History Repeating

"If pro is the opposite of con,” the comedian Gallagher once quipped, “is Congress the opposite of progress?"

That question may soon be answered by the Associated Students of Montana State University (ASMSU) Senate, who, at press time, were discussing a proposal to permanently displace up to half a dozen student groups from the SOB Barn, a historic barn on the west side of campus. Despite students’ regular use of the facility—for everything from fencing to folk dancing—MSU’s Auxiliary Services department wants to usurp up to 80% of the space for offices, storage, and conference rooms.

Nevermind that MSU students faced this same assault on their treasured icon of the university’s agricultural heritage some 40 years ago; hence the name “SOB,” which stands for Save Our Barn. (The pejorative double entendre was, of course, an intentional jab at university officials.) In the late ‘60s, the school administration announced its intention to tear the barn down; hundreds of students rose up in protest and the barn was spared. The exultant co-eds declared their intention for the facility: a community center, a place of “useful purposes—art gallery, little theater, child daycare center, folk-dancing hall, etc.” Today, the top level is MSU’s unofficial dance hall, and the university’s popular Outdoor Recreation Center occupies the lower floor. Although the former students’ ambitious dream may not have been fully realized, the SOB Barn is indeed a community center, a place of useful purposes—at least for students, anyway, who consider recreation a useful pursuit. But now Auxiliary Services, it seems, wants a piece of that utilitarian pie—and the biggest piece at that.

Which is where the Save Our Barn Society, the second—and, barn advocates hope, last—round of student protesters, comes in. With 60 members and counting, the group is gradually raising awareness of the proposed renovation that has, for the last two years, proceeded slowly and quietly. Now that it’s on the radar, however, students are starting to speak up.

“The SOB Barn is a one-of-a-kind place on campus,” says SOB Society president YungBen Yelvington, a Billings native working toward his master’s degree in economics at MSU. “It has a lot of character. You can put a conference room anywhere, but you can’t replace character.”

Megan Dumas, a graduate student and former ASMSU senator, agrees. “Places like the Emerson and Beall Park are community centers. They have intrinsic value to us and we’d never consider selling them off for office space. How is the SOB Barn any different?”

The difference, it seems, is attitude. While Bozeman’s city government recognizes the value of arts and culture—both for tourism and for the personal fulfillment of its citizens—the MSU administration “is surprisingly astigmatized,” according to one SOB Society member. As MSU’s country dance club president Victoria Morefield says, “Every Monday and Friday night there are dozens of students dancing at the SOB Barn. It’s one of the only places for regular, substance-free entertainment on campus. Why would they want to take that away from us?”

Which begs the bigger question: why does the new office space have to be in the SOB Barn? The university just built a $3 million theater and gave the library, student union building, and P.E. complex multi-million-dollar facelifts; can’t it bang out an inexpensive, functional building for Auxiliary Services?

“They want that space because it’s centrally located,” YungBen says. “But MSU exists first and foremost for the students, not the administration.” And while the SOB Barn has historically been a place for student life, not administrative life, its future—and that of progress versus Congress—is clearly up in the proverbial air.

For more information, or to support the effort to save the SOB barn, check out the Save Our Barn Society on Facebook (facebook.com/group.php?gid=2453700067) or contact the ASMSU Senate via their website, montana.edu/wwwasmsu/senate.php.