Ole Miss officials cut ribbon on newly renovated Student Union, reopen ‘living room’ of campus
The University of Mississippi held the grand opening of its newly expanded and renovated Student Union on Thursday (August 29), marking the culmination of a massive effort to create a bigger and better hub of student life in the heart of campus.
The Ole Miss Student Union opened in 1977, as a 98,000-square-foot center of campus life. In 2014, a major renovation began that added 80,000 square feet. The project provided an upgraded dining space, five well-known food vendors, kitchens, a transit hub and a ballroom. The new Student Union opened at the end of the spring 2019 semester, but many students first saw it when classes began Monday.
At the ribbon cutting on the Union’s front steps, UM Interim Chancellor Larry Sparks said he remembers being a student on campus just a few years after the former building opened. He remembers the distinctly 1970s decor throughout and sees the new building as a big improvement from the one he used as an undergraduate. Its potential for improving campus life is almost immeasurable, he said.
“It is a more modern and inviting space, but this renovation is about more than just square footage,” Sparks said. “It is about creating an even better student experience. This Union is more than a building; it is the place on our campus dedicated entirely to bringing students together. It is the hub of student life.”
A university committee spent years studying ways to upgrade the building, visiting student unions at Auburn University, Louisiana State University and others. Ultimately, the committee decided to renovate the existing facility but also increase its size to about 173,000 square feet.
Sparks said the results of the committee’s work, as well as the work of the architects and many UM employees, speak for itself.
“The playwright Oscar Wilde said, ‘If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing well. If it is worth having, it is worth waiting for,'” Sparks said. “This fantastic renovation and expansion has been a number of years in the making, but the results show it is clearly worth the wait.”
The new Union is home to student organizations such as the Student Activities Association, Associated Student Body, RebelTHON and Ole Miss Big Event, as well departments such as the Ole Miss Student Union, Fraternal Leadership and Learning, and Center for Inclusion and Cross Cultural Engagement. It also includes a larger Barnes & Noble bookstore and coffee shop, conference rooms and a Mississippi Federal Credit Union.
Brandi Hephner LaBanc, UM vice chancellor for student affairs, noted the importance of having a place for students to find the services they need and somewhere to forge lifelong connections.
“Without that engagement, a university is just a place to get a diploma,” Hephner LaBanc said. “All that is very important, but we are way more than just that. The Student Union is a place where the initial connection begins. … For many, that initial engagement leads to a deeper engagement and leadership, where students realize that this building is their entree to a larger voice within our campus community.”
She also noted the building will be mostly run by students, for students.
“If you come here for a meeting, you will be directed by a student,” Hephner LaBanc said. “If you need some help with technology, one of our students will be there to help you with that as well. Make no mistake, students, this building is your Student Union.”
Bradley Baker, director of the UM Student Union, who came to Ole Miss as a freshman in 2001, found his place at the university through many happenings at the Student Union, such as Union Unplugged events on the plaza and nights spent working on legislation with the ASB, he said.
“Through those co-curricular experiences, the Ole Miss Student Union provided countless opportunities for me to engage, learn and grow as a student and as a person,” Baker said. “It is my hope that Ole Miss students are able to take advantage of all of the opportunities that exist inside the new Student Union just like I did.”
Baker said the building, which he describes as the “living room” of campus, is also a reflection of students’ needs because those who designed it sought much input from them.
“We were very intentional in seeking student input and feedback during the entire process,” Baker said. “From furniture styles to carpet colors, we wanted to ensure that our students had a voice in their Student Union.”
A time capsule is being placed in the building, which includes the Wednesday, August 28, 2019, edition of The Daily Mississippian, the 2019 Ole Miss yearbook, remarks from the grand opening, coins from 2019 and other items, said Barron Mayfield, ASB president.
Mayfield noted the transformation the building has created in the center of campus by bringing back many popular places for students to eat or get involved with campus organizations.
He said he hopes the transformation isn’t just limited to the physical space.
“It’s really incredible,” Mayfield said. “I trust that transformation will also take place in the hearts of students, as well, so that when they stop by for a cup of coffee, or when they walk in to grab lunch with a friend, when they sit down to relax after a long day of class, they’ll feel as if they’re relaxing at home because they are.”
By Michael Newsom