Posted June 5, 2012 by Mark Bourassa 

How the Role of the Marbeck Center at Bluffton University Came to Life

Marbeck Center serves as the college union at Bluffton University in Bluffton, Ohio. A small, private liberal arts college affiliated with the Mennonite Church, Bluffton is a primarily residential campus of 1100 students. Marbeck is one of the centers of community life and houses the only campus dining service, bookstore, mail room, information services, student involvement, new student orientation, and the conference program. Nearly every student goes through the building every day.

Bluffton University, Marbeck CenterMarbeck Center was dedicated on March 30, 1968, with planning beginning in earnest during the fall of 1965. At that time, Bluffton’s president had a vision for the creation of a student center that would be a center of community life—a place that would not only bring together a variety of campus services, but intentionally designed and dedicated to the creating, facilitating, and supporting of community. Planning documents laid out the vision and guiding principles for the new building. These expectations were clearly influenced by Mennonite and Bluffton values that focused on simplicity, nature, and community. Planners specified the “avoidance of ornamentation, the gimmicky, the grand, the monumental” and wanted to “give a feeling that the building is part of the campus—an invitation to move outdoors when inside and to move inside when outdoors.” The building was constructed into the side of a hill along the banks of the Little Riley Creek with a low profile that blended into the topography, and it was designed with spaces intent on encouraging intimate/small group conversation and community building. As a reflection of what today would be considered restrictive visitation policies, the new center was to be a place where “girl meets boy and boy meets girl.”

Over the last 44 years, Marbeck Center has retained its community building focus through gatherings both large and intimate, activities planned and unplanned, and the involvement of students, faculty, staff, and community members alike. Numerous times Marbeck Center has served as a Red Cross shelter for stranded motorists and community residents displaced during snow storms and flooding. These unexpected guests have been the recipients of students spontaneously serving, conversing, and even entertaining and have connected these peoples’ lives to our community.

Bluffton University, Marbeck Center Memorial 1The role of Marbeck Center in the life of the Bluffton community was never more on display than in 2007 when the campus received word that five members of its baseball team were killed in a bus accident in Atlanta during the early morning hours as the team traveled to Florida for spring break. As news of the accident spread across campus, Marbeck Center instantly became the gathering place for those seeking information and support. It was the central place where members of the campus community sought out one another to feel connected and able to participate in the grieving process. Area pastors and counselors worked with students throughout the day. Over the following days, weeks, and months, this community building role would play out again and again.

A huge outpouring of support came from people all over the country and many parts of the world, especially from Atlanta. It was a demonstration of so many people desiring to be a part of our shared grief in whatever small way they could. The many flowers, cards, emails, posters, letters, offers of support and prayer, and other items began arriving on campus. Very quickly, it was decided that the university wanted to show the support we were receiving and share that with others. Bluffton president, James Harder, indicated a desire for the memorial to be close to the heart of students; to be in “their space.” Every item received was included in the memorial that was set up in Marbeck Center.
As a reflection of our faith community, a prayer space was also created in Marbeck Center as an area to come together in prayer and reflection. Close attention was paid to the physical arrangement of furniture, candles, and other symbols, allowing people to participate in a variety of ways. This space received continuous use by students, community members, and visiting athletic teams.

Bluffton University, Marbeck Center Memorial 2Following the accident, Marbeck Center was also the location for formal gatherings of the campus community. Several days after the accident a faculty/staff meeting was held to provide an opportunity for the campus community to be updated and share with one another. The community heard reports from faculty and staff who had traveled to Atlanta as well as from two of the players involved in the accident. This same space was intentionally used for the all campus gathering of students as they returned from spring break. Furniture was cleared from the room to allow students to sit on the floor and be close to one another. Marbeck Center also hosted a meal for the team and their families before the memorial service. This provided an opportunity for the team and families to be together for the first time since the accident. At Bluffton, the sharing of meals together has always been an important way of building community. 

Marbeck Center played an important role in our community’s response to a campus tragedy. Just as it has throughout its 44 years, community building happened because of the opportunity for others to be a part of our community and our story. It is in moments like these that the story and history of our unions and student centers are lived out.


This post is part of a series of campus stories about the history and role of college unions. For more stories and examples like this, check out the second edition of The College Union Idea publication, released in 2012 to chronicle the philosophy and function of the college union throughout more than 100 years.

Mark Bourassa

Mark Bourassa is the Assistant Dean of Students, Director of University Event Complex at Bluffton University.


Mark: Thanks for sharing the amazing story about Bluffton. Congratulations on the great work you do every day in creating an exceptional environment at a small school. Your story is truly inspiring regarding the impact community can have in both good and in difficult times.
Comment posted 06/06/2012 8:33 AM
Having had the privilege to work at Marbeck and in this amazing community, it is truly one of those very special places. Mark has given all of us a small glimpse just what a wonderful and powerful community this is... Thank you Mark for all you do and for sharing what a inspiring place Bluffton is and has always been. Dave Barnes
David Barnes
Comment posted 06/08/2012 3:02 PM
Mark, Thanks for telling the union story with such a vivid example at Bluffton. Indeed. Marbeck Center was the campus living and family room in response to the tragedy. I remember being moved when I saw the memorial in Marbeck. You've illustrated very clearly how the College Union Idea is embodied, lives, and contributes in Marbeck Center in the Bluffton community. I hope all of our programs do as well.
Comment posted 06/13/2012 4:59 PM
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