Posted February 20, 2013 by Mara Dahlgren 

Where Do We Go From Here?

I’ve been thinking a lot about union/student center competition since the debates at the annual conference in Boston. During the opening night at the JFK Library, one of the debates focused on the library becoming the new union. After hearing this for the first time, I got a little interested in the topic and a little worried.

I’m a graduate student who wants to stay in this field for a long time, and I would like some job security. With this mindset, I started looking around for more information about this, and I found it. Based on the Commons posts, Bulletin articles, and ACUI Forum posts, you all seem a little concerned about this too.

It seems libraries aren’t our only worry. Residence halls, academic buildings, and recreation centers have all begun to take on union-like features to attract students. In addition, Facebook has been termed the new student union. With our students online all of the time, they have found virtual space to meet and communicate with their friends, instructors, and peers. With all these entities taking on our historic role, what do we do?

Before I attempt any problem solving, this is what I know:

  • We are no longer the only gathering space on campus.
  • We are no longer the only place that can build community. We know other areas can successfully do this as well.
  • The amenities we are offer are not exclusive to our buildings. Food service, lounge space, meeting space, and computer access can be found in residence halls, academic buildings, and libraries.

Knowing this, what makes us unique? What makes students choose our space over others? I know many union professionals do not like being considered the shopping mall of campus as it takes away from our mission of creating learning opportunities and building community, but what if we embraced that identity? What if we emphasized our services? Not all spaces on campus have what we have and that makes us unique.

What if we defined ourselves as intentional shopping malls, where we promoted our services to get people into our spaces but utilized our missions to keep them there?

What do you all think? How do we continue to remain relevant and essential on campus with all of this additional competition?

Mara Dahlgren

Mara Dahlgren is the Assistant Director, Activities & Events at Indiana University–Bloomington.

Mara serves as an advisor for the Indiana Memorial Union Board, helping student leaders and student employees plan events on campus. She completed her undergraduate education at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and completed her master’s in Higher Education and Student Affairs at Indiana University–Bloomington, where she gained experience in the operations side of the college union as the building manager.


I was able to participate on a panel on the "Libraries vs. Student Unions" topic in Boston, and gained some really valuable insight by doing so. It would be interesting to know if our colleagues share my views about one answer to Mara's questions. With student unions, we have several built-in advantages in staying focused, relevant and responsive. Our emphasis on student leadership, and our vision of building an effective partnership between students, faculty and staff are the two that I most often cite. Other campus units might do some of what we do. But I know of no other facility or program on campus that has such a high level of meaningful student input, and then leverages that input into partnerships throughout their decision-making and program and service implementation. If this type of balance can be achieved and maintained with all programs, all services, all volunteer opportunities and all employment relationships, we will continue to be campus leaders in building community. -MKD
Comment posted 02/20/2013 2:36 PM
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