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Friday, Dec 1, 2023

Reflecting on Town-Gown Relations

We have a housing problem here at Middlebury. The off-campus housing of Middlebury students has long been a strain on delicate town-gown relations. The College has been contacted by a slew of disgruntled neighbors, frustrated with the collegiate party scene that has, for many years, encroached upon the territory of working adults and their families. In a 2013 episode of The Campus Voice, an anonymous town resident remarks, “it’s not just noise complaints, it’s urination complaints, people setting stuff on fire.” The administration has cracked down on much of the on-campus party scene in the years since, pushing more kids off campus and further exacerbating tensions. The result has been a steep decline in versatile on-campus options, followed by rowdier parties off-campus: exactly what the College was trying to minimize. The administration is making a concerted effort to return students to campus – last year there were 106 students off campus, in contrast to the 95 this year and 75 for next year – but there continue to be a host of problems with the school’s approach to housing, both on and off campus. We believe that the conversation surrounding housing is intrinsically tied to one about social life at Middlebury, and both must be addressed contiguously.

It is common to hear that the social scene here at Middlebury has gone “downhill.” Spaces such as ADP, KDR and the Bunker are no longer in existence. For the social spaces still intact — and with sufficient capacity to house demand — parties are complicated to register. To begin with, “you must live in the same Commons as the party space — e.g. Wonnacott residents can register parties in Gifford Annex Lounge, the Gamut Room or Prescott Basement” to register a private party. This stipulation in unnecessary: Middlebury students do not necessarily identify with the spaces affiliated with their Commons, and limiting them in this manner is unproductive. Additionally, the fact that “the deadline for registering a party is 3 p.m. on the Thursday before the party” (for registered private parties) prevents students from spontaneously and lawfully gathering in common spaces — in the administration’s eyes, it’s not okay to plan a party on a Saturday afternoon. The idea that students will not gather for parties without advance notice is as constraining as it is unrealistic. The situation worsens for large, licensed parties; these events must be “registered 10-21 business days in advance.” For those who actually go through this process, the parties are quickly shut down by public safety. Most underclassmen have few options other than Atwater – an area that utilizes a strange loophole in the College’s strict party policing, which prevents Public Safety from policing the area as stringently – which is usually crowded far past capacity. Off-campus parties, which have filled the vacuum, are generally limited to students who know the residents, making them rather exclusive. More drinking off-campus means increased liability for the students opening up their houses — particularly if underclassmen attend — as well as an increased likelihood for drunk driving. All of this occurs in addition to the disturbance of the families and individuals who live in Middlebury.

Before the administration can reduce the number of students and parties occurring in town, there need to be more desirable on-campus living spaces for upperclassmen. We commend the College for introducing the Ridgeline townhouses. However, we believe that this is a bandaid on a bullet-wound at best and part of the problem at worst. While the purpose of the Ridgeline townhouses is not to provide a space for parties, the project will inevitably bring some of the collegiate nighttime antics back to where they belong: on a college campus and not in the backyards of families with small children. But the townhouses, before we hail them as a solution to the problem, were intentionally designed without large gathering spaces and thus do not serve as a complete alternative to the existing social structure. Creating on-campus housing that is not only desirable but also allows for the congregation of a large body of students reduces their need to feel as though they must flee off-campus to have a good time. On-campus spaces are also safer ones for the social activities of underclassmen.

Certain houses off-campus will for the time being remain populated by students, even with the construction of the Ridgeline townhouses underway. We believe that off-campus living should continue to be an option for upperclassmen students, but it is important to reflect upon the culture of doing so. The fact that we are college students does not give us the right to have fun at all costs — namely, at the expense of our neighbors. If students continue to live off campus, they need to live up to the responsibility that it entails and treat their neighbors with respect. And in regard to the students who will continue to live on-campus, we call upon the College to work with students — rather than against them — in an effort to create a viable social scene on campus, where it belongs. Though the fact that the Ridgeline townhouses will have small gathering spaces is set in stone, our party registration policies can still undergo meaningful change. We urge the administration and the student body to coordinate and to modify the policy-related limitations to the on-campus party scene. Modifications, likely in the form of more flexible requirements, could encourage more students to register their on-campus parties, improving Middlebury nightlife within the College’s framework — for the benefit of Middlebury students and town residents alike.