Skip to content

State of the Student Union: Reclaiming Student Unions as Civic Spaces

By Cecilia M. Orphan, National Manager, American Democracy Project

What if there was a physical place on every college campus available for people to do public work? What if this place provided resources for students and university leaders to organize for positive change on campus and in their communities? What if this place educated students about civic life and engaged them in political activities?

Lately I have been thinking about the physical structures on university campuses and their various uses. Perhaps it’s because I am reading a book that criticizes many of the non-academic structures on campus (Higher Education? How Colleges are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids). The argument in the book is that universities should be places for academic inquiry – not student recreation – and that university budgets should only allocate funds to structures and activities that reinforce education. While I believe there is some merit to this argument, I think that there is an important role for university student unions to play in fostering a healthier society and in educating informed, engaged citizens for our democracy. On far too many college campuses, though, student unions are only meeting the recreational needs of students and are doing very little – if anything – to enhance campus civic life.

I remember my early encounters with my first university’s Student Union (at Oregon State University). It houses a large emporium of food vendors, the student book store, a bowling alley, a recreation facility, and a ballroom with large, ancient couches. I spent a lot of time in the student union, usually studying or taking naps between classes, buying food or university merchandise, and – being in touch with my blue collar roots – bowling. I  was also able to attend many political events in the union and learn about civic opportunities in my community thanks to OSU’s dedication to using the union as a hub of civic life. The stated mission of OSU’s student union is below:

At the heart, our organization is about building community.  We believe that community contributes fundamentally to the quality of life of individuals and campus society.  We have a responsibility to create community that facilitates civic engagement and interaction.  The Memorial Union is an integration of three main units and goes about creating community in different ways: the Union through physical space, Student Leadership & Involvement through Events and Programs and Student Media through student run publications.  Within each of the three main units there are several subsections.

From what I learned during my limited research on the history of student unions on American colleges campuses, my civic experiences with the student union are somewhat unique. OSU’s student union falls in line with a long history of student unions whose primary purposes are to serve as recreational facilities for students.

The first American student union, Houston Hall, was established at the University of Pennsylvania in 1896 and was modeled after the University of Oxford’s Student Union. Houston Hall houses UPenn’s student government and, as is outlined in its constitution, “the object of Houston [Hall] is to draw together students, officers, and alumni of all Departments of the University in a wholesome social life, and to provide for them suitable amusements and recreations.” Indeed, the founders hoped that students would pass “their leisure hours in harmless recreation and amusement” (taken from UPenn’s website). Though Oxford’s Student Union was used as a model for Houston Hall, what is interesting about Houston Hall’s stated purpose is that it is somewhat of a departure from the foundational purposes of Oxford’s Student Union.

According to its website, Oxford’s Student Union can be traced back to the 13th Century and was created to help ease tensions between students of various nationalities who were fighting on campus. Such fighting at times resulted in student fatalities. The modern mission of Oxford’s Student Union is “to represent Oxford University students in the University’s decision-making, to act as the voice for students in the national higher education policy debate, and to provide direct services to the student body.” As you can see from reading its mission and visiting its website, Oxford’s Student Union pays close attention to civic life.  Since the establishment of the first student union at UPenn, almost every American university has followed suit and created student unions. Unfortunately, the original political and democratic purpose of Oxford’s Student Union is not often mimicked throughout this network of student unions.

Most American student unions are home to their Student Government Associations (SGA). Far too often, though, SGAs more closely resemble popularity contests than student-run democracy. In an ADP Blog post about student governments, Yasmin Karimian of the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC) wrote about her experience as student government president. In her blog post, Yasmin helps us think about a new role for student governments as agents and architects of democracy. The students at UMBC reformed the SGA into an organization on campus that works with students to solve community-based problems. To this end, Yasmin believes that “it is the time for student leaders to re-envision the function  of student governments across the nation. Imagine a world where we are all seen as creators of our own communities… Student governments could be the stepping stones to that world.” I couldn’t agree more. I believe that along with reforming student governments around the country, it is also time for university leaders to reclaim their student unions as civic spaces on campus. While I don’t believe that the recreational aspects of the student union should be totally abandoned, I do believe that we should use this space on campus to promote civic engagement.

How can we reclaim our student unions as civic spaces? Nancy Kranich, in her ADP Blog post about Academic Libraries as civic spaces, provides the rough outline for a road map about how this might be done. Arizona State University also offers an interesting example of how student unions may be used as hubs of civic life on campus. Students at ASU are working to “shape the mission and vision for the [Student] Union [as a] future hub for programs related to community service, service learning, AmeriCorps, high impact careers and social entrepreneurship.” Student unions could also serve as the hub of student leadership in civic engagement initiatives on campus.

Would you like to reclaim your Student Union as a civic space? Below are some ideas about how you might do this.

  • Meet with your SGA president and learn about his or her hopes and dreams for the space. Challenge the president to think about how the student union may be used not only to entertain students but to engage them in civic life.
  • Host student civic events in the union.
  • Work with the SGA to establish a Democracy Plaza in the union so students might engage in ongoing conversations about democracy and pressing issues of the day.
  • Host voter education and registration outreach activities in the food court.
  • Host a Community Outreach Resource Fair in the union that will allow students to learn about community engagement opportunities.
  • Establish a room in the student union devoted to public work and use this room for student training on community organizing and public work.
  • Host political debates in the union.
  • Host town halls and forums on important issues impacting your local community.
  • What else? Please use the comments section below to add your ideas about how we might reclaim student unions as civic spaces.
For us to be serious about preparing students as civic agents, it is important for us to leverage every resource on campus to this end. Harnessing the often untapped civic power of student unions is one way we might create an institutional culture that fosters student civic development.
One Comment Post a comment
  1. I see the idea of student unions as civic spaces is extremely promising — especially when such unions take on the quality of “free spaces.” Free spaces are places people “own” and create together, in which there is room for free intellectual life, socializing, and learning civic skills and habits that can feed into larger intellectual change. Many student unions were actually created through the work of students — COffman Student Union at the University of Minnesota is an example, from the late 1930s. And when they have elements of free spaces, they are places where students create their own environments, not receive services.

    When I was at Duke in the 1960s, such free spaces were found in places like the Methodist student center and the Triangle coffee house near to campus, where blacks and white students had a rare opportunity to mix it up, interact, talk and strategize about the freedom movement. We need similar free spaces again — in Student Unions and elsewhere — where students can help to birth a deep movement for democratic change.


    May 17, 2011

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: