"Must we always teach our children with books? Let them look at mountains and the stars up above. ... They will then begin to think, and to think is the beginning of a real education."
– David Polis
Volume 75 | Issue 2
March 2007

College Union Pubs: Community on tap

Elizabeth Stringer

Are on-campus pubs problematic, incident-riddled liabilities or meaningful, community-building gathering places?

In 1973, on-campus pubs were becoming increasingly popular with 102 unions already serving alcohol in some form, so one man set out to answer that question. A. Robert Rainville, then the director of the University of Rhode Island’s Memorial Union, completed an extensive survey on the selling of alcoholic beverages in college unions. His results were positive, with 62 percent of those who completed the survey claiming that since the installment of the union pub there had been an increase in the use of the union facility (Alcohol—To serve or not to serve?, 1973).

However, most interesting were the responses to questions of concern regarding the selling of alcoholic beverages. Only seven of the 429 institutions that responded to the Rainville survey claimed to have had a discipline problem because of the alcohol, all of which were minor or caused by a nonstudent (Rainville, 1973). And, in fact, many schools reported that discipline problems had decreased and there was no need to provide extra security for the union pub (Alcohol—To serve or not to serve?, 1973).

Moreover, in responses to the survey, most institutions stated that despite minor problematic situations, the pub existed to provide a wanted and needed service to the students. Rainville concluded:

[Union pubs] are a real social asset in that students can count on finding a significant number of their fellow students available in a relaxing atmosphere. It provides a special atmosphere for students. Positive results far outweigh any of the minor problems [a union pub may cause]. (Alcohol—To serve or not to serve? 1973, p. 15)

The same holds true for union pubs today—opening a pub in a college union can provide a successful alternative social gathering area for students. With this positive outlook, several universities opened pubs over the years and dealt with the questions of operating hours, entertainment, and age restrictions. While these decisions may vary from college to college, most reported having a positive experience with the college union pub.

Institutions with union pubs

Ranging from large universities to smaller colleges, institutions decide to open union pubs for a variety of reasons. According to ACUInfo (2007) data, 21 percent of the 80 institutions that responded to that question, answered that they did have a union pub on their campus. Five of those are the University of Wisconsin–Madison, Colorado State University, Bowling Green State University, University of Alaska–Fairbanks, and The College of Wooster.

Since 1933, the Rathskeller at the University of Wisconsin–Madison has been serving alcohol. “The Rathskeller was part of the German design of the lower level of the original building, with beer being introduced as soon as prohibition ended,” said union director Mark Guthier (personal communication, October 2, 2006). While the Rathskeller is more of a restaurant, in 1964, due to an increase in enrollment at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, the Stiftskeller was opened as a bar to complement the restaurant. Also, in the warmer months, the Terrace, a large outdoor area connected to the Rathskeller and overlooking Lake Mendota, acts as an additional space for patrons to gather. Together, the Rathskeller and Stiftskeller area can seat more than 500 in booths or at tables, with the Terrace providing table seating for another 1,000.

Colorado State University opened a pub in its union in 1968 called the Ramkeller. “[It] was opened as part of an entertainment center in the Student Center consisting of a game room, bowling lanes, and the Ramskeller serving 3.2 percent beer, hamburgers, hot dogs, and fries,” said Executive Director Mike Ellis (personal communication, September 22, 2006). A flood in 1997 caused the pub to be closed for a year and the lower level of the Lory Student Center to be renovated. The remodeled union had the Ramskeller built into it. In the renovated Ramskeller, table seating can be conveniently moved around if extra space is needed for a dance floor. Also, the pub has a small stage in front for band performances that can be expanded for large bands, if needed. Ramskeller manager Geoff Valdez said:

We also have used the space on the south end for billiards, a foosball table, and a jukebox. When there is no programming going on in the Ramskeller, we also have a 70” HDTV, and some couches on the north wall, that students come and watch between classes or during breaks. (personal communication, October 10, 2006).

On Nov. 3, 1975, the Pub opened at University of Alaska–Fairbanks. After students petitioned to open a pub in the union, the university converted an unused programming area. Able to accommodate up to 205 people, the Pub has a stage and small dance floor, along with billiard tables.

More recently, in 2002, Bowling Green State University opened the Black Swamp Pub in the Bowen-Thompson Student Union. “Our vice president for student affairs was in favor of it to provide an alternative to the off-campus bar scene,” said union director Mary Edgington (personal communication, September 18, 2006). At the time of the decision, some controversy did arise at the university, but now, according to Edgington, “the students appreciate having this type of service and atmosphere in the facility” (personal communication, September 18, 2006). The Black Swamp Pub holds up to 120 patrons, with both booths and tables for seating, as well as two billiard tables, a big-screen television, and smaller televisions mounted around the room.

At The College of Wooster, the pub, called The College Underground, is not located inside the union but is still operated by the student activities and union staff. According to Bob Rodda, director of Lowry Center and Student Activities:

The decision [to open a pub] was made so long ago I don’t know if anyone remembers. The reasons that we continue to operate the bar are to keep students on-campus, avoid drinking and driving, provide entertainment on campus, and have our unique student haven on campus. (personal communication, September 22, 2006).

With a seating capacity of 300, The College Underground has the possibility of changing its set-up. “The possibilities include theater seating, tables and chairs in a cabaret set-up, and the middle of the floor cleared as a dance floor,” Rodda said (personal communication, September 22, 2006). The area also includes two billiard tables and four televisions mounted on the ceiling.

Hours of operation

While a typical bar may be open until 3 a.m. every night, union pubs vary in their hours. Some may stay open late on the weekends, while others are not open at all on the weekends. Union pubs have to set their hours based on the students’ interest and most claim to not be competing with the local bars that may offer more and later hours.

The Ramskeller, at Colorado State University, is open Monday through Friday from 11 a.m.–7 p.m., but does not serve alcohol until after 1 p.m. In the past, the union staff has attempted to keep the bar open on Saturdays, but it does not draw enough business to justify being open on the weekends. “Our student customer base is engaged in many on-campus functions on the weekends, such as intramural games, movies, and residence hall programming,” Ellis said (personal communication, September 22, 2006). He also pointed out that the Ramskeller’s prices cannot compete with the weekend specials found at the local bars. So, with many factors working against the Ramskeller on the weekend, Ellis said, “We have chosen to put our energy into our weekday operating hours” (personal communication, September 22, 2006).

The operating hours of The College Underground at Wooster are the opposite of the Ramskeller. The Underground is only open on Friday and Saturday nights, outside of the occasional special event. Rodda said:

The Underground has been open regularly on weekdays in the past for Monday Night Football, [World Wrestling Entertainment], and other events. It really depends on the interests of the students. Right now, there is not much interest. At Wooster, weekdays are study days. (personal communication, September 22, 2006).

Although The College Underground is only open on the weekends, it stays open until 2 a.m., much later than some other union pubs. “Our crowd comes late and stays late. On weekend evenings, the tempo kicks in around midnight,” Rodda said (personal communication, September 22, 2006). One reason for the late crowd is the dance party on Friday nights that starts around 10 p.m. and lasts until the pub closes, drawing a crowd of several hundred. According to Rodda, Saturday nights are much slower than Fridays. “Some students only drink one night a week. Also, small, intimate parties tend to happen on Saturdays,” he said (personal communication, September 22, 2006).

While the Ramskeller and the Underground are only open on certain days, many other union pubs are open all week long. The Black Swamp Pub at Bowling Green State University is open all week until 11 p.m., extending its hours until 11:30 p.m. on Thursday and Friday. According to Edgington, the union and Ramskeller staff chose these hours due to the inability to compete with the downtown scene. “We cannot compete with what they offer, and to be quite honest, we do not want to compete with what they offer. It would most likely be a losing proposition for us if we were open later,” she said (personal communication, September 18, 2006).

Despite losing some of the weekend crowd to the late-night bars, the Black Swamp Pub draws a large crowd on Thursday nights. Edgington said:

Thursday night is our biggest night for a couple of reasons. First, we offer ‘1st Hour Specials’ from 5–6 p.m. This attracts some students, but also faculty and staff. Thursday has also been the night that our primary programming board sponsors music from 9–11:30 p.m. This group and music draws quite a few students during this time. (personal communication, September 18, 2006)

The Pub at the University of Alaska–Fairbanks is open all week, closing at 1 a.m. on the weekends. Sarah Comstock, former associate director of programming, said she thinks being open late “better accommodates some of the programming” at the Pub, but does not believe the bar would lose patrons if it were to close earlier (personal communication, September 18, 2006).

At University of Wisconsin–Madison, the bar area including the Rathskeller and the Stiftskeller is open all week, with its latest nights being Thursday through Saturday when it is open until 2 a.m. Marc Kennedy, communications director, explained that being open late on the weekends allows those who are participating in union activities to come hang out at the pub afterward. “There are usually programs happening in the union building—music, films, and billiards,” he said (personal communication, October 9, 2006).

Although the Rathskeller may be open all week and relatively late on the weekends, Kennedy said it is not the union’s intention to compete for revenue with the local bars:

We don’t have specials or serve hard liquor. We keep our prices at or higher than taverns downtown. We are not competing; we are offering a service. Beer is part of our food service operation and is just one of the many beverages we offer to our students, faculty, and staff. (personal communication, October 9, 2006)

The college union pub’s mission is not just about profit; it is about creating a gathering place for the campus community.

Serving alcohol

While it may be common to order any drink from a shot to a glass of wine at a local bar, this same variety cannot be found at union pubs as most do not offer a full bar.

At the Black Swamp Pub, there is a full bar; however, this only allows for mixed drinks, while shots are not permitted in the pub. Edgington said:

Since we hold a full bar license for the building, it made sense. And, we do have faculty and staff who visit quite often, so there are requests for mixed drinks. It also enables us to offer specialty drinks for theme nights and special occasions. (personal communication, September 18, 2006)

Yet despite the availability of mixed drinks, Edgington said that the pub’s primary sales are from beer and wine.

Edgington and others are not bothered by the possible loss of customers due to not serving shots. “Patrons who are looking to get drunk, and what easier way to get drunk than shots of liquor, cannot be accommodated at the pub. Any loss of business because of that is okay with us,” Comstock said (personal communication, September 18, 2006), who added that the Pub only serves beer and wine.

Kennedy said that students usually do not come to the union pub to get drunk, but rather to enjoy the atmosphere:

In the school year, the students come down for the program and because it’s ‘the living room of the campus.’ Most students who drink have a beer or two, but they do not hang around just to drink. They stay for the music, film, or whatever event, then they usually split. (personal communication, October 9, 2006)

Union pubs generally also offer basic pub food from nachos to soft pretzels for their patrons to enjoy. At the College Underground, Rodda says that popcorn is the biggest item because it is free. Since the Rathskeller is a restaurant, patrons can order breakfast, deli sandwiches, Mexican cuisine, as well as snacks such as nachos or a bag of chips from the Stiftskeller.

Age restrictions

At some union pubs, those under 21 are welcome to come and enjoy the entertainment, food, and environment, just not the alcohol. Still, others do not allow those under 21. The College Alcohol Study by the Harvard School of Public Health reports that underage students believed they are more likely to be caught drinking at an on-campus venue as opposed to somewhere off-campus (Wechsler, Lee, Nelson, & Kuo, 2002). But at any of the union pubs, if those under 21 are found drinking, actions by the university, and sometimes the campus police, are taken.

At the Pub, no one under 21 is permitted, even if with a parent or guardian. “A conscious decision was made by the students when they first approached the Board of Regents to only allow patrons who met the drinking age,” Comstock said (personal communication, September 18, 2006). A Pub staff member is always present at the door to check identification of those who enter.

The College Underground allows anyone with a Wooster student ID to enter the bar, with IDs being checked at the door. “Underage patrons are marked with an X on their hand, while of-age patrons wear a wristband,” Rodda said (personal communication, September 22, 2006). Both College Underground staff and the campus police check for underage drinkers, but Rodda explained that those under 21 looking for a drink do not often find the Underground an appealing place to break the law. He said:

Students come to the Underground for the social outlet. If one wants to drink illegally, doing so in the Underground is a poor choice. We monitor reasonably well. There are far easier, and perhaps even cheaper, places to drink underage. (personal communication, September 22, 2006).

At both the Rathskeller and the Ramskeller, which allow those under 21, the universities have brought in electronic ID scanners. According to Kennedy, the staff at the Rathskeller has had a positive reaction to this fairly new system. “They have been using scanner since June, and they are very effective,” he said (personal communication, October 9, 2006). The bartender checks and scans students’ driver’s licenses upon their first purchase of alcohol for an evening. This allows other staff members to quickly scan IDs during roving spot checks.


Since most of the union pubs have at least a small stage, concerts are popular events to draw a crowd. “On the Terrace or in the Rathskeller, depending on weather, the Music Committee books bands Thursday through Saturday,” Kennedy said (personal communication, October 7, 2006). While local bands often perform, the Ramskeller, according to Ellis, has also seen its fair share of big-name performers. “Famous bands have performed in the past such as Phish, Big Head Todd, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers,” he said (personal communication, September 22, 2006). Without a large enough budget to bring in bands, Rodda said that a disc jockey often provides the music at The College Underground.

During the football season, many union pubs draw a crowd to watch big games. In the Rathskller, “a big screen is temporarily erected when the Badgers or Green Bay Packers play or some other important event,” Kennedy said (personal communication, October 7, 2006). Also, Monday Night Football is popular at union pubs.

The Ramskeller is the stage of popular Colorado State University event. CSU Idol is an annual event that the programming board sponsors. “Each show starts at 7 p.m. on four consecutive Fridays with the contestants competing for a grand prize. The audience votes for the winners. This year will be the fifth year for CSU Idol,” said Ellis (personal communication, September 22, 2006). While CSU Idol occurs in the second semester of the school year, its counterpart, OriginIdol, happens in the first semester. “The rules are the same as CSU Idol except requiring the music performed to be an original work verses karaoke style,” Ellis said (personal communication, September 22, 2006).

Other forms of entertainment include classic movie and open mic night at the Rathskeller; comedians and karaoke at the Pub; and the “Rocky Horror Picture Show” at the Ramskeller.

Safety and security

Usually, bars employ security to make sure crowds do not get out of hand and to dispel the situation when they do. Most union pubs, often with fewer patrons who are at the establishment with the intent of getting drunk, do not have formal security, but depend on those who already have the job of overseeing union security.

Building managers monitor The Black Swamp Pub periodically throughout the night, while the Rathskeller uses both building managers and visits from the campus police to ensure the safety of its customers. Along with having staff who observe patrons throughout the night, the Ramskeller requires all its employees to attend Training for Intervention Procedures (TIPS), which teaches the staff how to minimize the intoxication level of its patrons and in turn cuts down on the possible disruptions that may occur. “The program encourages staff to continually monitor the customers’ use of alcohol, encourage the consumption of food, and slow the alcohol service to help customers pace consumption,” said Ellis (personal communication, September 22, 2006).

Despite actions taken by institutions with pubs to ensure no underage drinking takes place, the College Alcohol Study reports that 18 percent of underage students indicated that they had consumed alcohol in an on-campus pub setting (Wechsler et al., 2002). This was a concern of then-dean James A. Donahue when he called for the closing of Georgetown University’s on-campus pub in 1994 (Weinberg, 2001). Donahue claimed that the Basement was closed due to a lack of “effective regulation and monitoring” (Weinberg, 2001). He went on to explain the difficulty of supervising underage drinking when only one quarter of the student population is of drinking age (Weinberg, 2001).

Along with security, some union pubs take additional safety measures such as providing rides home for those patrons who need them.

At the University of Alaska–Fairbanks, the Pub will pay for a taxi if a student needs a ride home. Both the University of Wisconsin–Madison and Colorado State University have programs that provide rides for students when necessary. Funds for the “SAFE Ride, SAFE Walk” program at the University of Wisconsin–Madison come from students fees, Kennedy said (personal communication, October 9, 2006). Through the program, students can either get a ride home or have someone walk them home. This program is not only designed for students who may have had too much to drink, but also for those who do not feel safe walking across campus alone. Similarly, RamRide at Colorado State University is available across campus for anyone who needs it. “RamRide provides safe, nonjudgmental rides for CSU students with the goal of improving the safety of the Fort Collins community,” Ellis said (personal communication, September 22, 2006).

According to Rodda, 98 percent of the student population at the College of Wooster lives on campus and all residence halls are within walking distance of the union, so the campus does not provide a taxi service (personal communication, September 22, 2006). Although, “college security could provide rides if requested or if security believes a ride is needed for safety considerations,” Rodda said (personal communication, September 22, 2006).

A pub in a college union pub offers a different on-campus environment for students to enjoy. Although the union pubs mentioned feature different policies and offerings, all reported having no problematic incidents brought on by serving alcohol in the union. From the TIPS training at Colorado State’s Ramskeller to the “SAFE Ride, SAFE Walk” program at the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s Rathskeller, each union pub and university took the responsibility of not only providing their students with a unique campus environment, but also enacting several safety measures to keep their students and community safe.