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Wednesday, Dec 6, 2023

An open letter to the Board of Trustees

With the Board of Trustees on campus and meeting throughout this week to discuss institutional priorities and planned spending, we want to take advantage of this opportunity to directly address the people who have a major role in deciding how the funds raised by “For Every Future: The Campaign for Middlebury,” will be used. As the first major fundraising campaign since 2015, aimed at raising $600 million, $383 million of which has already been received, this presents a unique opportunity to consider where Middlebury currently stands and what its future will look like.

While we appreciate the “For Every Future” campaign’s focus on financial access and improving college infrastructure, we would like to see you, the Board of Trustees, lead a concerted effort to expand the faculty and staff with greater compensation and narrowly tailor the campaign’s goals to the needs of the 2,800 students currently on campus in Vermont.

The most laudable aspect of this campaign is its commitment to removing financial barriers to attending Middlebury, as the college has committed $215 million to aid students with tuition costs and daily expenses. Considering that 51% of the student body is on financial aid, we are grateful that you have prioritized such a consequential factor in many student’s Middlebury experiences with the largest commitment of any. Creating more scholarships and grants to meet students’ financial needs must continue to be a top priority for Middlebury. Beyond the ever-rising sticker price of $83,880, fully participating in Middlebury’s opportunities often requires spending some amount of money, ranging from the cost of traveling with an a capella group or debate team to buying winter clothes or a Snow Bowl pass. In last year’s Zeitgeist survey, over 50% of students reported feeling satisfied with their aid packages; 36%, however, reported some level of dissatisfaction. There is room to grow in making Middlebury a financially accessible place for all students through these funds, and we urge you to devote time this week to considering how to achieve that goal.

Another feature of the campaign we would like to highlight is the capital projects, which has allocated $117 million to renovating infrastructure on campus such as the Christian A. Johnson Memorial Building and building new housing, such as the new first-year residence hall planned to open in fall 2025. These long-term projects are vital to updating and expanding the physical spaces in which we live and learn. We appreciate the funds already allocated to these projects, but there are many outdated spaces on our campus that no longer serve the interests of students at a modern educational institution. As we have previously reported on, our physical spaces are not inclusive nor accessible for students with disabilities or physical injuries, particularly during the snowy winter months. The college must go beyond renovating a few buildings and one new dorm; we must bring the physical infrastructure across our entire campus into the twenty-first century in a way that works for all Middlebury students.

The part of the “For Every Future” campaign directing $120 million to academic excellence is aimed at providing skill development, advanced teaching tools and supporting research for college faculty. While we appreciate these initiatives, we believe that prioritizing attracting new faculty and paying faculty competitive salaries is of primary importance to academic excellence at Middlebury. Course over enrollment and faculty shortages have placed strains on the academic experience for professors and students alike in recent years, and the college must commit to bringing in new faculty in order to address these issues. In September 2022, the Middlebury Chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) published an op-ed calling for a 10% faculty wage increase, as professors’ wages have fallen well behind inflation since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. In addition to raising faculty wages, acknowledging the strain over enrollment and shouldering the slack of missing faculty members in short staffed departments places on professors is truly prioritizing academic excellence at Middlebury. 

The campaign’s only mention of staffing is in the context of athletic coaching positions – undoubtedly important, but striking considering it is the sole aspect of staffing addressed. The college has failed its staff tremendously in recent years. Middlebury has a history of under compensating its staff, which is only exacerbated by the rural campus and scarce housing opportunities in Addison County. As a result, Middlebury has suffered many staff departures in recent years, struggled to retain existing staff and had difficulty recruiting new staff. Departments across campus have been impacted as a result of these staffing shortages, with changes made to the dining halls, reduced hours at the Grille and Midd Xpress and Davis Library and the closing of BiHall’s Vivarium altogether. The clearest way to address this issue is by putting more money toward staff wages and attracting staff to the college. Middlebury must make a concerted effort to devote more money to compensating its staff, while also continuing to devote initiatives to helping support its staff, such as the Summit Properties affordable housing project. 

More staff also allows for increased mental health resources. Especially in a rural community without many surrounding resources, it is the college’s job to devote funds to hiring high quality and diverse counselors for students – something students have called for for years. Thirty five percent of students who have Midd Telehealth last year reported feeling somewhat or very dissatisfied with the resource, according to Zeitgeist 5.0. At the same time, strikingly, 49% of students have either never used Midd Telehealth or do not know what it is. Student testimonials and our data point toward a clear lack of accessible and inclusive mental health infrastructure on campus, we have seen limited activity in resolving this problem. We call for you to direct more funds and attention to providing mental health care; institutional support is of the utmost importance given Middlebury’s isolated, rural location.

We would also like to acknowledge that by the time this fundraising campaign concludes in 2028, everyone on our board — and everyone currently enrolled at Middlebury — will have graduated and left the Vermont campus (at least we hope). Our goal in writing this letter is to call attention to the issues we are noticing right now at Middlebury, but we do not anticipate all of them to be resolved immediately during our time here. Rather, as you begin to chart the path Middlebury will take in the coming years, we urge you to listen to what we have identified here for the long-term viability of the college.We hope to see future Middlebury students attend a financially accessible, renovated and renewed college that fairly compensates faculty andstaff and provides sufficient mental health infrastructure. 

As the Board of Trustees, you have the opportunity this week to begin looking towards this vision of a greater Middlebury, and we sincerely hope you act on our words. If not you, who else?