As students began trickling back onto campus and the University of Manitoba began to come out of its summer hibernation, one of the most vital parts of the campus did not: the campus pub.
For students and staff, the closure of the campus watering hole, Wise Guys, came suddenly and without warning. The loss came with particularly bad timing, as it was at the beginning of the fall semester. Just around the time that freshman would usually be having their first beers in between classes and faculty councils would be holding some of their biggest socials of the year.
Although I always thought of Wise Guys as kind of a dump, it was not until it was gone that I realized what role it filed in the campus community, and how important the institution of the campus pub is to universities everywhere.
Students at Brandon University went through a similar debacle as the U of M this past spring when their university lounge, SUDS, closed suddenly in March after its manager nearly bankrupted the business and then quit, explained Brandon University Student Union vice president external Shannon Skidmore.
“It was a huge, huge thing. People were not necessarily angry, but they were just frustrated and upset, like ‘where do we go now’ kind of thing,” said Skidmore.
The bar was reopened this September, with the help of the union, to students and staff who were overjoyed to see the return of their beloved campus bar.
“It was an overwhelming experience because everyone was just so excited for it to come back,” said Skidmore.
The funny thing about the U of M’s pub was that, unlike most other universities or colleges across the country, the pub was not owned and operated by the student union or anyone affiliated with the university. The owners of Wise Guys bid on the pub around 15 years ago, and were allocated the space as a third party lease.
Wise Guys was allowed to operate on campus under the condition that they operated as a private club, such as a legion, meaning that their liquor license had to be held by a non-profit organization. The liquor license was held by the elusive Bison Alumni and Friends association, who cancelled the license out of the blue in late August, prompting the university to terminate Wise Guys’ lease.
The management of the pub seemed to disappear over night as well, with no one from the lounge’s office returning phone calls or offering an explanation as to what happened.
Aside from having to comply with their lease, owners of the pub were not formally accountable to students or the university in terms of how the business was run, the way a student union-managed business would be. This system was obviously not the best way to way to ensure the lounge was run in the best interest of students.
“Unfortunately it wasn’t overseen [ … ] I would take responsibility for not overseeing them vigilantly enough,” said Pat Reid, director of Ancillary Services at the U of M.
“It’s our space, and it’s in our building, and so we will make sure that if and when we have another pub on campus, its going to have much stronger criteria to meet before we allow anybody in there.”
The campus is not completely alcohol-free, with the recent reopening of the formerly membership-only faculty club as the Bistro Two-O-Five restaurant. The restaurant is open to the public and serves alcoholic beverages during lunch service. However, considering the bistro is only open from 11:30a.m. to 2 p.m., the U of M is still without a drinking establishment that caters to the needs of students and staff that Wise Guys once did.
The University of Manitoba Students Union is currently working towards getting a student union-run pub on campus, and are planning on presenting a proposal to the university in the next few weeks after seeing the campus community ‘drying’ up.
“At the U of M, we already have a commuter campus, so I think there is a drive for students to make this more of a community,” said Laube.
The loss of the pub was not the loss of somewhere to get hammered in between classes. It was the loss of somewhere students could relax on campus and escape from classrooms and offices. For some students, it was a home away from home on campus.
While it may not be the responsibility of the university or the student union to help students and staff get drunk on campus, I do believe it is within their responsibilities to ensure the experience on campus is as good as it possibly can be. A campus bar is an important part of that mandate.