Volume 77 | Issue 3
May 2009

President's Column: Buildings that build community

Don Luse

Other campus buildings are becoming more like unions every day. My opinion is that other departments are replicating what we do because of the excellent model we’ve created for spaces and environments on our campuses. Campuses have libraries with lounges, group study spaces, and even food. New dining halls are attached to residence halls and recreation centers. And art galleries and small bookstores are even found in some academic buildings. Some of these projects have succeeded, but I also am aware of a number of failures because it is simply not enough to build buildings. If you build it, there’s no guarantee they will come.
Luse09At the ACUI Region 5 conference, one of our colleagues wisely said that it’s not the building but how it’s managed that makes it successful. A number of ACUI members don’t have stand-alone union buildings or student centers, yet they are able to build a sense of community. So, you don’t have to have a physical facility to do what we do, but it sure helps.
My campus is fortunate to have a college union building, and it is once again being renovated. This process is truly one of my great joys, and I think it is one of the things that we all do well. It also seems that architects enjoy working with college union professionals on the development of new spaces. Architects like to have clients who know what they want. People in our field know what we want because we are so intimately involved in the day-to-day use of our facilities. Students have been invited to participate in focus groups and visioning sessions, so we also understand our users’ habits, needs, and desires. I believe that given the choice of designing an office building or a college union, an architect would always opt for us.
College union professionals also are good at taking care of buildings, and our maintenance and housekeeping staffs deserve our recognition. Recently, without telling my custodial staff why, I walked the group across campus to a building that was less than a year old. Even though that facility has significantly less traffic than the union, we saw walls with marks, nicks, and dings in need of patching and paint. We saw restrooms with dirty floors and mirrors. We saw that no one was paying attention to the details or doing the work that our college union staff members do day-in and day-out. Our staff members talked with each other about the lack of attention that was paid to the facility, saying: “No one cared about the place.” This experience was a tangible way of saying to our maintenance staff: “Thank you for caring about the work you do for the college union. It has not gone unnoticed.” It was the best pat on the back we could give. Our managers know how to keep spaces clean and in decent repair, and we pay attention to the infrastructure that keeps spaces functioning for our customers.
I think union and activities folk also are good at intentionally making spaces lively to help attract and engage students in the community. That doesn’t just happen. The art you choose to hang on the walls or the space you dedicate to advertising campus events adds to the feel of the space. The names of student groups on office doors validate the inclusiveness of our community and our desire to recognize and celebrate differences. We have used the phrase, “Living room of the campus,” to describe the type of space we want to be. We’re not a mall or an airport or a museum. Our users are much more connected to our spaces. They are not just consumers; they are members of a community.
We offer students a gathering place for the development that comes from being a member of a community. I got into an argument—or at least a debate—with a consultant who was extolling the virtues of distance education. My comment was that “no one buys T-shirts from a virtual university.” His comment back to me was that he knew an enterprising student who had sold hundreds of T-shirts online. He missed my point. My point was that you have to have pride or ownership in something to wear it on your chest. You have to be a member of a community to buy the T-shirt.
When I’ve had the opportunity to talk to our student employees, who are the face and the front line of many of our services, I often discuss what we want to achieve as an organization. One of my goals is that if you asked alumni to close their eyes and think about their best college experiences, the pictures in their minds would be things that happened in the union. We offer a place where all members of the community belong and where they create memories that will last a lifetime. I still love the descriptor from the “Role of the College Union,” that says the union is the place that “cultivates enduring loyalty to the college.” Through our programs, services, and facilities, we build community and a love for the institution that is more than fleeting.
So maybe it is not such a bad thing that libraries look more like unions. Having spaces that take into consideration how the users feel as well as how they use the space is something I think we can claim as a contribution to higher education. We will continue to innovate and create so that our users can continue to use our facilities as the forum in which they build community and connections to the university.