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The 'Next Great Space' on Campus

Student forum facilities help attract and serve today's students and the students of tomorrow.
University Business, Apr 2008

As steel rises at the heart of <b>Goucher College</b>'s Baltimore campus, so does the excitement level of this educational community's more than 2,500 students, faculty, and administrators, who have pinned their hopes on a groundbreaking facility that is unlike anything most U.S. colleges and universities are building today.

Seeking to stitch together a fragmented campus and create a central gathering place that brings together campus and community, Goucher's new Athenaeum, scheduled to open in 2009, represents a new building typology emerging on the university campus-the student forum.

With origins in ancient Greece and Rome, the "forum" of old was all about fostering exchange-of ideas, goods, and commerce. This concept has evolved in response to the needs of the millennial generation. It combines both academic and social functions to create a place where creative thought and experience naturally intersect.

Laptops and smart phones enable students to work anywhere while at the same time keeping them physically apart-a lack of social connection and interaction that has led to campus spaces that get students to connect face-to-face.

"Every community needs a central gathering place," says Goucher President Sanford Ungar. "As technology increasingly keeps people apart and learning becomes more about group exercise, colleges and universities need to explore new ways to get students connected. Sometimes this occurs naturally, and sometimes it needs to be created."

It's a trend that has also begun to take hold in the United Kingdom. At the <b>University of Sheffield</b>, the Information Commons-a 24/7 mixed-use building combining learning and teaching space, reference and loan book collection, visitor center and caf?-has changed the way students interact. And the Forum at the <b>University of Hertfordshire</b> in Hatfield-a brand new social hub for the university-is expected to invigorate the campus.

Whether in the United States or across the Atlantic, these facilities provide a new level of social and academic connectivity necessary to attract and serve the students of today and tomorrow.

The "millennial generation"-generally people born between 1982 and 2002-is rapidly joining the adult world, and at 80 million strong (compared to the 76 million baby boomers) its members are reshaping the college landscape.

Record numbers of students from the millennial generation will be entering U.S. colleges and universities over the next 10 years. After two decades of declining enrollments with the much smaller "Generation X," schools are quickly turning their attention to reintroducing, or building up, programs aimed at traditional-age students. Many of these programs were cut during the enrollment downturn in favor of programs for older adult populations, according to research published by NASPA, Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education (

"Campuses can expect to once again be bombarded with traditionally aged students looking for a traditional college experience-on-campus housing, student organizations/activities, registration, advising-however, these services may be anything but traditional in their delivery," note researchers in NASPA's <em>Journal of College and Character.</em>

Online connectivity-social and academic-is changing how students prefer to live and learn. According to a 2007 report by the Educause Center for Applied Research (, more than 98 percent of college students own a computer of some kind, with the average time spent on the internet (for any purpose) at about 18 hours a week.

As students become increasingly connected to each other through various online media, they're also becoming untethered, with laptops and smart phones enabling them to work anywhere while at the same time keeping them physically apart. This lack of social connection and interaction is just one reason why institutions such as Goucher, Sheffield, and Hertfordshire have partnered with our international architecture firm, RMJM Hillier, to create physical spaces on campus that get students to connect face-to-face.

By the late 1990s, the University of Sheffield had fallen behind its competitors in terms of quality and quantity of its study spaces. Thanks to administrators in forward-looking University Library and Computing Services departments who realized they were both in the business of providing study space for students, institutional leaders developed a case for a new building that would deliver a big increase in capacity and go beyond the expectations of current students. Opened in 2007 and centrally located on campus, the University of Sheffield Information Commons (IC) is planned around the concept of the integrated learning environment-a place where students can use print and electronic resources together, access the university's virtual learning environment, and work in groups or individually-something vastly different from the more conventional research library space the university community was used to.

"The IC has introduced a crucial new kind of space on our campus, somewhere where the student learning space and the social space overlap in a way that's deeply comfortable for the Google generation," says Martin Lewis, director of Library Services and university librarian. "There are several overlapping circles with the IC at the intersection of all of them-libraries and computer services, teaching and research, electronic and print resources, and study and social space.

'People tend to scatter and spread out. We needed a more integral central gathering spot on campus and thus pursued the Athenaeum.' -Sanford Unger, Goucher College

"The IC's 24/7 availability has also hugely improved student choice in terms of study patterns," he adds. "Not everyone wants to be writing assignments at 2 a.m., but if you want to, the IC provides a safe, warm, cozy place to do it."

At the University of Hertfordshire, the Forum is focused purely on student socialization. Set for completion in 2009, the facility will provide a new social hub for its de Havilland and College Lane campuses. It features a two-story entertainment space with a 2,000-person capacity, Style Bar, Mini Club, external balcony, and auditorium. The ground floor faces a new external social square and has a restaurant for staff and students, a convenience store, a coffee bar, and retail space.

The centerpiece of an overall development project that includes three new buildings, two refurbished buildings, a new road junction, bus interchange, and landscaping, the Forum is set to become the university's main entertainment venue.

"The Forum is a major development for the university and will be the central part of our students' university experience going forward," says Amanda Thorp, project director for the Forum at the University of Hertfordshire. "It will accommodate the widest possible range of interests whether the student is looking for a social scene, or a quiet area to study or reflect after a hectic day."

In Baltimore, the Goucher Athenaeum combines the best of both worlds. Anchored by a new university library, the Athenaeum combines research and study with a caf?, fitness center, commuter lounge, art gallery, and more around a central tiered amphitheater space with multimedia capability where students, faculty, and community can gather for formal speakers or lectures, or informally take part in activities like watching the Olympic Games or monitoring the latest election results.

Located centrally to the academic, recreational, and residential portions of Goucher's spacious campus, the Athenaeum sits at a natural point of intersection.

"Here we have a very green and verdant campus-a beautiful natural setting," says Ungar. "But the one thing I noticed is that because there's so much space, a low density of people over 300 acres, people tend to scatter and spread out. We needed a more integral central gathering spot on campus and thus pursued the Athenaeum."

What's more, he felt the Athenaeum had to be more than just a student center, library, or academic building.

"I think a lot of [institutions] are still thinking in an old-fashioned way," Ungar says. "Students no longer compartmentalize their day-go to the library to perform library functions, then to their rooms to study. That's a very outmoded concept."

Instead, tasks have become integrated, forcing colleges and universities to readjust their perceptions and understanding of how students prefer to learn, study, and interact. For Goucher, the library became the central unifying force-connecting the campus and reaching out to the community at large.

"I strongly believe that the library should be organically connected to other functions and all parts of the campus," he says. "By creating a welcoming, interesting place anchored by the library-open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week-we believe students will respond."

In the United States and abroad, today's colleges and universities are rethinking the learning landscape. Faced with increased technology use and changes to the learning paradigm, schools are taking steps to create new places on campus where students can gather, communicate, learn, and socialize-space that defines the social "heart" of campus.

Whether that space is purely recreational, as at Hertfordshire, more academic, as at Sheffield, or a combination of the two, as at Goucher, depends on the unique needs of the individual college or university. The "forum" of old fostered a cultural exchange. Today that exchange is more than the philosophical or academic. It's about getting students to interact and connect as a community.

<em>Gordon Hood, director of the Global Education Studio for RMJM Hillier, has more than 20 years of experience in the higher education sector. Joseph Rizzo is a principal and library expert with RMJM Hillier's Global Education Studio in Princeton, N.J. He has designed more than 80 libraries. Nicholas Garrison is the design principal for the RMJM Hillier Global Education Studio. Highly involved in the development of Goucher College's innovative Athenaeum, Nicholas has worked with many of the top U.S. colleges and universities and designed 11 American international schools.</em>

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