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Inside the Industry: Student Union

By Selena Fragassi


A recent report on Best College Reviews unveiled the “25 most amazing campus student unions,” going on to say that, “Universities and colleges are currently in the midst of a building boom nationwide, as they are investing tens and hundreds of millions of dollars to revitalize their student unions.” So why the sudden interest? It’s a two-fold mission, says Kelsey Finn, the executive director of the soon-to-be-opened ASUC Student Union at University of California Berkeley.

“There’s been an abundance of research about creating community space for stu- dents outside of the classroom so they can engage and interact with each other as well as faculty and the community. Also, we are getting smarter in knowing that there are certain times of the year when these buildings just sit empty, and if we open up the spaces and utilize them for outside groups that could benefit from an affordable, convenient, accessible venue, it’s a win-win for everybody.”

When completed, the ASUC Student Union will host a 10,000-square-foot ballroom, multiple meeting rooms that can seat 6 to 90 people, a business center, food service and coffee shop. “We will be open to weddings, camps, conferences, business groups, etc.,” Finn states, noting the center will be available year-round, unlike other campus buildings.

Kevin Slesh, director of real estate at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, eyes a similar ap- proach for the school’s new Tinkham Veale University Center, which will open in August with a 9,000-square- foot event space among other amenities.

“Our hope is that this facility becomes a place for the community to collaborate and congregate, so it’s not just a student center that is frequented or visited only by our students, but open to the public as well.” The 82,000-square-foot build- ing is a $50 million dollar project, most of which came through donors, allowing a more liberal, open-door policy.

Although, at U.C. Berkeley, student fees cover a good deal of the cost, Finn says there needed to be something to make up the difference. “We couldn’t rely on all operational costs coming from the fee. So we decided that commercial activities would help fund and support the building during the academic year.”
It’s an initiative that’s worked well for Ohio’s Bowling Green State Univer- sity at their Bowen-Thompson Student Union, which offers a full-service pub, movie theater, food court, post office and two-story bookstore. A grand ball- room has hosted previous guests ranging from the National Youth Conference to the Heavy Metal Conference as well as a special book signing and talk by activist and author Elizabeth Smart.

“Our motto in conference services is ‘transforming our space into your place,’ says Michael Brown, manager of guest relations. “We can take our space and transform it over and over again depend- ing on what group is in that building. We’ve brought in dueling pianos and a real casino with slot machines. We’ve worked with our animal science program to bring in animals for various events. We have a pretty open policy as long as we’re not starting a fire inside of the building,” he says, laughing.

It’s a similar situation at Queen’s Uni- versity in Charlotte, North Carolina, which has hosted everything from the ´┐╝Democratic National Convention to the yearly Father-Daughter dance sponsored by the YMCA. Here, the Levine Center for Wellness and Recre- ation is considered the school’s student center. Opened in August 2013, the three-story, 145-square-foot building offers classroom spaces alongside a 33- meter pool, basketball courts, volley- ball courts, dance studio and walking track. A large conference room seats 152 people. “The great thing about that space is that it’s right next door to our parking garage,” says Tamara Osborne, director of conference and event ser- vices. “Plus, our onsite caterers are able to do meals in this space.”

Although there are a number of benefits to hosting events at a student union, Slesh is quick to make sure plan- ners know, “this is not an exclusive type of arrangement where there would be the run of the building. ... there’s the chance that you’ll be interacting with the students or other people casually using the center.”

But for Finn, that’s just one more plus. “Groups come to a campus be- cause of the vibrant environment, so I think there is a great learning process and an educational opportunity when the public meets higher education.”

Bowling Green State University (419) 372.9019

Case Western Reserve University (216) 368.2000

Queens University (704) 337.2560

U.C. Berkeley (510) 643.9149