The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago, The second best time is today.
– Chinese proverb
Volume 75 | Issue 3
May 2007

From the Executive Director: Form and function, preference and purpose

I love living 12 glorious, hilly, tree-laden, winding miles from the square in Bloomington Ind., where the ACUI Central Office is located. Living in the country is certainly not for everyone. When I brought my mother to our house for her first visit 23 years ago she asked me if I was scared to live in such a remote area. She said she would be terrified to live in the country because it was so dangerous. When I prodded her for examples to back up her untested theory, she cited Truman Capote’s book "In Cold Blood" where a rural family in Kansas is brutally murdered; and the scary movie "Deliverance"where four city boys meet the rural locals as two different worlds collide with devastating consequences.

Several years ago, I invited ACUI’s Board of Trustees to our home for dinner. You can imagine my utter delight on the drive back into town hearing six less than talented colleagues perform their impromptu rendition of the "Deliverance" dueling banjos all the way back to the Indiana Memorial Union. Unfortunately the pigeonholing behavior of my mother and former board members are not peculiar to them alone. The curious comments about where I live have run the gamut, based on all too familiar stereotypes depicting those who live in the country as being old hippies, drug dealers, or backward inhabitants with low IQ’s, living in trailers, and marrying their cousins.

Not only do I adore the serenity and natural beauty of my house in the woods, I cherish the 40 minutes a day it takes to drive to and from work. The first clue to my adulation probably lies in the fact that I can travel 12 miles in 20 minutes, meaning I am not stuck in traffic like my friends in large cities. I use this time to gear up or wind down depending on the time of day, but mostly my travel has become my alone time, a spiritual and treasured ritual of National Public Radio coupled with time to think amid the backdrop of the magnificent rolling hills and flowering trees of Southern Indiana.

It was on one of these routine commutes made longer by waiting for an enormously long train chugging its way through an archaic railroad crossing that I began to think about the psychology of personal preferences. Can you imagine all of the variables that make some of us see a painting or a sunset and be moved to tears while others see the same visual gifts and feel nothing? I have often wondered what makes our daughter paint the rooms in her house fabulous colors such as claret, cerulean, and sea green; while I have painted my house in monochromatic iterations of beige including mushroom, ecru, buff, taupe, and fawn. Even more amazing to me, is that there is no simple explanation for why some of us can discern the subtleties of a fine red wine from a cheaper imitation or immediately can tell the difference between a boxed cake mix and its homemade counterpart. When our daughter Rachel was 10 years old, she asked her dad, "What does it mean, when someone says you have good taste?" I have always thought that my husband’s response was perceptive. He said, "When you say someone has good taste it means that they like what you like."

I have been fortunate to have visited countless college unions throughout the United States, Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom in my 23 years with ACUI. And it is this appreciation of individual preferences that makes me hesitant to answer the questions I am most constantly being asked: "Which union is your favorite?" or "Which newly built college union is the most beautiful?"

I am not being political by refusing to answer the question as frequently posed. Nor am I qualifying my answer with a lengthy homily as to why my reply if answered would be based on an obviously biased assessment. I do believe, however, that there are seven essential and vital elements of outstanding college union facilities that transcend personal preferences and are critical to building an exceptional college union.


A college union above all else, must be in line with the educational mission of the institution.

A union is perceived in different ways by different people. But most of the impressions of the union give little hint of the union’s educational potential. Many unions report how many meetings were held, meals served, cups of coffee consumed, art shows displayed, or posters painted. How many college unions share the innumerable stories of what was done for some individual’s education on any given day?

Dick Blackburn (1983), executive director of ACUI from 1981–91 said in a Region 14 conference keynote:

The ingredients of what we offer toward the educational process in college—the professors, the library, the museum, the college union—with its profusion of facilities and activities—these remain only the scenery behind education until a real human contact occurs. The best union program in the country, like the most highly trained faculty, will not drive learning home until some personal connection is made with each student in some individual way.


Location, location, location.

Students learn through their experiences. You can build the greatest facility in the world, but if students have to go out of their way to find it, many may never have this potentially profound experience.

The college union must be in the hub of all campus activity, the geographical center ideally positioned between the residence halls, classroom buildings, and the library. We can no longer rely on the college union to be a destination. We must continue to find numerous and creative ways for students to not only find the union but to interact with all that it has to offer. The union building and all that occurs therein is a great facilitator—a matchless opportunity for students to come together and make good things happen, and for good things to happen to them. We not only must make sure they can find the union, but that it is filled with all of the programs and services that are needed in the daily life of a college student.


An auxiliary enterprise without campus life and student programming is a college marketplace not a college union.

This sentiment is not new. According to Blackburn (1989):

So we witness sometimes by design but often by default, the metamorphosis of a college union into a pure, revenue-driven auxiliary, where once stood a campus community center that had something very important to do with the central purposes of education. (p. 11)

The proliferation of food, coffee, books, and meeting space in the colleges of engineering, business, and medicine merely provide needed services and additional convenience for the campus community; they are not college unions.

In their application for ACUI’s Facility and Design Award, architect firm Perkins+Will (2007) aptly describes the emphasis of the new University Student Center at South Dakota State University, "As a bright beacon of student life, the new student union creates a lively and welcoming link bringing students together with faculty and staff in a comfortable atmosphere."


A college union should be closely matched to the architectural style and character of the campus.

This seems like a no-brainer but is worth reinforcing because when a mistake is made it becomes an eyesore for a long time. If anyone has ever been to the University of Michigan you can’t help but remember seeing the orange brick monstrosity which houses the College of Literature, Science, and Arts surrounded by the more traditional red brick buildings. Legend has it that during war time they ran out of red bricks and so orange bricks had to be used. This is a perfect example of an architectural blemish that won’t go away.

The contemporary Price Center with its neon design elements at the University of California–San Diego complements the overall architectural design of the campus. This same design would be unquestionably out of place among the stately Georgian red brick architecture of the Oklahoma State University or University of Illinois campuses.

The University of New Mexico Student Union with its sand-colored pueblo-style adobe architecture and exposed Vigas is unique to the rest of the United States but apropos to this southwestern campus located near the Rio Grande.

You couldn’t find two more different college unions than the University Center (UCEN) at the University of California–Santa Barbara and the relatively new Coffman Union at the University of Minnesota. The UCEN contains abundant outdoor programming space fitting to a college union nestled between the ocean and mountains while bragging of an average temperature of 72° (F) year round. The relatively new Coffman Union at the University of Minnesota sits majestically on the banks of the Mississippi river and has breathtaking design elements unique to being a building that truly is a marriage between the old and the new, combining high-tech with high style architecture.


Sustainable design, materials, and resources should be part of every college union for operational, financial, educational, and moral reasons.

There is a new call to activism among today’s college students and it focuses on sustainability. Recently students at The Ohio State University initiated a grassroots movement and went to the campus president in hopes of making their new union LEED certified. As a result, the president gave $1.5 million in discretionary funds to support the endeavor (T. Stuck, personal communication, April 10, 2007).

For the new Kanbar Campus Center at Philadelphia University, Shepley Bulfinch Richardson and Abbott architects (2007) discussed the importance of sustainable elements:

To meet local ordinances for accommodating storm water run-off, an environmental garden was incorporated into the landscape surrounding the main dining terrace. The garden consists of stepped pools planted with local, water tolerant species that fill during rainy periods, filtering and slowing down storm water before reaching the watershed. This serves as a teaching tool for environmental science programs, illustrating a sustainable solution to storm water management.

And numerous other examples are discussed in this issue of The Bulletin regarding student fees for sustainable initiatives.


Planning teams should include a participative process of all stakeholders of the institution, students, staff, faculty, and guests; but referenda or not, students will continue to be the driving force.

A recent development at the University of Wisconsin demonstrates this sentiment. During 2004, a master plan was developed in conjunction with the Wisconsin Union’s 75th anniversary. In the plan the idea of a new union was discussed. The union board president and director of the Wisconsin Union started shopping the idea around to student government discussing the possibility of a campus-wide referendum. That year a referendum was placed on the ballot, and it failed by 185 votes. Although the union board president and the student body president were involved, most of the work was done at a high level and with broad strokes. According to Mark Guthier, director of the Wisconsin Union, the lesson learned from the referendum failing centered around the inability to build a ground swell of support from the student body (personal communication, April 9, 2007).

Following the defeat of the referendum, the whole process was redone with the current group of students, recreating the master plan to better reflect student input. Again the referendum was placed on the ballot in 2006. Unfortunately the referendum again failed to garner the votes needed for passage. When reflecting on the second referendum’s defeat, Guthier stated that even though they had much more student input, the public base was still very much perceived as staff driven (personal communication, April 9, 2007). For example, when the newspaper called, the union director was responding to media queries helping to fuel the staff-driven perception.

Finally in late 2006, the referendum was again placed on the ballot and this time it passed by almost a two-thirds majority. Guthier felt the difference was simple (personal communication, April 9, 2007). The plan called for the union board president, the student chair of the referendum campaign, and student members of the get-out-the-vote team to be front and center in answering all questions and responding to the media. The result is $160 million, which will be used for the renovation of the Wisconsin Union and Union South, a feat that would not have been possible without the students being the public driving force (personal communication, April 9, 2007).


New programs and services are essential in keeping pace with generational change; yet we still need to incorporate the tried-and-true ingredients of creating community.

Carla Yanni (2006), associate professor of art history at Rutgers University–New Brunswick, said all campuses need public places; "Universities require communal spaces that encourage people to spend time together. Otherwise academic life devolves into disparate, meaningless episodes—a lecture, a walk from class to class, a retreat into dorm or car" (p. B21). And that public space needs to celebrate the heritage of the institution, where rituals are remembered and where customs affirming both tradition and change are widely shared and incorporated into the fabric of the building. There are so many opportunities in a college union to introduce campus traditions, ceremonies, and celebrations as well as to share the impressive heritage of the institution. The remembrance of the institution’s champions and numerous artifacts should serve as a meaningful way to tell the college union story, ensuring an enduring way to enhance the building of community on campus.

Whatever the size or geographical location of the campus, the financial resources available, the architectural genre or style selected, the personal preferences that will intrinsically be
present, celebrate and take pride in the opportunity to build a
college union.

Ernest Boyer, when president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching (1990), published "Campus Life: In Search of Community." The publication did a masterful job in articulating the importance of a building in establishing community: Buildings provide a sense of place. Buildings are backdrops to showcase the traditions, activities, programs, and talents of those who walk through the doors. Buildings are the place to gather. Buildings provide a venue for the community to interact. Buildings are more than brick and mortar, for they are a safe haven for the diversity of opinion. Whether a building project is large, small, or in-between we should celebrate and take pride in our buildings.

The core of the college union will always be the programs and educational opportunities it offers to the campus community. However, that sentiment should never diminish the college union as a building.


Blackburn, R.D. (1983, October 28). Address presented at the Region 14 conference. University of Washington, Seattle, WA.

Blackburn, R.D. (1989, March). State of the college union. In S. MacLaren (Ed.), Proceedings of 69th annual conference of Association of College Unions–International: 75th anniversary: The conference (pp. 9–14). Columbus, OH: ACUI.

Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. (1990). Campus Life: In Search of Community. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Perkins+Will. (2007). ACUI Facility Design Award application. Unpublished, ACUI.

Shepley Bulfinch Richardson & Abbott. (2007). ACUI Facility Design Award application. Unpublished, ACUI.

Yannie, C. (2006, April 28). Why all campuses need public places. The Chronicle of Higher Education, B21.