Research Confirms the Role of the College Union Aligns with Institutional Academic Mission

Site visits were conducted on six college campuses in 2017 or 2018: 

  • University of Minnesota–Duluth 
  • California State University–Northridge 
  • University of Houston 
  • University of Wisconsin–Madison 
  • Oklahoma State University 
  • North Carolina State University 

The college union has historically been a physical space on campus that provides a place for the community to gather for social and intellectual conversations. At the core of ACUI’s The Role of the College Union, first published in 1996, are concepts related to how the college union provides an environment for learning, student success, and community building. This is the first of three articles that will highlight the initial results of a research project that investigated the characteristics and outcomes associated with student engagement within a college union facility. 

A 12-member research team was assembled to investigate how the role of the college union contributes, broadly related, to student learning and success in a complex higher education environment. The team includes 10 practitioners (all with union administration experience), a faculty member with an architecture focus, and the primary investigator, who is a faculty member in a higher education and student affairs program with college union experience. The data collection and analysis was modeled from the Documenting Effective Educational Practice project using a qualitative case study design to discover the conditions within a physical space that impact student learning and student success. Team members reviewed more than 250 institutional documents and observed the use of the physical space. They interviewed more than 300 faculty, staff, students, and administrators, resulting in more than 80 hours of qualitative data. Through observation, team members used facility floor plans to document space usage. The initial data analysis identified alignment with the academic mission, student employment experiences, and engagement focused on the tenants of the college union role statement as conditions that contribute to student learning and success. 

The focus on learning outcomes aligns with the national trends surrounding institutions’ development of a common set of learning outcomes for undergraduate students established by the Association of American Colleges & Universities in 2016. Specifically focusing on the Role of the College Union to guide the research framework provides a foundation for understanding how the college union contributes to student success and learning. In the book Student Success in College: Creating Conditions that Matter, George Kuh, Jillian Kinzie, John Schuh, and Elizabeth Whitt note that the enacted mission of an institution is key to understanding the daily decisions of where and how students interact on campus. Understanding how the mission of the institution aligns with the Role of the College Union will provide professionals with the evidence they need to enhance programs, services, and relationships on college campuses, and to think intentionally about building construction and renovations. 

A key finding from this study identified a strong alignment between the mission of the college union and the academic mission of the institution. The research team identified that the structure, services, and programs within these facilities were intentionally designed to address learning and engagement for the specific campus. First, it is important to understand the purpose of a mission statement within the academy. In Assessing the College Mission: An Excellent Starting Point for Institutional Effectiveness, John W. Quinley identifies three components an institution’s mission statement should convey. Those include an essence of the institution; the values, beliefs, or intent; and a description of the educational outcomes desired for each student to have acquired upon graduation. Mission statements provide a shared sense of purpose, and the institution’s mission statement guides the direction of the institution. However, an institution’s mission statement is not able to communicate the purpose and characteristics of singular units on campus, academic or cocurricular. Researching the role of a specific facility on campus offers a unique opportunity to understand how the operation and management of the facility connects with the programs and services offered within those spaces, and in turn clearly contributes to the mission of an institution. 

A focus on individual student affairs functional areas to establish their own mission statements within the campus has become more prevalent in the last few decades. This practice is supported by the Council for the Advancement of Standards in Higher Education where mission is listed as the first essential component the college union must contain to identify purpose and essential characteristics. The research team found that the mission statement of the college union aligned with the components identified by Quinley and was enacted by the staff, student employees, and administrators through their day-to-day interactions. Writing in the journal Liberal Education, Jack Meacham and Jerry Gaff speak to the challenge of understanding how the mission statement becomes a lived part of the culture, noting that an institution’s mission statement is “not the same as a mission of an institution, a living sense among individuals in diverse roles of what that institution is and why it is important.” Building on this definition, the college unions studied provided consistent examples of how the mission provided focus for their work.  

The research team identified four characteristics that were consistent across the institutions that supported mission alignment between the college union and the institution supported learning and engagement. Those characteristics include: organizational structure where the facility operation and programming report to the same administrator; curricular and co-curricular opportunities for student learning; shared decision-making structures with students; and physical space that encourages cross-cultural and interdisciplinary engagement.  

Organizational Structures of College Unions Create Conditions that Promote Engagement and Learning 

A well formulated mission statement provides the foundational grounding for the purpose of a college union as an integral partner in the success of students. What allows the college union to live out its mission is how it is intentionally organized and structured. Simone Himbeault Taylor notes in Making the Invisible Visible: The Enduring Essence of Student Affairs, that facility management, while one of the less visible aspects of student affairs, has a key role in higher education’s purpose, stating “managing facilities is not simply building maintenance but is in service of creating spaces to invigorate learning and community building.” Seminal writings, like Chester Berry’s Planning a College Union Building, surrounding the planning of a union building note that the facility structures of the college union are to be “a community center of the first order” for the campus and that “its atmosphere should meet the local requirements.” The research team found that each institution had an organizational structure where the maintenance of the facility and the delivery of educational programs and services worked together to provide the campus community with a seamless experience. College union leadership consistently referenced the mission of the college union, an alignment with The Role of College Union statement and learning through training, development and staff meetings. At each institution, the staff embraced the idea that they played a key role to promote learning and engagement on campus. That success becomes critical when senior campus administrators are also able to articulate the significance of managing the physical space and the programming aspects. A senior administrator at Oklahoma State University shared the following sentiment about ensuring that the maintenance of the facility and the programming reported to the same individual. 

That person has to get it. Not just that they have to run this building, keep the lights on, keep the bills down. This has to be a place that students desire to come to and when they come here there has to be something that continues to stimulate the learning process outside of the classroom. Absolutely, the individual who is in charge makes all the difference. They hire all the other folks that are in the different areas and if you are getting like-minded folks there they share the vision and goals. That becomes the norm when you walk in the building; great customer service, we’re friendly, we’re inclusive, we are here to serve students and the Oklahoma State University community. 

To further articulate the importance of the organizational structure to the student experience, the research team observed a distinct tension with offices and employees that were required to work within the college union but did not report to the college union. The impact of that tension can easily trickle into the student culture. Students from North Carolina State University indicated that the college union positions are the most sought after on campus, and that other students who work in the union but do not report to the college union do not have the same learning experience. 

Formal campus partnerships within the facility communicate to the campus a shared mission of student well-being. The Oasis Wellness Center at the University Student Unions at California State University–Northridge also provides a supportive environment that helps students succeed academically. This partnership between the college union, the student health center, counseling services, and the faculty in the College of Health and Human Development assists students to manage stress and develop better self-care strategies. Programs include massage therapy, acupuncture, nutrition counseling, puppy therapy, art expression, nap pods, mindfulness, and other workshops related to stress management and developing healthy habits.

Curricular and Co-curricular Opportunities for Student Learning 

Kinzie and Kuh, in Reframing Student Success in College: Advancing Know-What and Know-How, note that a re-envisioned framework for student success includes greater attention to institutional responsibility, promotion of equity-minded practice, focus on high quality interactions and intentional, well thought out efforts of how success will be achieved. Additionally, the National Survey of Student Engagement has developed 10 engagement indicators in the four theme areas of academic challenge, learning with peers, experiences with faculty, and the campus environment (see Table 1). 

While some of the engagement indicators are focused on curricular engagement, the college unions researched provided curricular as well as co-curricular opportunities for students to engage in and practice higher order thinking, quantitative reasoning, reflective and integrative learning, as well as collaborative learning and discussions with diverse others. Additionally, these college unions provided opportunities that have high-quality interactions with various members of the campus community as well as a supportive environment that helps students succeed. The Talley Student Union at North Carolina State University intentionally partners with academic units to support projects and other curricular initiatives including nine landscape architecture projects for the building exterior, a pilot study related to composting with the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, two qualitative research projects with the College of Education, and serving as a LEED laboratory with the College of Design. These academic collaborations allowed students to connect learning to societal challenges while also applying theories and methodologies to practical problems.

The student centers at the University of Houston house offices that include the Center for Diversity and Inclusion and the Center for Student Involvement. Both provide opportunities to engage in dialogue with diverse others and learn with peers. The Center for Student Involvement at the University of Houston uses an intentional model of involvement called Connect, Discover, and Engage. 

Programs offered include leadership training and development opportunities that encourage higher order thinking and reflective and integrative learning such as the Student Organization Leadership Development Series, the Student Organization Leadership Advancement Retreat Catalyst (a leadership luncheon series), LEAD UH (a customizable leadership training program), and Ignite (a four-level leadership development program that also includes a community service component). 

Primary programs sponsored by the Center for Diversity and Inclusion include Culture Connect Week (a week of activities featuring multicultural performances, faculty lectures and multicultural student organization collaborations), the Cultural Conversations program that encourages round table discussions around cultural topics, and the Diversity Institute that includes educational workshops, a keynote, a diversity resource fair, and an academic poster session that assists students in increasing cultural knowledge and understanding. The center also offers experiential workshops such as Diversity 101 and 201, and Intent vs. Impact, to assist students and others with understanding their own identities, and understanding the culture of others as well as concepts such as power and privilege, intersectionality, and inclusive language. In the year prior to our visit, the center intentionally collaborated with 35 departments at the university and sponsored 114 diversity presentations that served nearly 8,400 participants. 

Shared Decision-Making Structures with Students 

ACUI’s Role of the College Union states that the union is a “student-centered organization” that emphasizes “participatory” or “shared decisionmaking.” The results from the research study provide numerous examples of this decision-making structure that keeps students at its core. 

The student centers at the University of Houston utilize an advisory board model called the Student Centers Policy Board. The board recommends all policy for student center programs, services, facilities, operations, and renovation and major project planning. The board is comprised of a majority of students, as well as faculty and staff. As one student said, “I have the opportunity to impact 45,000 students … decisionmaking … social responsibility … it’s not a slogan.” The University Student Union at California State University–Northridge is a non-profit organization that provides strategic direction, budget oversight, and policy approval for the union corporation. This governing body’s board consists of two-thirds students and one-third faculty, staff, administrators, and alumni using a shared decision-making model. Each of the college unions researched provided opportunities for student engagement and decision-making through governing boards, committees, councils or other advisory structures. 

The results also suggested that each of the college unions was purposefully organized to enhance the quality of interactions with various members of the campus community while providing an environment of support for students. Program offerings include late night events, programs focused on diversity and inclusion, support for athletics, recreational activities, lectures and other educational activities as well as social events such as comedy, concerts, and arts and crafts. Services include wellness services, identification cards, information desks, student support services, and multicultural centers. 

The Wisconsin Directorate featured such diverse programs such as Lit Fest (storytelling festival), Wheelhouse Studios (crafting, ceramics, glass arts, etc.), Sunset Slam (welcome week activity) and the Wisconsin Experience Bus Trip. The bus trip provides a unique opportunity for current and emerging student leaders to travel together throughout the state and engage in dialogue about what it means to be a member of the University of Wisconsin–Madison community. As a group they develop a shared vision and common language around leadership and return to campus promoting behaviors that lead to positive change. The program encompasses the institution’s leadership framework that includes observable outcomes based on campus values. Specific leadership competencies are developed through quality interactions, discussions with diverse others, and reflective thinking. 

Physical Space that Encourages Cross-Cultural and Interdisciplinary Engagement 

The academic mission of an institution outlines the intellectual priorities and desired campus foci derived from the type of institution: community college, land grant, research designation, urban, rural, and other factors. Missions include, but are not limited to, excellent teaching, community partnerships, research activities, practical application of a discipline, and entrepreneurial pursuits. The college union has been found to play a role in fulfilling the academic mission through the physical space both how it is designed and how it is used. The research study results revealed several examples of this relationship. 

The college union plays a role in fulfilling the academic mission with the inclusion of support services for students. The Student Union at Oklahoma State University includes several offices that support degree attainment and academic excellence: career services, multicultural affairs, registrar, enrollment management, and the Center for Ethical Leadership, to name a few. The variety of offices and services found in the union almost force all students to visit on a weekly basis. Another example of how the student union fulfills the academic mission is the Halligan Hall of Scholars. The hallway, located on the second floor of the union aligned with the Office of Scholar Development and Undergraduate Research is “…dedicated to OSU undergraduate students, and their faculty mentors, who have won various prestigious national and international
scholarship competitions.” 

The theaters and art galleries of the Wisconsin Union illustrate how a college union supports the academic mission. The institutional priority of the visual and performing arts is evident in the physical space of the Wisconsin Union. Two performance theaters host academic department sponsored plays, concerts, and operas. Shannon Hall and the Play Circle Theater host rehearsals and productions organized by the music and theater departments. The academic programming is complemented with programming sponsored by the Wisconsin Union Program and Leadership Development staff, the programming board, the Wisconsin Union Directorate, and student organizations committed to advancing their craft in music and theater production. The art galleries are another example of how the college union fulfills the academic mission: The Class of 1925 and Main Gallery in the Memorial Union and Gallery 1308 in Union South are managed by the Wisconsin Union Directorate’s art committee, with support from faculty. In addition, the Wisconsin Union boasts a permanent art collection of the 1,500 pieces that are found in the hallways, meeting rooms, and public spaces. Every day, students are in these unions to fulfill assignments related to the visual and performing arts: rehearsing, performing, supporting the technical aspects of productions, hanging an exhibit, or walking through the halls studying the pieces in the permanent collection for an art class assignment. 

The study supported what many union directors and their staff have posited since the opening of the first college unions. The researchers found that the college unions are used by students to connect and engage with each other, attend events, dine, and unwind. The researchers also found that the students who use the facilities engage in their studies, group projects, and exploring their discipline with the programs and services offered by programming boards and staff. Engagement indicators as outlined by the National Survey of Student Engagement are evident at the dining tables, in the lounges, and in the study rooms of the college union. Instances of collaborative learning, engaging with diverse others, and student-faculty interaction were documented at each institution that was visited. Furthermore, there are hundreds of meeting rooms in the college unions studied. In the 2016-17 annual report, the Kirby Student Center at University of Minnesota–Duluth reported 3,300 departmental events and 3,000 student organization events. The data included the use of meetings rooms by academic departments for faculty lectures, undergraduate research symposia by the chemistry and engineer departments, tabling for student survey research, and student organizations that are directly tied to an academic department. These examples at the Kirby Student Center reflect the support of the academic mission that can be found in the college union. 

These college unions intentionally develop programs, services, opportunities and facilities that possess the traits of high impact practices as cited by Kuh. As evidenced during the results from the campus visits, there has been substantial investment of time and effort by union staff to develop these programs. Intentional learning occurs outside the classroom, activities are organized so that meaningful interactions occur between faculty and students, and programs are structured to encourage considerable discussion with diverse others. These purposeful strategies are evidence of the college union’s integral role in creating environments that support student success.  


  • Danielle DeSawal

    Danielle M. DeSawal, Ph.D., is clinical professor for higher education and student affairs and the master’s program coordinator at Indiana University. She serves as the primary investigator on the research project focused on student learning and success in the college union and has co-edited a New Directions for Student Services monograph on the trends and issues facing the college union. She has been honored by Indiana University with the faculty award from the Commission on Multicultural Understanding, received the Gordon Faculty Award through the Division of Student Affairs, and was recognized with the Indiana University Trustees Teaching Award.

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  • Debra Hammond

    Debra L. Hammond is executive director of the University Student Union at California State University–Northridge, where she also serves as a faculty member in the Michael D. Eisner College of Education. In 2012 she was named Outstanding Professor of the Year in the college counseling student services program, in 2016 she was named California State University system’s outstanding staff member of the year, and in 2017 the San Fernando Valley Business Journal presented her with its Lifetime Achievement Award for her accomplishments as a woman in business.

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  • Leah Barrett

    Leah Barrett, Ed.D., is president of Northeast Community College in Norfolk, Nebraska. She has been a member of ACUI since 1992 and worked in the college union field from 1992-2008. Her dissertation was a quantitative study that found that the physical space of the college union was a factor in building a sense of community on campus.

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