Vote for $80m Fresno State Student Union project is big test for Castro

Fresno State students will vote on a referendum for a proposed 100,000-square-foot, $80 million student union, posing a big test for President Joseph Castro.


Community infrastructure is the hot political issue at Fresno State. I’m talking about the university’s effort to build a new student union.


At stake is the fate of a proposed building that could define Fresno State’s image for the 21st century.

Fresno State students on Tuesday will begin voting in a three-day referendum on what’s being called the “Bold New U.” The proposed project is a 100,000-square-foot, $80 million student union that would arise in the center of campus.

A substantial chunk of the funding would come from a new student fee — $200 per student per semester, with a small built-in annual increase. The fee wouldn’t kick in until the building opens for business. That’s expected to happen in five years, at the maximum.

The current student union is nearly 50 years old. The new student union, all three stories of it, would be built on a site just to the south of the current union. A short walk to the west is Henry Madden Library. The current union would remain, and much of this area in the center of campus would get a major landscaping facelift.

Fresno State officials see the finished product much like City Hall officials see Downtown’s Fulton Corridor – a revitalized focal point for local excellence. Both sets of officials understand that human greatness requires infrastructure.

The student referendum asks a simple question: Do you support the $200 fee? Students will vote online or at traditional polling booths on campus.

Fresno State President Dr. Joseph Castro obviously wants the student body’s endorsement. But that’s far from a slam-dunk. The issue this semester has generated its share of heated student debate.

The Collegian last Thursday hosted a four-person panel discussion on the Bold New U question.

The two for the new union were Dr. Frank Lamas, vice president for student affairs and enrollment management, and Dan Waterhouse, a Fresno State graduate who has returned to the classroom after a full career in the real world.

The two against the new union were Andrew Dadasovich, a recent Fresno State graduate, and Monique Touchstone, a Fresno State freshman.

Full disclosure: Dan is a good friend of mine. We often chew on Fresno State and City Hall issues over a soft drink in the student union courtyard. I, too, think the new student union is a good idea.

With that out of the way, let me give you a brief taste of the panelists’ views. All four were civil. All four spoke with conviction. All four made good arguments.

Here’s a portion of their opening statements:

Dadasovich: “I was a poli sci major here. I graduated in December, so I’m technically an alum now. I’m here to speak out against the new USU (University Student Union) because, while this won’t be affecting me, it won’t be affecting you, either. It’s going to be affecting the students down the road once this USU is built. So I think that it’s important not only to speak out for my beliefs but for all of the students that are going to be suffering under this new fee that’s going to be implemented for the new USU. ”

Touchstone: “I just graduated from high school last year, from Edison High, so I’m a freshman. This is my second semester. I am a poli sci major and I am against the USU because I don’t think it is a luxury that we can afford right now. Our future is so financially uncertain that I don’t think it is the right time for a project like this. Being at such a young age, I’m more connected to some of my friends that are still in high school and still in middle school. So I know the people personally that are going to be paying for this project, which is why I’m so connected to this discussion today.”

Lamas: “I am positive about having a new, a Bold New Student Union here on campus, as long as our student body really overall wants it.”

Waterhouse: “I support the new union project. I have a historical perspective. I’ve been involved with the campus since being an undergraduate in the ‘70s. I am very familiar with the history of both the existing USU and also the satellite student union project, which was never actually completed.”

Lamas and Dadasovich were asked to address the recently approved 5% hike in tuition for the California State University system:

Lamas: “From my perspective, first of all, as some have alluded, this fee would not go into effect until, potentially, five years from now when the building is occupied. So, it’s not like it’s something that’s going to happen right away, whereas the tuition (hike) will happen right away. My feelings are that, as a university we have some facilities that are a little tired, a little old, that need upgrading. And having something in the middle of the campus that would serve our students and also the rest of the community and people from off the campus is a good thing.”

Dadasovich: The tuition hike “is dangerous because this is a budget shortfall in the CSU that caused the tuition increase by the CSU board of trustees. This is one year after a six-year moratorium. And we’re seeing that the budget most likely isn’t going to uphold the CSU system and its debts. So we’re going to possibly be seeing in the next five years more tuition increases, which means our students are going to have to be paying more in tuition and more in fees. And while it might not affect you right now, it might affect your children.”

Waterhouse had to leave before the closing statements so he could get to class on time. Here is his rebuttal to charges that the new student union’s fee would cut into the diversity of Fresno State’s student body:

Waterhouse: “When I was an undergraduate on this campus in the ‘70s, the predominate skin color on this campus was white…. I’m back as a student right now and the color scheme, for lack of a better term for it, has diversified immensely. The Greek system has people of color as active members, which was not true when I was an undergraduate. To be perfectly honest, I don’t see how this fee would affect diversity on campus.”

Here is a portion of the remaining three panelists’ closing statements:

Dadasovich: “You aren’t making any investment, you’re making a vote for other people to put an investment into this. So, it’s not you making an investment, it’s not the university – it’s the future students. I just think that before we ever think about making another luxury space on campus, we should address our issues of diversity.”

Touchstone: “It’s important for students to be informed about the decisions they’re going to make because it’s going to affect people they know…. This decision isn’t entirely ours to make. We have to think about the people we’re making his decision for. We have to think about what they want, what they’re going to want when they come to school, what they’re going to be willing to pay for…. We need to put the emphasis on pressing issues and not the USU.”

Lamas: “First of all, I don’t see a facility like this as a luxury. Co-curricular spaces are crucial to the development of our students and their life outside the classroom…. No. 2, we have invested in many spaces, including the Cross-Cultural and Gender Center. As my colleague talked about diversity, we now have a whole wing of Thomas (the former university administration building) that we’re using for that. Hiring has been a big initiative in our strategic plan for all of the cabinet members. And I’m proud to say in my division we’ve probably hired about 10% more in just the last two-and-a-half years. I’m proud of that.

“And, last, I’d like to say – again – this is a legacy for the future. Amenities do matter to students. When they pick a college, the environment matters. And it’s a point of education. It would not be this frivolous thing that sometimes people talk about – that facilities are just facilities. I say again: balance. Certainly students come here for our wonderful faculty. But they also come here for the co-curricular programs, for our facilities, for all the other things we offer at Fresno State.”

What exactly is the “Bold New U” and what sparked this campaign? I give you three sets of facts from Fresno State’s Bold New U website:

First, some history.

1.) The current student union opened in 1968 for a population of 10,000 students.
2.) A 2015 study by Associated College Unions, International (ACUI) determined that the USU underserves the current student population of 24,000-plus.
3.) Stantec (a consulting firm) conducted a feasibility study in 2016 to imagine the opportunities for a new student union.
4.) The “Bold New Union” represents the vision of building a new, larger, 100,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art facility that provides a dynamic atmosphere of programmatic spaces and student-centered areas for events and services.
5.) This signature building will facilitate the sense of belonging that we strive for and unifies the campus as a vibrant hub of student life.

Next, some features in the new student union.

1.) Dynamic and interchangeable meeting spaces.
2.) New dining that will feature healthy eating options.
3.) Dedicated space for student organizations.
4.) A Student leadership center that will premiere national best practices.
5.) Veteran’s Resource Center.
6.) Vast indoor spaces to provide students with convenient gathering space for informal interaction.
7.) Welcome Center.
8.) Relaxing outdoor terrace that can be utilized year-round.
9.) Auditorium and ballroom that can accommodate 1,000-1,500 students.

Finally, the money angle.

1.) The potential Bold New Union will be funded partly by a student tuition fee increase that will go directly toward paying for the building.
2.) The cost of the building will also be subsidized by fundraising $15 million and other sources.
3.) Once the building is built and in operation, a Bold New Union fee of $200 per semester will be implemented, but not until the building is open.
4.) Fee covers operating costs and includes student positions, programs, maintenance, staffing, etc.
5.) For students who receive financial aid to assist with their educational expenses, the proposed fee increase will be added to the Cost of Attendance (COA) used to determine a student’s financial aid eligibility.

I conclude with three personal points.

1.) The “Bold New U” campaign is the first big test for Castro, who came to Fresno State in 2013. Fundraising and capital projects define the primary job duties of big-time college chiefs. Castro must get the new student union built.

Toward that end, how much stock should Castro put in this week’s referendum? By all accounts, the new student union is of strategic importance to the university’s future. Let’s say student voters reject the Bold New U by a tally of 5,000 to 4,000. It’s hard to imagine Castro would walk away from a vital project because one-fifth of the student body – most of them 21 or younger, nearly all of them destined to be gone from campus within four years – casually marked “no” on a ballot in the spring of 2017.

That’s not leadership. I’m guessing Castro, should the referendum fail, will try one more time after a decent interval. Should a second referendum fail, I’d bet Castro would impose the fee after a student-faculty committee studied the issue and made just such a recommendation.

Such a process worked just fine about a decade ago for John Welty. The president-imposed hike in the Instructionally Related Activity fee saved the Athletic Department’s budget. No one today gives a hoot about Welty’s definition of generalship.

2.) The anti-Bold New U panelists made much about the “sufferings” of posterity should the $200 fee come to pass. But there’s more than one way for the present to beggar the future.

I am reminded of the City of Fresno’s difficult but ultimately successful campaign several years ago to raise residential and commercial water rates.

City Hall wanted to upgrade and reform its entire water system. “Reform” is the proper word in this context. We live in a semi-arid region with uncertain levels of snow melt from the Sierra. City officials wanted Fresnans to rethink how they use water.

The city pitched a series of water-rate hikes over five years to pay for a $407 million upgrade to the system. Among other things, the money would pay for construction of a massive surface water treatment plant in Southeast Fresno.

A substantial portion of the public said no to the hikes. These Fresnans said the hikes aren’t fair because money is tight. They said we’re a poor town. They said the water system we’ve already got is just fine. They said the money should be spent on more important things.

Sound familiar, all you current Fresno State students following the Bold New U campaign?

But such short-sighted and selfish thinking couldn’t carry the day. Yes, the protests were enough to scuttle the proposed $407 million project. But events – not the least being a historic five-year drought and stunningly restrictive legislation from Sacramento on the use of every aquifer in the state – changed the political dynamic at City Hall.

Then-Mayor Ashley Swearengin and Public Utilities Director Tommy Esqueda pitched a second project. This second proposal came only a year or so after the first, but that was enough time to jack up the bill by 3% to about $420 million.

Then Sacramento officials came to town and told voters: Follow your conscience in at the polls, but this water situation is so important to the Valley’s future that we’re not going to let a relatively small group of Fresnans mess things up for everyone who comes later. If necessary, the state said, we’ll impose the necessary reforms.

At the top of that list of reforms was the pivotal but time-consuming replenishment of our aquifer.

City Hall through all of this held a series of community meetings. I covered them all for The Bee. Public sentiment clearly had shifted in favor of the $420 million project.

Know what I remember most about those meetings? What stood out most were all the people who went to the public microphone and lamented: “Why didn’t we do all this 50 years ago?”

The answer was simple: We were, to put it delicately, fools.

3.) The University of Tennessee in Knoxville is building a new student union. The two-phase project is nearly done and represents the single biggest construction project in the university’s history.

The project’s website includes student-alumni-citizen comments on what’s been completed so far. A few of the comments are critical. But most are along these lines:

“I need to schedule a return to UT to check out the new Student Union. It looks and sounds great. Congratulations to everyone involved in its construction.”

“This looks fabulous! I do wish I was going to UT now!”

“My family and I were on campus for our son’s participation in football camp in June. I had some time to explore the campus and was absolutely amazed just from the beauty of the landscape outside the student center. The running creek with waterfalls are fabulous. I said ‘It’s Great to be a Tennessee Vol!!!”

Two hundred bucks per semester is nothing.

Build the new student union.

People will be writing: “It’s great to be a Fresno State Bulldog!!!”

Photo Rendering: Fresno State/Santec

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