Swarthmore to Create Student Union, Build New Dining Hall

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

The following information comes from a press briefing held by staff members Greg Brown, Liz Braun, and Nancy Nicely on Tuesday, November 28. Student representatives from The Daily Gazette (Keton Kakkar ’19) and The Phoenix (Lauren Knudson ’19) to report for their respective publications.

The College plans to repurpose Sharples as a student union and to build a new dining hall adjacent to the current Sharples building. These plans are in line with the 2013 Master Plan and the February 2017 Visioning Study Report.

We engaged both a dining consultant and an architect last summer to give us ideas, and I’d say the key findings there were that the existing Sharples building has outlived its useful life as a dining hall,” said VP of Finance Greg Brown.

Though construction plans have not been finalized, the new building will likely be built near Sharples. Dean of Students Elizabeth Braun described one potential plan, in which the new dining hall will be built upon the Sharples patio.

Braun predicts that construction on the new dining hall will take “a year or so,” hoping to finish construction by the spring of 2020. During that time, students will still be able to eat at Sharples.

Brown mentioned that they are interested in putting options for late night dining in either the student union or the new dining hall as well.

After the new dining hall opens, Sharples will be converted into a student union. “Sharples itself was an award- winning building when it opened back in the ’60s. It was cutting edge for its day. It’s a beautiful space in its own way and what we were increasingly convinced about is if we reimagine Sharples itself as more of a student gathering space and not as a dining hall, it becomes a very interesting building,” Brown said.

According to Brown, the key driver for the creation of a student union is, “There used to be a student gathering space in Old Tarble that burned down in the mid 1980’s. The space in Clothier that includes Essie Mae’s was intended to replace that, but doesn’t function well as a student union, and we’ve heard that over and over again from students and also from alums, that what’s really missing from this campus is a sense of a place, a place where we can gather as a student body.”

This project was developed largely in response to excessive congestion in Sharples. Sharples was built for 900 students, and now the College has 1,600, which has led to crowding issues. According to Brown, “Early in the semester we were pushing through the dining hall typically 1,400 students during a lunch period.”

In the past, the College has attempted to alleviate congestion in Sharples by introducing new meal plans and the “to go” option. Brown said, “Students love [to go]; we don’t love it from a space perspective, if that’s the reason they’re taking their food to go that’s not a great thing.”

Regarding the congestion, he said, “When you think about what that means for your student experience, it means that you’re going to feel that once you’ve gotten a seat that you better eat fast and get out because you know somebody else is behind you.”

Braun added that this congestion detracts from the sense of community, “If we don’t have that space where students can linger a little bit and have conversations…it really takes away from one of the most important opportunities for those types of connections that we think are so crucial to your experience,” she said. Brown also noted that the congestion has deterred faculty from eating in Sharples.

The new dining hall should accommodate the student body more comfortably. Brown and Braun also hope that the new dining hall will better accommodate students with dietary restrictions, and that the loading dock on the new dining hall will be more convenient for staff.

Brown feels optimistic the College can generate enough donor interest for this project, “Any time we talked, Liz or I, to potential donors, this is a project that really resonates. So if you’re an alum going back to the earlier era, [i.e. when the College had a student center], it’s important. If you’re an alum who’s the parent of a college-aged student you know that what we do in dining is not as good as what most of our peers are doing. So people really get it.”

Braun continued: “And it also fits nicely within the campaign structure, so if you go back to the four main themes of the campaign, one of those is creating vital spaces.”

Brown added, “We think this has got legs.”

If you’d like to join the Sharples Renovation Committee, fill out this application by 11:59 on December 8th.

Featured image courtesy of Samuel Breslow.

Keton Kakkar ’20

Keton entered Swarthmore with the class of 2019 and graduated with the class of 2020. He double majored in English literature and computer science and was awarded Honors at commencement. A former editor of this newspaper, he was responsible for merging The Daily Gazette with The Phoenix, among other initiatives. He grew up in Sands Point, New York, completed the last two years of his secondary schooling at Phillips Academy in Andover Massachusetts, and is a member of the class of 2025 at the NYU School of Law.


  1. The idea of transforming Sharples into a Student Commons adjacent to a new dining hall is, from my perspective is a brilliant idea. In my day when our dining hall was on the first floor of Parrish beneath what is now the Admissions Office which was in our day the student commons. I suspect alums will be directly supportive of this move forward. Cheers (3), Maurice

  2. Why is Swat so obsessed with construction, and demolition. These sweeping, campus-transforming schemes. I would much rather have heated rooms, good food, and better health care.

  3. This is, honestly, a bad idea IMO. Sharples works fine as it is, maybe it could use a little revamp or some new flooring but broadly it works fine as a dining hall. Also, we have, what, 2500 students? Swarthmore isn’t a big school, we already have plenty of places to hang out in Clothier and such, we don’t need a massive “student union” building.

  4. I am curious what the Sharples’ staff think about the need for a new building. It would be great to have their voices added to this discussion.

    I invite Dean Braun to come eat lunch at Sharples more regularly. Going to lunch there daily, at peak times, I have little trouble finding seating, always with several adjacent seats open.

    • Yeah, this is entirely nonessential. I eat in Sharples 7 days a week, usually both lunch and dinner, I’ve NEVER had a challenge finding a seat.

      I worry that this will be a massive waste of money that will then be passed onto the students to screw them over with higher tuitions. This isn’t quite on the level of building a new stadium for a failing basketball team, but it’s close.

    • I think that what you guys may be missing is the crowdedness is also an accessibility issue. Students who are autistic or have other sensory issues really struggle with the crowdedness of Sharples at peak times. I’m lucky that I have the financial ability to live off campus and get my own food but, because of Swarthmore’s aid policies not everyone has that ability. (and first years are not allowed to)

  5. You consulted with an architect, and they told you that you need to build a new building? Shocking. I’m guessing if you had consulted with an interior design firm they would have said you need to remodel. Of if you had consulted with an opinion polling firm they would have said that you need to do a survey of the student body.

  6. I agree with Maurice. I think Sharples would be a great space for a student union– those of you who have never really had one don’t know what you are missing. The old Tarbles was a comfortable place to hang out, visit with friends, or sit in a corner and read. along with pinball, ping pong, and pool! The Ratskellar in the basement was a nice venue for music, and we had a snack bar for bagels and sandwiches.

    For a dining hall, Sharples was great, but has been essentially unchanged since it was first built, and is not designed for today’s style of campus dining (which is much better than “back in the day.”) Buildings don’t add to cost of tuition, generally speaking– they are usually funded through gifts in a capital campaign. Wait! maybe the “Campaign for Swarthmore”!

  7. Allow meal cards to be used at local restaurants. You won’t have to worry about space, and you will support local businesses.

  8. I was class of 1979 and do not have a strong opinion about Sharples.

    But I do have a strong opinion about a student center. Tarbles Hall, which was the library before McCabe, was repurposed as a student center when McCabe opened. For years Tarbles was a vibrant center of student life.

    When Tarbles burned Clothier was repurposed as a student union. In my estimation Clothier does not work as a student union.

    The school needs a good student union. Maybe keep Sharples as a dining hall and build a student union from scratch. Or build a new dining hall and repurpose Sharples. Either way. But make sure the student union is well thought-out, not like the terrible renovation of Clothier.

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