June 29, 2012
William Smriga and Ben Hopper
A top priority of every college union is to serve students. Programs and services are designed to meet student needs and interests. At Kansas State University, the K-State Student Union has fulfilled this role since 1956 and continues to be the community center of the campus and the center for university activities and services. Throughout its history, students have consistently supported the union through their time and energy for the union ideal. From leadership, volunteering, and financial support, the K-State Student Union wouldn’t be able to survive without the support and dedication of students committed to its role and mission.
From the very beginning, when the idea of a gathering place on the K-State campus was discussed, students were at the forefront. In 1926, the student movement began to take shape. A committee of students and faculty were appointed to study the ways and means of building a union. During the later years of the Depression, 76 percent of almost three fourths of the student body voted in favor of the $5 per semester student union fee. Students began paying this fee in 1941.
During the succeeding years, world, political, and societal unrest would postpone such a building. But students continued to pay and dream of a union for future generations. In 1947, the university acquired several old army barracks buildings, known by many as the quonset huts, from a nearby military facility. This first “union,” offering tennis, bowling, ping-pong, and other services, would stand until 1956 and provide the students at Kansas State University its first glimpse at a community center.
The doors to what is now the K-State Student Union opened on March 8, 1956. As the student population grew in the 1960s, so did the union—not only in programs and services, but also in size. A $900,000, 40,000-square-foot addition was competed in 1963. Seven years later, a $2.7 million second addition would add another 100,000 square feet, including a 600-seat theater, eight additional bowling lanes, and a bookstore. K-State students supported another increase in fees to fund this expansion.
Another group of visionary students led a crusade starting in 1993 to advance and improve the structure of the union. The hardhats returned again in June of 1998 after the student body approved an $11.5 million renovation. Infrastructure and aesthetics were improved, and new services were added, including an outdoor plaza. Throughout the entire renovation project, not once did services cease. The doors remained open at all times to serve the students and campus community.
The building has been funded primarily by students and students have made a lasting impact in the Union. In 1953, the same year as the groundbreaking ceremony, the Union Governing Board (UGB), a policy-making body was formed. Throughout the years, students have served on UGB, helping to shape policies and serving as an advisory committee to Union administration. Student participation has been vital to the success of this board, providing feedback and recommendations regarding all programs and services.
As the original building neared completion, the Union Program Council (UPC) was formed in 1955 with 114 students joining that first year. Throughout the history of the UPC, student volunteers have taken the initiative to plan events that have enhanced the quality of student life, resulting in improving student retention and the overall K-State experience. During peak years, more than 300 students were involved with UPC. Annually, the UPC student leaders plan more than 150 events with total attendance averaging more than 110,000 people. Adding to the life and vitality of the union is the Office of Student Activities and Services (OSAS) which houses the Student Governing Association and serves more than 375 student organizations.
The student body continues to take advantage of the facilities, programs, and services. Student privilege fees help pay for union operations, programs, and renovation. Recently the Student Governing Association approved a $100,000 fee increase to fund major events on campus such as concerts. Students volunteer hundreds and hundreds of hours to plan events and programs. Approximately 85 students are employed by the union, and hundreds more work in food service and the bookstore.
Throughout the history of the K-State Student Union, students have been instrumental in the creation, development, and success of its operation, programs, and services. Throughout its history, the Union has thrived because of tradition, commitment, and people who cared. The K-State Student Union is alive and well at Kansas State University.
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.