To form a more perfect union ...

To form a more perfect union ...Jerry Mann2004-01-0143The Centrefalse

How might our union and activities better serve our campus community? This is a question we often ask but might not fully explore. However, at the beginning of the 2001–02 fiscal year, Associated Students at the University of California–Los Angeles (ASUCLA) set out on a strategic initiative to answer this question. While recognizing that ASUCLA was competent at providing the basic necessities of student life, there was a general consensus that it was important to identify how ASUCLA and the Student Union could more fully enrich the lives of students, faculty, and staff.

The ASUCLA Board of Directors asked the organization to comprehensively examine the role of Associated Students in delivering products, services, and programming to the campus. In addition, the university's chancellor, in a response to ASUCLA's submittal of its fiscal year 2001–02 budget and five-year forecast, reiterated the need for a thorough evaluation of the college union and its role on campus. Clearly the time to engage in a strategic review had come.

As a result, a committee of the ASUCLA Board of Directors engaged in a yearlong process to research, survey, conduct site visits, contemplate, and finally produce a report and series of recommendations that, with the approval of the full board, would create a blueprint for an improved Student Union at UCLA. Elements of that initiative help to identify the parameters with which we can begin to more broadly define the many roles of a college union. In today's society there tends to be a dichotomy between student development and the service role of the union. Therefore, each union must identify and prioritize which aspects are necessary to better serve its campus.

What is the college union?

College unions can be many things to many people. Often thought of as the community center of the campus, a typical union will provide services and conveniences that members of the campus community need in their daily lives. They are more often than not student-centered organizations that value participatory decision making and diversity. Union buildings are the principal, and often the only, facility available to meet the dining needs of students and faculty who do not dine where they live. Unions often serve as the "town hall" of the campus, housing the offices of the student government and student organizations while providing rooms and general-purpose space for meetings, events, and study.

The basic aim of most unions has grown out of the widely held view among educators that what students do educationally while outside of the classroom is of major importance to their personal growth. By providing social-cultural programs for the student body, the union gives a new dimension to education, vastly expanding the time, area, and means through which the college educates. Often, union programs are closely related to the work of academic departments. Some unions join with other departments to teach courses in institutional management, student development, and group leadership. Some serve as demonstration laboratories for coursework in recreation, leadership, journalism, crafts, social group work, and quantity food production. Others present publicly the work of music, art, and drama departments.

Research studies have shown that out-of-class interaction with faculty members or peers contributes to the development of general cognitive skills (Pascarella & Terenzini, 1991). This interaction helps students to grow as whole persons during college, not only becoming more cognitively advanced, but also changing in values and attitudes, including, but not limited to increases in intellectual orientation, growth in autonomy and independence, increases in interpersonal skills, and gains in general maturity and personal development (Pascarella & Terenzini, 1991).

Furthermore, student-student (peer) interaction has its strongest impact on the development of leadership abilities and positively impacts public speaking skills and overall academic development, which includes analytical and problem-solving skills, critical thinking skills, and cultural awareness (Astin, 1993). Thus, we could conclude that the more students interact with faculty members or a diverse set of peers outside the classroom the greater the likelihood of students being open to diversity and challenge, which, in turn, fosters intellectual inquisitiveness and critical thinking.

Growth in college occurs as a result of interrelated experiences sustained during a period of time. That means no single policy or program is likely to impact learning as much as a number of interrelated in-class and out-of-class experiences that reinforce one another and support learning goals (Pascarella & Terenzini, 1994). Therefore, what matters is the breadth and diversity of programs, and no one place on campus has the capacity to offer this array of activities better than a college union.

Types of college unions

While the union can act as both a service center and a place where student development occurs, the importance put on each aspect of its role is relative to the wants and needs of the campus. College unions around the world merely are a reflection of the community that surrounds them. Each may have a different footprint, different services, and different levels of staffing and support to students, and in the end each represents a response to the particular needs of the campus it serves.

The definition of "needs and wants" has changed throughout the years. The mass media and advertising industries have played a part in creating consumer buying habits and expectations based on external rather than internal motivation. Many would associate this with the old concept of "keeping up with the Joneses," but it goes beyond that. As we evolve farther away from the values and lifestyles that supported prior generations, we spend more time at work—Americans work more hours per week and take less vacation time than any other modern industrial society (Harris, 2003; Robinson, 2003; Schor, 1992). Consequently, Americans engage in less spiritual, fraternal, or group activities, and subsequently begin to rely on commercialism to provide a value system. This change is neither isolated nor subtle. Today's modern corporations devote inordinate amounts of time and money to researching, quantifying, and compiling information on our buying habits and the psychology behind buying decisions.

We are further impacted by the concept of Moore's Law (Intel, 2003). This states that computing power doubles every two years (or conversely, the price is cut in half for current power levels) and also translates into other aspects of our lives. Each time a new appliance or other technical accessory is introduced, it often not only contains all of the features of last year's model, but a few new ones, all for the same price as last year. Thus, people in general now demand and expect more sophisticated services and products—including facilities—than previous generations. And thanks to our ever-increasing reliance on cheaper technology, resulting in part from Moore's Law, accomplishing multiple tasks at any given time seems to be the rule rather than the exception.

Restoring some sense of older values—that is, when we were more internally driven than externally driven—is an admirable goal for a college union. But melding it with the desires of the new consumer by identifying one place where a student can meet with a small group, check e-mail, purchase coffee, put money on a one-card, and relax with a game of billiards is today's new challenge. The notion of the union as a destination or hub creates the opportunity (and expectation) to impact a wide range of campus programs, services, and initiatives. This can be both an asset and risk as we go forward in our search for the best model (Hall & Farley, 2000).

One way to approach the type of union offered is to examine a mission model. Four mission models—a student center, a college/university center, a conference/retail center, and a student/campus services center—provide a conceptual foundation from which to create a program statement. Figure A lists generic attributes that might be exhibited by a college union conceptualized exclusively from one mission model or another.

Figure A – Mission Models for College Unions (Hall & Farley, 2001)

IntentionsStudent CenterConference/Retail CenterCollege/University CenterStudent/Campus Services Center
Mission Emphasis
  • Student Development activities
  • Generating revenue, conferences and major events
  • Institutional community focused
  • Convenience
  • One-stop Shopping
  • Favors students/student organizations
  • Favors sales/customers/ vendors
  • Favors administrators/ donors
  • Favors department and office tenants
  • Heavy student involvement
  • Finance-oriented/contractual
  • Administrative and political
  • "Middle management" driven
Operating Budget Sources
  • Student fees
  • Generated profit
  • Cost reduction critical
  • Institutional funding and/or donations
  • Student fees and institutional funds
User Fees
  • Low for students, high for anyone else
  • Set at market rates but negotiable
  • Discounted and/or waived for institutional groups and "friends"
  • Low for students and departments
  • Market rate for external groups
Space Allocation
  • Casual lounge space important
  • Adequate/flexible student org. offices
  • Flexible/durable finishes and furniture
  • Computer labs/ fitness rooms/ bulletin boards
  • Minimal forma space
  • Lounge space used for events
  • Retail spaces with support facilities
  • Less student office space
  • Formal spaces important
  • Faculty dining and board rooms
  • Expensive signage and artwork
  • Alumni/historical artifacts
  • Department office suites and service centers predominant
  • Food service and bookstore important
  • Less event/ lounge space
  • Minimized to reduce cost
  • Up-selling is common
  • Critical but high cost to users
  • Amenities provided on request
  • Provided by users
Scheduling/ Event Planning
  • Teaching-oriented and flexible, last- minute accomodations are common
  • Hotel/conference service style
  • Long-range planning expected
  • Contracts/ penalties are common
  • Responsive to position and influence
  • Top-down intervention is common
  • Dependent on cycles such as registration, orientation, book rush, financial aid disbursement
Usage Patterns
  • Evenings/ weekends heavy
  • Late night is common
  • Closed breaks/ holidays
  • Daytime and early evening
  • Summer/holiday operation critical
  • Based on institutional calendar but changes with short notice
  • Busy at meal times and class breaks
  • Slow evening/ weekends/ breaks
  • Informal and student oriented
  • Sophisticated and formal/expensive
  • Part of budgeting
  • Admissions/ advancement issue
  • Handled by individual departments

One point of view

UCLA would be defined as an urban/commuter campus, moving toward an urban/residential as planned housing projects are completed and 50 percent of the student population is housed on campus. Many commuter campuses will be moving in the direction of residential campuses as the benefits of housing first- and second-year students become more apparent. Studies have shown that living in on-campus housing during the first years of the college experience has a positive impact on a student's well-being, retention, matriculation, and loyalty to the campus as an alumnus (Astin, 1993; Pascarella & Terenzini, 1991).

In this context, the ASUCLA Student Union must meet the requirements of a population that today tends to drive to campus, but tomorrow may be walking from nearby residence halls. As the categories shown in Figure B demonstrate, and regardless of the campus type, there will remain a need for food service, the student store and other retail, counseling and health-related services, and study space. What will vary between types are the degree of need and the style of the service delivery.

Major variables include the provision of increased or decreased study and lounge space, programming, meeting and event space, forms of recreation, the amount of food service needed, and the blend of retail (nonstudent store) services. The services that attend to the basic needs (food, clothing, general supplies, books, health, etc.) of a student or staff member are what ASUCLA must continue to offer and do well. As the UCLA campus evolves from commuter to residential, so will these services adjust to meet the specific requirements of a changing campus.

ASUCLA is faced with the opportunity to shape and change what the Student Union can be beyond retail or service delivery. It can be a destination that purveys ideas, culture, interaction, exchange, and change. How could the ASUCLA Student Union evolve into such a destination? Two examples come to mind. One is driven by the students themselves and is a product of their natural inclination to group and to give. The other is a product of the professional staff of the union and is an outgrowth of their desire to mentor, lead, and motivate.

ASUCLA and the Student Union currently focus their energy and resources on the support of the graduate and undergraduate student governments and the roughly 20 student organizations affiliated with them. While it is imperative that ASUCLA continue to offer the fullest support to its governments, the union is not completely fulfilling its mission when it is unable to offer resources to its 500 other registered student organizations.

When a full range of student organizations gains access to space, funding, and some degree of staff support, a diversity of programs usually follows. This broad range of programming provides a framework within which students from different backgrounds are exposed to new ideas, cultures, and lifestyles that challenge preconceived notions and lay the groundwork for the development of a more rounded perspective on the world they inhabit.

Most college unions set aside an amount of square footage for student group occupancy and access to resources. Space can be assigned quarterly/semesterly/yearly by lottery, historical occupancy, or on a first-come, first-served basis. A widely used policy is that if assigned space is not used,it is lost for the next quarter/semester/year. Often adjacent to this group space are storage facilities (lockers or cages) that afford space for signs and other programmatic materials for groups that may need only that service. To make the most of scarce resources at ASUCLA, a general-purpose resource center could be created, which would offer access to photocopiers, personal computers, Internet access, a fax machine, and other tools found in an office environment. A poster lab, operated in conjunction with the student governments, would facilitate the production of marketing materials for events and meetings.

Another focus for change at ASUCLA could be its programming model. Currently, almost all ASUCLA programming resources are directed through and by the student governments. A limited amount of funding is available to registered student organizations through a pool of funding that subsidizes facility cost, but not enough to make a substantial difference in the number and breadth of programs these groups stage in the union. It has long been the belief at UCLA that students best understand the programmatic needs of other students, and the university's programming model salutes this philosophy. The union is relegated to performing the functions of a venue and does not initiate programs. The problem with this model is that it does not allow for union staff to exercise their expertise in supplying a programmatic mix that augments the efforts of student-derived programming. When the union's staff has a direct role in some aspect of the programmatic mission, it can ensure that the overall breadth of programs the union offers is diverse, culturally rich, and better equipped to enhance the campus's academic mission.

This model is found at many college unions. At the University of Michigan, its University Unions' Web site states:

As educators, staff develop programs, services, and facilities to foster an inclusive community environment and to compliment the educational mission of the university by providing students with information, resources, leadership education and training. (University of Michigan, 2003, ¶ 3)

At Northwestern University's Norris University Center Web site, the Center for Student Involvement says:

The purpose of Norris Center Programming is to develop and implement social, cultural, and educational programs supporting the mission of the Norris University Center. (Northwestern University, 2003, ¶ 1)

A slightly different model is presented at California State University–Sacramento through its Student Activities Office:

Not all learning on a university campus takes place in the classroom. The CSUS Student Activities Office is committed to encouraging and helping students become involved in campus life through a variety of social and cocurricular programs, recreational sports, and more than 250 clubs and organizations.

Through any combination of these activities, students can learn democratic group procedures, expand tolerance and respect for fellow human beings, develop and maintain concern for vital issues, gain an appreciation of the aesthetic and cultural aspects of life, and participate in wholesome recreational activity. Getting involved on campus is a great way to meet people, make lifelong friends and contacts, enrich the total educational experience and make a large university seem more personal. (California State University–Sacramento, 2003, ¶ 1 & 2)

In Europe, it can be manifested in the custom of "high table," an ancient tradition that encourages regular contact where debate, food, and cultural interaction are mingled:

Most colleges observe the traditions of 'formal hall' at least once a week. Students must wear gowns on such occasions, but are treated to several courses and waitress service, all under the benevolent gaze of distinguished former wardens, whose dusty portraits hang from the paneled walls. Dons dine at High Table, a long table situated on a raised platform at the head of the hall, and eat a more extravagant fare washed down with fine wines and port. (Oxford University, 2003, ¶ 3)

To alter the tenor of its overall programmatic effort to ensure a wide range of programs are offered, including those that target cultural enlightenment and enhancement of UCLA's educational mission, the ASUCLA Student Union must begin to think about changing its programmatic model.

Figure B

Another way to examine the type of college union to be offered is to break it down into the type of community it would serve. For the purpose of this discussion, Figure B demonstrates four types to define our communities:


The characteristic of each of these types is as follows:

URBAN – Located in a metropolitan area with a substantial population. Economy of surrounding region is not dependent on the campus. Region supplies ample housing and bountiful opportunities for entertainment, employment, and recreation.

RURAL – Located outside of a metropolitan area. Population of surrounding region is small, economy is often based in agriculture or recreation, and campus may be the major employer. Opportunities for entertainment and employment are few outside of the campus itself. The campus is often the community center for the populace of the area, and provides meeting and event space, access to the arts, and professional services that are not readily available elsewhere.

RESIDENTIAL – More than 50 percent of the student population lives on campus or within very close proximity (walking distance or short commute on public transit). Students predominantly attend full time and may work at a part-time job or internship.

COMMUTER – More than 50 percent of the student population lives off campus. Students attend full time or part time and many work at a full-time job or part-time job or internship that requires 20 hours a week or more.

As we already know, a campus is usually a combination of two types. As the types are combined, different needs for each population begin to become apparent. By combination, these needs or attributes would be:

URBAN/COMMUTER – Students drive to and from campus. Time on campus is primarily spent in classes, or attending to specific errands or study requirements. Support needs would include food, some student store retail, some retail services, access to group study areas for class assignments, career services and counseling to help them deal with their stressful lives. Little or no need for on campus programming or entertainment. Studying is done primarily off campus.

URBAN/RESIDENTIAL – Many students walk or use public transit to and from campus. More time is spent on campus to avoid making the return to residence halls or to off-campus housing. Support needs would include food (as an alternative to residence hall food), full student store retail, full retail services, access to private study and group study areas, career services, and a full range of counseling and health services. Given the plethora of choices available off campus, students would have some need for on-campus programming and entertainment, but would also have access to similar activities in the area surrounding the campus.

RURAL/COMMUTER – Very similar to Urban/Commuter. Given nature of services available in rural settings, would have a greater need for student store and other retail services. Would be inclined to spend more time on campus than the urban counterpart in order to partake of programming and entertainment. Would also have need for counseling and health services because of limited options in the surrounding community.

RURAL/RESIDENTIAL – Very similar to Urban/Residential but with greater need for on-campus services, programming and entertainment. Lack of options in the surrounding community would make the campus the primary provider of retail, food, counseling, and health services.

Envisioning, defining, improving

What is this perfect union? It is definitely what we individually would like it to be. It also must be what the campus needs, now and in the future. As you go forward in the process of seeking and defining what your college union is and could become, you will need to keep a few key concepts in mind:

  • The union does not need to be all things to all people.
  • Other service providers on campus will be able to provide some union functions in a superior, more convenient, or more timely fashion.
  • Your location (often at the center of campus), your connection to the official governments of campus, and your own history of a student-centered way of doing business ensure that even if you do not change a thing, you will still be able to touch many students in a positive and meaningful way.
  • Your current organizational model and the size of your physical plant may limit the length and breadth of programs you can offer and the groups you can accommodate in your facilities.
  • Large-scale change will require dedicated financial resources to sustain increased facility size, programmatic enhancement, and staff support. Will students be willing to support this with a fee?

So, you've started down a road to envisioning a different union than the one that currently exists at your campus. The scope of this process can, at times, seem overwhelming and yet, if you take measured steps and ask the right questions, you will more than likely find yourself at the destination for which you are aiming. As Max De Pree said: "We cannot become what we need to be by remaining what we are."

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Updated Nov. 9, 2012