Posted May 24, 2016 by Mara Dahlgren 

If You Build It, They Will Come (and Protest)

The University Center at Ferris State University

If you had a chance to look at the facility displays at the annual conference, you saw some extraordinary buildings ranging from newly built facilities to major renovations and expansions of existing college unions. As each campus is unique, so are the buildings; however, as I examined these new and renovated buildings, two common themes emerged: glass and atriums.

The use of glass walls isn’t a new phenomenon. We started to commonly see major glass exteriors in the late 1990s and early 2000s, though the use of glass walls isn’t unique to that moment in time either. The “seen and be seen” mentality has been a mainstay of our college unions for decades, and glass materialized as an effective method to accomplish that. But the major glass exteriors seen now are something only dreamed of in the early history of college unions.

University of Alaska-Fairbanks, 2016 ACUI Facility Design Award RecipientAtriums aren’t new either. While the case study conducted by David Hatton, Carolyn Farley, and Carlos Costa identified interior visibility as a design necessity in 2013, atriums began to prevalently surface as a feature of college unions long before then. By now, if you don’t have an atrium, are you really a college union? I’m kidding … but, really.

In addition to emerging building trends, we are also experiencing a new student culture involving active participation in national protests. For anyone who experienced life on a college campus in the 1960s during the civil rights movement, you may be shaking your head at me right now; as well as anyone in the 1970s during the Vietnam War and the budding conversation of LGBTQ rights, or the 1980s during South Africa’s apartheid, or the 1990s which saw numerous protests including the Gulf War, police brutality, the use of sweatshops, and student labor rights on colleges and universities.

So you’re right, protests on college campuses aren’t new either. But while protests and the use of glass and atriums aren’t new, I’d like to point out that we haven’t seen the combination of a major protest culture on our college campuses with these major facility design elements.

The majority of college unions in the United States were built in the 1960s and 1970s, the heyday of the student protest culture. In constructing these buildings, staff saw the need to eliminate large open spaces (like atriums) and reduce the use of glass. Many of us who have worked in these kinds of facilities have either renovated them, torn them down, or are currently doing just that.

The design wasn’t (and still isn’t) appealing. College union buildings designed in the 1960s and 1970s are confined, dark, segmented, and unwelcoming—ideal qualities to prevent large groups from congregating and minimize theNorth Carolina State University, 2016 ACUI Facility Design Award Recipient ability for an audience to watch. Modern facilities are open, welcoming, provide many points of access, and our atriums provide many levels of viewing; thus, we are now an ideal place for a protest to occur. Are we prepared for that?

I’m not saying any of this to instill fear or the belief that more security measures and policies are needed to eliminate the potential for protests. A college union should be the place where students can express their opinions and concerns—protests included—but I believe we all need to critically think about how we will respond while also continuing to serve as community centers. 

We will continue to see students advocate for change through protests, so we need to be prepared. As ACUI CEO John Taylor has encouraged us to see college unions as the place for dialogue between students on contentious issues, we need to figure out how to be that space. Given the very nature of our modern facilities, we will see our open spaces utilized to promote a message. Instead of silencing protests by preventing them from happening or sitting back and allowing protests to transpire without any structure, we need to think about how we can most effectively and safely foster dialogue on the issues facing students on their campuses today.



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.


Note: To post a comment to The Commons, you must login to the ACUI website.
about the commons
The Commons is the online hub to discover new ideas and learn what is going on in the college union and student activities profession.
more ...
about the contributors

Meet the ACUI members who have volunteered to share their knowledge and insights as regular authors in The Commons.

more ...