Planning for University Commons begins

by Lam Ho
Staff Writer

Photo courtesy of the University Master Plan
Photo courtesy of the University Master Plan

Faculty, staff, and students received an e-mail from University Provost John Swallow September 23 regarding the formation of the University Commons Committee. This group will be reactivating the core of campus with a recreational center that will include all members of the community who are looking for meaningful conversations with other residents of the Sewanee community.

Set behind the Thompson Union, the leading site is currently being considered in size and scope. The “reactivation” of a central site on campus is not a simple task. In fact, the initial idea was created and documented in 2011. The Facilities Master Plan Project, (available at outlines the possibilities for organizing offices, activities, and buildings in the future.

The third goal listed in the Master Plan is to “reinforce vitality at the core of campus” and promote “innovative teaching and learning.” For years, Thompson Union was a popular area for students, faculty, and staff to intermingle. At that point, the historic Quad was a familiar place for everyone to spend their time studying, eating, relaxing, or planning activities for clubs. There is a drive to revive this social center and promote learning in both the academic context and outside of it. With the University Commons, children, students, and adults will get to know each other and share their hobbies and interests.

For this reason, the group that has been gathered to conduct the planning period of this immense undertaking will be considering the “interchange” from one person to another. John Swallow, Provost and head of the committee, discussed this in depth. “This is not strictly for students,” Swallow explained. “It is important for the community to have significant interchange… deeply connected to relationships between staff and students.”

The intention is not for one group to gather in a confined setting, but to create a welcoming environment for faculty and staff as well. To promote activities between different clubs and interest groups, the University Commons will offer a variety of options: studying, eating, entertainment, all in one central building. The desired scenario is for the facility to be busy at all hours of the day with people who are excited to socialize over a myriad of topics.

As for the rumors, the University Commons committee has not yet commenced a meeting, so there has not been any large-scale decision-making at this point. Widespread campus rumors suggest that the Sewanee Union Theater will surely be torn down, that there will be a bowling alley within the new building, and that the community members will not have a say in the architecture.

These are misunderstandings. Swallow explained that the site will be evaluated for its historical significance; the demand for a bowling alley has not been articulated; and community members will have plenty of opportunities to let the committee know what would accommodate their needs as well as the needs of future clubs. The plan involves student trustees and members of SGA.

Not only will the building meet current needs, but the committee hopes to ensure that the building is Master Plan adaptable for future use. This group includes chair John Swallow, Dean of Students Eric Hartman, Chaplain Tom Macfie, Economics Professor Doug Williams, Sewanee Outing Program Assistant Director Will Watson, and Mary Ottley (C’15). John Ford is a Regent and former Dean of Students at Cornell University. He also recently retired from the position of Senior Vice President and Dean of Campus Life at Emory University. The rest of the board is made of direct community members, mostly alumni.

Religion Professor Gerald Smith sent a public e-mail regarding the initiative to create a sustainable building: he pointed out that “there is every reason, environmental and aesthetic, to design it to rise naturally from its surroundings so that the building foundations are buffered by natural and native plantings.” Along with this advice, he suggested that the University should employ locals: “We need, as a university, to take our place-baced responsibility for spending our money and resources to develop a pool of local workers who are capable of rising to the challenges of our new construction needs.”

The University Commons committee’s second goal, according to the Master Plan, is to build a “natural laboratory for learning.” The University’s drive to promote environmentally friendly construction will be considered, meaning that the planners will take into account the needs of the entire Sewanee community before deciding where the building will be, how it will function, and who is involved.

With the residential aspect of learning, the University Commons is sure to combine both community and intellect in a building that provides for healthy interactions between all age groups and clubs. This means that each person has a say in what the building may become, and Provost John Swallow encourages all members of Sewanee to contact him with great thoughts that will be compiled and considered.