The Marvin Center: A conference center or student union?

Sophomore Stephanie Greenleaf spends a good portion of her time on campus in the Marvin Center – eating at J Street, studying and occasionally hanging out in the Hippodrome. But to her, the building just doesn’t feel like it’s supposed to.

“I feel like it’s not the student center it could be,” Greenleaf said. “When you go up to the Hippodrome there are never that many people there, and it’s not some place people really go to hang out.”

On a campus integrated into the city, the Marvin Center is sometimes seen as somewhat of a compromise for a student center. Though billed as the hub of student life, one of the building’s main rooms is as likely to host a business conference as a play.

To generate revenue, some of the building’s space is rented to businesses and organizations. An evaluation of the building’s event schedules over the course of a week showed that evening activities were largely student-oriented; the majority of events during the day in the Marvin Center’s main rooms were held by groups with no University affiliation.

“We don’t really have a true student center,” said Chrissy Caggiano, incoming chair of the Marvin Center Governing Board, which represents student interests in the building. “We don’t really have somewhere where we can say ‘that’s our building – we run it, we say what we want in it, we get to use all the space in it.’ It’s unfortunate, and I think it does detract from student life.”

In addition, the limited space for events and meetings for student organizations often leads to tense competition for prime rooms. A number of student organization leaders said they regularly have trouble scheduling meetings at their preferred times and often shy away from trying to reserve more popular locations, such as the third floor ballroom and amphitheater.

Marc Abanto, producer for the theater group Fourteenth Grade Players, said he had to reserve the Marvin Center’s Dorothy Betts Theatre a year in advance for a show last month. He said student groups should receive top priority for the venue.

“I understand the business aspect of running a university, but at the same time, (the Marvin Center) is one of the only places on campus student organizations can get a room of the size they need,” Abanto said.

Others said that aside from scheduling issues, the rooms themselves simply don’t create the feel of a traditional student center. Citing pale walls and last year’s closure of Big Burger, a restaurant in the Hippodrome, some students said the building lacks the more casual atmosphere found at other schools’ student centers.

“Everyone says it feels like an airport,” said Arielle Zurzolo, director of Think Tank Revolution, which held a show in the third floor ballroom two weeks ago. “It’s obvious that the Marvin Center wants to keep the rooms clean and nice-looking so they can rent them out to other groups, but I don’t really feel like the students get to add their touch to it.”

School officials said that while non-affiliated organizations make frequent use of the Marvin Center during the day, student groups generally prefer to hold meeting in the evening and on weekends, when they are given priority scheduling. As of April 22, more than 93 percent of the events held after 7 p.m. were for student of University groups , according to figures from the governing board.

“We really don’t have a demand for student use (during the day),” said Michael Peller, managing director of Marvin Center and University Conferences. “Obviously if there was a need for student use we would dedicate it to that, but generally speaking, there is no demand during the 9 to 5, Monday through Friday time band.”

Peller said complaints about space are due to the high number of student organizations looking to hold events in the building and that the University is looking for new ways to accommodate them, including opening rooms in other buildings and reducing the time for equipment setup between meeting times. He added that some groups suffer from poor planning, waiting until the last minute to request a room.

Although some students may frown upon the idea of renting space for non-University purposes, Peller said use by outside groups is appropriate given GW’s location and that their presence does not make the Marvin Center any less of a student union. Inviting outside groups, he said, allows the University to make the most of the building.

“We try to accommodate anyone who requests a space with the highest level of services … regardless of who they are,” Peller said. “I think if you have space that’s available for (non-affiliated) entities, why not use it and maximize the space that’s available?”

Caggiano agreed that there is not much student demand for Marvin Center space during weekdays.

“During regular business hours, student groups aren’t really going to find as much use for the space when half their members are in classes,” Caggiano said. “It’s really that the times that aren’t being used for student groups aren’t convenient for student groups.”

The perceived space crunch, Caggiano said, is due to competition between student groups, not with outside businesses. She added that the governing board is working on finding alternative places to host student events.

Caggiano said that while the Marvin Center may never resemble the kind of student center found on a more traditional campus, the governing board is considering ways to improve the situation, such as making it easier for students to reserve classrooms elsewhere on campus and calling on GW to devote the entire fourth floor of the Marvin Center to student use.

“Nobody’s going to be completely satisfied in this regard,” she said. “As long as it’s a mixed-use building, no one’s going to get exactly what they want all the time, so we have to explore other options.”

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