The History of the University Center

Student unions began as debating societies at English universities as early as 1815. Initially, new unions met with disapproval from university authorities who thought that students’ time could be better spent studying. Despite lack of administrative support, determined students worked to obtain a facility of their own to host debates and discussion. Union members sought to unify their campus through an understanding of differences. Over time, libraries, dining rooms, meeting rooms, lounges, billiard rooms and offices were added. British Unions became known as centers of fellowship and good taste. They came to symbolize the traditional British educational goals of living together (i.e., civilized behavior) and of practicing social responsibility.

At the turn of the nineteenth century, President Woodrow Wilson, in recognition of a vital yet missing component of the American educational systems declared, “The real intellectual life of a body of undergraduates… manifests itself not only in the classroom, but what they do and talk of and set before themselves as their favorite objects between classes and lectures.”

The first American student union opened at the University of Pennsylvania in 1896. Houston Hall, as it is called, was established as “a place where all may meet on common ground.” The student union concept spread rapidly across the country. As college populations expanded, the student union became a way to maintain the small community feel.