When It All Began: An early history of the college union movement

When It All Began: An early history of the college union movementLoren Rullman & Marc Kennedy2004-01-0126Cover Storyfalse

As we embark on a new year, we have cause to remember those things past. This year in particular we also have cause to celebrate, as ACUI marks its 90th anniversary. At one of the Association's founding-member campuses, the University of Michigan Unions will also celebrate their 100th (Michigan Union) and 75th (Michigan League) anniversaries. Additionally, just a few months ago another of our founders, the Wisconsin Union, celebrated the 75th anniversary of the opening of its Memorial Union facility. With the bustle of life today, it is easy to get caught up in the here-and-now, but it is inspiring to look back at events that led to the existence of ACUI and two unions whose stories are symbolic of the creation of unions on college campuses worldwide.

The first ACUI community

In 1914, the president of the Illinois Union recognized that unions or union-like organizations were being introduced at many colleges, and he invited members of those groups to meet and share their knowledge. That year representatives from seven unions came together at The Ohio State University's Ohio Union and founded the National Association of Student Unions (ACUI's forerunner). Of those representing the seven—Case School of Applied Science and the state universities of Purdue, Ohio State, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Michigan—the only adult was Edward S. "Beanie" Drake of Ohio State. "Actually, the student president of the [Wisconsin] Union at that time was the first president of the Association of College Unions. You see, it was a highly student-oriented organization at the beginning; so the president of the Association was a student" (Butts, n.d., cassette recording). That man was Fred M. Hall.

At that time only Ohio State boasted a building designed and erected as a union. The others rented campus or community facilities or were planning to build facilities. Therefore the "union" played a unique role on each campus, and the delegates acknowledged this;

The term 'students' union' has a different meaning in almost every place. In some schools it is the sole organization among the student body for self government and for promoting general social work; in other places the work is divided between a union and a student council or a student senate; some schools have all three. (The National Association of Student Unions, 1915, p. 5)

Popular union and student activities of the time were vaudevilles, operas, mixers, smokers, and dances. The union was seen as a community recreation center embracing social recreation and cultural recreation—music, the arts, stage, crafts (Butts, n.d.). Students did not have ready access to recreational and social activities if they did not belong to a fraternity or sorority or get asked to greek events. This made student life for many "lonely" and "grim and dreary" (Butts, n.d.).

The idea of a union to answer this void was fairly new, so all delegates at that first conference were inexperienced and agreed the meeting was extremely helpful and productive. Though the union was in its early stages in the United States, those present envisioned its impact and stated:

It was believed by those present at this meeting that the union is the most vital force in unifying the student body, molding the college spirit, and promoting democracy, thus tending to break down arbitrary class and social distinctions. Without such a unifying force any student body, which is naturally broken up into different departments and classes, is apt to center its interest and enthusiasm in some particular department or organization, rather than in the school as a whole. (The National Association of Student Unions, 1915, p. 3)

The group met again in 1916, but then World War I broke out and attention was diverted elsewhere until the war was over. Unions built shortly after World War I were largely war memorials, including those at Purdue, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, and Wisconsin. Characteristic of the time, they were also all men's unions, following the pattern of the British gentlemen's club. In American society women were seen as homemakers who did not need a college education; therefore, the student bodies of most universities at that time were predominantly male (Butts, n.d.). Most families also could not afford to send all their children to college, so they would send their sons.

So in this context, it's not too hard to identify why unions coming along at the turn of the century were men's clubs … We soon found out that this was a grave mistake. And we were reminded of it by the girls who remembered that they raised more money for the building than the men did, among other things. What's more, they simply didn't want to be isolated. They didn't want a separate women's club building. And, indeed, the men didn't either. It was an unnatural kind of division. (Butts, n.d., cassette recording)

While it took years for many unions to open to both men and women, the need for unions became apparent throughout higher education as campus populations grew. Today, unions and student activities are common on college campuses. The Association also resumed its meetings in 1920 and continues them still as we meet next month for the 84th annual conference.

How unions came to be at the University of Michigan

The late 1800s and early 1900s served as a pivotal time for the University of Michigan: the university's enrollment was growing quickly, institutional duties previously handled by faculty were being turned over to nonteaching administrators, and academic disciplines were becoming increasingly specialized (Peckham, 1994). The university had grown by the turn of the century to 3,303 students—a sizable number at one institution among a still evolving national higher education landscape. To accommodate the growth of the university, many academic buildings were constructed.

University of Michigan growth at the turn of the century, however, also led to a "loss of intimacy among a larger faculty and between students and faculty and administration" (Peckham, 1994, p. 99). What was perceived as a campus losing its sense of community and shared purpose manifested among students as well. In 1892 students "rushed" an evening circus performance in Ann Arbor resulting in fighting between students and circus staff, students being arrested by local police, and fires in circus tents. Fall hazing of freshmen occurred despite faculty disapproval, prankster students routinely kidnapped class officers, and students were often given forced haircuts by those in more powerful positions. Rivalries between student groups were also strong. One particular rivalry between literature and law students escalated in 1900 when, after the junior literature majors beat the senior law students in class football, student vandals painted the front of the new law school building red (Peckham, 1994).

The frequency and nature of more than a decade of inappropriate student behavior was of extraordinary concern to long-time University President James Burrill Angel, and it is to him that much credit is given for the ideals of a more democratic and productive university culture, along with the development of the college union movement at the University of Michigan (Peckham, 1994).

The period from 1891 to 1909 was also a time of growth in campus activities: the popularity of intercollegiate athletics was rising and led to the formation in 1895 of what is today the Big 10 Conference (Big Ten Conference, 2003); fraternities and sororities proliferated on campus; multiple academic honor societies were established; student-directed publications were founded; music and dramatic groups were created; and the movement to form the organization known as the Michigan Union was begun (Peckham, 1994). Student life soon became "all encompassing [and] there was hardly time for [the] deviltry or lawlessness" (Peckham, 1994, p. 117) that had plagued the campus in previous years. The student energy of previous years was now being channeled into constructive pursuits in the form of student organizations and the beginnings of the college union movement at the University of Michigan.

Just as is common today, it was Edward "Bob" Parker who in 1903 launched the idea of a new, more democratic student organization in a conversation with his roommate, D. Bethune Duffield Blain. The campus culture was rife with a lack of community—particularly between fraternity men and independents—and Parker wished for a different university environment:

We wanted an organization that would be all-inclusive, we wanted a medium for centralizing the thought … and effort related to activities pertaining to our general life and welfare; and we wanted a home for that organization—a place where we could meet and form those personal contacts; where, if you please, we could more efficiently add one more factor in the process of our education. (Parker, 1926, p. 600)

President Angel had grown weary of the fragmentation on campus and was quoted in the student newspaper as being strongly in favor of such a movement (Pinkerton, 1954). Parker and Blain, both members of Michiguama Senior Honorary society, took their idea to this group in 1904; Michiguama supported their idea and launched a campaign to form a "student's union" organization and set about to secure funds to create a meeting facility. While, like many organizations of students in the United States and Great Britain, Parker's original idea was a union of students—an organization rather than a building—it is clear from historical documents that he also envisioned a facility to house such an organization. The students involved with Parker's idea envisioned a building containing ample lounges, reading rooms, meeting rooms, dining rooms with support kitchens, billiards and games rooms, a large ballroom, hotel accommodations for returning alumni, and a swimming pool (Pinkerton, 1954). The only major precedents in the nation for such an idea at the time were Houston Hall at the University of Pennsylvania, founded in 1896, and the union at Harvard, founded in 1901.

Exemplifying the student-directed nature of unions throughout history, a student organization called the "union" was quickly formed (Pinkerton, 1954) with Parker, Blain, and other students serving as its officers. Fundraising efforts began, and in 1907, the union purchased the home of a former judge for a clubhouse on the site that is now the Michigan Union building. Because the union was regarded as a club, dues for members were set at $2.50 (Peckham, 1994)—the equivalent of approximately $25 in today's dollars (U.S. Department of Labor Statistics, n.d.). The success of the organization, and the clubhouse, led to a campaign to raise $1 million for the construction of today's Michigan Union.

In 1913 Allen and Irving Pond, University of Michigan alumni who would go on to design the unions at Purdue University (1924), Michigan State University (1925), and the University of Kansas (1934), began design of the Michigan Union partially on the site of their boyhood home. The Pond brothers were the "most prominent figures in this new architectural field" (Purdue, n.d., ¶ 4), in part because of their beliefs that unions "provide an environment in which social activities can train the massive foundation of man's life" (I. Pond in Purdue, n.d., ¶ 5). The culmination of Parker's vision manifested in the opening of the Michigan Union in 1919.

While the student population included a significant percentage of female students, most of American higher education was a still decidedly male environment; Michiguama was an all-male student organization and no plans for a women's "clubhouse" were included in Parker's or Blain's vision because it was believed the campus's Barbour Gymnasium was sufficient for the socialization of women students. Nevertheless, the "dangerous experiment" (Gilbert, 2002) to admit the university's first female student in 1870 led to the creation of the organization known as the Women's League in 1890—13 years before the formation of the men's union organization.

Enrollment of women continued to rise at the turn of century, and the construction of the Michigan Union, not open (until 1956) to female students unless entering through a side entrance accompanied by a male student, exacerbated the desire for a more versatile facility than Barbour Gymnasium (University of Michigan, 2003). In 1921, with the university's endorsement to construct a female union facility similar to the men's Michigan Union, the Alumnae Council launched a campaign to raise $1 million dollars—a goal equivalent to that which launched the Michigan Union. After many challenges—not the least of which must have been the difficulty in raising money for a women's organization in a typically male-dominated higher education environment—the money was raised and the Michigan League building opened on May 4, 1929, 10 years after the Michigan Union building. With its opening, the Michigan League was declared to be "the fairest gem on the campus [and] a center to exchange ideas and ideals" (Gilbert, 2002).

The legacy of these early students, and the commitment of the University of Michigan to students and the union movement, persisted throughout history and continues today. The growth of the university in the 1960s led to the creation of a new University of Michigan North Campus and a third campus union: Pierpont Commons. Additionally, the creation of the Life Sciences Institute, along with a campus for interdisciplinary scientific research, launched the creation of a fourth union called Palmer Commons (scheduled to open this spring). These four unions comprise what is known today as the department of University Unions. This year, the 100th anniversary of the organization known as the Michigan Union and the 75th anniversary of the facility known as the Michigan League, students continue to be engaged in union leadership and decision-making just as its founders were in the early 1900s.

The Wisconsin Union story

The Wisconsin Union was somewhat of an orphan organization for many years following its inception in 1907. It bounced around the campus from one venue to the next—most notably the old, decrepit YMCA building on Langdon Street, which was finally condemned and razed. University of Wisconsin students persevered in their quest for a permanent college union building and began raising funds in 1919. "Under the State of Wisconsin constitution of that era you could not borrow money. There could not be a state debt for any purpose beyond $100,000. This grew out of the Civil War in which constitution writers decided that the state would never go into debt again to run a war or anything else. So you had to have the cash in hand before a contract to build would be approved" (Butts, n.d., cassette recording).

Therefore, students began to raise the money necessary to build the facility. Nearly half of the students in the 1920s donated at least $50 to the Memorial Union Building Fund. That is equivalent to $500 today, a generous amount considering they knew they would not benefit from the new building as students. In 1925 groundbreaking began, and in 1927 aviator Charles Lindbergh placed a wreath on the cornerstone in memory of his Wisconsin classmates who died in World War I. A year later, Memorial Union opened, located on the shores of Lake Mendota, right next to the site of the old YMCA.

In its charter, the union stated that its purpose would be "to provide a common life and a cultivated social program for the members of the Wisconsin Union" (The Association of College and University Unions, 1929, p. 21). As Porter Butts, the visionary student leader who became the union's first director, said:

So here it was, early at the beginning, concluded that the business operations and food operations of the building should be supportive of the general social, cultural, and recreational purposes of the union … They said nothing about food service or balancing the budget, or so on. 'Cultivated social program' was the key phrase, and 'common life,' meaning faculty and staff and alumni, as well as students. We at the beginning scratched the student-only designation. (Butts, n.d., cassette recording)

When it opened the union contained many of the amenities found at other unions at that time—lounge and meeting spaces, dining facilities, a library, and a rathskeller—but the campus was most proud that its community now had a place to gather for activities. And few of the original supporters could have imagined how extensively their commitment would continue to profoundly affect the campus and community generation after generation. Seventy-five years their commitment would continue to profoundly affect the campus and community generation after generation. Seventy-five years ago, on Oct. 5, 1928, the Memorial Union at University of Wisconsin–Madison opened with the following words inscribed upon the front concrete balustrade: "Dedicated to the men and women of the University who served in our country's wars." At the groundbreaking ceremony, University President Glenn Frank stated: "The union is a living room, which converts the university from a house of learning into a home of learning" (Butts, 1971, p. 22).

This spirit remains the same today. Students, faculty, staff, and community members still flock daily to Memorial Union and to the university's other union facility, Union South (built in 1971), to meet, eat, study, and socialize.

Butts saw the union as a place for students to spend free time. In 1929 he said: "We believe that the university's educational function does not end with classroom hours. We earnestly hope that the university, through the union and its informal kind of education, may add a few more productive hours each week to the cultural interests of each student. If this can be done, it will be called a great achievement in education" (Butts, 1971, p. 20).

During his 42-year tenure as Wisconsin Union director, Butts saw this happen. Among many milestones, Wisconsin Union claims many "firsts" among college unions: the first university art gallery, opening in 1929; the first recreational crafts shop on campus and first in any union in 1930; the first college nightclub in 1933; and the first to incorporate a theater as part of its building when the Wisconsin Union Theater opened in 1939.

Yet even then it was difficult to tell the story of the union and all it encompassed;

If I made any contribution in those early years, it was to synthesize and conceptualize what a union is in terms that the faculty and the laymen, alumni, and others could understand. You use the word 'union' and they say 'What is that?' 'Is that some kind of a labor union?' or 'A union of what?' But if you say the 'Wisconsin Union, a social and cultural recreation center of the University of Wisconsin,' it begins to come out of the shadows and shape up as a discernible, familiar kind of institution, at the same time, being for everyone, which had already been established pretty much in the '20s. (Butts, n.d., cassette recording)

Decades later

Even today it can be difficult to express everything the union does for a campus, but the role is still to build community. Though the founders and organizing students at the University of Michigan and University of Wisconsin might not have used that term, it was their goal. They wanted to create a gathering space, a "living room," that would foster interaction and learning unavailable elsewhere on campus. While some things in the Association and unions in general have changed during those many years, the core mission, values, and spirit remains the same. And decades later, that is indeed something to celebrate.

The Association of College and University Unions. (1929). The tenth annual conference of The Association of College and University Unions: Held at Wisconsin Union, University of Wisconsin, December 5–7, 1929.
Big Ten Conference (2003, August 19). Big Ten history. Retrieved October 7, 2003 from http://www.bigten.org/history/index.cfm.
Butts, P. (n.d.) Porter Butts 1. (In A. McMillan). Oral history of the Association of College Unions International. Unpublished transcription of audio recording.
Butts, P. (1971). The college union idea. Bloomington, IN: Association of College Unions International.
Gilbert, D. S. (Ed.). (2002). Origins and history of the Michigan League: 1920's through 1960's. Ann Arbor, MI: Michigan League.
National Association of Student Unions. (1915). Report of the first annual conference of The National Association of Student Unions: Held at the Ohio Union of The Ohio State University December 4th and 5th, 1914.
Parker, E. F. (1926, May 22). When the Michigan Union was a dream. The Michigan Alumnus, 32(30), 599–602.
Peckham, H. H. (1994). The making of the University of Michigan: 1817–1992. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.
Pinkerton, R. L. (1954). Story without end: The history of the University of Michigan Union 1903–1954. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan.
Lebow, J. A. (n.d.). The Michigan Union: It's evolution. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan.
Purdue University (n.d.). Purdue Memorial Union Architecture. Retrieved October 9, 2003 from http://www.union.purdue.edu/PMUArchitecture.html.
University of Michigan (2003). A brief history of the Michigan League. Retrieved October 7, 2003 from http://www.umich.edu/~league/friends/history.htm.
United States Department of Labor Statistics (n.d.). Historical value of the U.S. dollar. Retrieved October 7, 2003 from http://www.users.mis.net/~chesnut/pages/value.htm.
Updated Nov. 9, 2012