Twenty months and two new graduating classes later, the Michigan Union opened its doors Monday morning to more than 500 waiting students and alumni.
The Michigan Union first opened in 1919 and has since served as a meeting space for various student organizations, study spaces and University programs. Renovation plans for the building began nine years ago through the student advisory group Building a Better Michigan and its coalition with Central Student Government, the University’s colleges and various student organizations.
The Union’s closed its doors in April 2018 for renovations and the building has been under construction and closed to visitors since. The Union celebrated its 100th birthday on the Diag in October and The Daily was offered a sneak peek of the renovations in December.
After the doors opened, about one hundred people gathered in the courtyard of the Union to hear formal remarks from a variety of speakers, including E. Royster Harper, outgoing vice president of Student Life, Amy White, director of the Michigan Union, and University President Mark Schlissel. Other visitors during this time previewed the student spaces and businesses housed in the Union.
In an interview with the Daily before opening remarks, Regent Paul Brown (D) commented on the value of the Union for students on campus.
“I definitely appreciated the building as a student here, and I’m glad it’s reopened to the kids and hopefully more useful than ever,” Brown said. “It’s a valuable resource. The symbolism in the name alone is important for our campus and our time. It really is a place where we can all come together and be more united, and we can use it as a place to understand each other.”
The remarks started with an introductory video, followed by an acknowledgment of the University occupying formally Ojibwe, Odawa, and Bodewadmi tribal land. Alphonse Pitawanakwat, lecturer in the American Culture department, and Ethriam Brammer, assistant dean in the Rackham Graduate School, delivered the acknowledgment. Schlissel then spoke about the singularity of the Union in higher education and the importance of the building.
“For generations, the Michigan Union has been a place where students lead, a place of activism and a place of student-driven change that has made us a better and more important university,” Schlissel said. “It’s my hope that the Union encourages students from all different backgrounds and academic disciplines to interact and take advantage of the outstanding breadth and diversity of our great university.”
As presenters were invited to speak, members of the Climate Action Movement lowered banners over the second-story banister delivering messages condemning the University for its alleged lack of attention to climate change issues. One banner read, “Stop fueling the next mass extinction.” This action followed a recent intervention of the group at the December Regents meeting.
CSG President Ben Gerstein was invited to comment on the Union’s place as a center on campus for students.
“Today’s reopening is a remarkable reflection of the power of student activism and the power of a collective student voice for change,” Gerstein said. “Since (the Union’s opening in 1919), this building has hosted some of the most significant moments in U of M student history, the constant reminder of the Michigan experience that occurs both inside and outside the classroom or lecture hall.”
The formal remarks concluded with the raising of the Michigan flag above the Union, an event that was live-streamed and projected inside the courtyard. As the flag was raised, the Michigan Band lead a chorus of “Hail to the Victors” and streamers fell from the ceiling.
In an interview with The Daily after the remarks, White said throughout its renovation, the Union needed the student vision.
“As an alum and someone who spent a great deal of time at the Union, the ability to steward students’ visions through the renovation has been a tremendous honor,” White said. “In the weeks and months ahead, as we see how the building welcomes back students to its spaces, it will be great to see all that as well. That’s an amazing part of the Union as well, that students make it their own and should make it their own.”
The students The Daily spoke to said they appreciated the excitement surrounding student spaces and the free food handed out at the event. Taubman sophomore Kassem Chammout said he was excited to see the remodel.
“It’s nice to see that there’s money going back into the University and it’s not being torn down,” Chammout said.
LSA senior Angelina Adam also spoke of the differences between experiencing the building as a freshman and now again as a senior.
“It’s really nice and updated but it’s retained the original architecture, which is really cool, and a lot of the history that is in it,” Adam said. “It’s just more open and modern now. It’s a lot nicer and a better experience. I also really like the art that they have now and how they brought in a lot of different faces that really show Michigan spirit.”
LSA freshman Jessica Lim said she was excited about the abundance of study areas in the renovated Union.
“It’s really bright, you can tell it has that new smell, I’m happy about it because hopefully with all this new lounging and study area, it will de-crowd some of the areas that have been super congested,” Lim said.
LSA freshman Pulak Taneja also said he heard a lot about the Union before coming to the University and anticipated its opening.
“There was a real buildup for this because ever since we got here as freshmen we were told that the Union used to be open, but it isn’t open anymore," Taneja said. “There was a lot of hype surrounding it and I got here a while back and I think it's really stunning from the outside as well as from the inside. I’m excited to check it out and check all the other stories and everything this place has to offer.”
Susan Pile, senior director of University Unions and Auxiliary Services, was excited to see the Union reopen to students and emphasized in an interview with The Daily how grateful she felt to have been able to work on the project.
“This is the highlight of my professional career,” Pile said. “To be able to do this work at the University of Michigan with these students, staff, administration and with this building is a once in a career opportunity. This is a campus community, this is a student space. To now have it for students and alive with students, this is it. This is what it’s all about.”