A cold summer ale on the Terrace

A cold summer ale on the Memorial Union Terrace (or ‘the Terrace’ as it is known) at UW-Madison is a genuinely glorious experience. I was down there the other evening with my family, observing students, faculty, visiting conference types, as well alumni and members of the public. The Terrace functions like a defacto community center, alongside all of the functions typically associated with student unions (including food services, the weak link in an otherwise splendid set-up). UW-Madison is facing some serious challenges right now, but it has basically nailed the student union experience like few other public universities have.

The wonders of the Terrace became clearer a few weeks ago when I drove up to Ottawa to give a talk at an Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada (AUCC) workshop on Canada-Brazil higher education relations. I brought my two sons with me, and we stopped at a number of universities in Ontario and Quebec. And while I know of Canadian universities first-hand as a University of British Columbia (UBC) alum (BA & MA), this was the first time I wore the parental hat given that my eldest son is now thinking of which universities to apply to.

Canadian university campuses are generally well-planned contexts for a high quality education. Yet many (not all!) of them continue to segregate social spaces on the basis of identity/status (undergraduates, graduate, faculty, staff), with a curious concrete bunker-like ambiance provided for undergraduates when they become old enough to have that cold summer ale. This is a pattern I’ve also seen in a variety of other countries with respect to their on-campus or university-affiliated establishments.

Of course I recognize that over-drinking is a serious problem on university campuses, and that there are significant cultural-regulatory matters to factor in, but does segregating the university community into broad bands of social drinkers help, or hurt? I’d argue that creating more socially mixed settings, complete with alumni and members of the host city/town, engenders more mature behavior, and creates the kind of ambiance that makes a campus an even more valuable contributor to social life in the place it is situated in.

For example, I loved my UBC experiences as an undergraduate, but did they really have to relegate us to ‘The Pit’, a windowless basement bunker, when we wanted to have an on-campus social gathering with a few beer. That kind of experience, fun as it was (and it was fun!), cannot match the wonders of the Terrace, or the beer gardens associated with the University of Vienna, for example.

Despite what I’ve said, attention to the undergraduate experience is significantly changing on campuses in Canada, and elsewhere. And these experiences are being improved, not worsened. Undergraduates become, after all, alumni and universities everywhere will be depending upon alumni for streams of revenue like never before. And judging from what I detect here in Madison, the intangibles of warm summer breezes, joyous conversations, tasty summer ales, and being treated with respect, cannot but help deepen the positive memories and social ties that engender support for a university down the line.

Happy Canada Day & Happy Independence Day!

Kris Olds