Editorial: The shrinking student union

Mounting student angst with, and contempt for, J Street culminated in the passage of a bill in the Student Association Senate that could lead to a one-day boycott of the Aramark-run establishment on March 7. Offering a number of steps – including specific meetings with University administrators and Aramark officials – to address student concerns ahead of the boycott, student leaders should be commended for taking concrete action to address student concerns about food service. The fact the boycott is necessary to draw attention to Aramark’s poor quality of service is indicative of the deterioration of J Street in particular and the Marvin Center in general.

Before the advent of Colonial Cash – which itself impacted the lives of GW students in a positive manner – J Street and the Marvin Center served as the nexus of student life at GW. Despite the usual smattering of concerns and gripes, students were generally content with J Street. During peak hours, it was close to impossible to find a seat in Columbian Square. J Street was a place to see friends as well as a place to be seen. Even after the University implemented Colonial Cash at the beginning of the 2003-04 school year, J Street was still the main area in which students congregated for food. Aramark’s lucrative new contract, and the multi-million dollar J Street renovation accompanying it, shattered this reality.

For a period of time, the University sought to rent out space in J Street to independent vendors as it does in its new Ivory Tower food court. Recognizing it was impossible because of the communal kitchen setup in J Street, the University inked a new 10-year agreement in which Aramark agreed to renovate J Street. Many, including this page, were optimistic the renovations would be a significant upgrade for food service at GW. Unfortunately, it wasn’t.

Poor food choice, poor service and poor d?cor plague the new J Street. Not coincidentally, students stopped patronizing J Street and the cohesion it brought to GW’s urban campus disappeared. While we understand it was a sound business decision to have Aramark pay for needed Marvin Center renovations, this business-first approach runs contrary to the administration’s desire to foster a distinct campus environment.

So long as Aramark continues to meet its quarterly targets for revenue, there is no incentive for it to adapt to what students want or need. Such a reality is not conducive to community building. Generating revenue to continue improving other facets of the University is important, but so is ensuring a quality experience for students currently attending GW. Such a business-first approach affects other aspects of student life in the Marvin Center.

Student groups desperately need space in a student union to meet. While masquerading as a student union, the Marvin Center has become little more than a conference center with some space for student groups. Increased space for student groups to have offices, and meeting rooms – while not drawing revenue – would significantly contribute to building campus cohesion.

After a significant investment, the University is letting the Hippodrome waste away. The bowling lanes are in disrepair, no venue replaced the popular late-night option Big Burger and on any given night only a handful of people use its facilities. A significant reinvestment in the Hippodrome – while not necessarily a large revenue producer – would also help create a central place for students to hang out.

The decline of J Street is a symptom of a refocusing of University priorities away from building a compelling campus identity for GW. Beginning with fixing J Street, and continuing with a comprehensive review of the way it uses the Marvin Center, the University must reverse its course to ensure its future growth is not conducted at the expense of its current student population.

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