Remember the Council Oak?
Oh Council Oak Tree, how quickly you’ve fallen back into obscurity. It was only two short years ago that you were arguably the most controversial topic on campus.
For freshmen or sophomores, this likely wasn’t discussed very often (or ever) by the time you made it to campus. And for the majority of juniors or older, too much time has passed to recall the exact details.
Well, let me refresh everyone’s memory.
Chancellor Brian Levin-Stankevich announced on March 3, 2009 that a new $48.8 million student center would be built, according to a university news release. Since the building was to be fully funded by student dollars, an annual fee was added, which has been about $326 per student since 2010-2011.
Vice Chancellor Beth Hellwig, a member of the student center steering committee, said the building was expected to be complete by January 2012, according to a Sept. 10, 2009 article in The Spectator.
Gosh, that seems pretty soon here. The new building looks quite impressive, but I’m pretty sure it still needs walls, floors and just about everything other than the foundation. That’s quite a bit to get done in just two months.
Now, back to the Council Oak.
For those who don’t know or remember, the original plan was to demolish the oak and build our new student center right on top of it.
It seems somewhere in the planning process, all of the members of the steering committee managed to forget about the significance of said tree. You know, the very tree that happens to be on our university’s logo. I find it really odd that we would use a particular tree in our logo if it were insignificant.
The oak was a place of truce between the Ojibwe and Dakota tribes, according to a chronology compiled by Jim Oberly in the Department of History. It was literally the only spot both groups would cease warfare. Even as the land became more developed over the years, the tree and surrounding area were always spared.
Now maybe that doesn’t mean a lot to you, but the space is still considered sacred by many. Likewise, the oak has been on our university logo since 1966. This is why I find it so hard to believe the committee could have missed its significance.
Besides, it’s not like they didn’t talk about it.
Here’s a quick timeline of events. All of the information was collected from emails exchanged between steering committee members (obtained with open records requests) or from university news releases.
November 2008 — Council Oak starts being mentioned in emails between
March 2009 — Email discussions have begun between committee members on how to commemorate the tree, making it sound like the Council Oak is already a goner.
August 2009 — First mention of Council Oak in steering committee minutes, where they are required by law to include all topics openly discussed.
Sept. 11, 2009 — Original location of building is officially announced in a release. Quickly, numerous campus and community members express concern.
Sept. 16, 2009 — News release states, “Since November 2008, the Historic Council Oak Tree issue has been regularly discussed during open meetings about the building project.” Really? That’s odd, because it wasn’t in their minutes until August.
Sept. 21, 2009 — A meeting was called between faculties, staff and students to discuss potential solutions.
Sept. 23, 2009 — Just two days later, Levin-Stankevich announces that the tree and surrounding space would stay, but the building would have to be redesigned. Boy, that sure was a quick turnaround.
That same night Tim Luttrell, project planner for the Division of State Facilities, told me in an interview that he estimated the redesign would cost approximately $2 to $2.5 million for the delays in construction and redesign, potentially even more.
That’s at least $200 from each of us this year that was completely wasted.
Not to mention, now seniors will never have a chance to use the building during their time here. And juniors will likely get just a semester with it.
In my opinion, the committee knew of the tree’s significance all along, but they went ahead with the original plan anyways. But, why would they do that?
Maybe it was because the ‘preferred location’ was the original spot, and that anything closer to Phillips would prevent future expansion of that building. At least that’s what was said in multiple campus news releases early on. Or maybe, they just simply realized how costly a redesign would be.
The worst part to me is that when it was first announced the site of the new student center would result in the Oak being removed, the committee acted completely surprised by the backlash. But how surprised could they be if it was openly discussed at meetings since November 2008? And how come it wasn’t mentioned in their meeting minutes until August 2009, especially if it was already being discussed in emails?
It seems to me they wanted to keep discussions on the topic quiet so they could avoid the backlash. Then afterwards, they put out the release about it being openly discussed since November to act like the discussions were more public than they were.
Whatever actually happened, the actions of the committee were inexcusable and are costing us all a lot of money.
Frank F. Pellegrino is a senior print journalism major and Chief Copy
Editor at The Spectator.