenges, and I have no doubt they were just as perceptive of the significance of leaving a legacy as students today are. Also, it is true that students today are facing epically high tuition, and it’s a big deal to ask us to shoulder more debt. Yet, we deserve to union together, and we deserve to do so in a way that puts our money to good use instead of wasting it. Further, it is important to note that the current plan won’t cost current juniors and seniors a dime until the EMU’s renovation project is completed.
Not only will the new union end the wasteful trap of deferred maintenance, it will provide badly needed space. This is extraordinarily important for at least two reasons: one, it will highlight our student union groups by bringing them out of alarmingly dark, cramped basement and corridor spaces they’re forced into now; two, it will provide room for a better mix of light retail space that helps float the programs and care for the longevity of the building itself through the revenue they generate for the building.
I wanted to see change right away, but all we could do was plant the seed with student leaders and the administration and allow time to ripen the issue as people slowly began to see this enormous problem for what it is.
“It’s going to take time, big things like this take time,” Miller said. For all of our benefit — and the benefit of future University students — I truly hope the time is upon us at last.
University Master’s degree candidate
Former EMU Board Chair 2006-2008