The Daily Gamecock

Administration says Russell House is too small, can't fulfill students' needs

<p>A picture of the outside of Russell House, USC's student union, on Feb. 2, 2024. The USC board of trustees proposed a plan to tear down the building and construct a new one, which would begin in summer of 2025.</p>
A picture of the outside of Russell House, USC's student union, on Feb. 2, 2024. The USC board of trustees proposed a plan to tear down the building and construct a new one, which would begin in summer of 2025.

Russell House Director Kim McMahon has been working at USC for more than 15 years.

When she started, there were around 26,000 to 27,000 students at USC. Now, there's nearly 36,378 students

McMahon has been a part of conversations for a new student union for two-thirds of her tenure. She said the university has known it has needed a new union for 20 to 25 years.

“Our students deserve a better union because this one was built with half the number of enrolled students that we have currently,” McMahon said. “Our infrastructure hasn't kept up with that.” 

An idea for a new student union was proposed to the board of trustees on Jan. 20. The proposal for the Russell House project comes from the need to accommodate the university’s growth. The intent of the project would be to leave room for the university to continue to grow to create a better overall experience for students, said Rex Tolliver, the vice president for Student Affairs and Academic Support. 

Russell House Reconstruction

A computer-generated map of campus with the proposed new student union. The plans also include renovating the Thomson building into a dining facility.

“You have to look at where you are and be looking at where you will be in the next five to 10 years,” Tolliver said. 

McMahon said the university has not kept up with its enrollment growth. There has been an increase is in student organization due to the uptick in the student population, requiring more space for these groups to meet.

The project had been advancing in recent years but was halted by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The Russell House Advisory Board is made up of stakeholders and representatives of people working in Russell, including staff, Carolina Dining and a member of Student Government. The board gives recommendations and feedback to McMahon. 

There is a new committee that's been formed to talk about the Russell House proposal specifically. The new Student Union Committee’s purpose is to look at ways to keep student experience intact during the union's construction. 

This committee is co-chaired by Emmie Thompson, the student body president, and D’Asia White, who has also served on the Russell House Advisory Board. Student representatives from many groups, including all four Greek councils, Homecoming committee, the Association of African American Students and the Association of Transfer Students, are on the student committee.

“(We're) looking at where student organizations would meet and how dining would function, how textbook pickup would function, all the basic necessities and functions that the Russell House supplies. And so we went to a couple of different models with that,” Thompson said

The proposal includes a $240 million reconstruction of the building, which would expand its size on the site. 

Along with it, there is a proposed $60 million freestanding dining hall that would be incorporated into the Thomson building before the Russell House construction begins. Tolliver said this plan came later, after concerns about where food services would be during construction. 

One potential timeline for the project showed that if it was approved, construction could begin by summer 2025, and the dining hall could be completed in summer of 2026. The union itself could be completed between 2028 and 2030.

“When we first started this and went through the first iterations, there wasn't a plan to have a separate dining hall,” Tolliver said. “That part came through much discussion and iteration where people were saying, 'Well, what are we going to do about food?'”

Besides the freestanding dining structure, the committee also suggested to make sure students could use other spaces on campus for club meetings.

"Those are definitely needs that we said were essential functions of Russell House," Thompson said. "And so there's no definitive plans of where those things would be shifted to, but I know they will prioritize making sure they have a place and that those students that utilize those spaces still feel like they have a home somewhere."

USC administration is still considering a few different options for funding, Tolliver said. Student Government and the Student Union Committee are working to have a proposal concerning this finished in February, he said. 

Speaker of the student senate Cameron Eubanks said the project could potentially be financed by a raise in the student activity fee from $87 to $100. It is unclear when this would go into effect, depending on whether or not it is approved.

But some students are concerned that the university is focusing on what it believes to be an issue rather than what the students consider to be more pressing matters, such as parking and student housing.

Molly Asher, a second-year environmental science student, said she would much rather see more housing options added for upperclassmen as well as renovations to existing dorms, such as South Tower and McBryde.

Russell House Reconstruction

A computer-generated design of the inside of the potential student union. The project for the new building is estimated to cost $240 million if approved.

“I just feel like it's not the best use of the money, that if USC has extra money, then there's a lot of things that should be renovated or added to campus rather than the Russell House,” Asher said. 

Caroline Finch, a second-year political science student, said reconstructing Russell House should not be on the list of priorities at all, and that it is perfectly fine as it is. 

“The university could use the money on so many other things that are much more important than a new student union, such as more parking,” Finch said. “As you know, next year, we're supposed to have an even bigger freshman class than this year. And parking this year has been absolutely horrific.”

Ryan Peak, a second-year psychology student, said he thinks that the growth in student population could be addressed in a different way. 

"I think (Russell House is) big enough to house the student population that we have," Peak said. "But I think a very simple solution is not letting 7,500 new students in every year and working with what we've got." 

But McMahon said a new student union would fulfill "the mission" of USC. 

"As an educational institution, we center around growth, we center around discovery, we center around being in environments that lift you up," McMahon said.

Thompson said she believes the construction of a new student union is important and a priority for many students. 

“I think when I talk to students and from surveys — from just discussing with students in class and even outside the class, off campus — the biggest things I always hear are Wi-Fi, parking and typically (a) new student union,” Thompson said. 

White, co-chair of the Student Union Committee and former member of the Russell House Advisory Board, said she heard concerns from the board about space in Russell House. 

"More and more student organizations would like to use Russell House to host their student meetings or student events," White said. "But the student bookings are many times booked all the way to the brim and not every student organization is able to be accommodated the way they would like to."

Complaints about restaurant wait times and more dietary options in Russell House were present but not among the top concerns reported in a study from Student Government last semester. The Food for Thought initiative's purpose was to gauge student concerns.

Approximately 33 of the 552 students surveyed in this project mentioned dining on campus or other aspects of a student union

Many of the concerns found in the study were parking, Wi-Fi and housing. The issues combined make up about 36% of the sample taken on Greene Street, while most others dealt with academics. 

Russell House Reconstruction

A computer-generated design of proposed plans for a new student union. The university presented the project and other campus renovations to the board of trustees on Jan. 20.

President Michael Amiridis said Thompson presented Russell House as a main concern to students, which encouraged him to pursue it.

“The student body president made it very clear that the Russell House is a priority for the students," Amiridis said. "So that's for me. If it is the priority for the students, it's a priority for me.”

Amiridis said the new student union project is a major one because the building is used by most students. A student union impacts everyone at the university, as opposed to dorms and academic buildings that are specific to certain groups of students, he said.

Within the next few months, more could be developed with the proposal in terms of financing and further discussions about the project to see if it will best serve the Gamecock community.

Tolliver said he will do more advocacy for the project and listen to student responses to the proposal over the next few weeks. 

"(I will) start trying to work and educate individuals about the need and the process and how we go about it," Tolliver said. "Do a lot of educating and informing and soliciting additional feedback."