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Monday, Dec 11, 2023

Undercaffeinated and Underwhelmed

Last week, Middlebury’s Community Council voted to recommend the discontiunation of energy drink sales on campus, citing the “problematic behavior” that can arise from the consumption of such drinks. A letter to MiddExpress customers — signed by Dan Detora, Middlebury’s executive director of food services — states, “There is scientific literature that demonstrates a strong correlation between the consumption of energy drinks and problematic behavior in young adults and college students, including increased alcohol consumption, increased likelihood to drive while intoxicated, increased probability of use of other intoxicating substances and increased participation in high-risk sexual activity.” The decision was met with varying degrees of support and criticism, as well as national news attention. We find the  sales ban powerful – at least symbolically – and recognize the need to address its troubling implications. First, this ban serves as a conspicuous reminder that the College has taken few concrete steps to mitigate student stress. Second, the language surrounding the ban — namely, the unsubstantiated mention of a correlation between energy drinks and sexual activity — has made the College the subject of mockery in the headlines of national media outlets.

While we acknowledge the well-intentioned motivations of the Community Council in approving the ban, we believe that such a decision does not fall in accordance with the philosophy of the College in terms of personal responsibility. Consider the Honor Code, one we all sign within our first few days of entering Middlebury, whose authors are described as “students in a community of individuals that values academic integrity as a way of life.” Although the code is used formally as an academic standard, it embodies the culture and values of the College, which place great importance on personal responsibility. The Honor Code allows students more academic freedom — such as take-home assignments and unproctored exams — than most other colleges and universities, with the expectation that we will rise to the occasion with great integrity and behavior that is healthy to both the individual and the learning community as a whole.

Middlebury students are expected to exhibit a matured ability to make responsible academic decisions, an expectation that should be holistically applied to its assumptions of the student population. A ban on the sale of energy drinks implies Middlebury students are not capable of making decisions that affect their own bodies, a direct contradiction to the values clearly stated in our academic code. We believe that decisions based on the health and wellness of students should more accurately reflect the values we uphold in our community, academically and beyond. When we graduate, we’ll have access to energy drinks. If we choose to consume energy drinks in college, we should choose to do so responsibly -- as such, an imposed lack of access does not benefit Middlebury students in the long run.

Furthermore, we understand that student stress was a factor in Community Council’s decision to ban the sale of the drinks. Although we commend their efforts to consider the health of the Middlebury student, we believe this ban addresses only a minor manifestation of the culture of stress on campus, a culture that could be vastly improved with a commitment to more constructive changes. On many levels, the ban feels to us like a shallow gesture that is overshadowed by institutional contradictions such as the fact that copious amounts of coffee — including Starbucks Doubleshot drinks — are still sold in campus stores. We would love to see Community Council confront this institution’s failure to make concrete steps towards changing the culture of stress on this campus, rather than making small changes that feel almost patronizing. After the weighty conversations around student stress last spring, the sales ban is one of the few changes intended to begin to address that culture, but one that falls far short of making any substantive improvements.

Members of this board varied in the degree to which they found the energy drink ban problematic, sparking a conversation around other products not sold on campus. Many supported the fact that no tobacco is sold; others brought up the question of soda or fattening foods—should those be banned also? This sparks the question of a movable line, and the people who have the power to draw it. Community Council, it should be noted, is a board comprised of students, faculty and staff. The students are appointed by the Student Co-Chair. We believe that a board with such influence should be more directly representative of the people whose decision it most affects. Community Council can produce significant legislation that directly affects the lives of students, including the possible installment of security cameras and the controversial decision to disband ADP, formally referred to as Prescott house. We suggest that Community Council adopt new publicity tactics — such as proactive polling and all-student emails — to help keep students in the loop. Additionally, when crafting resolutions, we implore Community Council to make careful use of their language — lest NBC run with a few peculiar sentences.

There are so many initiatives and projects at Middlebury that are worthy of attention and recognition, and we find such pointed focus on this energy drink ban unfortunate; the skewed emphasis misrepresents our community. But if we do take student stress seriously, we must do more — we must strive to pass more concrete proposals that address the wellbeing of the student body in a direct, robust manner. A ban on the sale of energy drinks — needless to say — is not enough.