Battle for Fresno State’s New Student Union building will soon come to head

Renderings show a proposed ballroom inside the New USU. Students will get to vote on whether or not to build the project on campus on March 20-22. (University Student Union)

With the election for the new University Student Union two weeks away, yes and no campaigns are battling for student support.

The “yes” side is especially pressed to win, with it being the second attempt at a new student union. If the referendum fails again, it could be another 10 years before it is revisited.

Last year’s efforts fell short by 629 votes.

In a letter to The Collegian, Fresno State’s Associated Students Inc. president openly supported the project, stating that it would be a chance to bring a modern student union to the campus like those at other campuses. Just recently, California State University, Bakersfield voted to approve an extension to their own student union. Just over 60 percent of the campus voted in favor of the $37 million expansion, which includes an aquatics center.

At home, the New USU is priced at $60 million. It is a proposed three-story, 80,000 square-foot building. Should it pass, construction will be completed in about four to five years. The current University Student Union is expected to remain in its place, according to the University Student Union Board of Directors.

Juan Guzman, University Student Union graduate assistant, said the new campaign began from “ground zero.” Everything about last year’s failed Bold New Union campaign was used as a learning experience to help guide the supporters through the New USU campaign, he said.

The campaign was pieced together in three phases. The overarching goal was to accommodate a growing student population, according to Guzman.

A “listening phase,” which ran from last summer until last October included the USU Board of Directors conducting surveys and focus groups to learn about students’ grievances with their first campaign. This listening phase led to changes in the design of the building.

A faculty resource center and ballrooms that were included in the plans for the Bold New U were removed. Additions to the New USU include a 24-hour space, a rooftop terrace and a ballroom space that is now being redesignated as a multipurpose room.

Casey Supple

The biggest change, according to Guzman, came in the campaign itself. It aims to represent students more effectively.

“The biggest thing was that students felt like they were not being included in the conversation,” Guzman said. “It was highlighted by the fact that in the forums, the administration would be leading the forums, or when we had presentations, it would be the administrators in the [presentations], or when we had the debate, it would be Dr. [Frank] Lamas in the [debate].”

The campaign has been almost completely student-driven, with administration still supporting their cause but from an advisory role. The main adviser has been Colin Stewart, the associate dean of student involvement.

“The marketing, the presentations, scheduling forums, talking to the Stantec guys, it’s all students this year,” Guzman said. Stantec Consulting Services designed the interior and exterior designs of the New USU.

With the vote just weeks away, the New USU has gone into the “informing phase,” where the bulk of the work is. It consists of informing the campus of the details of the New USU and answering any questions students may have.

Their methods of informing include presentations, forums and tabling. The presentations are curated to fit either 5-, 15-, or 30-minute time slots, and leave time open for questions.

“The biggest thing is we explain why we are doing this again. Second we explain how this came to be. After that, we explain the timeline for the project. We explain how students can get involved, and then we go through the facts,” Guzman said.

Guzman said the most frequent questions relate to the $149 student fee that would be added to students’ cost of attendance when the New USU is finished. According to the USU board, a raised student fee along with other fundraising will pay for the project. He said students argue that student fees should be used to renovate classrooms or alleviate the parking problem on campus.

But he rebutts those arguments by stating that student fees cannot be used for academic purposes, and that building a parking structure is simply not cost-efficient. The USU board is getting creative to communicate the benefits of the New USU, even implementing a virtual reality tour of the new facility through an app called Kubity.

These tours are administered through the board’s “Champions Committee,” which consists of students, staff and faculty who help advocate the New USU.

“Champions range in duties from ‘I just wanna know what’s going on,’ to ‘I just want to table,’ to ‘I just want to get social media posts that I can post on my stuff,’ to ‘I just want to be a part of this conversation,’” Guzman said.

The new committee has about 30 active members.

The board has faced an uphill battle to gain support for the project, partially on social media. A poll recently gave a grim indication of where the vote may head later in March. But it’s unclear if that’s anything to go by.

Three hundred people who participated in a poll asking whether the New USU should be built voted against it. About 140 students voted in favor. The Facebook page has more than 13,000 members and includes current and former students.

One of the biggest opponents of the project is the Young Democratic Socialists (YDS) group on campus. Monique Touchstone, head of the group’s “No New USU” campaign, said the biggest reason for their opposition to the New USU is the student fee that comes with it.

“We advocate for affordable higher education, so we feel a fee for anything like this is really just going against our actual goal, which is, eventually, tuition-free public universities,” Touchstone said.

Fresno State enjoys some of the lowest student fee rates of the California State University System. It’s a common argument from supporters of the New USU. Touchstone also sees the low fees as positive thing.

“I think [low fees] reflects the needs of our community. We are an impoverished area. Of course we need to have low fees. CSU campuses serve their communities. How can we serve our communities if we’re not affordable?” she said.

Touchstone added that many of the building’s features may be a bit unnecessary and that there are other areas of campus that could be improved instead, noting old machines in the Student Recreation Center.

The Young Democratic Socialists believe the goals of the New USU can be achieved through small, incremental fixes, rather than through a new building, Touchstone said.

“Little fixes can be achieved right now. We can buy a couple new machines, we could get some new chairs. Just little things to make campus better,” Touchstone said. She was a member of a panel last spring that debated the Bold New U project. She was against that too.

Touchstone remains skeptical about some of the research being presented in favor of the New USU, mainly the argument that the current USU cannot serve the current population.

The Young Democratic Socialists will be hosting a forum on Thursday at 5:30 p.m. in Room 203 of the Social Sciences building to give students a place to come and voice their opposition to the New USU.

The USU board hosted its own forum last week. They have yet to announce plans for another one. Voting on the New USU will go from March 20-22. Students can vote online via their “MyFresnoState” accounts.

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