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Sunday, Jun 26, 2022

Proposed Commons Changes Are a Good Start

<span class="photocreditinline">MICHAEL BORENSTEIN/THE MIDDLEBURY CAMPUS</span><br />McCullough Student Center could be renovated or replaced as a result of recommendations from the How We Will Live Together Steering Committee.
McCullough Student Center could be renovated or replaced as a result of recommendations from the How We Will Live Together Steering Committee.

We would like to commend the How We Will Live Together Steering Committee for revising the college’s Residential Life system based on community-wide feedback about the current system’s shortcomings. Now, the system offers certain students more positive experiences than others, and we appreciate the Committee’s attempt to equalize quality of life across all Commons. But, we would also like to recommend changes that we believe should be part of the final proposal.

The Steering Committee outlined its proposed changes to the Residential Life system at a forum in Wilson Hall last Tuesday alongside the Student Government Association and Community Council. Committee members conducted an extensive review of the college’s current Residential Life system and identified key structural weaknesses.

“What we now have is one of the most expensive residential systems among all of our peer institutions, with some of the poorest outcomes, particularly around student satisfaction,” said Robert Moeller, assistant professor of Psychology and co-chair of the steering committee. 

The Committee’s new draft intends to address issues within the current residential system that have traditionally hampered students’ experiences. To identify these limitations, the Committee sent out surveys to the student body and collected input across Commons.

Many low-income students, minority students and Febs responded to these surveys expressing that they felt isolated within the current Residential Life system. These sentiments of isolation coupled with the college’s current overcrowding make the process of constructing a new residential system. 

Some of the proposed solutions include reclaiming lounge areas currently being used as student rooms or office spaces, eliminating restrictions on sophomore housing, improving the integration of Feb students and increasing support for students staying on campus during breaks. We think these are all good ideas that could lay a solid foundation for a more inclusive and balanced residential experience.

To build upon these proposals, we encourage the Steering Committee to prioritize grouping new Febs together in dorms, and with other first-year students. Students build strong relationships with their neighbors and hallmates, and we think deliberately integrating Febs with other first-years will help them adjust to college life. It could also be helpful to hire a residential staff member who works directly with Febs. Many of us have good relationships with our deans and Commons coordinators because we were able to connect with them during the first trying months of college; we want Febs to have this chance too. 

[pullquote speaker="Robert Moeller" photo="" align="center" background="on" border="all" shadow="on"]What we now have is one of the most expensive residential systems among all of our peer institutions, with some of the poorest outcomes.[/pullquote]

We are wary of grouping all first-year housing together into a “quad,” as the draft recommendations currently suggest. While we agree that deans and Residential Life teams should be placed within first-year housing, we are unsure whether first-year housing and Residential Life teams should be in one geographical area. This setup could limit interclass interaction and could create an isolating environment — especially for Febs, if the college continues to place them in upperclassman housing. 

We would also like to see the dining halls open more regularly during breaks. Perhaps the college could create structured programming for students who stay on campus over breaks. It can be lonely to spend Thanksgiving or Winter Break on campus, and the college should do all it can to make it a social and fun experience.

We hope equalizing the number of students each dean oversees will make deans even more accessible to students, especially to first-years. Members of our board have expressed varying relationships with their deans, typically dependent upon what Commons they entered in their first year. As such, we agree with the Committee’s initiative to improve student-dean relationships across the board.

We also recognize that cozy physical spaces for students to interact with deans encourage students to reach out and ask for help when they need it. Moving Commons or deans’ offices to an uninviting student center could make students less willing to get to know their Residential Life teams, which means the new center needs to be as warm and accessible as possible. Ideally, these offices would remain in first-year dorms to ensure first-years get support when they need it.

If the college does hire new deans to address first-year support, we hope they consider Scott Barnicle, dean of Atwater Commons, as an example. Barnicle not only provides the support students need regarding class scheduling or on-campus issues, but also remains highly invested in students’ personal well-being. We think it is no coincidence that Barnicle has a background in counseling, which equips him to support students more holistically.

[pullquote speaker="" photo="" align="center" background="on" border="all" shadow="on"]We are grateful to be involved in the construction of the new Residential Life plan.[/pullquote]

We remain wary of reducing the overall number of deans as this may place more responsibility on FYCs, RAs and CAs. FYCs already have a great deal of responsibility: beyond being the “go-to” people for first-years, they are responsible for coordinating events, building hall community and staying “on call” in case of emergencies, and yet they are not paid enough. We would love for Residential Life members, especially FYCs, to receive better compensation for their work.

Our board recognizes that this is a draft of recommendations. It is obvious the Committee has taken student input seriously and we are grateful to be involved in the construction of the new Residential Life plan. 

We hope the Committee follows through with the commitments outlined within its proposal. Decades ago, when the college first proposed the Commons system, many of the objectives outlined within its proposal never came to fruition. The residential system became entrapped within a self-perpetuating cycle where low-quality programming decreased students’ enthusiasm about their Commons, which then further lowered the quality of housing initiatives. If the college genuinely wants to improve life on campus, it needs to fully implement the commitments outlined within this proposal.

In the meantime, we encourage students to continue voicing their suggestions and concerns. The draft is accessible at go/livetogether and students can comment on the draft online until March 1.