The Agora of UNL
Nathan Hill, History 250: The Historian Craft, Spring 2022
The university campus has long been able to serve as a cultural and societal melting pot. Students hailing from a multitude of different homes and backgrounds all come together to learn. The University of Nebraska-Lincoln definitely provides this opportunity for its students. A large portion of this cultural mixing, however, would not be possible without a common meeting place for the students. They need a place to study, meet-up, advertise for clubs and events, as well as a more general relaxation location, much like the Ancient Greek Agora. In Ancient Greece, the Agora was the city-center where every important event happened. While many places exist across campus, none are a better fit for the Agora of UNL than the Greenspace and Student Union.
To understand how the Greenspace and the Student Union are the Agora of UNL however, then the question of what an Agora is must be answered first. There are many different examples of Agoras throughout history, but the most famous is that of the Greek city-state of Athens, which still draws many visitors today. The Ancient Greek historian Paul Cartledge defines the Athenian Agora as, “literally the place of civic gathering, the commercial as well as the political heart of Athens.” The Agora was the marketplace, a theater, and a public hangout spot, all while being surrounded by the important political buildings. Athens would not have been the same city-state if it lacked its Agora. The same can be said about the Greenspace and the Student Union. They are the beating heart of UNL where all roads can lead and people from across the university gather. The inception of the Greenspace however was not one without difficulty and controversy.
In 1993, Graham B. Spanier, UNL’s chancellor at the time, announced that the University would be replacing a parking lot in the center of campus with a brand new greenspace. Students, who had to pay an estimated $200,000 total in extra tuition via small additions to their semesterly costs, vehemently opposed his decision. While some students disliked the additional monetary costs, the main reason of opposition among many was the destruction of such a large parking lot. Almost 1600 students signed a petition clashing with the Chancellor’s decision, preferring the one hundred and fifty parking spots over the grass. Within Lincoln, The Lincoln Journal came out in support of Spanier, saying that the one hundred and fifty parking spots could easily be replaced elsewhere, and that the University lacked the aesthetics needed to bring in more students. The issue was also not only centered in Lincoln. The Chronicle of Higher Education in Washington D.C. also published a story on the protests bringing attention to it nationwide. While the efforts of the student body ended up being in vain, it was not the first time UNL students had protested about parking.
For what seems like most of its history, UNL had struggled with accommodating all of the vehicles of its students. There had been multiple protests throughout many different eras centered around parking, but the largest was in 1948. After police impounded the vehicles of students parked on campus, where students were not allowed to park at the time, a protest formed outside of the Student Union. When police attempted to disperse them with tear gas, the protest turned into a mob of 2000 people that marched on the State Capitol Building. There, the governor turned away the mob, saying that the situation was not in his domain of control, and the students soon after dispersed. While the mob of 1948 dwarfed the opposition to the Greenspace in 1993 and 1994, the student body still took a firm stance against the wishes of the Chancellor.
In 1995, two years after construction began, the Greenspace was finished. With its completion, an article was published in the student newspaper that asked an interesting question: “Why didn’t we think of this sooner?” The writer went on to say that while its inception seemed like lunacy, the pros of the Greenspace were now on full display. Students loved it. They were using it for a wide array of activities. The writer proclaimed, “Let it be a theater, a forum, and a place to lie down,” which is exactly like an Ancient Greek Agora. With the students in full support, the Greenspace and the adjoining Student Union began to evolve into the central hub of campus, which coincidentally coincided with a major renovation to the Union.
In the Spring of 1999, a two-and-a-half-year renovation to the Union was finally completed. With it came many new rooms, including a three hundred seat auditorium, as well as an expansion and reworking of Broyhill Fountain, which helped blend the aesthetics of the older Student Union with the new Greenspace. Once again, by the end of the construction, the students were in full support despite extra costs and headaches. One student even said that he and many more students now spent more time at the Union and Greenspace than they had previously because of its new look. Students now had the opportunity to seamlessly transition between the Union and Greenspace and vice versa, creating a more conjoined atmosphere. With these two major construction projects completed, and despite all of the monetary costs and problems, UNL could now begin its next era of history, this time with an Agora. The step forward would be a move by UNL to replace the dull industrialism of the past in favor of a greener and more progressive Greenspace. Unknowingly, it was also a call-back to an old article published during the fledgling years of the University.
In 1878, the predecessor to The Daily Nebraskan, The Hesperian Student, published an article talking about the progress of civilization and how man has changed over time. The author mentioned how civilizations have moved towards industry and away from natural beauty, even saying, “The eloquence of the Agora has fled before the printing press.” According to the author, industry had trampled the complicated simplicity of the Agora. Now however, UNL could finally reclaim that natural eloquence but also pair it with the advancements of modern industry. Students could go from their engineering classes to the nearby fields of the Greenspace for a picnic as well as other activities. There, students could socialize with their friends and study in a new and relaxing environment. In the fields of the Greenspace, students could leave the doldrum of their classes in the dark, cramped classrooms and find solace in the open greenery of UNL’s Agora.
Yet all of these new activities happened under the watchful eye of the Canfield Administration Building. The offices of the Chancellor of UNL were and are still located to this day within Canfield, along with other important University elites. One of the major characteristics of an Ancient Greek Agora was that many of a city-state’s important political buildings surrounded the area and no other markets or open sections of the city had the same importance put upon them by the nearness of political buildings. Much like that of Ancient Greece, UNL’s important political building hems in a section of the Greenspace. Only the Greenspace enjoys the looming of Canfield. While the Greenspace represents an area for the students to be free from their classes, however, its proximity to the political center is a subconscious reminder of the power of those in charge, much like Ancient Greece.
It is not just political buildings that make the Greenspace the Agora, however. A staple of any good Ancient Greek Agora is that public speaking and events can be found there almost every day. Constantly throughout the school year, the Greenspace plays host to wide variety of events ranging from a Native American Culture Day to a Job Fair, with many different options in-between. During the course of the year, there is an event for almost anything anyone can think of. Still, this does not completely alone make the Greenspace UNL’s Agora. Following the example of Ancient Greece, there is nowhere else on campus where these events are held. They are exclusive to the Agora. While there is no outright rule stating that events must be held there, there is one main advantage that the Greenspace holds.
The ability to host those events in a high traffic area is what really separates the Greenspace from its competitors for the title of Agora. Every event is not only popular, drawing large crowds, but is very successful in drawing in random bypassers. They are able to do this because most people have to walk by the Greenspace to get to their classes. The decision to stage any event elsewhere rests with the event organizers and the University, but it would be foolhardy to do so. Nowhere else on campus is the amount of foot traffic as high as at the Greenspace in front of the Student Union. The disparity of people is so large that in 1999, the National Bank of Commerce even asked the University if they could move their location to be closer to the side of the Union adjacent to the Greenspace because it would place the bank, “in the path of more foot traffic.” Their belief is still accurate today. There is nowhere else on campus where the same amount of people gather as the Greenspace, only further solidifying its status as Agora.
Yet, the Greenspace is not the only part of the Agora. The Student Union adjacent to it serves as the other half, especially during the colder winter months. Many events that would have been held outside are moved within the nearby Union to take shelter from the wind. Students also move inside to study as well as relax with their friends. Without this ability to relocate during unpleasant weather, there would be no Agora for half of the school year. The Student Union completes UNL’s Agora. Once again, this strengthens the position of the Greenspace over its rivals, as none of them have a building like the Union nearby. However, nothing is as important to an Agora as its marketplace.
As Cartledge says, the most important part of any Agora is a marketplace. In Ancient Greece, people peddling their wares in the Agora, including food, was a common occurrence. Many times, those with the money to do so bought their food for the day at the Agora. While there is no outright marketplace at UNL, the closest location to an ancient market is the Greenspace and Union. In 1937, construction on the Union began with, most importantly, multiple restaurants taking up residence within. Their appearance allowed students to buy lunch as well as other meals on campus, which is still possible today. Again, there are other places on campus where it is possible to buy food, but none are as important as the Union.
The Union also serves as a hub for those protesting the University and its decisions. Interestingly enough, students even met at the Union to protest the creation of the Greenspace. Even before the Greenspace was built however, the Union was home to the protestors. The mob that protested parking rules in 1948 formed at the Union. During a student strike in 1970, protestors even nicknamed the Union “Strike Central” for the role it played as a meeting point for the students. It also served as the place where students and faculty discussed and put aside their differences in a public forum. The decision to use the Union as a meeting place for such events is logical. It is in the middle of campus, next to the important political building, and everybody knows where it is. The Ancient Greeks followed the same line of thinking. Whenever they protested, it was in their Agora, a place in the middle of the city, right in front of their political buildings. Once again, the Union and the Greenspace took up a role that nowhere else on campus was able to.
Today, as a student of UNL, I have experienced the Agora first-hand. Electronic message boards relay the latest campus news to students, much like ancient news criers in Greece. Announcements written in chalk litter the sidewalk. One person may ask a passerby to fill out their survey for their psychology class. Another person sits at a table, advertising for their club. On a nice day, hundreds of students fill the Greenspace, sitting on their blankets studying and relaxing, or perhaps throwing around a football or frisbee. Meanwhile, students emerge from the Union, where they have recently bought their lunch, to have a picnic with their friends. The walkways are filled with people strolling to class, enjoying the sun and the breeze. Different events are staged throughout the year in the Greenspace, including a full, out-loud reading of one of Homer’s works, also akin to Ancient Greece. During student government election season, the different political organizations talk to students at their booths, attempting to secure votes. During football season, tents are set-up and students are invited to a massive tailgate to support the team. Countless other events are held throughout the year that attract all manner of students. To this day, the Greenspace and Student Union remain the Agora of UNL, and they show no signs of stopping.
The creation of the Greenspace was mired in controversy. Students did not want it. Then, when it was pushed through by the Chancellor, it became clear to the students that they had been in the wrong. With the support of the student body behind it, UNL could reclaim the natural beauty on campus that it had been missing. At this moment, the Greenspace, combined with the adjacent Student Union, began to become UNL’s Agora. Similarities to Ancient Greece started to appear. The political buildings like Canfield encircled it. Events were held within it. It turned into the central nexus of campus, with many people walking by every day. It continued to serve as an Agora during colder days thanks to the Union. It was the closest thing UNL had to a marketplace. It served as the hub for protests and gatherings. Still today, it serves all of the same purposes and more, meaning that no other place on campus can claim the title of the Agora of UNL.
- Paul Cartledge, Ancient Greece: A History in Eleven Cities, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 91.
- Todd Neeley, “Despite student opposition, greenspace plans underway,” Daily Nebraskan (Lincoln, NE, Jan. 21, 1994). nebnewspapers.unl.edu/lccn/sn96080312/1994-01-21/ed-1/seq-1/#words=greenspace+GREENSPACE.
- “UNL: Scrap parking lot, put up a paradise,” Lincoln Journal (Lincoln, NE, Sep. 19, 1993). Archives and Special Collections, UNL Libraries RG 52-02-00, UNL Buildings and Grounds, Box 9, Folder Greenspace.
- “A greener campus? No thanks, students say,” Chronicle of Higher Education (Washington, D.C., Oct. 27, 1993). Archives and Special Collections, UNL Libraries, RG 52-02-00 UNL Buildings and Grounds, Box 9, Folder Greenspace.
- Lee Harris, “Students Protest ‘No Parking’, Police Use Tear Gas Bombs,” Daily Nebraskan (Lincoln, NE, May 8, 1948). Archives and Special Collections, UNL Libraries, RG 52/03 Special Subject Files, Box 37, Folder Parking SSF.
- “Common ground: Greenspace a fun forum,” Daily Nebraskan (Lincoln, NE, Oct. 23, 1995). nebnewspapers.unl.edu/lccn/sn96080312/1995-10-23/ed-1/seq-4/#words=Greenspace+greenspace.
- Ieva Augstums, “The Nebraska Union’s Grand Re-Opening: Union construction finally nears end,” Daily Nebraskan Supplement (Lincoln, NE, Apr. 15, 1999). Archives and Special Collections, UNL Libraries, RG 52-02-00 UNL Buildings and Grounds, Box 18, Folder Nebraska Union Bldg.
- “The Tide of Civilization,” Hesperian Student (Lincoln, NE, Mar. 1, 1878). nebnewspapers.unl.edu/lccn/sn96080316/1878-03-01/ed-1/seq-15/
- “All Residence Hall Picnic,” Daily Nebraskan (Lincoln, NE, Aug. 25, 1995). nebnewspapers.unl.edu/lccn/sn96080312/1995-08-25/ed-1/seq-16/#words=Greenspace.
- Cartledge, 91.
- Cartledge, 91.
- Aimee Green, “Bank proposes move within union,” Daily Nebraskan (Lincoln, NE, Oct. 6, 1999). nebnewspapers.unl.edu/lccn/sn96080312/1999-10-06/ed-1/seq-7/#words=foot+traffic.
- Cartledge, 91.
- E. A. Burnett, “The Student Union Activities Building,” (Feb., 1937). Archives and Special Collections, UNL Libraries, RG 52-02-00 UNL Buildings and Grounds, Box 22, Folder Student Union (City Campus).
- Jessica Fargen, “The Power of the Union: Swanson makes building ‘a star’” Daily Nebraskan Supplement (Lincoln, NE, Apr. 15, 1999). Archives and Special Collections, UNL Libraries, RG 52-02-00 UNL Buildings and Grounds, Box 18, Folder Nebraska Union Bldg.
- Cartledge, 91
- Augstums, Ieva. “The Nebraska Union’s Grand Re-Opening: Union construction finally nears end.” Daily Nebraskan Supplement (Lincoln, NE), Apr. 15, 1999. Archives and Special Collections, UNL Libraries, RG 52-02-00 UNL Buildings and Grounds, Box 18, Folder Nebraska Union Bldg.
- Burnett, E. A. “The Student Union Activities Building,” Feb., 1937. Archives and Special Collections, UNL Libraries, RG 52-02-00 UNL Buildings and Grounds, Box 22, Folder Student Union (City Campus).
- Cartledge, Paul. Ancient Greece: A History in Eleven Cities. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.
- Chronicle of Higher Education. “A greener campus? No thanks, students say.” (Washington, D.C.), Oct. 27, 1993. Archives and Special Collections, UNL Libraries, RG 52-02-00 UNL Buildings and Grounds, Box 9, Folder Greenspace.
- Daily Nebraskan. “All Residence Hall Picnic.” (Lincoln, NE), Aug. 25, 1995. nebnewspapers.unl.edu/lccn/sn96080312/1995-08-25/ed-1/seq-16/#words=Greenspace.
- Daily Nebraskan. “Common ground: Greenspace a fun forum.” (Lincoln, NE), Oct. 23, 1995. nebnewspapers.unl.edu/lccn/sn96080312/1995-10-23/ed-1/seq-4/#words=Greenspace+greenspace.
- Fargen, Jessica. “The Power of the Union: Swanson makes building ‘a star’.” Daily Nebraskan Supplement (Lincoln, NE), Apr. 15, 1999. Archives and Special Collections, UNL Libraries, RG 52-02-00 UNL Buildings and Grounds, Box 18, Folder Nebraska Union Bldg.
- Green, Aimee. “Bank proposes move within union.” Daily Nebraskan (Lincoln, NE), Oct. 6, 1999. nebnewspapers.unl.edu/lccn/sn96080312/1999-10-06/ed-1/seq-7/#words=foot+traffic.
- Harris, Lee. “Students Protest ‘No Parking’, Police Use Tear Gas Bombs.” Daily Nebraskan (Lincoln, NE), May 8, 1948. Archives and Special Collections, UNL Libraries, RG 52/03 Special Subject Files, Box 37, Folder Parking SSF.
- Hesperian Student. “The Tide of Civilization.” (Lincoln, NE), Mar. 1, 1878. nebnewspapers.unl.edu/lccn/sn96080316/1878-03-01/ed-1/seq-15/
- Lincoln Journal. “UNL: Scrap parking lot, put up a paradise.” Sep. 19, 1993. Archives and Special Collections, UNL Libraries RG 52-02-00, UNL Buildings and Grounds, Box 9, Folder Greenspace.
- Neeley, Todd. “Despite student opposition, greenspace plans underway.” Daily Nebraskan (Lincoln, NE), Jan. 21, 1994. nebnewspapers.unl.edu/lccn/sn96080312/1994-01-21/ed-1/seq-1/#words=greenspace+GREENSPACE.