Origins of Student Unions

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In The College Union Idea, Porter Butts somewhat tenuously links debating societies known as unions to the idea of student unions, which are a place for all of the student body to congregate.[1] The first "student union" organization was founded at Cambridge University in 1815 and was actually a debating society named for the "union" of three debate societies.[2] Originally, the union had no building and meetings took place in a tavern. They established their own space in 1832 and moved into their current building in 1866.[3] Oxford University was the second university to establish a union, in 1823 and was founded as a debate forum.[4] However, both Cambridge Union Society and Oxford Union Society were actually debate societies and are not to be confused with the Cambridge University Students' Union and Oxford University Student Union, respectively.


Houston Hall, University of Pennsylvania, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Detroit Publishing Company Collection, c. 1900-1910

Harvard Union was organized in 1832 and was also a debate society rather than a representative student union.[5] By the late nineteenth century Harvard Union resembled a gentleman's club.[6] It seems that even in 1901 there was some disagreement as to whether or not the proposed student union at Harvard had stemmed from the identically named debating society/ club.[7] The Union at Harvard University opened in 1901 and was meant to be a space where students who were not part of the elite clubs could congregate. Membership was open to all [8] --meaning men, as Harvard was not fully coeducational until 1977 when Harvard University and Radcliffe College merged. The first student union building in the United States was Houston Hall, which opened in 1896 at the University of Pennsylvania.[9] Houston Hall was the first building constructed in order to provide common ground for all students at the university.[10]

[1] Porter Butts, The College Union Idea, Stanford California: Association of College Unions International, 1971, 8-10.
[2] "History of the Union," The Cambridge Union Society, accessed December 4, 2012.
[3] "Our Building," The Cambridge Union Society, accessed December 4, 2012.
[4] "About the Union," The Oxford Union, accessed December 4, 2012.
[5] "The Harvard Union," The Harvard Crimson, (Cambridge, MA), October 9, 1888.
[6] "The Role of College Unions," CAS Self-Assessment Guide for College Unions, accessed December 4, 2012
[7] Charles Grilk, "Communication [Letter to the Editor]," Harvard Illustrated Magazine, December 1901, 77.
[8] "FDR and Harvard's First Great Social Experiment: The Union," The FDR Suite Restoration Project @ Adams House (blog), August 22, 2009.
[9] "Houston Hall: Who says you can't teach an old building new tricks?" Perelman Quadrangle, Accessed December 4, 2012.
[10] "The Role of College Unions," CAS Self-Assessment Guide for College Unions.

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This page contains a single entry by Caitlin Cohn published on December 4, 2012 12:39 PM.

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