California State University, Long Beach
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Student Union Thriving At 40

Published: November 15, 2012

The fall 1972 semester was momentous for CSULB.

The campus had just changed from a college into a university and the University Student Union (USU) had opened its doors as one of the first and largest unions in the CSU system. Now, 40 years later, CSULB and its USU continue to thrive.

“If you talk to the Chancellor’s Office, they’ll tell you that they tend to benchmark unions based on what Long Beach does, whether it’s debt service or programmatic offerings or commercial activities,” said Dave Edwards, associate executive director of CSULB’s Associated Students Inc. (ASI) and director of the USU. “If they do it at the student union at Long Beach, it’s OK to do it elsewhere.”

Student unions have long been campus staples around the nation and CSULB’s facility has both traditional and uncommon amenities, notably the bowling alley and hair salon.

“ASI has operated it since its inception, which is not unique, but the role that the students have played in operating the student union is more comprehensive than at many of the other campuses,” Edwards said. “Being an auxiliary and having these student leaders who are 18, 19, 20 years old making these corporate decisions is quite impressive. We’ve been very lucky here to have some great student leaders who have run the student union over the years as well as some outstanding staff members.”

One of those is ASI Executive Director Richard Haller, who has spent much of his life involved with the USU, first visiting as a teenager while his father was treated at the neighboring Veterans Administration Medical Center, then sitting on its board of directors as a CSULB student and finally becoming a full-time employee.

Both Edwards and Haller have seen how student needs have changed over time. The swimming pool was added in the mid-1970s, but now the new Student Recreation and Wellness Center pool is the preferred swim spot. Then the late 1980s and early 1990s saw a demand for more organizational space. Back then, Greek groups took up much of the campus dining room adjacent to the Bookstore, and clubs and organizations were expanding, so a student referendum raised fees to add a new USU third floor, a partial fourth floor and the west wing extending toward Brotman Hall.

“In that renovation, they added significant conference and meeting space, additional food service, a convenience store and a student organization programming space in what is now the Maxson Center, as well as student government offices on the third floor. At that time we also retrofitted the building for seismic issues,” Edwards said.

Moreover, “Students expect to be entertained when they’re out of class—to have guest lecturers, to have an opportunity to program events like recreational events and tournaments,” he noted. “The USU Program Council came into existence in the last few decades because of that and many of the AS commissions do some of the cultural programming.” Student media outlets also grew, first with the Union newspaper in the mid-1970s, then K-Beach radio and more recently, College Beat TV, which broadcasts to student housing and on Charter Cable in Long Beach.

University Student Union
With its central location on campus, the University Student Union continues to be a key destination for faculty, staff and students.

Students from the 1970s to the early 2000s fondly remember the music listening lounge, nicknamed the beanbag room, where Sbarro Pizza now is located. Personal music players as well as space usage demands contributed to its demise, although a lower-level area is now available for music listening and study. An additional facility in this space is a full-service Wells Fargo branch, which when it opened was the busiest branch in Southern California.

In fact, change sometimes is unplanned; for instance, a major rainstorm in January 2010 flooded much of the USU. “During the renovations, students decided that we needed lounge space more than anything,” Edwards explained. “That’s been an interesting change over the last decade. I don’t know if this is a sign of the academic caliber of our students changing, but the demand for more study space and even small group space where students can study together has increased.”

More changes are on the horizon. ASI commissioned a needs assessment that indicated a demand for more space to dine, additional lounge and study rooms and a stronger main entrance. According to Edwards, the report indicated, “Your union has a lot going for it, but it misses that grand moment when you walk into a really nice building—that ‘A-ha’ moment.”

That’s because the USU sits between two major pedestrian paths to upper campus, so ASI and USU officials and students are considering ways to steer more people through the building. “The students have a lot of ideas. The focus will be to look at expansion opportunities, which increase the services and amenities to our campus population, while preserving this historic facility,” Edwards said. Of course, proposed changes and any related fee increases will go before students for their approval.

But no matter how the University Student Union evolves, it remains one of CSULB’s signature facilities.

Banner photos provided by Victoria Sanchez and the University Student Union.