The commons system will no longer exist come next fall, the college administration announced in an email to the Middlebury community on Oct. 24.
The email detailed a host of changes to the current residential life system following a multi-year review of the system, including the creation of a new Office of Residential Life, a push to work towards building a new student center, and the consolidation of deans’ offices into two first-year “clusters.” All together, the administration is calling the changes “BLUEprint.”
The review process, which started to take shape in spring 2018, originated in Community Council in 2017, after a New York Times article about income inequality inspired the council to conduct a student survey . The survey ultimately pointed to discrepancies in residential life experiences among students. The following year, an external committee convened to build the report that would eventually become “How Will We Live Together.” The report’s recommendations informed the upcoming overhaul.
Currently, first-year students live in one of five first-year halls, depending on their assigned commons. Per the new system, first-years will instead either live in Allen and Battell halls on the north side of campus, or Stewart and Hepburn halls south of College Street, depending on which “cluster” they are in. These changes will turn Hepburn from a sophomore dorm to a first year dorm, while removing first years from Hadley, a first-year dormitory located in the Ross complex.
Administrators chose to move first-years nearer to each other in response to the external committee’s report, which said that relocating first year students to live in closer proximity to one another “should increase students’ sense of belonging at Middlebury, and reduce some of the tensions related to diversity and inclusion that we heard about during our visit to campus.”
These changes effectively put an end to the commons system, which was first established after the removal of Greek life from campus in 1989 and modeled off of the house system at universities like Harvard and Yale. The commons were put into place in 1991 and have faced major adjustments twice since then.
The upcoming changes to residential life attempt to combat the “inefficiency” produced by the commons model, while also working to better serve and support students, administrators told The Campus.
“I was shocked at how complicated the system was... and the faculty were not being used as effectively as they could be,” said Rob Moeller, a psychology professor who specializes in the mental health of college students.
Moeller has been an integral member of the How Will We Live Together Steering Committee. The committee formed in the spring of 2018 to develop and write the final recommendations.
“[We realized] that the experiment of randomizing students into communities didn’t work,” Moeller said. “You can tell someone that their new mascot is a squirrel or frog or a rhino, but it didn’t resonate with students. Students weren’t walking around saying, ‘Go squirrels.’”
The plan also suggests planning will soon be underway for the renovation or replacement of Battell Hall, the biggest first year dorm on campus, as well as for a new student center. Administrators said that the college cannot operate without the beds provided by Battell Hall, meaning that the building will likely continue to operate while a new facility is built.
A re-centralized residential life office
The shift away from the commons system will fundamentally change how the college approaches student residential life staff. It will also add two new positions to the residential life team, including an associate dean for residential life and an assistant director of student success. These positions will be filled by AJ Place,who served as theDean of Brainerd commons until spring 2019, and Michelle Audette, who now works as Middlebury’s ADA Coordinator, respectively.
The positions will both fall within a consolidated Office of Residential Life. This office, in addition to directing students towards resources, will work to remove some of the workload from deans, the number of which will be downsized from five to four.
The college will use new software to help deans manage student needs, and deans will be relieved of some of their residential life responsibilities. This shift is intended to help ease deans’ workloads as they become responsible for larger numbers of students.
The creation of these positions is already underway, according to AJ Place.
“I’ll be supervising the folks that we know now as the CRDs, which is what I’m already doing this year,” Place said.
Place will also be supervising Assistant Director for New Student Experience and Residential Education Kristy Carpenter and Assistant Director for Housing Operations Kady Shea.
These positions are one such way the college hopes to reach students “proactively” and move away from what Place termed a “purely reactive” approach. Place hopes this re-centralization will provide students with heightened access to resources, including programming that will help educate students on a range of topics.
“In Brainerd last year, we piloted a program in the fall [where] we did a number of series of events for first-year students, specifically,” Place said. “We had our first program with the CTLR on time management, which doesn’t sound like a fun topic, but we had well over 60 people at [the event] just here in Stewart. That tells me that students value having that [kind of resource] right here and that we’ve missed the mark on not doing that.”
With this shift, the administration hopes to have deans work in concert — rather than individually — to promote student wellness.
“When we think about what mental health is, when you think about health in general, it’s not just responding to problems, it’s about prevention,” Moeller said. “We’ve got all these great people on campus. We don’t need to just be in crisis response mode. Let’s start to use these skills in meaningful ways to really help all students.”
History of the commons
While the commons shape current students’ perceptions of how Middlebury organizes housing and residential life, this was not always the case. American Studies Professor Tim Spears was a member of the 1998 Residential Life Committee that fleshed out the College’s original idea for the commons system.
Spears said the original plan stipulated that each commons would have housing for all four classes, a dining hall, a dean’s office, and housing for the faculty head. If fully realized, these commons would have resembled Ross and Atwater facilities.
While this original plan was passed with hopes of creating five “microcosms” that would function together as the Middlebury experience, the plan was drastically altered in 2007, when it became clear that the college did not possess the financial means to build the infrastructure required by the 1998 plan. The last commons construction project was Atwater, which occurred at the same time the Davis Family Library was being built in 2004.
Due to the financial constraints, the college turned to a 4/2 plan, which features “a 4-year commons affiliation and a 2-year residency,” as described by a blog post written by Spears and dated September, 2007. This is the plan students at Middlebury have come to know — a plan under which students maintain their relationship with their commons Deans for the duration of their college experience, while only living within their commons for half of that time.
The 4/2 plan looked to keep the elements of the commons that had already been implemented, while letting go of the price tags required by the original framework. Though the move saved the college millions of dollars, it left the original commons vision largely unrealized.
Karl Lindholm, a retired American Studies professor who has worked in all five commons, including as faculty head of Atwater and the dean of Cook, explained that the idea behind the plan was to “decentralize” administrative offices.
“The word that was on everybody’s lips was decentralization,” he said. “In other words, we decentralized the Dean of Students office.”
Spears, who was the dean of the college when the 4/2 plan went into effect, said the goal of this decentralization was to create well-resourced communities to enhance the student experience. He wrote on his blog that he was saddened by the move away from the original vision of the commons, but that the shift was made with the belief that inter-commons relationships would be enough to sustain the reduced system.
“You build connections with students or faculty and commons staff during your first year or two, and then you move off and do other things, but those connections bring you back to the commons,” he said.
Those benefits were reflected in the 2018 survey — over 65% of students reported that the commons helped them to get to know other students, while 58% reported that the commons system helped them meet other people.
While the commons spurred inter-student connections, the data did not support the idea that the commons was central to community building, which was the intention behind its implementation.
“The impact [of the commons system] is only being seen mostly in the first two years and in a very small number of students, and it’s a very expensive program,” said Baishakhi Taylor, the Vice President of Student Affairs and Dean of Students.
John Gosselin, a senior who has served both on Community Council and on the How Will We Live Together Steering Committee, said that the faculty head model in particular does not make financial sense.
“The role of the commons heads originally worked a lot better than they do now,” he said. “The way it works now is we have very small dinners that cost $150,000 to cater for the five houses. That money could be spent better elsewhere.”
Gosselin said three people could be hired to work directly with students for the same amount of money.
Though the college has not confirmed whether the commons heads positions will be eliminated in the new model, there is no evidence suggesting that positions will carry over. The recommendations submitted by the Steering Committee describe the faculty head model as “real,” but says that “the preponderance of evidence suggests that [the reach of the faculty head position] is limited to a relatively small number of students, and relatively limited in scope, manifesting mainly as hosting dinner events.”
Both the Steering Committee and the administration used information gathered in the 2018 Student Residential Life Survey to support the idea that the common head positions are largely ineffective: data show that only 32% of students report having gotten to know their commons head.
Spears said that it is a “fair question” to assess how impactful the faculty head position is, especially because faculty are moving beyond the classroom, in some capacity, to serve in that role. He also noted figures such as those provided by the survey are hard to interpret.
“Just putting a number on it doesn’t really explain whether or how faculty are enhancing residential life and benefitting particular students,” he said.
Even if over 50% of students surveyed reported not having gotten to know their faculty head, it remains difficult to imagine eliminating the position, which is founded on support and care, Spears said.
“I’m sensitive to the fact that, in doing these interviews and meeting with people, there isn’t one single person connected to the current system who didn’t put their heart and soul into it,” Moeller said. “Each person really cares about students. Sometimes it’s difficult being told that you’re a part of something that’s not working as well as it should — it’s hard to hear that you’ve been pouring your soul into something and the outcomes clearly are not where they should be.”
Commons senators and student res life staff opine
Many students involved in the commons feel they were not properly consulted regarding the upcoming changes. Myles Maxie ’22, Middlebury’s Wonnacott Senator, is worried about how students will represent themselves given that the recommendations do not specify how the Student Government Association will change with the elimination of the commons. The current structure has five Senate positions affiliated with the commons — one seat to each commons — and the possible elimination of those positions would decrease senate seats by one third.
“I don’t appreciate the fact that this [new] system doesn’t have full thought behind it,” Maxie said. “They’re unsure on the status of commons councils, given the fact that they’ve removed the commons.”
Teddy Best ’22, who serves as Ross commons Senator, expressed a similar worry.
“I am concerned that the administration did not notify commons senators or commons councils of where they were headed with this process,” he said. “There’s no doubt there are problems with the commons system — that isn’t the question. The question is, what should we do about it? If it’s the case that the commons system is going to be abolished, that seems like a drastic response.”
Maxie also identified poor communication during the plan’s creation as a source of concern. Commons senators were officially notified of the final changes at the same time as the rest of the student body, leaving many to feel that they were not adequately involved in the review process.
“I don’t appreciate the lack of transparency that exists throughout this process,” he said. “This report is titled How Will We Live Together, and how can you live together with people when you can’t trust them to actually tell you the details on how they’re completing this process?”
Maxie and Best are not alone — residential life staff, including Ross Community Assistant Steph Miller ’20, expressed concern with the move away from the commons structure.
“I think a lot was overlooked in the ways these reviews were done,” Miller said. “I think some of the reviews were done hastily. The external reviewers were on campus for less than two or three days,” said Miller, who also expressed concern with the methods used to conduct the review.
“They didn’t talk to that many people and they didn’t talk to the [commons] teams as a collective,” she said. “I think if they had done that, they would’ve seen what is so magical about the commons.”
The Steering Committee, however, viewed the process differently.
“I don’t think there’s anything we could do that would have made this more transparent,” Moeller said. “Everything, the notes, the meetings, the reports on the go site. We would actually send out email invites to groups, blasting out [messages and] saying, ‘who’s willing to come for 40 minutes, an hour?’”
The past week has seen little public backlash to the elimination of the commons system, but it is a dimension of this announcement that is undeniably present. Though the greater student body has, for the most part, shown indifference towards the changes, many people affiliated with the commons and their offices were not available for comment or unwilling to speak on the record for this story, and several alluded to feelings of uncertainty and sadness at the prospect of moving away from the commons system.
Correction: A previous version of the article misstated that commons senators were informed of accepted changes prior to the rest of the student body. The article has since been updated.
Ariadne Will ’22 is a local editor for the Campus.
She has previously served as a staff writer, where she covered topics ranging from Middlebury’s Town Meeting to the College’s dance performances.
Will also works for her hometown newspaper, the Daily Sitka Sentinel, where she covers tourism and the Sitka Planning Commission.
She is studying English and American literature with a minor in gender, sexuality and feminist studies.