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  • Writer's picturePeter Miller

BIOS aims to bring the best of research and athletics together. We hope to connect researchers with people and problems of practice at UW. And we will catalyze new projects that can further the sports-focused research pursuits on our campus. The third prong of our BIOS mission is to communicate about the lessons we learned – and both in Madison and beyond.

One of the advantages of being situated at a top-tier university with a top-tier athletics program is that we regularly compete with other outstanding schools. We can take advantage of these opportunities to learn about research and innovation happening at our competitors' campuses. Recently, when Penn State came to town for a football game, we learned from Penn State Professor Dennis Scanlon about how leaders can navigate periods of change.

One of the challenges we have long sought to address in Madison is closely related to a problem that was recently addressed at the University of Notre Dame. Namely, how can athletic departments and college campuses be purposeful about bringing together sports, academics, and other key parts of student life? Can principles of spatial design assist in integrating people and units that tend to operate in isolation from each other?

And so, as the Badgers geared up to face Notre Dame in a much anticipated game in Chicago, BIOS traveled southeast, to Notre Dame‘s South Bend, Indiana campus to learn about an ambitious project that seeks to integrate athletics, academics, and student life on one campus.

Notre Dame‘s "Crossroads Project" was carried out with much attention in South Bend and beyond. In a nutshell, many millions of dollars were spent to erect huge new buildings surrounding the football stadium. These structures include a student union space, several academic departments, luxurious spaces for university executives and donors, and a range of other departments and initiatives.

To read a fuller accounting of the project, refer to the following articles that detailed its rationale, process, and surrounding commentary:

The purpose of our BIOS visit to crossroads was to hear firsthand from key university stakeholders about the project. We wanted to learn how leaders went about preparing for, planning, and carrying out the project. We wanted to see what the spaces look like in action.

We were generously guided through much of the massive facility (it's actually 3 separate buildings) by VP for Facility Design and Operations and University Architect, Doug Marsh and Marty Harshman, Senior Advisor to the Executive Vice President. At the end of our afternoon, we consulted with a professor in one of the academic departments for a candid assessment of how the space works for a full-time researcher and teacher.

Doug Marsh and Marty Harshman showed us a media and learning lab in Crossroads. This lab and the many other spaces are on site at the famous Notre Dame Stadium.

We were wowed by the scope and scale of the project. And our generous, wise hosts were impressive in describing so many interesting aspects of the project to us. We could write many pages about what we learned, but instead we focus on several lessons that we found to be especially critical. Might these principles be applied to other universities? Might UW-Madison leaders ponder these lessons as we advance in our own programs in these years to come? Certainly! With that, here are three key takeaways from a BIOS afternoon at Crossroads.

Get the right people on board. After about an hour of seeing more impressive rooms and features than we could have imagined, we asked Doug a rather basic question that seemed silly to even bring up: Who is responsible for this all happening? Many people, of course. But Doug’s response struck us as especially telling for how such a multifaceted project transitioned from a dream to reality. Highest-level university leaders were on the same page from the get-go with this project. Doug suggested that there were, inevitably, hiccups along the way, but the vision and buy-in from the University's president, athletic director, executive vice president, and board of trustees never wavered. He indicated that athletic director Jack Swarbrick brought the idea to President Fr. John Jenkins. Fr. Jenkins was convinced by Swarbrick's belief that the game day experience needed to be improved and that the campus could bring the larger community together by integrating academics and athletics on one site. Also, in the past, Swarbrick saw the stadium being used heavily only on home game days—about seven days a year. Why should such a large and important space not be used more regularly by the broader campus and community?

Fr. Jenkins encouraged Swarbrick to look further into the matter and to learn more about how the process might look. Jenkins remained rather hands-off as the idea progressed through various levels. The key leaders communicated with various board of trustees at different points and, by the time a vote was needed in January 2013, the idea was solidly supported, thoroughly planned, and ready to go.

This is a simplification of a complex process and drawn-out timeline, but the key lesson is: the main stakeholders and highest level leaders need to be on board, collaborative and unwavering with a project of such scale and complexity.

A student recreation center in Crossroads receives heavy use from members of the broader campus community.

Purposefully consider proximity. Sociologists have long found that understanding and relational trust is supported by frequent interactions among people. The Crossroads Project was purposeful in bringing diverse members of the campus community together, in part, for this reason.

Increasingly, college athletics programs are at risk of being isolated both substantively and geographically from the other parts of their campuses. But walking through buildings in the Crossroads Project, it was readily apparent that undergraduate students, faculty, staff, community members, and the participants in the athletic program are in frequent contact with each other, simply due to the spatial design of the project.

The athletic director's concern that the football stadium was previously used only a handful of times throughout the year is certainly not a factor anymore, as the Crossroads spaces are among the most bustling of the whole campus throughout the year. We walked the halls to see students in the campus center enjoying coffee together and others playing basketball in the rec center. We saw students practicing piano in recital rooms in the music department. We saw psychology lab members discussing one of their projects as a class of other students was just getting dismissed into a Crossroads corridor late that Friday afternoon. We saw stadium grounds crew members preparing for a large South Bend community event that was to be held the next morning. And we walked through spaces that would soon be occupied by donors and university executives for upcoming events.

Student lounge and work space is found throughout Crossroads.

Student classrooms in multiple disciplines are integrated into Crossroads.

Psychology and Anthropology are among the academic units based at the Crossroads site.

A library onsite at Crossroads.

All of these people and the events that drew them to Crossroads were crossing paths in shared space. Short of collecting extensive empirical data on the relational impact on the campus, it was evident that these groups of people may not have otherwise interacted so frequently as they do if this project were not completed. Given that frequency of interaction is known to promote trust and understanding, this could be seen as a positive aspect of the Crossroads Project. Doug, the campus architect who was so deeply involved in leading this project, told numerous stories of how the heavy use of the facility brought about new relationships among leaders and other members of the campus community.

A student practicing piano at Crossroads.

Center institutional identity in project design. The Notre Dame campus identity was readily apparent throughout the Crossroads Project spaces. Rooted in faith, research, and tradition, campus values were seen both symbolically and structurally throughout classrooms and competitive spaces. Certainly, the athletic heritage of Notre Dame was seen in the facility, but so was the deeper historical legacy of the University, as quotes from founding leaders were evident. While some of these artifacts of mission and value could be seen to be relatively surface-level in nature, a bigger point was clear. Projects that seek integration of diverse aspects of a larger university should be smartly tethered to clearly defined values of the broader campus. As such, the Notre Dame project looked a certain way, but the attributes and features of a similarly designed spaces might take an all together look at another institution. Different departments might come aboard. Different focus points would be seen.

As with every large initiative like this, everything was not perfect with the Crossroads Project. When the project was announced and the scale of it became clear to the broader community, some leaders and members of the university were concerned about the prioritization of athletics over a deeper institutional identity in the Catholic tradition. For years, the geographic center of the campus was seen in its beautiful Sacred Heart Basilica, but now, as Doug described, the center of campus was drifting to the east, toward the sports complex. Symbolically, investment around the football stadium could be interpreted as a drift from the university's true foundation.

And, as a matter of practicality, being pulled from the older, traditional buildings in other parts of campus may not have been ideal for all parties. One professor with whom we spoke indicated that she preferred the older, traditional parts of campus and that the new space felt somewhat "institutional" and lacking in character. As such, even as one of the main goals of the project was to integrate diverse parts of the university, including athletics and academics, the pulling away from the traditional center of campus, was not seen as ideal by all. But overall, Doug enthusiastically indicated that the project was largely received as a great success. Alums, students, and athletes enjoyed beautiful new spaces. Undoubtedly, the university can reap competitive benefits from having such a beautiful space – – it’s hard to imagine a facility that would be shinier and more attractive to a young recruit or a prospective new faculty member. And as some other universities are building one-stop-shops for their athletes – – sites where athletes can compete, eat, live, and study without ever needing to leave or interact with non-athletics people, the principle of spatial design aimed at integrating diverse members of the overall campus community is admirable. Wisconsin is not going to try replicating the Crossroads Project – nor should we. Each institution needs to work within its own DNA, within its traditions and heritage. But, in walking through these spaces of the Crossroads Project at Notre Dame, we can indeed draw some valuable perspective on how athletics, academics, and broader student life can be interwoven with assistance of smart design.

A view out a west-facing window of a Crossroads Project building includes the university's famous "Golden Dome" in the distance. Also, in the nearer light, the largest "green roof" in the state of Indiana.

Words of famous coaches can be seen throughout Crossroads -- but so can words from scholars, philosophers, and theologians.

A long hallway of offices in one of the academic units of Crossroads.

Crossroads integrates athletics spaces with academics and a host of other university resources.

Crossroads includes a lounge/gathering space for former football players.

Community members have access to the facility for a range of programs and events.

Doug Marsh explained how the Department of Music has flourished as the program enjoys new space and is led by a dynamic faculty.

Students have high-level space at their disposal for various media production opportunities. Here is a radio/podcast lab.

On the day we visited, a Law School "connections day" was occurring -- this was a clear example of the relational bonds that the project aimed to foster.


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