The University of Texas–Austin, like many institutions, faced the need for additional space for student activities in the mid-1900s when enrollment almost tripled from the 6,400 students who were enrolled when the Texas Union building first opened its doors. It was then that the path towards a second union on campus began. Some early attempts to expand the existing Texas Union were challenged by law and engineering students who advocated for space closer to their area of campus. In 1956, support for expansion was gathered as students were promised that a second building was coming and with that, in 1960 the Texas Union was expanded.
It was not until the 1970s, however, that the Union Board of Directors agreed on the location of a second center of student activity, and the 1983 Report of the Centennial Commission recommended “recreational sports facilities (particularly indoor) should be expanded [...] in conjunction with expanded facilities for course instruction, intercollegiate athletics and housing,” highlighting the continued need for space for student activities. A Master Plan Study in 2000 also reported the need for additional student activities space more central on campus.
In 2003, a proposal from the student government to the university president asked for approval on conducting a study and rendering for a Student Activity Center (SAC) on campus. This proposal shed light on the amount of meeting and activity space available for students on campus—there was an average of 3.07 square feet available per student, in a population of 51,428 students. A year later, among the Commission of 125’s recommendations was the construction of student activity space on the east side or on the perimeter of campus.
After another student government proposal in 2005, President Larry Faulkner approved a $180,000 feasibility study to determine possible sites on campus where the center could be built. This included interviews with administrators, focus groups with students, studies on peer institutions, support for the proposed referendum, and a preliminary financial analysis. Once the study was completed, a surface parking lot next to Gregory Gym was identified an ideal site for the SAC, as it would create “a one-stop student life building.” Additionally, this space was most feasible as it allowed for construction in a single phase without any need for relocation, did not require destruction, offered ample space, and had more student traffic due to its proximity to the gym.
It is important to note that this was a faculty parking lot that had been pointed to in 2000 as a possible site for an additional student center, but it was stated that any building constructed in that space would have to be academic in nature. That study proved that the site would be large enough for both the SAC and another 300,000 square-foot academic building (currently the up and coming Liberal Arts building). Initially, faculty members were concerned that this construction would mean the loss of faculty parking spots. Therefore, in some way, it represented a very symbolic collaboration between academics and student affairs when the Faculty Building Advisory Committee sent a recommendation to President Faulkner to build the SAC in that parking lot.
The feasibility study also compared the University of Texas–Austin to other universities of similar size, revealing that the studied schools had a median of 8.9 square feet of space for activities per student, with UT lagging behind with 3.0 square feet per student. To reach the median, the Texas Union would have had to triple in size. With more research, it continued to be evident that the demand for space was much higher than the availability of space for student activities.
On February 7, 2006 the Student Government Assembly unanimously approved Assembly Bill 29, which authorized a referendum on the SAC to be included in the March 2006 general student election. The referendum was up for vote on February 28 and March 1, 2006, and it passed with 67.72 percent (5,262 students) of the vote supporting its mission, completing a milestone in the battle to bring a second center for students to the 40 Acres. The referendum also became the most successful in the history of UT at the time. The SAC would be located next to Gregory Gym in the east side of campus, the very same area where over thirty years ago, law and engineering students expressed the need for a building of this nature. By voting in support of the referendum to build the SAC, students agreed to pay a $65 fee per semester to fund the costs of the $48 million construction project.
The University broke ground on the SAC in January 2009 and opened its doors in January 2011, providing 149,000 square feet for students to meet, study, and socialize, and creating an additional cultural, academic, and social hub for campus. The SAC stayed true to the idea of “modus operandis” behind college unions, that which suggests student self-government with staff aid. The SAC involved students from day one, engaging students in choosing wall colors, and furnishings, and participating in design meetings with architects.
In a 1975 article of The Alcalde
, Shirley Bird Perry, former Texas Union program advisor, referred to the college union as the place where “an uptight engineer plays the guitar, a law student plays Hamlet, a math major makes a film, an accountant reads poetry, a musician debates politics.” This remains true in the SAC, within the walls of a Black Box Theatre, on the screens of the Auditorium, by the fireside lounge, and in the Dance Rehearsal Space. While debate societies are not as prominent as they were in the early college unions of Oxford and Cambridge, debate still takes place in the SAC Legislative Assembly Room, as legislative student organizations discuss issues the students face. The hope is that the SAC continues to be that new and improved “campus living room” on the 40 Acres, where students’ college experiences come to life.
To learn more about the Student Activity Center at the University of Texas–Austin please visit www.utsac.org
. This post is part of a series of campus stories about the history and role of college unions. For more stories and examples like this, check out the second edition of The College Union Idea publication, released in 2012 to chronicle the philosophy and function of the college union throughout more than 100 years.
is the Graduate Intern for the Student Activity Center at University of Texas–Austin.
Cecilia Lopez is a recent graduate of the college and university personnel administration master’s program at the University of Texas–Austin. Cecilia currently serves as the graduate intern for the Student Activity Center. She is looking forward to kicking off her career in the field. Her practice areas of interest include college unions, student activities, student employee development, and social media engagement in higher education.