Navigating World Events

This is the fourth Year in Review issue for the ACUI Bulletin. In 2020, we discontinued printing The Bulletin because of financial challenges associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. Moving The Bulletin completely online was a good solution to save money and still make content available to members. However, it wasn’t organized as a magazine, and my background as a history major had me concerned that we wouldn’t appropriately capture and archive what was happening in college unions for future generations. I believe that understanding our past helps us navigate current challenges and prepares us for creating a better future. So, the initial idea for the Year in Review was to capture a little bit of what is taking place in our unions, sort of a slice of history. 

College unions serve as the meeting and gathering place for the campus, and subsequently are central to campus discussions focused on things going on in our world, including conflicts and changes occurring in society. In my opinion, we wouldn’t want it any other way. Acknowledging the overwhelming sense of burden felt on many campuses at this moment, I think it is helpful to look back at history, to remember the challenges and the role college unions have played over time. 

Proceedings from one of our earliest conferences at the University of Rochester, in 1932, noted discussion topics that match 2024 challenges: declining enrollments, lower fees, economic concerns, pessimism across the country, and “the fact that higher education is bleeding at the nose these days.” Unsurprisingly, food insecurity is also not a new problem as unions did what they could to help students in crisis. Purdue Union Director Lloyd Vallely advertised for students who were “not getting proper nourishment.” Once certified by the dean of men, the union provided a meal book on credit. According to Vallely, “it was very worthwhile and really kept some students from distress, practical starvation, and cost us almost nothing.”

As war raged in Europe in 1940, ACUI President Harold Pride, Iowa State University, emphasized the importance of our role to encourage critical thinking for students. “Perhaps, through forums, lectures, and discussion groups, unions can help undergraduate America achieve some perspective in the world which seems falling into chaos.” 

While there was a boon in the building of college unions after World War II, there were also associated unintended consequences. As indicated in the association’s 75th anniversary book, college unions were confronted with similar workforce challenges as today.

A considerable number of able union directors have left the field, under persuasion or reorganization, weakening the capabilities of the union to perform well.

The lack of trained personnel, generally, to staff unions, due to the sudden, rapid multiplication of union buildings.

The tendency of some administrations to regard the union as just a ‘service,’ rather than an educational opportunity.

One of the most distressing times in college union history was the late 1960s, with the emergence of student protests that, at times, became volatile. This can be seen in the December 1968 Bulletin that included articles such as “NYU Union Seized,” “Fire at Loeb Center,” “Colorado and SDS,” and “Union Liberated.” With the theme “Dialogue ’68,” the 1968 Annual Conference took place in Chicago during great unrest in the city that included the U.S. National Guard patrolling the streets. The keynote, John Summerskill, president of San Francisco State College, urged attendees to “think about the next academic year—to consider how your union can take the initiative in developing thoughtful constructive programs on the issues of the day. I believe that if you decide to do all in your power to make it possible for your students and faculty to face the problems of our society with reason and commitment, you will make an invaluable and enduring contribution to the stability and future of your college—and your country.”

The college union was at the center of disturbances occurring on college campuses, and it was a confusing time for college union professionals as they tried to understand and navigate heated protests while still programming for the campus community. As noted in the March 1969 Executive Committee meeting, “considerable discussion was devoted to the travail of higher education, particularly as it affects college unions. Union staff persons beg off the Association assignments because they are too busy with emergencies.”

Perhaps also similar today, response among staff differed on how to manage student protests, to encourage students to be active without disrupting the normal operations of the union. A 1969 Bulletin article suggested that “the most critical question of all remains: can we as union professionals look beyond our reactions to the reasons for disorder and develop meaningful programs for the entire academic community? Only if our response is affirmative and we attempt to bring innovative and truly ‘relevant’ programs and ideas to our unions, can we weather the storm of conflict and emerge as a vital force on college campuses.”

Just as history tends to repeat itself, our college unions will continue to have an important role in shaping how our students navigate a constantly changing and challenging world. In the early 1920s, a highly social time, our unions focused on vaudeville shows, smokers, and dances. Later during the Great Depression, unions tried to meet the basic needs of students. At the beginning of World War II, college unions were used as training facilities for the military, and 25 years later, activism became prevalent on our campuses with college unions serving as the focal point for student expression. 

College unions have and will continue to be at the forefront of social issues and changes occurring across the world. I see this as an opportunity for us to lead, to nurture today’s students who will become the leaders of tomorrow that create a better world. Echoing President Summerskill referenced earlier, consider how your union can help students face, rather than retreat from, societal issues and world problems. This, along with advancing campus community, is central to the role of the college union.