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Saturday, Dec 9, 2023

Middlebury staff require an overdue sense of urgency

This summer, when it became readily apparent that the student body would be significantly overenrolled for the fall 2021 semester, the college immediately sought out potential solutions. They made arrangements for dozens of students to live at the Bread Loaf campus and the Middlebury Marriott. Most notably, they purchased the Inn on the Green for $1.285 million. 

In essence, Middlebury saw a problem and acted expediently to address it. Other critical issues on campus, however, have lacked this level of urgency, with one issue standing out in particular  — the staffing shortage, which has now reached troubling levels.   

This shortage did not occur overnight. Semblances of a labor deficit began to surface in late spring, giving the college more than enough time to anticipate this semester’s staffing crisis. However, this crisis is playing out without any of the same urgency afforded to the housing crisis. 

Dining halls are bare-boned in their staffing. Two dining hall workers had to relocate to staffing Bread Loaf. Facilities staff are supposedly down 30 people and are prepared to begin hiring subcontractors. Last week, student organizations were given funded volunteer opportunities to help out with set up and clean up at the Student Involvement Fair due to critical understaffing, and MiddView leaders were told that a central reason for this year’s lack of orientation trips was the shortage of staff. 

The student experience is deeply interwoven with that of the staff; every aspect of our time here depends on them. Therefore, this year’s over-enrollment has put even more undue pressure on the staff. If the college has committed to enrolling over 300 extra students, they also need to display this same commitment to supporting those whose tireless work permits those students to be here in the first place. 

Yes, Middlebury may be a microcosm of the larger national labor shortage. But it shouldn’t have to be. As displayed in the college’s purchase of the Inn, we have the financial resources to tackle problems as we see fit. But Middlebury gets to selectively choose what it considers to be investments, and whom it considers to be expendable. 

The college should be doing everything in its power to hire adequate numbers of staff and support them long-term. The $750 retention bonus for individuals who remain throughout the fall semester is evidently a short-term band-aid solution that fails to address the root causes of harm: an environment that necessitates one person doing the work of many, all for a below-livable wage. In addition, working at Middlebury still presents a constant health risk, particularly for staff members with children under the age of 12 who cannot be vaccinated. 

It is beyond clear that the people who feed us and clean up after us, those who work to keep this school running, deserve more. As a Board, we don’t claim to know every intricacy of college finances and hiring practices, but we know from our weeks on campus thus far that actionable steps should have been taken long ago; many of our reporters have spent hours talking with staff members whose frustration is palpable. 

Ultimately, livable wages should be the floor — not the ceiling. Staff need to feel valued, day in and day out, and our attention towards them shouldn’t falter if and when we hire the necessary numbers. 

How Middlebury opts to handle this will be indicative of how they respond to future crises. We all know that the college has the ability to quickly mobilize its capital, and it’s far past time they do so to support staff.