Students this week offering input on Reitz Union's future


A plaque with the face of J. Wayne Reitz is seen in the lobby of the Reitz Union on Thursday, August 30, 2012 in Gainesville.

Matt Stamey/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Monday, October 1, 2012 at 5:26 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, October 1, 2012 at 5:26 p.m.

University of Florida students are providing input this week on the future of the J. Wayne Reitz Union, in more ways than one.

The architects of the student union's expansion and renovation talked Monday with students about the project and are having more discussions today. The effort is meant to gather opinion on how to make the union into more of a home for students, said Roland Lemke, principal at the Arlington, Va.-based architecture firm Cannon Design

"If you want to have a voice, this is the chance to do it," he said.

Additional meetings with students and others are planned in the coming weeks, with the project's design slated to be done by January. Work is expected to begin in June and the entire project completed in 2015.

As that project starts, UF students vote Tuesday and Wednesday on a nonbinding referendum to rename the union. The measure would gauge support of changing the union from being named after Reitz, the late UF president, to being named after Virgil Hawkins, whose legal battle ended segregation at UF.

Ford Dwyer, the UF student behind the initiative, said Reitz delayed integration and collaborated with a state committee that purged gay students and professors from UF.

"Now is the time to consider changing the name to honor a man who better represents student unity, better represents our values," Dwyer said.

The effort has elicited strong reaction from some longtime members of the UF community. Chemical engineering professor emeritus Seymour Block, the university's longest-serving faculty member, said Reitz was under political pressure for his actions involving civil rights.

Block was head of a group representing professors in the late 1950s and met with Reitz about the committee that purged gay faculty and students. He suggested that Reitz was naive about the committee's work.

Reitz "admitted he didn't know what a homosexual was," Block said.

The union was completed soon after the tenure of Reitz, UF's president from 1955 to 1967. Proponents of the facility's expansion say more space is needed to accommodate a student body that has experienced major growth since that time.

The $69 million project includes a 100,000-square-foot expansion on the union's colonnade and a 75,000-square-foot renovation to the existing facility. Ideas for changes include a new ballroom, lounges and dance studios, but Lemke said student input will shape the project.

"We haven't drawn a line yet," he said. "We have no preconceptions at all."

He said a display will be placed for the project's duration at the union's first-floor entrance. It will include the project's Twitter feed and blog, which also can be found along with other information at makingitreitz.union.ufl.edu.

Dwyer said the renovation and expansion make the time right for the name change. But he has faced resistance to the referendum.

Late last month, student government's judicial branch deleted language about Hawkins and Reitz's civil rights record from the referendum wording. It ruled that the original language was suggestive and might alone influence students to vote for the change.

Dwyer has campaigned for the change using the story of Dan Harmeling, a Gainesville civil rights activist who is now an instructor at Santa Fe College.

Harmeling said his arrest protesting segregation at a Tallahassee theater led to Reitz suspending him for "conduct unbecoming" a student.

He said he supports the name change because of those and other actions by Reitz, including the UF president fighting the tenure of an activist professor.

Changing the union's name isn't "rewriting history, it represents correcting history," Harmeling said.

But Block, 94, said Reitz was an advocate for the university. The former UF president was responding to pressure from state leaders in his actions involving civil rights, he said.

"He was a guy who was just looking out for his job," Block said.

Contact Nathan Crabbe at 338-3176 or nathan.crabbe@gvillesun.com. Visit www.thecampussun.com for more stories on the University of Florida.

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