Reactivating the Student Center on the Modern Campus 
Meghan Webster in Dialogues with Gensler, Education Research, Education and Culture

Image © Gensler

To kick-off another school year, Gensler’s Chicago office hosted its fourth event in a four-part panel series on trends at the forefront of higher education. The focus: student unions.

Student unions have long served as a symbol for institutional identity and a place of civic engagement for students. Yet, this campus icon is increasingly losing students to its counterparts: residence halls, libraries, recreation centers, and even academic learning spaces. To stay relevant, the student union must undergo an overhaul.

Gensler invited three panelists to explore the changing role of the student union on the modern campus: Clare Robinson, an assistant professor in architectural history and theory at the University of Arizona, whose research focuses on college campuses and the development and redefinition of student centers; Jeremy Alexis, who heads up interdisciplinary education at the Illinois Institute of Technology and runs an innovation lab at the Institute called the Idea Shop; and Murphy Monroe, the Executive Director of Admissions at Columbia College who regularly tackles the challenge of drawing thousands of students annually to his institution.

The conversation addressed several themes that have recurred throughout the series: the ever-evolving student profile; use of technology to catalyze the built environment; and the importance of place and community. However, central to the conversation in all four events has been this question of value proposition: how can a particular campus building type – in this case, the student union hall– drive recruitment and retention?

Due, in part, to the current economic environment, administrators recognize that students place significant value on job outcomes. Students want institutions to prepare them for life beyond graduation. Not only does this preparedness stem from academic success, but it also depends on students’ ability to thrive in a professional environment. Panelist Clare Robinson noted that one of the original functions of the student union was to teach students ‘soft skills’ – things that couldn’t necessarily be taught in a classroom, such as how to interview, how to work among other individuals, how to exist in the world at large. For emerging generations of students, this role is equally (if not more) critical; what was once a place for teaching students the intricacies of etiquette could become a source for professional survival.

Image © Gensler

Still, academic achievement remains a critical driver of career success; in an era defined by MOOCs and web-based teaching, student unions can potentially become places of innovative learning that draw students to campus. An increased emphasis on cross-disciplinary work and partnerships with industry has begun to shift the campus environment towards incubator spaces and hands-on learning environments. At IIT, panelist Jeremy Alexis likens the Idea Shop to the student union – it’s a place where students spend all of their time, including their in-between time, and look for inspiration in the activity and energy of the place.

At its core, the student union still fosters civic and social life, bringing together groups of students who might otherwise be fairly segmented. An audience member from the School of the Art Institute credited the Nieman Center – the school’s new student center – for having increased student involvement on campus by 50 percent in the last year since it was built. Panelist Murphy Monroe notes that student unions may draw students to campus by promoting their social network, and this network of peers outlasts students’ affinity to their institution once they graduate. Thus, an institution can tout this network as a valuable asset to differentiate itself from its competitors.

Underlying this discussion and the previous topics in this panel series is the inescapable reality that higher education has reached a tipping point. Seemingly infinite student expectations, the online courseware explosion, and astronomical financial hurdles have forced academia to confront a new era. Design can help to catalyze new paradigms in education, and this panel series has started the dialogue with the experts – the institutions themselves – towards reinventing these paradigms on campus.

Image © Gensler

Gensler Chicago will soon kick off its next education panel series that will explore well-being on the academic campus.

Meghan is a senior associate in Gensler's Chicago office. She has a broad range of experience across the country and overseas in every phase of the architecture and construction process, and she draws on this experience when thinking about new and inventive ways for buildings to broaden the lives of the end-users. Contact her at
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