The first time I walked into the Indiana Memorial Union about 25 years ago, it changed the way I thought about Indiana University.
I’d grown up in another Big 10 college town, and my impression of IU was mostly based on Bobby Knight and the basketball team. After driving through the farm fields to Bloomington for a three-day conference, the IMU was the first campus building I entered. From the moment I pulled into the circle drive in front of the stately building and walked into the graceful lobby of the Biddle Hotel, I knew this was a campus with character and stature.
The IMU was full of iconic spaces, like the picturesque South Lounge, the timeless Alumni Hall, and the stately Federal and Tudor rooms. And it was also full of student life, with energy and a vibe about it that told me things were happening on this campus.
Three days in the Biddle Hotel and the IMU left me with a belief that this was a campus with history, a “cool factor” and a sense of community that people valued. That feeling played a role in the decision I made with my family to move to Bloomington to become the executive director of the IMU a quarter-century later.
A strong college union helps create a vibrant campus community that people want to join, and a sense of welcome, shared values and connection to the university that can last a lifetime.
In fact, in a nutshell, those are the IMU’s mission and vision statements. With the newly remodeled Biddle Hotel – and, in about a year, a renovated home for the Office of Admissions in Ernie Pyle Hall – even more campus visitors will have their impressions of IU shaped by their experience at the IMU.
If those of us on the IMU staff do our job well, campus visitors will be impressed with a vibrant academic community that’s full of life, as well as an appreciation for art, inclusion and diversity, and a passion for learning. That’s what we should want and expect from the Indiana Memorial Union.
We’ve been working on that for more than a century. The Indiana Union dates back to 1909, when a young student named John Whittenberger saw a need for a way to bring faculty, staff and especially students together across boundaries of class year, Greek and independent, and background. He proposed a “union” of students that would use programming in the arts, recreational facilities, social activities, and education outside of the curriculum to build a sense of unity and connection to IU – although initially the organization only included male students, and the women created a counterpart group, but that’s another story.
The Indiana Union needed a clubhouse though, so President William Lowe Bryan gave them space in the relatively new Student Building for billiards tables, dances, debates, lounges and “smokers.” The governing board of the group named themselves the Union Board, and to this day, that group still has responsibility for developing programs to meet those needs.
Within months, the overwhelming majority of male students were paying membership fees to the Union Board, and a women’s organization soon followed (they later merged). In 1932, after a fund drive that also resulted in the construction of Memorial Hall and the first Memorial Stadium, the Indiana Union moved into the Indiana Memorial Union, a big new clubhouse.
With an active food service, bookstore, hotel and university-owned building and assets, that meant being an IU department with professional management. A continuing partnership with Union Board helps ensure that students’ needs don’t get lost among the day-to-day requirements of earning our own revenue while managing a multimillion dollar operation and maintaining a 500,000-square-foot building.
The challenge now is to lead a union organization in the 21st century that meets the needs of today’s campus. We want to strengthen the campus community by preserving those special spaces where people want to be and create more of them. We want to support programming that exposes students to both the visual and performing arts. We want to develop programs that support our students’ education, challenge them to think critically and bring people together. We need to create both spaces and programs that welcome and include everyone in our diverse campus community.
When Whittenberger founded the Indiana Union, his primary motive was to address the need for unity and connection among the student body and campus community. While this campus is a different place than it was 108 years ago, the need for a strong campus union is even greater.
I hope you will join me in my role as director of the IMU in working to strengthen the campus community and make IU an even better place to work, live and study.
Hank Walter is executive director of the Indiana Memorial Union.