SALT LAKE CITY — As dignitaries and University of Utah officials attended a ceremony to dedicate Carolyn and Kem Gardner Commons on Friday, Carlos Valdez sat at a table upstairs in a hallway flooded with natural light catching up on homework.
Valdez, a junior studying economics and political science, is a commuter student. Gardner Commons, the U.'s new main classroom building, is his home away from home. Its many amenities make life as a student more comfortable and convenient, he said.
"There's a lot of places to just relax, around the cafeteria downstairs or up here," Valdez said, referring to the building's second floor. "A lot of my classes are on this level. It's pretty nice."
Jessica Sharma, a freshman, has never known the U. campus without the Carolyn and Kem Gardner Commons, which includes 37 classrooms, two auditoriums and hundreds of student study spaces.
"This is one of my favorite buildings because it's so open, there's a food court right below and it's just a really nice place to study," she said.
Sharma said she particularly appreciates the thoughtful design of the 220,000-square-foot structure. Gardner Commons was made possible by a $10 million lead gift by the Gardners and $5.3 million from other major donors.
"I like that there's so many places to study. It's not just tables but there's a variety so you can study with a group of people or sit somewhere individually and privately to study, which I really enjoy," Sharma said.
The Gardners have a long history of supporting the university by providing scholarships, funding the basketball team's practice facility and backing a policy institute that bears Kem C. Gardner's name. They also endowed a presidential chair in the School of Music in honor of Carolyn Gardner's late mother, Ellen Neilson Barnes, a talented musician and music educator who taught at the U.
University of Utah President Ruth Watkins said the university "has no better friends than Carolyn and Kem Gardner."
Now, their names adorn a classroom building that students like Valdez and Sharma consider the hub of the campus.
"For decades to come, students will gather here in these spaces. They will advance their education, and they will learn and they will socialize and maybe just as you two did, while they're at the University of Utah, they will meet a partner for life," said Watkins. The Gardners met while students at the U.
Carolyn Gardner said she and her husband hope the building inspires students to "be open to ideas and free from prejudice with a desire to continue learning, thinking critically and writing persuasively throughout their lives."
Gardner Commons replaced Orson Spencer Hall, where the then-Carolyn Barnes took classes and socialized with classmates, including a Wyoming farm kid who later became her spouse and a highly successful real estate developer.
That was another of the hopes she expressed for students who spend time in Gardner Commons in years to come, that they "cultivate strong interpersonal relationships with family, friends and others that enrich their lives."
Kem Gardner reminisced about lifelong friends he met while a student at the U., among them real estate developer Roger Boyer, his former business partner.
"If I hadn't come here, I'd never met Roger and I would have never had the money to build this," he said.
He also recalled faculty members who took a personal interest in students.
"My hope for this building is that it will continue to house great teachers who are passionate, inspiring and know their subject matter but love students and want to see students succeed," he said.
One of his favorite professors invited him to his home to discuss philosophy.
"It changed my life. Not many professors do that," he said.
In addition to laboratories to study environmental changes and how humans have adapted, Gardner Commons is home to several units within the College of Social and Behavioral Science; the Hinckley Institute of Politics; the Office for Global Engagement; the School for Cultural and Social Transformation; the Emma Eccles Jones Welcome Center and Office of Admissions.Comment on this story
Cynthia Berg, dean of the College of Social and Behavioral Science, faculty and students collaborate on critical issues such growing rates of obesity, diabetes, air pollution, health policy, immigration and racist thought.
"All the easy stuff," she said.
Gardner Commons is an investment "that will touch lives for generations," she said.
"Central to this building is that faculty, students and staff are agents of change. In order to make that change we need to do it together," she said.
Gardner, dressed in a red sports coat, marveled at the beauty and function of the building but said he struggled with its name.
"It's not common at all," he said.