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MiddView in Perspective: Guest Post

The wires have been silent here since the holidays for reasons I will explain in my next post—in the next week or so.  But the point of this post is to engage the The Campus‘ ill-informed editorializing on the recent decision not to include the MiddView program in next year’s first-year Orientation.  To get a full read on the context for this post, you may want to read both the article and the editorial that The Campus ran last week.

This is a guest post, which is to say that the following take on the MiddView controversy comes from Katy Abbott, Doug Adams, Derek Doucet, and JJ Boggs.  They have written a letter to The Campus editors, which I have included here while the story is still fresh in peoples’ minds.

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To the editors of The Campus:

We write today to respond to the recent Campus article and editorial addressing the College Administration’s recent decisions regarding the MiddView program. As the staff members most intimately involved with the program, and most committed to working for its eventual revival, we are compelled to address crucial inaccuracies regarding the recent decision not to revive the program for Fall 2010. We hope also to reframe the discussion around these issues in a more collaborative, less confrontational tone than that chosen by the Campus thus far.

First, however, we wish to acknowledge the deep and wide support the program has among the student body. Rest assured that the College Administration is aware of the special place the program holds in the hearts and minds of generations of Middlebury students.

Given the intensity of this student support, it is not difficult to understand the frustrations recently expressed in the Campus. However simply understanding the source of these frustrations does not change the fact that the tone taken by the Campus is not helpful in bringing about the revival of MiddView, a goal we all share.

It is true that the unprecedented economic crisis from which we are only now emerging has rendered the program’s revival for Fall 2010 an unrealistic expectation. When the SGA senate heard testimony about possible program revival dates while debating their funding bill, it was made eminently clear that a 2010 revival might not be possible.  Despite the Campus’s erroneous statements to the contrary, however, possible reinstatement for Fall 2011 is still on the table, and will be reexamined as staffing levels and capacities stabilize through the spring and summer.

This issue of staffing levels may not appear compelling in light of the Campus’s assertion that the MiddView program requires few staff resources, but sadly that assertion too is an error. It has always been extremely challenging and labor intensive for Facilities Services to clean and prepare rooms for the early return of MiddView leaders and participants in the narrow window of time between the conclusion of summer language schools and the beginning of the MiddView program. The return of the leaders and trip participants has always required the early opening of an additional dinning hall, with all the attendant staffing. Residential Life staff have always been present in the residence halls when the leaders and participants arrive early on campus, however brief their initial stay. Even had the cost of all of these staff hours directly related to MiddView been included in the SGA funding bill as reported by the Campus (this too was erroneous; the cost was not included), the fact remains that the College’s capacity to meet program needs with dramatically reduced staffing levels in key departments is not a given. It is this issue of staff capacity, separate from, but related to staffing costs, that is at the heart of the recent decision to postpone the possible revival of the program.

Despite these factual errors, there is happily one thing the Campus got right: There is indeed still room for creative engagement of these issues. There are alternative program structures that can be considered. The SGA has made an enormously helpful financial commitment. There is still considerable reason for optimism. The Campus can play an essential role in the process by serving as a source for accurate and balanced information. It is our hope that as we move forward, we can do so in the spirit of collaboration rather than confrontation and acrimony. That is the only way we can hope to revive MiddView.

Sincerely,

Doug Adams, Director of CCAL, Assistant Dean of Students

JJ Boggs, Assistant Director of CCAL

Derek Doucet, Outdoor Programs Director

Katy Smith Abbott, Associate Dean of the College

Blog on Blogs

Categories: General

As everyone on campus should know, Middlebury will soon launch a new website.  The new site, designed by an outfit called White Whale, will support videos, slide shows, enhanced search features, and other bells and whistles.  I won’t try to explain the significance of these enhancements—why this build out will be better than our current web—since people who know far more about the design than I do have already done so (for instance, check out the web makeover discussion or MiddBlog).

But I do want to engage some of the assumptions that have guided the development of the new website, and ask some questions.

Assumption #1:  as we transfer more and more content from print to the web—an inevitability, given the ever-increasing importance of the internet—the ways in which we communicate as an institution may change.

Conventional wisdom has it that writing on the web should be more concise than writing in print since reading big chunks of prose on a screen is difficult and peoples’ attention spans are more limited.  On the other hand, the web is an ideal platform for video and audio, which means that much of the storytelling on the new site will take shape as pictures and sound.   This shift is already evident in the press releases that our Communications office sends to external news agencies.  While these news releases were once pure prose, and perhaps some pictures, they are now likely to include video.  For instance, check out the story that recently appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education; the video in this story was made by Stephen Diehl.

The implications of this shift are interesting to consider.   How would students like to receive an email from the President that contains a video message rather than a written memo?    To what extent should administrators and college offices experiment with multi-media in communicating with the campus?  As our web evolves to accommodate new forms of media, how should our internal forms of communication change?  This is a real question, but please, no Twitter.

Assumption #2: more interactivity is better, and everyone likes a blog.

Okay, I am exaggerating a little, but it is true that the new website will give more attention to blogs that currently exist and new blogs that have yet to emerge.  The idea here is that blogs are great forums for debate and discussion, and a more “authentic” (read “less institutional”) vehicle for enabling people (especially prospective students) to learn about the College.  And, yes, they can also be important forums for students, faculty, and staff.

A number of community members already run blogs, and some of them are very good.  For a partial survey of Middlebury blogs, see this list and follow the sidebar links on MiddBlog (MiddBlog, by the way, deserves kudos for leading the way on this front).   However, the College blogosphere is not especially thick; some would say we are not really a blogging community.   Is this a problem, a drawback, a good thing, or just the way it is?  I am not asking for a referendum on any particular blog—my own included—but wondering about the concept in general.  If blogging is a good thing for Middlebury, how should we foster its development?

Assumption #3: we can use the web to build community at Middlebury.

The word “community” is heavily loaded, and deserves more discussion than I can give it now, but one promise of the internet—often debated by specialists—is that the internet can foster democratic forms of communication and action (political and otherwise).   This promise is worth bearing in mind as we move forward with the new website.   While on the one hand, the content on the web, especially the front page, will be subject to editorial control, with the Communications office managing the main pages, on other hand, there will be more opportunities for people to upload and post content.  For instance, there is already a process in place for people to submit stories that might be posted on the site.  Theoretically, as this new website evolves, it could become more “wiki”-like in its function, and community members could play a significant role in building the site.  In order for this to happen, however, people will need to be committed to making the web a live and vital site.   Assuming this is a good thing—and maybe I shouldn’t make this assumption—how can the College foster this sort of involvement?

Comments, as always, are welcome.

Can We All Just Get on the Same Page?

I am confused by the CAMPUS these days.

Take, for instance, its recent editorial (in the Sept 24 issue) on the CORE survey that the office of Health Education and Wellness administered last year.  After questioning the validity of the survey data—suggesting that Middlebury students drink less than some might imagine—the editors say they are troubled that the administration is using the data to “shape” (does that mean “spin”?) “changing alcohol policies on campus.”  They continue in high dudgeon to declare that the “fact that Old Chapel seems to be making crucial decisions on the basis of such flimsy data is nothing if not irresponsible and illogical.”  Much depends here on the word “seems,” as it allows the editors to hypothesize a claim that they never substantiate—it MIGHT be a “fact,” right?—and then roundly condemn the administration’s alleged decision-making.

The news story on the subject treats this “fact” with more caution, noting that the CORE survey “supports an administrative position that while alcohol plays a major role in campus situations, a larger portion of the student body does not use it, or uses it in a limited quantity.”  That’s okay, but what’s troubling is that while the article begins on the front page with the headline “Survey questions drinking habits,” it continues on the third page under the heading, “Athletes face greater scrutiny after survey.”  The problem here is that the article says nothing about there being a link between the survey and the conduct of athletes; what’s more, the CORE survey, doesn’t even address the supposed connection.  But there is that headline, reinforcing the editorial’s conspiratorial claim that the CORE survey is being used to shape alcohol policy on campus.

The CAMPUS editors complain that administrators “cannot seem to make up their minds about whether or not Middlebury has an alcohol problem,” and accuse them—well, us—of cynically parsing the realities of campus life:  “Depending on what suits their particular agenda at a given time, our campus is alternately seen as either a buculoic haven for those seeking to break free from the traditional, alcohol-centric college setting or a cesspool or irresponsible, dangerous and immature binge drinking.”

What puzzles me about this critique is its assumption that only one reality can describe social life at Middlebury, and that we must be of a single mind about how students drink or don’t drink at the College.  The editors don’t explain why the characterizations mentioned above can’t coexist.  Stuck on their own agenda, they return to their obsession with the survey’s “ultmate impact” on College alcohol policies.  But it seems to me that their insistence on one truth denies both the complexity of student life and limits our ability to talk about problems on our campus, and the possible solutions.

Do we have problems with alcohol at Middlebury?  Yes, we do—as do many other colleges and universities—and President Liebowitz and I and Dean Jordan have spent much of the last two or three years talking with students about these problems and how we might address them (we’ve also blogged on these issues here and there).  One thing is clear from these discussions: policies and rules alone will not solve the problem.  Students must step up and take responsibility for looking after one another and governing their own social lives.  Which is why the CAMPUS’ latest effort to spin the CORE survey and politicize the alcohol issues is so misguided.  To make progress on this important issue, we really do need to be on the same page.

So how do we get there?