Campus life is amazing these days, at least to those who remember simpler times of protests, tear gas, and paranoia. In typical old-fogey fashion, they’re likely to opine that kids today have it too easy. I recently drove through the campus of a major Southern university and was taken aback by how ostentatious sorority row was. I’d read that fraternities and sororities were on the decline, but the word apparently hadn’t penetrated this particular outpost.
And then there are student unions. As Jay Smith of Duda|Paine Architects notes in the accompanying article, student unions as a building type began to be constructed in the 1950s into the 1970s and later expanded. I attended only one university that had a building specifically called a student union. At other institutions, makeshift student centers tended to be in basements and other cobbled-together, disused spaces.
I remember one rather fondly. It was in the basement of a 1920s residence hall, with the student-center part barely identified from the outside. You had to know it was there. It was a time when the Viet Nam war raged and protests against it roiled campuses. The Rolling Stones had a song called “Paint It Black” that expressed the era’s zeitgeist, so it was not particularly surprising that the student center was painted black—walls and ceiling. And the administration let the students get away with the paint job. Better, presumably, to let them express their angst more or less harmlessly with paint than to let them burn down the ROTC building.
College students today, I’m told, crave safe places to attend to social media or whatever they do with their free time. Well, that black basement was our safe place. The killings of students at Kent State (OH) and Jackson State (MS) were fresh in our minds. When I arrived on campus as a transfer student, some of my fellow students were camped out on the lawn in front of Old Main in protest. However, being polite and respectful Midwesterners, they refrained from occupying the administration building, taking over the president’s office, and smoking his cigars and drinking his cognac. They simply trampled the lawn a bit and occasionally chanted, “Heck no, we won’t go—unless you absolutely insist.”
Still, there was a serious undercurrent of unease. Many of us were enrolled in Paranoia 101. Word was it was not advisable to walk down dark alleys near campus looking like some kind of hippie or outside agitator. Attacks on students by locals were rumored, though not confirmed. Nevertheless, I made sure that the parking sticker that allowed me access to university lots was removable for when I ventured off campus. Too, most of the male student body, if they let their grades slip or took a semester off to “find themselves,” faced an involuntary tour of Viet Nam. Further, we were never sure the National Guard wouldn’t be called in to punish us for tearing up the lawn.
In retrospect, the bunker-like ambiance of the black-painted refuge secreted in the center of campus was the perfect place to hide out. Compared to today’s light-filled, airy student unions, that pleasantly dark basement space was remarkable in many ways. For one thing, the rule was “smoke ‘em if you got ‘em.” Tobacco products, that is. Some students did and some didn’t, but there was no fake coughing and hand flapping to express displeasure or alarm that one might die from an errant whiff of smoke. Sure, there was second-hand smoke, but at least the room wasn’t saturated with EMF radiation. Truth be told, we didn’t know about either at the time.
The other thing that probably would shock today’s sensitive students was the jukebox, which featured the vocal version of the theme from the movie M*A*S*H. Some of you may not know, but that vocal was released as a single called “Suicide Is Painless.” Today, that would merit at least a trigger warning but more likely would be banned altogether. Good times.
I’m sure today’s students have plenty of other things to worry about—repaying college loans, finding a decent job or any job, having an acceptable number of friends or followers on social media, where to charge their phones and laptops, and other important stuff. Indeed, I would expect more of them to be living in bunkers. But why would they? They have some pretty pleasant and agreeable student unions to which they can retreat— smoking and upsetting lyrics not permitted. Enjoy it while you can, kids. — Kenneth W. Betz, Senior Editor