By now, word is out on campus that the administration is looking hard at a new way of organizing the Commons. Loosely called the 4/2 plan, the new way features a 4-year Commons affiliation and a 2-year residency. First years and sophomores would reside in their Commons, but juniors and seniors would be free to live anywhere on campus while still retaining their connection to the Commons and their relationships with the Commons Head and Dean. President Liebowitz will be posting a description of the plan on his blog, Ron on Middlebury, and we will be scheduling campus forums this fall to discuss the plan in further detail. So stay tuned.
How will students feel about the new plan? I got a sense of this a couple of weeks ago when President Liebowitz and I previewed the plan during residential life orientation. The audience of 70 res life staffers reacted with what I would call cautious optimism, cautious because many of the details have yet to be worked out. What will room draw look like? Who will govern the free zones, the residential halls that will be filled with Atwater, Brainerd, Cook, Ross, and Wonnacott juniors and seniors? There are plenty of issues to be decided, and student input could have a significant impact on what the system finally looks like.
For faculty and staff who work in the Commons, the new plan represents a change from the vision the College has been pursuing for the past decade. Initially, Commons Heads and Deans reacted with apprehension to the 4/2 scheme since it cuts into the residential base of the communities that they have worked hard to build. But over time, the advantages of the plan have become clearer, and their concerns have softened.
I had a difficult time letting go of the original vision myself. Since the late 1990s when the Dean of Students office was decentralized and the residential world as we know it was created, I have been closely involved in the Commons’ development. Changing course seemed—melodramatically speaking—like undoing history. But the history of Middlebury College is obviously bigger than any one residential plan, and there is no denying that the Commons system, as it operates today, is at odds with some deeply engrained aspects of our campus culture. And what’s a little unsettling is that some of the same objections that were expressed back in 1998 when we launched the system are still alive.
Consider, for instance, the following comments made on an online survey back in 1998, when the campus community was involved in a year-long discussion of how we should develop the Commons. The survey elicited many responses and a wide range of commentary. Here is a representative sampling of the more negative feedback:
Restricting students in such a small school to live together is going to be stifling.
This may be necessary in larger universities but for a small school like Middlebury, it might prove to be socially restrictive.
Call me crazy, but why divide such a small college into even smaller sections. It seems to me that this will just separate the campus into cliques who rarely associate with other commons. Though you are proposing that this will create more unity among students, I must argue the opposite.
What’s wrong with the way it is now?
This is wrong! We are not Yale. I would have gone there if I wanted to. Midd is small enough that we don’t need an enhanced residential system at all.
F—- the commons system!
I think the Commons system has some good agendas—that although it’s important to meet your classmates, interclass mixing is good too. So are the activities that the Commons create, yet very isolating at the same time. It could promote broad leadership and planning, but it also limits the number of heads thinking of those ideas. Is there a way we can create some of those things without creating “isolation” blocks within the Middlebury community as well?
The more things change, the more things stay the same? Maybe. But I believe almost ten years of history have taken us to a different place, and that is now possible to see the strengths of the Commons systems—and build upon them.