The Washington Post glibly called it a “mall of knowledge” in an early 1996 review, and, frankly, it does look like a mall, with a fountain, lots of windows, hanging banners, and large ornamental staircases. There is even a Taco Bell.
Sure, it is a large student center—lots of the universities have them—but when the Johnson Center was first proposed in the late 1980s, the idea was met with skepticism. The 320,000-square-foot building comprises a 100,000-foot library, four computer labs, an art gallery, a dance studio, a cinema, a food court, and a numerous meeting rooms and study spaces. Now, 14 years after its opening, the Johnson Center, or the JC as it is more popularly known, is the heart of the Fairfax Campus, and it all began in true George Mason University fashion, where things are always done a little differently.
Planning the Student Center of the 21st Century
The JC is the brainchild of former Mason president George Johnson, for whom it is named. In the late 1980s, Johnson urged university administrators to combine two campus buildings that were in the planning stages: a library wing and a student union. “[Johnson] was frustrated that all the buildings were the same size. He felt we needed a big building,” says New Century College professor John O’Connor, who sat on two of the planning committees for what was originally called the University Learning Center and directed the center for its first three years.“ He wanted a building that would be the center of campus both physically and metaphorically.”
At first, some people were appalled by the idea. You are going to let students eat in the library?
“I was one of those people,” says doctoral student Karen Misencik, BA Psychology ’90, MAIS ’97, who is currently working on a degree in cultural studies and writing her dissertation about the JC. “[Breaking down those barriers] does demystify learning, but it was such a paradigm shift for some of us and how we view libraries.”
This new building was to be the hub of campus life. It had a mission to “nourish learning and quality of campus life.” Everything in the building had to have a learning component, including the bank and the bookstore. The intention was to promote collaborative learning and those who wanted to be located in the Johnson Center had to submit a proposal justifying how their activity promoted the mission.
The original plans had specific programming planned for each level, which is still evident today. The ground floor was for entertainment and housed the cinema and a multipurpose room, now called the Sid and Reva Dewberry Hall. Commerce was the theme of the first floor, which is dominated by a popular food court and the campus bookstore.
Technology is an important part of the building and the focus of the second floor, where the computer labs and technology learning support services can be found. The whole building was planned with the expectation that students would need to plug in their laptop computers to get their work done. Now, of course, the building has wireless Internet access. Academics was the focus of the third floor with the intention of providing library stacks and quiet places for people to study and conduct research.
“George Johnson wanted it to be as physically open as possible. The idea of breaking down boundaries by breaking down walls was important to him,” says O’Connor.
OK, We’ve Built It, But Will They Come?
Some administrators were nervous when the center first opened. There was no built-in audience for the eight acres of new building. Students were dispersed all over campus, and certain groups hung out in specific spots. Student Union Building (SUB) I was home to the Rathskellar, where many of the fraternities and sororities could be found. Some groups gathered on different floors of the libraries.
Would the Johnson Center be able to bring everyone together under one roof? The administration, including O’Connor, waited and watched. Initially, there were plans to set aside space for adult learners—those students who worked full time and took classes at night—but university staffers soon discovered that was unnecessary. “As it turned out, everyone felt comfortable every place,” O’Connor says.
“SUB I was always busy, but it didn’t have an identity. The Johnson Center created a sense of pride for the student body,” continues O’Connor, who now directs Mason’s Higher Education Program and has written academically about the center. “This was a place you could take your friend from Virginia Tech or your parents. It didn’t take long for people to realize this is something—they don’t have anything like this at other schools.”
Misencik spent three years observing activity at the Johnson Center and talking to students, faculty, and staff. Her study began as a project for a research methodologies class and eventually became her dissertation. One of the questions she was looking to answer was, does the building work as it was intended?
“It depends on whom you ask,” Misencik says of her data. “It appears it does, almost in spite of itself. I’m less convinced about how the library works, and now I think it has outgrown itself. With the Mason population booming, it is just too crowded.” In addition to observing and taking notes on activities and interactions in the building, Misencik also gathered data formally by interviewing students and asking specific questions, such as, do you like this space? what do you use it for? do you study here? how many hours per week?
From students, Misencik often heard the phrase “home away from home.” Interviewees talked about the Johnson Center being the meeting place, a place where they never felt lonely. “When you hear how students experience the space, it is so remarkable,” she says. “I’ve heard some very touching stories. It is a great leveler.”
When she talks of the Johnson Center as a “leveler,” Misencik is referring to the building making informal interactions between faculty and students possible. In fact, some of the stories recounted to her by students have had to do with students bumping into a faculty member and seeing the professor as a regular person outside of the classroom, possibly for the first time, which is exactly the kind of interaction Johnson had hoped to facilitate.
Misencik also was able to document that prior to the center’s opening, many students spent a lot of time in their cars. “[The JC] really was a central place for people to hang out that ironically the student unions never were,” she says. “I interviewed students who would eat or sleep in their cars between classes because SUB I
was too small or too crazy, and SUB II was never very inviting.”
Part of Mason’s Identity
From the moment it opened, the Johnson Center has been an important part of the university’s capacity to host large important events. One of the first opportunities to showcase the facility was when Mason became the first university to host the World Congress on Information Technology in 1998. The congress drew such dignitaries as then-British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev. As much as hosting the international technology event was a coup at the time for Mason—and Virginia—it dims in comparison (at least in the memory of recent alumni) to the visit by the Kerry campaign in 2004 and activities surrounding Mason’s Final Four appearance in 2006, two events that literally packed the building to capacity.
Many people see the Final Four as the event that helped bring a real campus life to Mason. “The JC helped give the university a cohesive identity, but the Final Four really brought it all together,” says Misencik. “How wonderful that the Johnson Center was large enough that we could have these huge TV screens and bring everyone together in one place to celebrate.” Misencik believes that it is this flexibility, the ability to meet a colleague for coffee one moment and celebrate a milestone with the entire university the next, that makes the Johnson Center so popular.
“When a space is fluid, it gives a lot of power to the people who use it to re-create it for whatever is going on at any given time,” she says. Mason’s executive director of student centers David Atkins, BS Decision Science ’90, concurs, pointing out that the building was designed for this kind of adaptability.
“It is the physical design of the building, the way the furniture is placed throughout,” says Atkins, who also oversees SUB I and II. “There are some [student centers] where the furniture doesn’t get moved. Our furniture is designed to create flexibility, creating a place where students have ownership of the building.”
Whether a person wants to quietly work on a research paper on one of the colorful sofas in an alcove or move several tables together so his or her capstone course team can plan its presentation, chairs on rollers and tables that are not screwed down make such transitions possible. As a result, the Johnson Center continues to grow in popularity. According to Atkins, in 2009, the Johnson Center had its highest traffic count yet with 4.3 million visitors.
When Alan Merten became the university’s president, he saw potential in the Johnson Center for serving the entire life cycle of the Mason student and had the Offices of Admissions and Alumni Affairs relocated there. In fact, Mason Ambassadors, the student campus tour guides who work for Admission, begin their walking tours twice a day from a reception area on the third floor. Alumni Affairs enjoys a prominent space just off of the food court, making it easily accessible to visiting alumni.
The university is currently in the process of looking at the amenities offered by each of the student centers on the Fairfax Campus and doing some reorganizing. SUB I is being renamed the Center for Student Excellence and will provide a one-stop shop for students to conduct academic business. Offices such as Student Financial Aid and the Registrar are being relocated there. SUB II will soon be home to student government and student organizations, taking the name Center for Student Engagement. As for the Johnson Center, what Atkins calls “the epic center” on campus, they are constantly reviewing the data to make sure the right services are being offered and at the most convenient location.
Although the center has moved away from some of its initial goals, it is still a place where people are engaged and interact. “It has become more of a student center and more informal now,” says O’Connor, “but nevertheless it encourages collaborative learning.”
The Chronicle of Higher Education visited the Johnson Center during the spring 2010 semester and chatted with some of our students, faculty, and staff. You can listen to their interviews here.