College Unions Transform Campus Life at Small Regional Institutions

Originally published in The Bulletin of the Association of College Unions International, May 2008, Vol. 76, No. 3

by Joseph Atkins & David Oakland

A recent article in The New York Times had the headline “Weighing Expansion as More Top Students Clamor at Ivy Gates” (Berger, 2007).Applications to selective colleges and universities have increased dramatically while these institutions have been reluctant to grow—wanting to sustain their congenial size and scale, the prestige of their reputations, and the essence of their students’ academic experience. One university president lamented the fact that their admissions officers were turning away “astonishing applicants” (Berger, 2007, ¶ 2). With such intense competition, and with institutions opening to a wider and more diverse range of students, these striving, highachieving students (and their parents and advisors) are looking to small regional colleges and universities with fresh eyes, focused interest, and remarkably high expectations.

For the administrative leadership at these small regional institutions, the idea of students pressing at their gates is both exhilarating and daunting. How can schools that many people have never heard of evolve to fill this need and rise to the occasion? What are the essential qualities that can create a collegiate profile substantial enough to attract and retain these new students? For many small regional colleges and universities striving to remake themselves—and recast their very identities in response to this trend, the building of a new college union marks this existential pivot point. Such was the case at the University of Virginia’s College at Wise, Washington & Lee University, and Averett University.

Forging a visible symbol of change

A new college union can indeed mark and embody a genuine turning point for a campus. It can synthesize the hopes and aspirations for a small regional institution’s transition to a selective, liberal arts college or a growing, comprehensive university. It can serve as both a needed symbol of an ambitious future and a real sign of progress in defining a dynamic center of campus life. This palpable need to establish an attractive, meaningful, and memorable campus setting (as well as to live up to ambitious new institutional goals for student life) demands an approach that grows out of the college’s distinctive character, is integrated into the overall campus landscape, and is a magnetic destination and a brilliant beacon. Union projects are often bold and hopeful acts at a time when future enrollment is uncertain and the identity and viability of a college is threatened. The result can bolster enrollment and student retention in that a single successful building project can stand for an institution’s commitment to students. 

A college union can make a significant and welcoming campus place—one that draws students in and encourages them to stay, to gather together, and to share experiences. Specific programs included in these buildings are purposefully mixed: academic support, study and meeting space, administrative and essential student services, student life and activities programs, entertainment and arts venues, student organizations and leadership centers, recreation and fitness centers, campus visitor orientation and information, and a range of dining options that can be combined and strategically overlapped to create a buzzing sense of vitality. These programs can help transform even a workday, commuter-dominated environment into a lively campus with round-the-clock student presence, on-campus extracurricular and weekend activities—all building an educational and cultural community.

Reaching for that sense of community encourages a vibrant and dynamic mixing of cultures, fuses a diverse student body into a genuine whole, and can define of a new college union as the living room or hearthstone for the campus. Relationships are often built and sustained by the formal and informal social associations that grow from the kinds of “chance encounters” and interconnections a new college union enables. Weaving crucial campus paths through spaces for new student life programs can meld commuter and residential student populations together while mixing emerging and long-standing groups and organizations with student leadership. Fostering these opportunities for interaction can bring the best aspects of a rising institution to life and to light. 

This all begins with a vision of a vibrant, informal public life that ought to exist somewhere between where faculty and students live and where they teach and go to class. The professor and sociologist Ray Oldenburg (1999), in his book “The Great, Good Place,” defines the territory of this essential public life as a “third place” (in contrast to the first and second places of home and work). He argues that the neutral ground offered by informal gathering places found regularly between our daily destinations anchor community life and are crucial for people to interact creatively—as equals enjoying company and surrounded by conversation.

The ways in which this kind of “third place” can be formed and fostered in and around a new campus center—both in terms of the gathering spaces a new union building offers and in the way these spaces embrace and build on what is unique and special about the cultural and landscape of an institution—are explored in the three case studies that follow.

University of Virginia’s College at Wise

Seeking a New Direction

In the scramble for many schools to reinvent themselves as small, liberal arts colleges focused on campus life, the current momentum of the University of Virginia’s College at Wise exemplifies the determination and perseverance of a struggling region. Founded 50 years ago on the site of the Wise County Poor Farm, this branch campus embarked on a mission to translate the mountainous terrain of Southwest Virginia into Thomas Jefferson’s “academical village.” At the heart of that mission was the design of a new Student Center and Campus Lake—conceived at a time when the college’s chancellor underlined what was at stake by joking how easily the campus could be converted into a minimum security prison if their hopeful campaign was not successful. 

University of Virginia‚Äôs College at Wise. Photo courtesy of VMDO Architects.The Student Center was to be the catalyst for an orderly transformation of a value-driven, commuter campus serving local area residents into a more selective institution widely attracting students from various distances. It was essential for the new building and campus landscape to help dramatically increase enrollment, expand academic programs, and fundamentally improve the quality of campus life—all with an ethos that would attract new students and move existing ones out of their cars, where they often ate and studied alone between classes.

The Plan

The placement of the new Student Center capitalized on a crossroads formed by the main campus entry and the intersection of the two dominant residential student paths. The intersection happened to fall at the bottom of a 60-foot climb from the lower residential campus to the upper academic precinct—a climb called the “cardiac steps” that intimidated students and faculty enough that they planned their day around going up and down as seldom as possible, most often taking the longer route by car around the truncated mountaintop to class. Set into the hillside, the new Student Center civilizes this once daunting hill. The building aggressively marks the campus crossroads by embedding sharply into the edge of the hill and forming a vertical connection to the top—internally by means of a four-story atrium with an elevator and cylindrical stair tower (affectionately called the “Tube” after London’s Underground) and externally by means of a generous, tiered landscape stair that doubles as a campus amphitheater.

Badly needed student life services—a campus information center, bookstore, games room, leadership center, post office, fitness center with racquetball courts, new café and student lounge, plus upper-level meeting rooms and conference center—were concentrated within a building that transformed that arduous climb into an enjoyable walk through a highly active place. The entry terrace opens out to a view of a new Campus Lake, making for a potent way to recast the first, and lasting, impression of the campus. Such an ambitious strategy—of trying to turn the hillside from the college’s most significant impediment into its most recognizable asset—came with serious challenges. A coal seam found during the building’s excavation and the need for expensive retaining walls to bench into the hill tested the college’s commitment to the project. Hesitation about future potential programmatic ties and connections from the Student Center to the adjacent library building nearly pushed the building to a different site.


In the end, the Student Center works to heal the rift and links the lower and upper campuses; it acts as a literal and symbolic bridge for students and faculty, frames a new campus entry, and gives a dramatic new institutional face that rejoins the college to its core identity as part of the University of Virginia. The Student Center is now the living room and recreation center for the campus and has fulfilled its intended purpose as the heart of the college community. Commuter students have a place to hang out and meet with residential students. Professors talk over a cup of coffee in the café. Student groups hold discussions in offices, meeting rooms, or outside on the terraces. Fans gather to celebrate an important sports victory on the plaza. Before, none of these activities had a possible venue.

The school has already boosted its enrollment significantly since beginning the campaign to build the Student Center—from 2004 to 2007 the student population has increased from 1,700 to nearly 2,000. Average SAT scores have increased 10 points, and the proportion of students who come from outside Southwest Virginia has increased from 34 to 46 percent since the Student Center opened its doors. The College at Wise also has broken into the Top 10 rankings for public, liberal arts colleges and boasts increased student involvement in more than 50 organizations. New students were enticed by the new building to live on campus and by doing so, have given the college the confidence to build on this momentum with new residence halls, academic space, a proposed replacement dining hall, and performing arts wing.

Washington & Lee University

Seeking a New Direction

Washington & Lee University. Photo courtesy of VMDO Architects.Named after the beloved president who tirelessly championed the project yet succumbed to cancer before its doors opened, the John W. Elrod University Commons building at Washington & Lee University was nearly 15 years in the making. The university’s undergraduate program was all male until 1985, when the admission of women marked a significant turning point in its mission and began a movement toward becoming a more diverse and progressive place, while still respecting its traditional history. The university made a tremendous investment into the campus greek housing system at the time when women were first admitted. Bolstering the long-standing fraternity tradition seemed to temper the sense of change at that time. The result, however, was to reinforce an already scattered social network and further decentralize the campus population.

The new Commons building, in essence, needed to be the transformative next step as a forward-looking counterpoint and compliment to the greek system. It needed to take the tested, iconic, social role of the off-campus W&L fraternity house and open it up for all students, eliminate the incidental stigma of social elitism, and realign the center of campus with a new set of alternatives and goals for campus life for the entire community. The most significant challenge was to have the new Commons mirror, and actually relax, the cultural tension between honoring old traditions and opening the way for new ones. In other words, the new building, and its impact on W&L’s identity, needed to appeal to a prospective international student as well as a third-generation legacy.

The Plan

W&L trustees made clear the need for the new Commons building to fit in and “seem like it had always been there.” Therefore, the Commons was designed to complement surrounding buildings both in terms of scale and architectural language—the three sides that face modest, regional adaptations of brick-and-white-column tradition play along quietly. And to honor the forward-looking vision, the atrium entry and porch-like side facing the woods open out with an unprecedented use of steel and glass, revealing a lower dining level and woods’ edge terrace. In this way, students can be part of the historic campus as well as a state-of-the-art facility.

The disjunction between historic and modern took on a subdued form in separating the building into two parts. As a device to reduce the perceived scale of the building, it is as if two older buildings were renovated and joined with a contemporary, conservatory- like atrium addition. The atrium directly connects the lower level cinema and dining hall, the two-story bookstore, and main level campus living room, and extends to the upper level Career Services Center and student organizations’ open-office loft spaces. The lively and wide-open interior spaces, the transparent atrium, including a massive, floating cork-screw stair, all bring out a modern sense of invention. Similarly, a skylight over the well-used café portico—and glass pavers over an event space below that let light in by day and out by night—lends an unexpected and dynamic quality to the familiar doric columns.


When the Commons opened its doors in 2003, it almost instantly transformed traffic patterns on campus—both pedestrian and vehicular. A new nearby garage removed vehicles from the immediate facility, inviting a peaceful stroll into the heart of the campus. Visitors, commuting students, and faculty walk from the garage on an elevated boardwalk, which arcs through the woods overlooking a steep slope and creek bed. The boardwalk leads directly to the new Commons building and its central atrium, which acts as an entry portal to the historic, pedestrian-oriented center of campus. The new building is carefully nestled within this historic campus core—turning what was a “back side” service yard and former cinder dump into a provocative, new “front.”

Protecting the adjacent woodland and creek was essential to the success of the Commons and reflected an evolving ethos on campus to include the environment in the scope of longstanding preservation efforts. The trucks and dining hall loading dock were pushed below ground—actually below a lawn-covered, supported deck—eliminating service from sight to preserve the intimate scale of the campus, enhance pedestrian flow in and around the Commons, and at the same time minimize storm water runoff. In contrast to an original, potentially devastating proposal to bring a service drive suitable for 18-wheelers across the creek bed and up the steep, wooded hill, the “Bat Cave” service tunnel is entered discretely from a nearby side street. Recognizing the urgent need for new options for student life and an increasing diversity in the university community, President Elrod pushed for a fresher and more forward-looking approach with its planning and design. While the percentage of students in fraternities and sororities has held steady (quite high at roughly 75 percent) since the opening of the Commons, there has been a marked increase in the diversity in the faculty and the student body. Many at W&L have confirmed that while the Commons is widely used and appreciated by all students, it is frequently and consistently used by international and underrepresented students who are not involved in the greek system. Thus, with a new public face that exhibits and even magnifies a sense of openness and the presence of a more diverse student body, the university’s appeal has been broadened. The impact of the Commons building, together with other new facilities and an innovative scholarship program, has pushed admissions to become more selective, with applications this year ballooning from 4,400 to 6,300 for a 450-member class.

Averett University

Seeking a New Direction

Averett College, founded in 1859, entered a new chapter in its history in 2001 as Averett University—a liberal arts university with its main campus cradled in a residential neighborhood in Danville, Va., with satellite programs reaching across the state. The move to become a comprehensive university sparked a focused and imaginative study of how the institution could recast its identity, establish an identifiable and iconographic campus setting, and live up to new challenges. The internalized focus of its existing campus buildings spoke more to the tradition of historic women’s teaching colleges in the region than to a new student population and the diverse kinds of inquiry encouraged in Averett’s current mission.

Averett University. Photo courtesy of VMDO Architects.This called for opening the campus and dramatically showcasing the new programs inside. Improving the overall campus image, strengthening its sense of place and order, and building on Averett’s heritage were all important—but even more so was putting a critical distance between a conservative past and a more progressive academic future. (In 2005, the Baptist General Association dissolved its ties with Averett after two years of growing disagreement and controversy over social issues and the university’s commitment to intellectual freedom). Like the College at Wise, Averett’s leadership recognized the risks inherent in sweeping change and moving forward with the Student Center project in the face of uncertain enrollment and the need to refocus and anchor the school’s identity. A strong university president decided the institution could, and needed to, look backward and look forward at the same time. The new building needed to act as a lens to project a growing vibrancy in academics and all aspects of campus life.

The Plan

Averett University. Photo courtesy of VMDO Architects.The new Student Center project focused on the northwest edge of the campus, nestled in a portion of town known as “Millionaire’s Row,” recognized for its collection of historic houses. As part of a larger vision to expand, add student housing, convert a through-road to a central pedestrian walk, and establish a legible boundary between “town and gown,” the new Student Center was the first step of this ambitious and transformative plan.

One of the main challenges was to graft an active and dynamic center into the quiet, neighborhood setting. The student life and academic opportunities at the core of the project all pointed to making these spaces visible—bringing the energy inherent in campus activities to life and to light—and opening out to the pleasant climate and new outdoor spaces. To balance the potential conflicts of creating enticing activity while respecting an established neighborhood, the building slips into the sloping site and hides its mass and bulk from adjacent housing. Quieter elements such as offices, stairways, and service-storage areas are located along the residential side street, while high-energy dining hall and student activities spaces open wide to the campus’s new lawn space. Brick piers define a modern portico off the café and games space that acts as a beckoning gateway into campus from the parking across the street.

To make clear and powerful connections to the surrounding buildings, the campus landscape flows into building. A curved concrete wall marks the base of an adjacent wooded hill and channels and cleans storm water that previously flooded the area into stepping pools flanking the new entry terrace. The main path moves along the edge of the varied program spaces seemingly bringing the newly formed lawn space into the building. Likewise, the internal Commons is fundamentally an extension of the open Commons Lawn directly outside. Saving mature trees throughout the site helped the building seem comfortable in its place and provide shade and a degree of enclosure to the open space. Activities ranging from group outdoor class discussions to small games of ultimate Frisbee are welcomed and supported by the lawn and outdoor theater spaces. Paths and seating frame the edges, providing places to both participate and observer.

The entire building mixes and combines activities freely and purposefully: the games area, the café, the convenience store, the multipurpose room, the media lounge, e-mail stations, and even the dining hall, are stitched together as one continuous open space—where people can move easily through spaces and food is allowed to go with them. This signature open commons transitions uphill twice, with gracious stairs that modulate the space carefully into discrete zones. These zones cater to those in groups or individuals, those active or passive, and those seeking companionship or refuge. Metal louver screens and cables stretched taut over the south-facing glass gallery reduce heat gain and make for pleasant, dappled sunlight in the many student lounge areas. A top floor or “penthouse” activities level is set up for student organizations with open workstations assigned to groups, adjacent storage, and shared work space and support resources—building synergy between student leaders, concentrating many lively activities and initiatives together, while recognizing the underlying social nature of student life. Trellised roof terraces extend this life to the outside and allow all to gain an unusual view over this end of campus.


A fairly bold mark helps communicate this hopeful and forward-looking campaign to recast Averett’s identity from its days as a conventional teaching college to a dynamic, modern institution. The building visibly opens outward to welcome students and faculty, to invite them in, and to broadcast the best kinds of campus activity—in a way that was previously not possible. The Student Center’s emphasis on a student-focused, on-campus experience has sponsored a significant boost in enrollment and student retention rates. More than 300 new students arrived on campus this past year, marking a 40 percent increase from 2006–07 when the building was dedicated. This attention from a new and deeper pool of applicants has given the university the confidence and increased financial stability it needed to expand academic programs and pushed Averett’s ranking up into the top third of southern baccalaureate colleges. And unexpectedly, rather than worry about the noise and activity resulting from the upward spike in the student population, local residents from the neighborhood often join the Averett community at both the dining hall and café

Useful Applications to Transform Campus Life

These shared experiences and lifelong connections are the heart of any real sense of campus community. While they may start in the academic setting and are fostered in an array of programs in residence halls, it is often the informal territory of collegiate life between these important settings that can have the most impact. If those spaces add up to a memorable place, if they form a commons, and if they engage and embody the culture of the institution, it helps prospective students project themselves not just though a successful first year, but also through graduation and beyond to returning as proud alumni. It is fundamentally one of the best ways to attract strong applicants, bring students to an institution, and to retain them.

The institutional leadership of small regional colleges and universities should not be intimidated, but rather exhilarated, by the challenges and opportunities to recreate their collegiate profile, to refresh their core mission, and recast their overall identity to embrace a new and diverse wave of ambitious students “clamoring” at their gates. While there are many ways institutions can make this kind of change and broaden their appeal, the case studies for the College at Wise, Washington & Lee University, and Averett University all suggest that investing in a college union is a powerful vehicle to move in a new, responsive direction with confidence and with purpose.

A common thread running through each of the particular studies is the way in which planners and administrators found a balance: a necessary balance between, on the one hand, a thorough understanding of what is unique and special about each institution (its culture, the slope of the ground, the strengths of the people, and the particular ways in which they interact); and on the other hand, a forward-looking handle on the common goals, perspectives, and motivations behind college union projects in general. It is crucial that one accounts for what are substantive, contemporary trends in campus life. It is equally important to have a firm grasp of what is best about one’s own institution, and carry it forward. A college union project, conceived and situated with great care, speaks volumes about a university’s personality and its character—and is an excellent way to transform its image and mark a pivotal new direction for campus life.


Berger, J. (2007, December 26). Weighing expansion as more top students clamor at ivy gates. RetrievedMarch 31, 2008, from the New York Times website:,%20R.%20(1999).%20The%20great. Oldenburg, R. (1999). The great, good place. New York: Marlowe & Company.

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