Event celebrates University Center’s 50th birthday

Posters portrayed the Whitten University Center’s evolution since its founding in 1965 during the complex’s 50th birthday party Wednesday. Shreya Chidarala // Staff Photographer
Posters portrayed the Whitten University Center’s evolution since its founding in 1965 during the complex’s 50th birthday party Wednesday. Shreya Chidarala // Staff Photographer

A favorite campus hangout, the Whitten University Center (better known as the UC), had its 50th birthday bash Wednesday afternoon, hosted by Student Activities and the Student Center Complex.

The party kicked off with ’60s music, a performance by the swimming and diving teams and 50-cent French fries at Built in the food court. In the breezeway, attendees customized dog tag necklaces and picked up glass bottles of Coca-Cola, like University of Miami students five decades ago did.

The idea of a space specifically for students originated in the 1950s. Students decided to charge themselves a $10 fee per semester to build a library. When Otto G. Richter offered to build it, all the fees went into opening a student union. And thus the UC was born.

“When it first opened, it was called the Student Union. It was then named after Chuck Whitten, one the first directors of the facility,” said Joshua Brandfon, director of Student Activities . “The University Center for many, many years–for all the years until the Student Activities Center opened–was the hub of campus life.”

Noteworthy performers and speakers like Martin Luther King, Jr. (to whom The Rock is dedicated), former president Richard Nixon and Janis Joplin all held their events at the UC. According to urban legend, crowds tore down the fences and stormed the UC Patio for Joplin’s performance, prompting UM to never invite her again.

Executive Director of the Student Center Complex Dan Westbrook may not have been working at UM during the early days of the UC, but he has seen it evolve over 29 years from a building with bowling alleys in the late 80s to a companion with the impressive Student Activities Center.

Westbrook started working at the university in 1986 and was even the coach for the bowling team at one point. One of his favorite things about the UC is the informal atmosphere it has retained over time.

“We can have a meeting in the UC or have a Coke, but it’s not where you want to have your end-of-the-year formal something-or-other,” he said.

At one point, the university considered adding three more stories to the current UC or building another across the canal and connecting them with a sky bridge. According to Westbrook, plans for expanding the UC evolved from 2000 until the opening of the SAC.

The combination of the “heart (the SAC) and soul (the UC)” has given students options on where they want to be. The UC offers TVs, an upstairs lounge, the pool, the breezeway–an atmosphere more conducive to noisiness and excitement–while the SAC has plenty of private suites and an elegant ambiance for events.

“The history here really gives this building a sense of legacy, a sense of tie-ins and the people and the classes that went before,” Westbrook said. “And the new building obviously presents its own spectacular meeting rooms, services and it is beautiful.”

The shift from managing one central area of campus to balancing it with a mega formal facility has presented its unique challenges, according to Tracy Pottker-Fishel, communications specialist for the Student Center Complex.

Pottker-Fishel began working for UM five years ago, but only became a specialist for the SCC a year and a half ago, just in time for the flurry of event requests after the SAC opened. Dozens of high school proms, reunions, bar mitzvahs and weddings have been held in the venue since its doors opened. In addition, conferences like the recent Clinton Global Initiative University were held in the roomy ballrooms on the third floor.

“We’ve had major conferences come, which would have never happened in [the UC],” she said.

Future of the Americas, CGIU and Microsoft Digital Crimes have all been held at UM in the past year alone.

“We were never in the conference business before so that’s something new. And it’s great and exciting and it’s a valuable experience for the students to be able to be involved in these things,” Pottker-Fishel said.

The one catch for those looking to have events in the SCC: students get first priority. As part of university policy, outside events are only able to reserve space once the students have.

Not even the Clintons, who are close friends of President Donna E. Shalala, could forego this rule. According to Pottker-Fishel, CGIU could only be held at UM if it was during spring break.

The Student Center Complex Advisory Council–made up of all students–communicates with administrators and Westbrook to ensure the enforcement of this policy and to coordinate scheduling and reservations that are in the best interest of the student body.

“In general, the concept of this being student space is a guiding ideal that we shoot for,” Westbrook said.