A Case Study of Faculty Experiences in a College Union

In a time of intense scrutiny of higher education, tightening budgets, and calls for accountability, a college union’s role in establishing community must be educationally justified and evolve accordingly. But does the college union create community for all campus constituents? Contributions of faculty members to an educationally conducive community have been documented in other locations on campus, and the college union must find ways to relate better to faculty if it is to succeed in its role as a community for the entire campus. 

Beyond a focused measure on students, however, little exists by way of research on the college union’s purpose regarding other constituents. Despite their specific inclusion in ACUI’s The Role of the College Union, not much literature exists regarding any other groups: staff, alumni, guests, or faculty. The final group, faculty, is the concern in this study. Why have faculty been left out of this literature? Surely, they cannot be unimportant to the college union. With heightened awareness on student learning in colleges and universities, college union practitioners should be seeking out new and inventive ways in which to involve and engage faculty in their operations and programs. The focus on student retention and persistence is undeniable, and both the academic and cocurricular institutional areas play roles in those efforts. Faculty, alongside staff, are critical in campus efforts to boost student persistence; and calls for deliberate faculty involvement in cocurricular life have continued for well over a decade. 

Knowledge related to the involvement of faculty around the college union may have many benefits: 

  • Bringing faculty members into the college union may better promote general concepts of community, both within faculty ranks and as an entire campus. 
  • If more was known about faculty needs and wants in a college union, and how those concepts are developed, practitioners and campus leaders might see potential foundations for partnerships in their own college unions. Intentional spaces and opportunities could be created to further academic connections to the wider student community. 
  • Faculty members themselves may find a new sense of community and belonging on campuses, perhaps contributing to a greater sense of satisfaction among their ranks. College unions would, in theory, be able to show how their facilities and programming specifically contribute not only to academic retention and persistence, but also to faculty wellbeing. In short, this research might better prepare both faculty members and practitioners to help students—and therefore the entire institution—succeed. 

Faculty members at institutions of higher education represent an important presence on campus, and an increasingly siloed constituent group for campus-bound resources and facilities. Faculty are a diverse group who hold a special connection to a campus, and college unions cannot ignore their presence, nor the possibilities they represent. Seeking their opinions, engaging in partnerships, and creating a faculty-friendly atmosphere might be a union’s second most important charge behind its obligations to students. Recognizing the expertise that faculty members bring to the campus, and the opportunities they present as potential clients and customers, may have notable benefits for college unions, for faculty members, and for students and alumni as well. 

Specifically, this study attempted to answer the following questions: 

  • How do faculty members at a case study institution describe their college union’s role in developing community for students and faculty? 
  • What interactions do these faculty members have with the college
    union at their current institution? 
  • How do these faculty members
    recall their introductions to their college union? 
  • What elements of their college union do these faculty members identify as contributing to, or detracting from, a sense of faculty community? 
  • What other interactions or opportunities do these faculty members desire from their college union? 

The questions for this study were asked within the campus ecology conceptual framework developed by James Banning and Leland Kaiser in 1974. In campus ecology, human and developmental ecology are combined within the collegiate environment to focus on the concept of college student development. The framework of campus ecology has been used to study a wide variety of student-setting phenomena such as student success, campus safety, and college union design processes. Campus ecology presents as an ideal candidate for the study of individuals and environments within a college union; however, this framework has largely been applied to a student-focused context, with a basis in college student development. 

Six underlying theories shape campus ecology: 

  • Behavior-setting theory
  • Subculture approach
  • Holland’s theory
  • Stern’s need x press = culture theory
  • Moos’ social ecological approach
  • Pervin’s transaction approach

Each of these theories contributes to the overall framework of campus ecology and provides guidance on potential interview questions, analytical possibilities, and coding techniques. 

Behavior-setting theory, describes the ways that individual and group behaviors and actions interact with the physical environment, and how the two concepts influence and reinforce one another. 

Subculture approach uses similar environmental-individual assumptions but is more concerned with variation in behavior and attitude within a setting. This model identified four distinct subcultures: academic, nonconformist, collegiate, and vocational, and mapped on the dimensions of students’ identification with ideas and their identification with their college. 

Holland’s theory was developed by more than 150 studies that demonstrated that individuals tended to select environments consistent with specific combinations of personality types, derived from six basic personality types. Holland suggested that six model environments exist, corresponding one with each of his personality types. 

Stern’s need x press = culture theory took an operationalized approach to the concept of person-environment influence. Describing 30 different behaviors as “needs” helps frame environmental perceptions and reports (“presses”) in predictable ways. Stern used multiple indices to operationally define the environments for participants; though his results were not generally found to support his theory on an individual level, there is some better consistency across academic colleges. 

Moos’ social ecological approach posits that environments themselves possess unique personalities that can be described and characterized. Moos observed three dimensions common to different environments: nature and intensity of personal relationships, personal growth and self-enhancement influences, and system maintenance and change. 

Pervin’s transaction approach: Theorized that the specific interactions and transactions between individuals and their setting help create perceptions of self, both actual and idealized. Pervin’s approach may be useful in that prior studies have used it to demonstrate self-environment congruency and satisfaction. 


A one-on-one, face-to-face flexible and semi-structured interview method was used to interview 12 faculty members at a college union at a large, public institution in the Midwest. In the case of this study, specific faculty members were being sought: namely those with experiences in and around the college union at the university. To identify these faculty members, a gatekeeper familiar with the union was identified and that gatekeeper drew from both formal and informal faculty relationships with the union, including faculty who have served in official capacities and those who were simply well-known users of the facility. A multiple-cycle coding system was used to analyze the results, look for major and minor patterns, and uncover notable thematic elements. 

The overall tone and results of the study paint a picture of faculty in college unions that is mostly positive, if not overly widespread. These participants clearly valued their experiences and time in the college union and seemed versed in the language of student primacy that permeates other college union literature. They felt welcome in the facility, even if the college union was not the first choice of venues for food and gathering among some of the participants. They highly regarded the meeting and events function of the facility and had high praise for both the feel of the facilities as well as the staff who manage and support them. 

The faculty participant group was not, however, overly diverse or even as diverse as the rest of the university faculty body. They were primarily older, male, and white. While this does not invalidate any conclusions on its own, it is an important note in any efforts to expand further upon the results of this study. A more diverse sampling might not perceive the college union as welcoming, for example, given the historical context of these facilities as primarily occupied by white men. Because of this context and participant group, efforts were made to ensure that the voices of minoritized participant groups (such as women and racial minorities) were made clear in this study’s results. 

The most notable take-away from this study is the college-specific concept of community that appears to permeate the campus. Even the most union-friendly faculty participants in the study noted their school or college (Law School, School of Education, etc.) often served as their primary mechanism for community with other faculty members. The college union’s role was primarily to serve their needs for greater campus community, or cross-disciplinary community, rather than the first-level needs. Faculty also clearly see the union as a third space, consistent with many of the ideas described by Ray Oldenburg in his book, “The Great Good Place.”

The constant attention to the gathering function of the union, as well as the frequent characterizations of dining and beverage, draw similarities to many depictions of third spaces. While Oldenburg’s descriptions do not mention a “pass through” concept or function, this frequent utilization of the college union to escape harsh climates might also align with this construct. Additionally, the faculty desires for a faculty-inclusive lounge or pub which would be highly indicative of Third Space Theory and its roles. 

The most puzzling element of this study remains the quantity of faculty participants (50%) who hold undergraduate degrees from this university. Consulting with their office of institutional research produced no information to which to compare this statistic, nor does that information appear readily available at other universities. However, the number feels like a much higher one than would be present in a truly random sample. This may serve as an indicator of tendencies of undergraduate alumni faculty to return to locations and experiences that proved important or impactful in their earlier time at the university. This does not appear to fit neatly into any theoretical framework included in this study, but may prove useful for future pursuits of college unions seeking to maximize faculty
member inclusion. 

Action Items

The study was fortunate in that participants were asked directly for experiences they desire, which many of them took as a call for suggestions. While not all practical requests to their everyday routines are applicable here, the larger issues they often brought up serve as general guides for potential practice in the college union field. 

Targeted communication of relevant programs and services to faculty, especially newer faculty members, may help establish longer term trends. Multiple faculty participants in this study found their “home” in the union as undergraduate students, so interventions for newer, younger faculty members may help contribute to the same larger patterns of behavior and relationships. Highlighting the more faculty-centric features of a facility such as dining options, meeting and event space, and recent facility improvements may help “sell” union programming in more practical ways. Focusing on faculty in buildings near the college union facility might also take advantage of a faculty member’s need for convenient programs and services. 

Another opportunity would be to look for academic partnerships with different colleges and departments and ask how the union might help serve their—and their students’—needs. At least a quarter of the participants in this study were selected for participation due to their ongoing academic program or partnership with the union, and all seemed highly vested in the union’s success and appreciative of the partnership. Forging agreements with academic units—whether for space, special services, or a new program concept—brings an academic legitimacy to the college union and can help spotlight the academic partner in a centralized campus facility. Potential examples of areas or departments with whom to partner might include higher education programs, a hospitality program, a public policy school, an arts department, or other ideas. These partnerships represent the modern, actualized version of what researchers called for in faculty-union partnerships over 50 years ago. 

College union practitioners should find ways to engage specific faculty members outside of the union board context. One long-term benefit of faculty rotating through union board is the gradual distribution of faculty advocates throughout the colleges, which may provide for wider campus support at later dates. Finding more ways to involve select faculty members could strengthen and quicken this process. The academic partnership is one route to accomplishing this, but others may exist. Inviting faculty to specific events, such as union town hall meetings and faculty focus groups, may show good faith on the union’s part and result in better decision-making. 

Taking ideas, concepts, and invitations to faculty senate—as one might do with student government—shows a commitment to the investment and involvement of faculty members in the college union program. 

College union administrators might be served well in these efforts to enlist the support of higher-level faculty and administrators. In addition to wielding the power to make partnerships happen, these individuals seem to command respect from peers and academic units. Their efforts, and perhaps even simply their presence in notable spaces, may add legitimacy and immediacy to the college union’s plans. 

Future Research

This study focused on the experiences of specific faculty members at a case study college union, namely, those with preexisting relationships with the union. Given the way this study was framed, there are multiple opportunities to expand on this knowledge and further our understanding of these experiences. 

Given the nature of some faculty participants, a study of specific partnerships between a college union and an academic department would undoubtedly produce usable, tangible results for union practitioners. Examining programs through lenses of cooperative partnerships and mutual goal pursuit, research might be framed from a business lens to seek common threads that permeate these partnerships, resulting in potential best practices for college unions to pursue on their campuses. Studying these partnerships, as has been done previously with service learning and faculty-in-residence programs, may add further legitimacy to the college union’s efforts and provide new avenues for engagement in the academic department. A model for union-academic partnerships might result from such a study. 

This same study might be also be conducted again at the same university or at a similar institutional type and context, with a more deliberate focus on minoritized populations of faculty. In this study, women were underrepresented as compared to overall university faculty statistics, as were people of color. The deliberate inclusion of faculty members with disabilities and younger faculty members might also contribute to a more diverse set of experiences. 

It could also be conducted again at the same university, but with a different purposeful sampling of faculty. Since faculty participants in this study had preexisting relationships with the union, identifying faculty with no such link to the facility might produce notably different results. These faculty might be identified through participation in a larger campus assessment of the union, such as through the Skyfactor/EBI Benchmarking Survey. These faculty might have different experiences with the union, might want different opportunities with it, and might find community formed in different ways. 

It could also be conducted at other institutional types. At several points in this study, references were made to the nature of faculty on a research-intensive campus. The experiences of faculty members at such an institution may be very different from those at other institutional types, including vocational schools, community colleges, liberal arts institutions, private institutions, and others. Similar studies at other institutional types may provide a broader understanding of cross-campus faculty needs. 

Moreover, continuing the college union’s work with students while enhancing a relationship with faculty may have wide-reaching implications for student affairs at an institution. Previous research that recommended forging personal relationships with faculty members showed a connection between appreciation of student affairs and an understanding of cocurricular learning in higher education. As faculty roles naturally continue away from students and towards other priorities like research, specific partnerships and relationships may become even more important links between the two worlds. On many campuses, the college union is poised to lead the way in these initiatives but can only do so if the commitment and effort are made upfront. 


  • Rob Stagni

    Rob Stagni serves as the director of the Arkansas Union at the University of Arkansas. He earned his bachelor’s degree in accounting from Texas A&M University, a master’s in higher education and student affairs from Indiana University, and his doctoral degree in higher education from the University of Arkansas. This article is adapted from his dissertation of the same name that was published earlier this year. Stagni has served in multiple volunteer roles through a decade of involvement with ACUI.

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