The College Union

In the book College Union Dynamic the authors discuss how “the College Union functions as the town square of the college.  The union is the general store, post office, barbershop, café, and town hall all rolled into one facility” (Knell and Latta, 2006).  This research demonstrated that the College Union is a prime informal space that supports the academic mission of the institution.  Knell and Latta stated “the interchange of knowledge and ideas requires a place for people to interact, a place where various opinions and philosophies can bump into one another.  The union can be the place as it fosters a positive, receptive climate for learning” (Knell and Latta, 2006).

“In 1812 Augustus Hare founded the Attic Society (precursor of the Oxford Union) . . . Hare was imbued with an almost mystical belief that discussion was both the road to truth and the only justification of a university education . . . Despairing of the Oxford as a home of lost causes, he moved over to Cambridge, where he had hopes that the Cambridge Union, newly founded in 1815, would have freedom of life denied to such enterprises at some of his old friends of the Attic Society” (Butts, 1971, p. 1).  In 1823 students at Oxford University organized a union and built their own facility in 1857, which included a debate hall, reference library, dining room, meeting rooms, lounges, billiard room, and offices (ACUI, 1999).  “The Debating Societies provide several outlets for political energy. Foremost of these is the celebrated Union . . . A successful Union orator has of necessity acquired many qualifications for speaking. Many of our present statesmen have been trained in this school” (Butts, 1971, p. 3).

In 1832, a union was organized at Harvard University for debating purposes.  It was not until 1880 when the idea of a general club was embraced.  The hope was for this “union” to develop into a larger general society, like the unions in England, which would result in a facility dedicated to student use.  This did not occur immediately at Harvard, and instead, the first building dedicated to union purposes was Houston Hall at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia in 1896.  This first union contained lounges, dining rooms, an auditorium, reading rooms, student offices, and game rooms, and was given to the university by the Houston family with the expectation that it would be a “place where all may meet on common ground” (ACUI, 1999).

In the early 20th Century there was a lot of activity associated with the development of the College Union on campuses, especially in the Mid-West.  “In the 1929-30 Director’s Annual Report of the Wisconsin Union, The Four Objectives of the Union were outlined, which furthered the development of the College Union Idea. The Four Objectives are:

  1. The Union exists to make the large university a more human place. Or, in the words of President Glenn Frank, “The Union is a living room, which converts the University from a house of learning into a home of learning.”
  2. The Union can provide, in addition to physical facilities where personal relations among students and teachers may naturally find expression, a comprehensive and well-considered program for the social life of the University.
  3. The Union stands as the University’s recognition of the importance of the leisure hour. The Union makes a signal contribution to the scope and objectives of the educational approach.
  4. The Union is a genuine student cooperative experience, aiming to give students experience in managing their own affairs and the opportunity of reducing their living costs” (Butts, 1971, p. 22-23).

After World War II, student populations grew on campuses around the country, and so did the number of union facilities.  Colleges and universities looked for ways to improve living conditions on campuses; they also looked at how to create a quality social experience as well (ACUI, 1999).  As more campuses developed these facilities, the importance of developing a definition for the union became a necessary undertaking.  In 1945, Edith Ouzts Humphreys and Porter Butts made an attempt at a definition.  They stated the following:

The term “College Union” implies an organization and a building. The organization, ordinarily composed of students, faculty and alumni, is an informal educational medium for individual and group self-discovery and expression through a broad program of social and cultural recreation adapted to the leisure-time interests and needs of the college community. The union building is the community center – the physical instrument of implementing the objectives of the organization and for facilitating a community life (Butts, 1971, p. 53).

The College Union has evolved from the debate societies of the 1800’s to complex and specialized kind of structure.  “There is nothing else like a union building.  Although similar to civic community centers, union buildings are more inclusive and unique” (ACUI, 1999).  Union buildings may house some, or all of these programs and services:  dining halls, snack bars, coffee shops, club offices, theaters, art galleries, music and video rooms, libraries, craft shops, chapels, meeting rooms, post offices, pubs, radio stations, barber shops, outing facilities, LGBTQA spaces, governing groups, administrative offices, and many other services under one roof (ACUI, 1999).

As quoted in the book The College Union Idea, “the phrase – “unifying force” – supports rather better than anything else, I think, the meaning of the word “union” and the concept of a union as a positive contributor to college life, rather than just a convenient place to gather, or a physical facility giving service…” (Butts, 1971, p. 100).  This sums up what designates the union as that ‘special place’ on a college or university campus.  The College Union supports activities outside the classroom that are “key to enhancing learning and personal development,” according to The Student Learning Imperative (ACPA, 1996).

The College Union is not only a programmatic space, but also a facility that is managed by both student leaders and professional staff from the student affairs profession.  “In 2005, ACUI announced a set of 11 core competencies for the College Union and student activities profession. Developed over six years, the core competencies are a composite set of knowledge and behaviors that provide the basis and foundation for professional practice in College Union and student activities work.” (CAS, 2009, p. 2).

Curtis Moody, president and founder of Moody-Nolan, Inc., an architecture firm that specializes in higher education, sports/recreation, and healthcare facilities, points out (2010) that in order to meet the recruitment goals of the institution, decision makers need to look at their campus facilities as a important recruitment tool.  “It is essential for college administrators to display the greatest and most attractive attributes of their institution at all times, otherwise known as their ‘recruitment gold’’ (Moody, 2010).  This is not only important for recruiting students, it is important for retaining them as well.  Moody goes on to say that “Current trends evident in campus cultures indicates that in addition to requiring modern technology and up-to-date resources for their [students] academic work, students also need food choices, friends, and fun places to do them in to create a favorable social and educational experience.  A student center [College Union] can in corporate all the valued elements – lounges, game rooms, food venues, meeting spaces, facilities for recreation and fitness, pools, etc.” (Moody, 2010).