Plans develop for Social Commons at Thompson Union site

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Thompson Union prior to the fire that destroyed its upper floors in 1950. Photo courtesy of sewanee.edu.

By Anna Mann
Executive Editor

New information has emerged regarding the forthcoming Student Commons. Set to be located in the current Thompson Union, the administration has plans to renovate the entire building along with the Student Union Theater (SUT). According to Dean of Students Marichal Gentry (C’86), the administration hopes to begin construction by the end of the current semester and ideally finish building in 18-24 months.

However, Gentry said plans remain uncertain, as the offices currently located in Thompson Union must move into the Bishop’s Commons before construction can truly begin. Moreover, this represents a larger problem, as the bookstore also plans to move into the BC soon to prepare for the construction of the Wellness Commons.

“It’s dominoes,” Gentry said about the movement on campus, “but we see the long term picture and we’re all adjusting and communicating with each other.”

Moreover, Gentry explained that he hopes to have additional student input before plans are ironed out. Along with the administration’s research on student commons around the country, a group of faculty, staff, and students will give the larger student body a greater voice and help shape the administration’s plans.

Provost Nancy Berner sent out an e-mail on September 20 detailing the Social Commons planning group set to “assist the administration in determining the range of programming possibilities for a commons to be housed in the Thompson Union,” she said.

The Student Commons will both build upon and deviate from the original 2014 plans for one large building to house all of the Learning, Wellness, and Student Commons. The largest change is the arrangement for the distribution of all three commons rather than their conglomeration in one large complex. Gentry explained that the 2014 plans had been delayed since the administration didn’t see the design meeting the University’s needs.

“I think that they are a diverse group of students, but I don’t think the committee can be representative of the whole contingency,” said Gentry about the planning group. “There can’t be 50 students on the committee, but the students who are on the committee will be communicating with the student body through surveys.”

Mary Margaret Murdock (C’19) was chosen for the committee due to her position as student trustee for the class of 2019. Murdock agreed on the variety of the committee, stating, “It seems to me like we have a diverse committee, coming from different places within the University that can successfully plan what the new student commons will look like. I am very excited to be on the committee and think there is a lot of good work to be done.”

Once the committee works the proposed plans into a concrete blueprint, more information will become available on the proposed union. Dean Becky Spurlock explained the imagined building as a “dynamic space,” although still stressing that “we only have the initial ideas. Now is the process of conversation, since not everything has been decided yet.”

The deans described the various possibilities of the new commons in Thompson Union and the SUT as a 24-hour facility, one to serve as an alternative to the Greek Life scene on campus.

“Campus activity has been lacking for the last few years because of a shortage of staff,” explained Gentry. “We have fraternities and that’s wonderful, but we also need other activities for students in the wee hours of the night,” he finished.

Although still in the works, the deans state that they hope the Student Commons will house a grill or pub, places to relax and study, dance, watch movies, or create posters in a makerspace.

“We want it to be vibrant and active,” said Gentry. “Flexible enough to use as four separate rooms or one big room for a dinner or a ball.”

Additionally, the SUT will be reimagined as well as Thompson Union. Spurlock hinted that the SUT would be used for more than simply movies in the future. Similarly, although not prepared to delve into details about how the SUT will change, Gentry stated, “I will say that it has been imagined in a way to make it more flexible and dynamic.”

“We’re one Sewanee,” Gentry said. “This could be a way for students to connect in a different way. The Learning Commons is doing it, the Wellness Commons is going to do it, and the Student Commons will do it as well. It’s about community, it’s about EQB.”

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