More Than Food at the Student Union Colleges Hope New Multifunctional Centers Will Promote Campus Unity, Attract Applicants

Article excerpt

The new student union at George Mason University here initially feels a lot like an upscale shopping mall.

Windows around the perimeter of the three-story ceiling spill light onto the spacious esplanade below. Every amenity is available, from a wide choice of food options to computers with Internet access to a convenience store. The 30,000-square-foot building also boasts a 310-seat theater, a bistro, a bank and credit union, and a computer store.

But the offerings go well beyond entertainment. A number of students chat and study at metal cafe tables in the center of a colorful food court. Others lounge in stuffed chairs in an open library space. Computer labs and meeting rooms dot the structure. Like many other colleges and universities across the country, GMU had a specific goal in mind in building its jewel-studded, $30-million social center: improving community life. At a time when everything from the Internet to racial divides have isolated undergraduates, many colleges see better student unions as an effective tool to strengthen ties within a disparate student body. And as competition for students has tightened over the last decade, "real-life" services on campus can be a strong drawing point for applicants. Many institutions are striving for this normalcy, says Tom Birdsey, an Albany architect with EYP Architects, which specializes in campus work. "I hear about projects all the time that are intended to make residential life more like real life," he says. "That's why we are seeing things that look more like malls. There's a tremendous trend to get services closer to students and give them what they expect." Each school zeroes in on its demographics and social needs, usually including students in the design process, Mr. Birdsey says. "What we've found to be most successful is to think hard about what the kids like, and it does vary from school to school." The town green This doesn't always mean a large building. Colgate University in Hamilton, N.Y., for example, is supplementing a student center with specialized buildings to create a town-green effect, he says. At Pittsburgh's Carnegie Mellon University, the need was for a real social center, something that didn't emphasize studies. "We tracked why admitted students went elsewhere, and we consistently scored low on non-academic facilities and quality of life outside of the classroom," says Pat Keating, chief financial officer for the university. "We really wanted a community center, a place to go and interact and be seen. …