Volume 79 | Issue 1
January 2011

Programming while the union is under construction

Eric Margiotta, Rick Gardner, & Matt Couch

Renovations, especially building-closing, large-scale ones, do not typically progress from conception to inception over night. Natural disasters can, and often do, occur that quickly. Yet, a college union is not a building; rather it is the programs and student engagement that a facility may house. When that home is no longer available, the union can still be a success. Planning ahead can help to alleviate the stress inherent in such a shift in practice. How do you need to adjust your budget? How do you market your student activities for the duration of construction? What other factors do you need to take into account? Whether in the context of pre-build meetings or as part of a business continuity or contingency plan, it is important for programmers to consider not only what to do differently, but also where to do it and how to pay for it.



Identifying possible swing spaces can be a helpful way to start the planning process. “Swing space” is a collective term used to describe an alternative space or spaces used temporarily (most frequently during a construction or renovation project) when a primary base of operations is unavailable, offline, under water, etc. In our world, such spaces can be classrooms, gyms, dining or residence halls, and even local community centers. Being familiar with the campus and community as well as having the ability to look past traditional use patterns can be helpful when determining the swing spaces that will best fit a program’s needs.

“Look at the options you have on campus,” Bob Barnett, director of the University Center and Michael D. Rose Theatre at the University of Memphis, recommended. “We used some nontraditional spaces such as the lobby for the Rose Theatre, [which] worked well for information fair-type events where it never had been used before.”

During its project, the University of Georgia also repurposed existing spaces such as its theater. Ed Mirecki, director of student activities at the University of Georgia, elaborated: “The movie theater in the student center was open throughout the majority of the construction process. … During the construction project, the theater was used to host our lecture series and a new comedy series we developed in response to the swing space.”

An idea brought up in the 1996 report “Planning and Strategy for Setting Up and Operating Academic Libraries in Temporary Quarters” was to consult with campus constituencies about the impact of temporary space. The report emphasized that great ideas (and catharsis) can come from these sessions.

Given that unions are vital to disparate populations, such discussions or public forums could also lead to a better understanding of the need for additional space and a buy-in from others on campus to assist.

Denny Olsen, senior associate director of student unions and activities at the University of Minnesota, cautioned against using off-campus spaces. During the renovation of the Coffman Memorial Union, his group held a few concerts at a close-to-campus venue and found it difficult to get students to attend. Events were relocated back to campus, finding that “while the Student Center is about three miles from Coffman on the Minneapolis campus, it was still much easier for students to access.”

While many common practices involve using surrounding resources, another option is to rent portable space. Common in primary and secondary education is the use of modular classroom buildings. Basic size and shape differences between a meeting room and a classroom are virtually nonexistent, and such spaces could be designed to house a small club-style performance space. While not specific to programming space needs, Oklahoma State University has been using portable units to house its food court during renovations. Modular units can be furnished with existing union equipment, thereby removing another pressing concern: storage.



Budget projections are at best estimates in a normal year, let alone during the past few precarious years. Add to that the vagaries and uncertainties that are part of the construction game, and it becomes even more difficult to accurately anticipate needs.

Labor and marketing are often identified as added expenses during a construction project. Dave Halbach, University Center interim associate director at the University of Wisconsin–Whitewater, recommended planning for increases in student labor to conduct events, especially if workers need to traverse the campus for various event set-ups. Similarly, Joseph Hayes, assistant director for the University of Missouri Student Union, said his organization spent more during the facility renovation project than previously anticipated given that the union’s message needed to be more broadly and constantly reinforced.

Spacing is another budgetary concern. Off-campus room and equipment rental can be concerns, but even on campus, additional expenses can arise. “All the groups spent more money to jazz up the classroom spaces several of our events were held in,” said Ryan Lindquist, associate director of student activities at the University of New Mexico. “They had to get stand-alone drapes to cover walls, better lighting, new projectors, and such to make the spaces more friendly and usable.”

Again, campus professionals recommend working with campus colleagues when outlining budgetary needs and sources of funding.

Barnett at the University of Memphis planned ahead for annual programs that could have been financially troublesome to produce while in transition;

“Prior to construction, we set aside programs that we knew we would have to accommodate ... such as Career Day and our Freedom Ball. Those things had to be moved to the Holiday Inn on campus. The university as a whole helped identify monies that would help support these programs.”

Mirecki at the University of Georgia also spoke about receiving additional support. “Student Affairs also made funds available for student organizations during the construction to subsidize the cost of space rental off campus,” he said. “Student groups could apply for these funds, which covered the difference in cost between off-campus space and previous space in the student center.”

The student government was similarly helpful in assisting its campus organizations challenged by lack of usable space. However, Mirecki said: “The biggest ‘surprise’ for programming regarding the budget followed the completion of the construction project. The new space and technical resources cost more on a regular basis than resources prior to the renovation. From an administrative perspective, I see the need to generate revenue for repair and replacement costs, but the programming board has had to make some small adjustments in their budget to keep up with increased costs.”

Additionally, Halbach said that once the building opens at the University of Wisconsin–Whitewater, programmers might need to allocate more funds to pay for finishing details such as signage, labeling, and organizing materials. He estimated planning for 10–15 percent greater expenses over the previous year to accommodate everything.

As with the facility planning itself, the general consensus among programmers is that you need not only to expect the unexpected, but also to budget for it.


Marketing and communication

With space and budgetary considerations in order, the next area to look at is marketing. The project completion date is still six months or four years away and you have five large-scale annual events, a weekly film series, a dozen concerts, and a mandate to create new programs to keep students involved and engaged during construction. What do you do?

“Quality leadership is necessary in every phase of a project,” said Kim Adams, assistant director of the University of Wisconsin–Whitewater University Center. “At major milestones, we had our architects give updates, talks, and keep everyone informed about the progress. The executive director helped as well to provide leadership to make everything happen, meeting with student organizations, gathering input, and championing the building project. The excitement helped people through their fear and concern of change and helped them redirect their energy to be excited about this new building.”

Early in a construction project, program marketing can be difficult because the student body is used to having a place for programs and those individuals will likely be alumni before the project is complete, according to Hayes at the University of Missouri. Then, with each new class of students arriving on campus, the message needs to become about where to find programming and what students can expect when the facility is complete. And throughout the construction, marketing efforts need to be constant and persuasive.

Hayes added: “It’s real easy to get excited about ground breakings, ribbon cuttings. … It’s during the construction process you need to keep students updated and aware of what is to come. Keeping the enthusiasm high when it’s yucky and gross is much tougher.”

Creating buy-in can be achieved through involving students in every step of the way. “Good communication and setting the right attitude cannot be emphasized enough,” Mirecki said. “The students at UGA were involved throughout the planning and construction process, and clear communication was the key to ensuring our success in programming. We had precise dates when space would be closed and how long certain renovations would take to complete. Even small details, such as when concrete trucks would be on the site and making the loading dock inaccessible, have a big impact on programming. I feel our team did an outstanding job in managing communication throughout the expansion and renovation process.”

Lindquist at the University of New Mexico described: “The biggest challenge to working with all of these groups during this period was none of us were in the same building. We were all located in new spaces and new offices. We had to work really hard to make sure our communication and timelines for events were being taken care of. Just getting all of us to a meeting was sometimes a challenge because of the space that had to be traveled. Just keep working at it and use Facebook to keep in touch. We also had to make sure to maintain our relationships with our new space supervisors. Check in with them often to make sure things are going fine as far as the use of the space.”

In addition to Lindquist’s recommendation of using Facebook for staff communication, this is an excellent opportunity to utilize social media for a great marketing impact. Because physical space for promotions may be limited, programs can tweet or run specials for “friends” only. Many campuses, like The Ohio State University, set up a YouTube channel as well.

Tracy Stuck, director of the Ohio Union, explained that the marketing of both the new building and the new and existing programs had to take an intentional turn during the construction period. “We established an internal committee we called ‘KUSA’—Keeping the Union Spirit Alive—that looked at ways to stay in the consciousness of returning students and to teach new students about what a union really is.” Branding of the union needed to be much more consistent and pervasive. The programming board became the flag-bearer for the whole union, so Ohio Union signage would accompany any sort of event set-up in classroom buildings, the recreation center, and outdoor venues.

Also with branding in mind, the University of Missouri utilized campus resources and alumni to achieve a marketing plan with a timeless icon. According to Hayes, “A unique opportunity has been to work with alumnus Mort Walker, creator of the Beetle Bailey comic strip. We have used Beetle as a mascot during the construction process. He has become the unofficial spokesperson for the project. We keep him in the all advertisements and updates. We’ve done a pretty good job connecting him to the project. When you take that space away, we’ve tried our best to make [do].”

Campuses may find that some of the challenges inherent in marketing programs without a building actually yield unexpected results. For example, Stuck said: “We also made great strides with our targeted marketing. When Zach Braff [from the medical comedy ‘Scrubs’] came to campus, we made sure our med students got a specific invitation above and beyond the marketing we did to every student. Students from Boston and New York heard specifically from us when Jimmy Fallon visited. We were even able to develop some really creative special events for students from different parts of the country to interact with our university president. The key was to pull the data about our students and to be strategic about how to reach them.”



A renovation or construction project is not a time to dread; it is a time to grow, to reach out, and to explore the campus. Who knows what opportunities will present themselves when looking for growth around every corner?

Lindquist turned loss of storage space into an increased convenience feature for the programming board: “Our programming board students had to store all of their [public address] equipment in a closet that was available across campus, so they invested in large flatbed dollies with air tires and a motorized cart to help transport their equipment back and forth from the various events.” The programming board still uses the carts today.

Olsen at the University of Minnesota had a program board epiphany. “We used this time as an opportunity to assess the structure and content of our programming. For us, we had two program boards, one for St. Paul campus and one for Minneapolis. As a result of ‘living together’ for three years during the relocation, our students on both program boards began working together, and we ended up with one strong campus programming board rather than two separate boards. In the long run, this was more effective for us, and I believe provided better programming and more efficient use of resources.”

Mirecki at the University of Georgia recalled an opportunity created from being aware of their location and adjusting to meet the needs of
the population.

“We approached this as an opportunity to be creative, develop and strengthen relationships with the performing arts programs and recreational sports departments on campus, and focused these efforts on reaching new student populations on campus who might not typically attend a program in the student center,” he said. “For example, graduate and family housing is located near our campus recreation center (and pretty far from the student center), so we made an effort to include programs that would appeal to graduate students and their families, which was not something our programming board had focused on previously.”

A construction period can be a time when programming staff connect with students in new and better ways because they have to try harder to do so, according to Dave Timmann, director of the Sykes Student Union at West Chester University. Reevaluating what means the most to us and our programs can help us prepare for the partial unknown in front of us, he said.

At the end of the day (or semester), the union idea is too strong to fade as we improve our facilities. While talking about the initial construction of a union on any given campus, Porter Butts said: “The union is not just a building but represents a ‘well-considered plan for the community life of the college.’... It will not be inhibited in considering facilities which readily bring the members of the community together—like theaters and auditoriums; or facilities which enrich community life—like art galleries or facilities which facilitate recreation programs outside the building—like mini-unions on the other side of a large campus or in a married student housing complex, or like an outing equipment rental service, even an outing lodge at a nearby lake.”

True almost 40 years ago, true today. Slightly different intention, but the meaning is the same. We can take Butts’s idea of “mini-unions” and seek to create these types of atmospheres across campus while our living room is being renovated. As Timmann said, reinterpreting a famous line from the movie “Field of Dreams,” “If you program it, they will come.”