If everyone is thinking alike, someone isn't thinking.
– George Patton
Volume 76 | Issue 3
May 2008

From the Executive Director: A Rose by Any Other Name

Marsha Herman-Betzen

On the way home from the conference in New Orleans I had a ridiculously long four-hour layover in Atlanta. As most of you know, Atlanta Hartsfield is a gigantic and busy airport and when changing planes, you typically wind up running down the long two-story escalator to take the underground transportation between terminals in hopes of not missing your connection. On this particular trip, I had so much time to kill; I decided to amuse myself by walking between terminals. Sandwiched between Terminals A and T, was an extraordinary art collection of stone sculptures from Zimbabwe by African artist Dominic Benhura. Benhura’s immense sculptures are made of stone and metal, easily recognizable because they do not have facial features, instead emphasizing the form and movement of the pieces. I couldn’t believe how much enjoyment I got from this unexpected happenstance.

After leisurely walking through the exhibit, I grabbed a latté at Starbucks and bought a new book at one of the many airport shops in hopes of continuing to entertain myself. After a couple of hours, I needed nourishment, so I found an ATM and headed to Panda Express for Kung Pao Chicken. I had just enough time to make two new friends, check my e-mail on my laptop, and buy a pair of silver earrings for a friend’s upcoming birthday from the retail outlet Erwin Pearls before boarding my plane for home. For your information, time literally does fly when you are that busy in an airport.

As we got into the air, I pushed my seat back into a slightly reclining position and began to drift off. My last thought before I went to sleep was curious at best: While Hartsfield has many of the services and retail operations found in a college union—art exhibits, food courts, coffee shops, retail outlets, pubs, computer stores, movie rentals, hair salons, lounges, and ATMs—there is no way you could call that humongous service center a college union.

As part of the five-year appraisal by the Council for the Advancement of Standards (CAS), I had seen the first revision of the College Union Standard and Guidelines several weeks earlier. In reviewing it, the thing that stuck out the most for me was that "College Union" had been replaced by "College and University Center" in our name. I knew this standard was a first draft and the process was to include distribution, discussion, dialogue, and debate by an extensive and respected group of reviewers. Yet I still became apoplectic at the very sight of this change in print and had to be talked off my second-story ledge by several staff members.

Before I get any of you professionals who work in campus centers mad at me, let me differentiate between what I hold to be a philosophical tenet and what I believe to be contextual statements regarding the various names given to a college union. This is a very important distinction. It is not my intention to disenfranchise in any way institutions that do not have "union" in their name. Rather, the story I want to tell is intended to offer an appreciation of where we came as a profession and as an association. I hope this bone-deep idealistic precept will serve as a foundation for the prolongation of the principles for which both were founded and will remain as part of our legacy.

It is important to note that, depending on the college union’s mission and that of the institution, your college union may be known as "Student Union," "Student Center," "Memorial Union," "Campus Center," "University Center," "University Commons," "Student Guild," or "Student Association." On campuses without a union building, the student activities department or program fulfills the role of the college union. As ACUI’s role statement so poignantly says, "By whatever form or name, a college union is an organization offering a variety of programs, activities, services, and facilities that, when taken together, represent a well-considered plan for the community life of the college" (ACUI, 1996, ¶ 1).

So what is the difference between a student union, student center, college union, student guild, university commons, and university center? The word "union" implies a bringing together, a goal of unity for the institution—its students, faculty, staff, alumni, and guests of the institution (Butts, 1971). As Blackburn (1990) says: "Union refers not just to a facility or place but to uniting members of the campus community" (p. 2). In this time of renewed importance on a sense of community and as community builders, the word "union" is exactly the sentiment we are trying to convey. According to Butts (1971):

Union states directly the goal of unity among diverse groups of people which the building fosters, much as university, of which a union is a part, signifies unity in diversity in academic endeavors. The word "university" derives from the Latin universitas meaning the whole; "union" from unio meaning oneness, a whole made up of united parts. In the educational world the two concepts support and complement each other. (p. 131)

Blackburn (1990) acknowledges the possible confusion surrounding the term "union," but still finds it preferable to "center":

Even though the word "union" has been around since the early 1800s, we still struggle with a confused identity with labor unions. This concern, more than any other, is why some institutional governing bodies have avoided its use. Many have sidestepped that troublesome word "union" by using "center." "Center" implies only a place. It should be noted if the word "union" sometimes leads to mistaken identity; the use of the name "center" does so to an even greater extent. (p. 2)

Certainly I would agree that "center" creates confusion, mostly because, while college unions are just confused with labor unions, "centers" abound everywhere we look. Just on a college campus we find the:

  • Health Center
  • Computer Center
  • Counseling Center
  • Audio-Visual Center
  • Arts Center
  • Recreation Center
  • Placement Center
  • Alumni Center
  • Adult Education Center
  • Research Centers
  • Medical Center 

Go outside the campus, and you can add shopping center to the list. This ubiquitous word dilutes any identifying reference to the living room of the campus community and hub of student life.

There are many esteemed colleagues who think "center" is a better term. Perhaps because they want a building instead of just the organization, or because there is a confusion with labor unions or other organizations like the Black Student Union, or because the campus community is already familiar with "center" and does not need to be taught the terminology, or because they feel "center" better suggests that it is the center of campus life, or even to further the agenda of wanting their center built in the heart of the campus as opposed to being on the outskirts where land is still available.

And while some believe that "union" is a dated term, there are institutions that have built new college unions and chosen to have union in their name like Iona College, Slippery Rock, SUNY–Binghamton, University of Nevada–Reno, and Texas Christian University. Several months ago, I got a call from Tami Kuhn, manager of the University Activities Office at Michigan State University, asking me if I had any preference for the word "union" versus "center." While my answer was not as well thought out, there was no question of the philosophical leaning of my reply. It was affirming to go to the website as I prepared this column to see that the Michigan State Union was the name selected. I’m sure Butts (1971) would agree:

More importantly, with center, the college has a building name only; there remains the problem of what to call the membership organization which uses and operates the building, names officers, sponsors programs, and to which students and others belong. (p. 131)

Union best expresses the philosophy that the union building, organization, and program exist to serve the entire institutional community. 

What many still don’t realize is that the name college union is a generic name that represents an ideal, something to strive for. The most important thing about a union, by far, is not the building but the program within it. The bricks and mortar are the bones; the community of a union provides its spirit.

The prayer of the founders of Hart House (the first college union in North America) captures the essence of the college union idea:

Hart House, under the guidance of its warden, may serve in the generations to come the highest interests of the university by drawing into a common fellowship the members of the several colleges and faculties, and by gathering into a true society the teacher and the student, the graduate and the undergraduate; further, that the members of Hart House may discover within its walls the true education that is to be found in good fellowship, in friendly disputation and debate, in the conversation of wise and earnest men, in music, pictures and the play, in the casual book. (in Butts, 1971, p. 15)

These sentiments represent just the beginning of a strong belief in maintaining the integrity and the universality of college union and student activities work on college and university campuses. To understand the history and philosophy is the way we can better tell our story. As an organization, we need to continually work to add language explaining the choice of name in the contextual statement for the CAS College Union Standard; in fact, the standard and the contextual statement should always be jointly distributed so that campuses without a "union" can help their communities understand the college union idea.

As Shakespeare’s Romeo said, "A rose by any other name would smell as sweet," and many believe the same holds true for a college union. For those individuals, what matters is what something is, not what it is called. Whatever the name, let us never be so perfunctory to forget the college union ideal, for in the final analysis there are few that would argue this is what we truly strive to be.


ACUI. (1996). The role of the college union. Retrieved April 4, 2008, from http://www.acui.org/about.

Blackburn, R.D. (1990, October). What’s in a name? Union Wire of the Association of College Unions International.

Butts, P. (1971). The college union idea. Bloomington, IN: Association of College Unions International.