Creating the Comm Quad

Elon’s new facilities framing Under the Oaks represent one of the nation’s finest learning environments for the study of communications.

The new communications quad includes from left Steers Pavilion, Dwight C. Schar Hall, the Snow Family Grand Atrium & the remodeled Iris Holt McEwen Building.
By Owen Covington

Just 11 years after its founding in 2000, Elon’s School of Communications was bursting at the seams. It had advanced in that short time from 500 students in two majors with 12 faculty to more than 1,000 students in five majors and 50 faculty. It had also gained a reputation as one of the nation’s top 20 communications programs, but there just wasn’t enough space for all of the creative and intellectual energy.

The need for more space for the school had become apparent. When Dean Paul Parsons enumerated the school’s future needs to Elon administrators as part of the Elon Commitment, the university’s strategic plan, a special capital campaign was launched and successfully completed in 18 months, thanks to the support of many benefactors. Today’s School of Communications is a major leap forward. Before its expansion, the school’s core operation was in the 38,000-square-foot Iris Holt McEwen Building, with student media and related programs spread across campus. When the expanded facilities are fully complete in June, the school’s quad will bring together 1,240 students and 60 faculty in five adjoining buildings encompassing 105,000 square feet of state-of-the-art facilities.

The all-glass Snow Family Grand Atrium features a 1.4-million-pixel video wall. 
The new complex includes Dwight C. Schar Hall, the Snow Family Grand Atrium, Citrone Plaza, the remodeled McEwen Building, Steers Pavilion and the remodeled Long Building, which is being transformed this spring into a home for the sport management program and the master’s program in interactive media. The facilities feature a wide range of well-appointed, versatile collaboration spaces where students, faculty and alumni can come together to learn, practice and create in a beautiful setting framing the historic area of campus known as Under the Oaks. 

If you’re passing through downtown Elon, the communications complex is easy to spot on Williamson Avenue. You can look across the new Citrone Plaza and see into the all-glass Snow Atrium with its 2,000-pound, 1.4-million-pixel video wall. Another bank of windows allows pedestrians to see into the Jane and Brian Williams Studio in McEwen Building. The studio’s equipment and design rival that of professional broadcasting settings. A separate virtual studio next door is ready for the new age of virtual reality storytelling, and there are two fully outfitted control rooms that can operate either studio.

The main floor of McEwen also is the home to a multimedia newsroom for the Elon News Network, which unites the staffs of Elon Local News and The Pendulum newspaper. The merger has created a buzzing hub for online, print and broadcast news operations that pulses with activity day and night. McEwen also includes new studios for WSOE 89.3 FM Radio, formerly housed in Moseley Center, and offices for ESTV (the production arm for six student-operated programs, ranging from skit comedy to talk to sports), Phi Psi Cli yearbook, film production organization CinElon and Limelight Music Group, a student recording and production organization for local and on-campus talent.

Walk from McEwen through the expansive glass-framed Snow Atrium and into Turner Theatre and you’ll find a 220-seat state-of-the-art movie theater that will screen student films, host the annual CinElon Film Festival and offer the campus community a regular lineup of box office hits. The theater is part of Schar Hall, a 45,000-square-foot building that includes classrooms, faculty offices, expanded space for the Live Oak Communications student agency that focuses on public relations and advertising, and much more. Faculty offices are organized into pods that include student engagement spaces, comfortable furniture and inviting niches where students can study and interact in small groups. The synergy of all the student groups working together using the latest technologies alongside faculty and staff adds to the school’s energized environment. “From the very beginning, I didn’t see this as just a School of Communications expansion,” Parsons says. “When people visit this school, they see students hard at work writing and producing and creating.”

A school focused on the future

The desire to create the most collaborative environment possible was a driving concept for the building architects. With more than 1,200 students pursuing communications majors, the time had come to move beyond the walls of McEwen Building, which was built in 1968 as Elon’s library and remodeled and expanded for use by communications in 2000.

Other locations for new facilities were considered, but it became clear that keeping the school in the historic area of campus, with a renovated McEwen connected with new neighboring facilities, was the best course. “We really wanted the new buildings to be modern while tying into the spirit of Elon’s historic look and feel,” Parsons says. “I also loved the idea of creating a communications quad framing the historic Under the Oaks. It’s a perfect marriage of the new and the old.”

Architectural plans were developed by the renowned Robert A.M. Stern Architects of New York, and funding was provided by 43 generous donor families, many of them Elon parents. “These were people who understood our needs, recognized the high quality of Elon’s communications programs, and wanted to become partners in providing students with an outstanding learning environment,” says Jim Piatt, vice president for university advancement. 

Dwight C. Schar Hall was made possible with a portion of a $13 million gift made to the university by Dwight and Martha Schar, parents of Stuart ’16 and Spencer ’19 Schar. The building includes Turner Theatre, which was funded by a gift by Elon parents Jim and Toni Turner and their sons Garrett ’08 and Parker ’06 Turner. The Snow Family Grand Atrium is named for David and Lynette Snow, parents of Elon communications alumna Lauren Snow ’15. The 5,000-square-foot, two-story glass structure provides a modern front to the school, with ample room and comfortable furniture for students and faculty to gather under an expansive high-definition video screen that showcases the school’s programs, alumni and student internships.

Exterior view of Citrone Plaza.
The atrium opens up onto Citrone Plaza, a pedestrian gathering spot on Williamson Avenue funded by Elon trustee Cindy Citrone and her husband, Rob, parents of Gabriela Citrone ’17. The Jane and Brian Williams Studio in McEwen Building, named by the parents of Douglas Williams ’13, incorporates the exterior windows suggested by Brian Williams, an MSNBC News anchor and host. Next door to Schar Hall is Steers Pavilion, a single-story, 7,300-square-foot facility named in recognition of a gift by Bob and Lauren Steers, parents of John “JP” Steers ’15. The pavilion houses the internationally recognized Imagining the Internet Center, a media analytics lab and faculty and staff offices. 

The design of the facilities features a theme of transparency. In addition to the massive glass atrium, Schar and Steers are faced with large windows on the building exteriors, and many interior spaces have glass walls connecting hallways with classrooms, labs and office suites. “There’s an architectural design philosophy here of openness,” Parsons says. “It ties into the importance of openness in the field of communications and the importance of transparency to society.”

Powerful technology, collaborative spaces

The opening of the new facilities provided ideal timing for a long-discussed initiative to bring together student journalists into a single news organization that mirrors what is taking place on the media landscape. The merger required technological infrastructure in a collaborative professional setting.

Vic Costello, associate professor of communications, chairs the school’s technology committee and played a key role in the design and implementation of McEwen’s technological upgrades and the advanced technology infrastructure incorporated in Schar Hall and Steers Pavilion. “Our facility was 15 years old when we began to focus on technological aspects of the completion of our expansion,” Costello says. “We saw the renovation of McEwen as a way to leap forward.”

McEwen’s first-floor studios were completely rewired to provide a data network that allows seamless integration of the ENN newsroom and the broadcast studios and control rooms. “It makes upgrading and staying state-of-the-art a lot easier, and also facilitates greater power in being able to move audio and video around the network,” Costello says. Elon relied on the advice from many experienced broadcast facility designers throughout the design process, including Elon alumnus Troy Senkiewicz ’98, whose Los Angeles company, DigiMax Consulting, provides technology solutions for some of the world’s largest entertainment companies.

The Williams Studio has been outfitted with new led lighting, new sets and three high-definition cameras. A second control room was added to serve the two broadcast studios, one of which was transformed into the virtual studio, designed to allow for the use of virtual backdrops and creative studio productions. Again emphasizing transparency and openness, visitors at the entrance to the broadcasting suite can see into both control rooms. There’s also a window that allows visitors to view the many racks of servers and switches making up the digital backbone of the broadcasting operation. With a second control room now available, one can be used for instruction while the other is in use for a show. “We’re easing our way into discovering how to fully utilize these new tools,” Costello says. “It just opens up a lot of production possibilities for us. Because the equipment we’re putting in is so powerful, there are just infinite things you can do with it.”

The capabilities of the professional-quality studios were demonstrated on Election Night in November, when ENN provided more than six hours of coverage, with eight cameras in use in the two studios and remote broadcasts from numerous off-campus locations. “They pushed our new facility as much as they could push it,” Costello says. “It’s opening up more creative avenues from a storytelling perspective, and introducing students to equipment that’s more in line with what they’re going to work with once they go out into the world.”

Elon has also increased the space dedicated to video production, with the video-editing area in the lower level of McEwen now hosting 19 large, well-equipped edit bays. In addition, a new Foley sound studio provides the opportunity and the technology to record sound effects to integrate into student films and video productions.

Other new tech-enhanced spaces in the expansion include the Kanarick Media Sandbox on the second floor of Schar Hall, where students in different majors are invited to come together to innovate and be entrepreneurs. And Elon’s media analytics program, one of the school’s newest offerings, now has featured space within Steers Pavilion. The building includes social media analytics tools that will enable students to do high-level analysis of social media traffic and determine the effectiveness of social media strategies. The large classroom in the pavilion includes advanced software and computers as well as interactive screens that help students hone their skills and dive deeper into analysis, says Qian Xu, associate professor of communications. “In Steers Pavilion, students majoring in media analytics now have a sense of home,” she adds. 

Under one roof for the first time

The consolidation of Elon’s student broadcast and print news organizations has been catalyzed by the facilities’ changes. Combining the efforts of the more than 100 student journalists who once worked separately for either The Pendulum or Elon Local News creates a more powerful news organization. “By being closer together they’re going to find common crossover points,” says Colin Donohue, instructor in communications and director of student media for Elon.

Parsons agrees. “Good things happen with proximity,” he says. “These groups will work in ways that wouldn’t have been possible before.”

The new ENN facilities also put student media organizations closer to the faculty who advise them and the professors they are learning from in the classroom, Donohue adds. “It puts them in-house with other faculty and staff who can be great resources and mentors for them,” he says. “It’s going to be easy for those faculty to provide feedback and guidance in a way that hasn’t been possible in the past.”

Glenn Scott, associate professor of communications, says teaching student journalists how to work across platforms is essential to their preparation for careers that are evolving at the speed of technology. “Now everybody is really going to be together more and collaborate more,” Scott says. “They need to have this sense that we’re going to be collaborating across platforms more and more during the next decade.”

Tommy Hamzik ’17, ENN’s executive director, says the new newsroom has been essential to bringing together The Pendulum and Elon Local News, and has put the student news operation in a prominent location. “It’s been astounding how many faculty will stop to check in and talk with us as they walk past,” he says. “That’s been an amazing aspect. We’re a lot more visible than we had been. It’s a lot more open for people to come in and provide assistance.”

Enhancing the culture

The new facilities include many engagement spaces where students and faculty can interact in small groups. 
Elon opened the new facilities in phases, with Schar Hall and the Snow Atrium opening following fall break and the grand opening of Turner Theatre in December. The first screening included a red carpet showing of “Theeb,” the Oscar-nominated work co-produced by 2005 Elon graduate Laith Majali, who was on hand to receive the school’s Outstanding Alumni Award. Steers Pavilion opened during Winter Term. Work is underway on the renovation of Long Building, which is expected to be completed in early June. Formal dedication ceremonies of all of the facilities, scheduled for March 31, will provide an opportunity to thank the donors who made the expansion possible and showcase everything the communications quad has to offer. 

Parsons frequently walks through the atrium and finds students huddled together in discussions or carving out niches to study. He notes that students “have moved into the new areas aggressively” and are using all parts of the enhanced learning environments. “The overall reaction has been one of delight—these facilities are comfortable for students and provide the culture we want,” he says. “We have a close student-faculty culture here, and we want to keep and enhance that culture. These buildings do that.”