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The union breakdown

By Michael Lafleur
Arizona Daily Wildcat
March 8, 1999
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Arizona Daily Wildcat

"The notion that students would vote for a fee was kind of a part of the culture at that time."
Peter Likins
UA president

As the wrecking ball swings toward the Memorial Student Union this summer, UA student leaders and administrators will see the culmination of a 12-year effort.

The advent of the project in 1987 marked the beginning of a struggle that would lead students and administrators into a funding battle for the $59 million structure.

The situation came to a head in 1996 when the state fire marshal visited the union and pointed out building code violations that would cost an estimated $14 million to remedy.

After the overwhelming defeat of a $40 per-semester student fee in November 1997, University of Arizona student leaders beckoned administrators to find alternative funding options.

UA President Peter Likins, who this year called for a delayed student fee, flip-flopped after student leaders expressed pessimism about a new referendum's chances.

By The Numbers

1987 - planning for the student union begins
1990 - Joel Valdez, senior vice president for business affairs, arrives on campus
July 1992 - Saundra Taylor, vice president for campus life, arrives at UA
1995 -Student Union / Book Store Advisory Group is formed as a broad-based strategic planning group
1996 - state fire marshal points out building code violations that will cost an estimated $14 million to fix
October 1997 - President Peter Likins arrives on campus
November 1997 - student fee referendum that would have taxed students up to $40 per semester fails by 70 percent of the vote
April 1998 - Regents approve design-build process
December 1998 - Conelly Swinerton / MHTN is selected as design-build team
January 1999 - reduced, $6 student fee effective after project completion still a preferred option to help fund the union. ASUA President Tara Taylor advises President Likins that students might reject a student fee and kill the whole project
February 1999 - Intercollegiate Athletic Director Jim Livengood agrees to donate money from his budget that will allow the student fee to be avoided. Regents approve the project
August 1999 - construction will begin with the demolition of the Memorial Student Union's east wing.
May 2002 - projected date for new union's completion
"If I had believed that the students would vote 'yes,' I would have continued to seek a student fee," Likins said. "Quite frankly, if Pete Likins had authority to fund this project, students would be paying a $6 to $10 fee."

But student objections were strong and motivated key administrators to search elsewhere for the funds.

Associated Students President Tara Taylor said she told administrators if they depend on a student fee to construct the building, it's not going to happen.

But, in direct conflict with several vocal student activists, some ASUA officials backed the implementation of a fee.

The organization's former president, Gilbert Davidson, spearheaded a drive for students' financial involvement in 1997.

"It was me and other student leaders who said 'this is our project, if we don't do it no one else will,'" he said.

But Saundra Taylor, UA vice president for campus life, said the solution revolved around money.

"I think that (the student fee) came up when we started looking at how can we afford to renovate the whole building," Saundra Taylor said. "I think the issue was always... students pay through tuition or charge a student fee."

The referendum's death shocked university officials.

"The notion that students would vote for a fee was kind of a part of the culture at that time," Likins said.

Saundra Taylor said in hindsight the fee does not appear "well-conceived."

The failed referendum showed officials that students felt they were being asked to shoulder too heavy a financial burden, Saundra Taylor said. Students were not satisfied that administrators had exhausted all possible funding options, she added.

She said UA officials were in a "Catch-22" because the Arizona Board of Regents' four-step building process demands a financial plan before allowing universities to proceed with architectural design.

"I think what happened with the fee was we didn't have anything to show students," she said. "We had to show the Regents a funding plan before we could go ahead and get a model. It (the fee) grew out of a need to show the board that we had student support."

The death of the fee proposal, however, did bring about an non-traditional building plan.

Administrators gained Regents approval in April 1998 for a design-build approach to construct the union under the Board's mandated $60-million limit.

The design-build approach involves hiring an architect and contractor at the same time. The team will then design the building within a fixed amount and do all the construction work.

Joel Valdez, UA senior vice president for business affairs, was responsible for both the decision to use the design-build process and for seeing it through.


Wildcat File Photo
Arizona Daily Wildcat

"It was me and other student leaders who said 'this is our project, if we don't do it no one else will,'"
Gilbert Davidson
former ASUA president

"The design-build method is used in the private sector all the time," Valdez said. "All you do is eliminate bureaucratic time. In the construction business, time is money."

Another unexpected boost for the project came from the UA Department of Intercollegiate Athletics.

"Jim Livengood really stepped forward and made a sacrifice for the university as a whole," he said.

Livengood agreed to pay successively-increasing increments of $100,000 for the first five years of the debt. The yearly donation will level off at $500,000 for the next 20 years.

While Likins and other UA officials give credit to Livengood for preventing a student fee, they also acknowledge ASUA officials played a substantial role in that decision.

"They did a hell of a job for the future," Valdez said. "When they come back for homecoming, they can say 'I had a hand in this.'"