September Cover
Volume 81 | Issue 5
September 2013

Exploring 30 Years of College Union Dissertations: What We Do and Don't Know

Danielle Desawal & Tamara Yakaboski

Research is one tool for providing evidence to support the work of the profession, expanding the literature beyond a focus on best practices and assessment. In the NASPA Journal, Stan Carpenter and Matthew Stimpson note it is a professional obligation to give time to conducting research on student affairs practice. Assessment, research, and best practices should be used in combination to support and identify areas for growth within the profession. Gregory Bliming and Elizabeth Whitt identify in their seminal piece, Dissertations - CCPrinciples of Good Practice for Student Affairs, that using research within practice is a key principle within student affairs. ACUI, as the association for college union professionals, has indicated through its strategic plan and new research agenda that the Association is embracing that practice.

The role of professionals in creating the conditions for students to learn outside the academic classroom evolves as the landscape of higher education continues to shift. The college union provided one of the first dedicated spaces on campus to learn outside academic classrooms and dormitories. As one of the initial functional areas within student affairs, the college union is rich with history surrounding physical space on campus that offers a seamless learning environment. Since then, the union profession has centered its mission on being the community center of the campus, providing a variety of programs, services, and activities focused on engaging students, faculty, and staff. Yet, as a specific functional area within student affairs, how does the college union support student learning and the conditional effects of college? A recent survey of the literature available found this question to be far from definitively answered. In fact, compared to other areas of student affairs, the study revealed a scarcity of research on the college union.

Dissertations are a good starting point to determine what research exists in a given functional area since frequently they are conducted by professionals and related to a current area of practice as a means of addressing observable trends or patterns at work. Student affairs dissertations examine aspects of professional practice, resulting in evidence that can be used to support programmatic and organizational initiatives. This body of research has the potential to guide professional development, shape graduate program curricula, and influence paradigm shifts in the field. However, it often does not reach larger audiences past the dissertation committee since many choose not to be published in journals or professional magazines.


The goal of this study was to review dissertations written expressly about the college union profession and facilities on U.S. campuses. A meta-analysis is the “review of primary research on a given topic with the purpose of integrating the findings,” according to the Handbook of Meta-analysis in Ecology and Evolution. Traditionally, meta-analysis synthesis is quantitative, focusing on statistical methods to compare data. The limited data found directly relating to the college union profession and facilities required the use of a bounded qualitative synthesis framework, or a focus on a specific research area and a defined time period. This study was limited to dissertations about the college union written in the United States between 1981 and 2011. Qualitative document analysis was used to examine the data within the dissertations.

A ProQuest Digital Database search resulted in 23 dissertations (see table here) using the following search terms: “college union,” “student union,” “student center,” “college center,” “student activities,” “student organization,” and “auxiliary services.” Of these, 20 were designated Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) and three were Doctor of Education (Ed.D.). No observable geographical or institutional pattern emerged. Three master’s theses were included in the final analysis due to the limited number of doctoral dissertations and the focus of the theses on the college union.

This study focused on dissertations that researched the college union profession; therefore, dissertations that used only a portion of their sample from the college union context were eliminated. By removing those dissertations, a clearer picture emerged related to the research that was being conducted with a focus on the college union. The results of those dissertations that used the college union as part of the sample provided results that were applicable to multiple contexts in student affairs rather than specifically addressing the college union professional or facility.

Initial challenges with the search terms revealed that a dedicated term is not used consistently to identify the research associated with college union professionals. For example, the term “college union” resulted in a number of dissertations; however many referenced labor unions within the collegiate environment or specific institutions. Without clear keywords to identify and create boundaries around the college union field, the research results were narrowed by examining abstracts and methodology chapters to identify a college union focus. All other functional areas that did not explicitly focus on the college union were excluded. 

Topic Results

During the last 30 years, researchers have focused on a wider range of topics. Five overarching topics emerged within these 23 dissertations and three theses: personnel (8); college union facility (6); administration/management (6); student involvement (3); and organizational leadership (2). Within the main topic categories, there were secondary topics such as student satisfaction, programming, governance, organizational culture, and change. Only two of the dissertations focused on gender, specifically women’s experiences related to senior-level roles in college union administration. Due to the small sample size, additional subcategories were not created.


Eight of the dissertations addressed issues related to professional development or competencies of college union personnel, specifically college union directors and administrators. Two of these looked at competencies in college union work (Morton, 1999; Sanchez, 2000). Additionally, McIntosh (2011) identified the need to have more intentional opportunities for mentorship within the field.

College Union Facility
College union facility research focused on satisfaction, perceptions, and the use of college union facilities. Two dissertations addressed student satisfaction with the services offered within the college union facility, primarily from an auxiliary service provider lens (Sturdivant, 1984; Turk-Fiecoat, 2011). Within this topic, two master’s theses examined building architecture and art in the college union (Baird, 2008; Lieberman, 2002). Towns (2005) reviewed the historical college union movement at the University of Kansas. Marshall (1988) studied the attitudes of faculty members at Historically Black Colleges and Universities toward the college union.

Six dissertations addressed the broad administrative portfolio of the college union by examining the operational and fiscal management of college unions, including organizational restructuring and change. Total Quality Management (TQM) was explored in relation to the types of quality management practices in existence (Marshall, 1995), organizational impact (Carr, 1994), and the impact of TQM implementation on student programming board members at one institution (P-Blum, 1994).

Costantino (2000) explored the funding levels of student governing boards, identifying significant correlations with regard to size and visibility. Danals (2001) examined the impact of reorganization on the college union and student activities. Freitag (1984) investigated the relationship between educational technology and the college union.

Student Involvement
The four student involvement dissertations explored student development or involvement related to college unions or college union programming boards and governance. Three focused primarily on the developmental impact of leadership roles in programming and/or governance organizations within the college union organization (Higbee, 1981; Morrell, 1989; Riepe, 2011). Wendell (2010) conducted a master’s thesis on the role of communication and technology related to how college unions engage first-year students through their website structure.

Organizational Leadership

Finally, the two organizational leadership dissertations focused on leadership behaviors of senior-level administrators within the college union organizational structure. Payment (2003) studied the role of gender at the director level. Mironank (2003) concentrated on union directors at research-intensive institutions, in particular, the influence of leadership behaviors on organizational management.

Connections and Future Research

The findings reveal a few connections but more gaps between the research being conducted on the college union profession and ACUI’s core competencies. Of the 11 core competencies, this study identified connections to four: Facilities Management, Leadership, Management, and Student Learning. The scholarship reviewed tended to focus on the operational and management aspects of the college union profession. This emphasis could be directly linked to the emergence and focus on auxiliary services as the context for how to run a college union operation, as documented in New Directions for Student Services: The College Union in the Year 2000.

The role of Student Learning within the sample was situated primarily in students’ experiences as members of programming or union boards. Those experiences were limited in regard to the organizational context and not in relation to the significance of the college union as the “home” to those organizations. In other words, the relationship between the physical environment and learning was not presented in the scholarship. The remaining core competencies not identified in the scholarship reviewed clearly illustrate a gap in the literature. Future research would benefit from studying the college union’s specific role in Communication, Fiscal Management, Human Resource Development, Intercultural Proficiency, Marketing, Planning, and Technology.

Topical areas connected to the college union are being examined in larger contexts (e.g., student engagement, student programming, higher education fiscal management, multicultural competence, technology), but with no direct links to the college union idea. The creation and dissemination of literature related specifically to the college union is limited. In comparison, a similar study published in the Journal of College and University Student Housing found 47 dissertations on college housing in just a five-year span (2003–07).

Without a foundation of new research on the college union, graduate students may not be able to make the case that these broad topics should be explored through the lens of the college union. At a more basic level, the lack of a consistent term for the “college union” presents challenges for graduate students searching for research on this functional area, practitioners looking for data to support their work, and faculty members to view the field as substantial enough for researching.

The college union profession encompasses a broad organizational portfolio within U.S. institutions. Historically, the college union provided the primary space for engagement outside academic classrooms and residence halls. By answering the critical questions of how the college union supports the academic mission of higher education and how its physical space creates learning for diverse student populations, union professionals are better positioned to request more funds, expand staff or programs, or even justify their role on a college campus to upper administration and faculty.

Campuses have responded to literature such as Student Success in College: Creating Conditions that Matter, which highlights that satisfaction and retention increase when students feel they belong. Space for students to gather in a comfortable and safe environment is being offered in campus libraries, residence halls, and academic facilities. The college union profession in the 21st century seeks to continue creating conditions for students, faculty, and staff to gather in the “living room” of the campus. What is lacking is the empirical research that supports the role of the college union in today’s higher education context. Since the college union provides a rich environment for research, there is much that can be done to study current trends and issues facing the college union profession.


DesawalDanielle DeSawal is the master’s program coordinator and clinical associate professor for Higher Education and Student Affairs at Indiana University–Bloomington. Her research interests focus on advising student organizations. Prior to joining the faculty, DeSawal worked on a federally funded grant and served as the educational program coordinator for ACUI. She holds a B.S. from Colorado State University, M.Ed. from the University of Arkansas–Fayetteville, and Ph.D. from IU.

YakaboskiTamara Yakaboski is an associate professor in the Department of Higher Education & Student Affairs Leadership at the University of Northern Colorado. Her research interests include student affairs, women in higher education, and international higher education. She earned her bachelor’s degree from Louisiana Tech University and both her master’s and Ph.D. in higher education from the University of Arizona, where she also served as director of Park Student Union.