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In its editorial this week, the CAMPUS expresses cautious enthusiasm for the 4/2 Commons plan that has administrators like myself “oozing cautiously enthusiastic optimism.” The editors urge us administrators to “tread thoughtfully and carefully” in our planning around the Commons. Good advice, and not just because too much enthusiasm can trip up a well-intentioned planning effort. The Commons means different things to different people, and we should be clear about what we hope to change when we talk about revising the system.

So let’s break it down. I can think of at least four items that should be part of this planning discussion:

  • Community

  • Program (what actually happens in the Commons, and who makes it happen)

  • Housing (room draw and its discontents)

  • Administrative oversight (who is responsible for the juniors and seniors who are living at large on campus)

All these items are interconnected, and deserve more attention than I can give here. Also, it’s difficult to discuss one of these items without invoking another. Housing begets community which begets program which begets administrative oversight — and so on. But you have to start somewhere, and I’d like to begin with the slipperiest but most evocative item on the list: community. In subsequent posts, I will take up program, housing, and administrative oversight.

The CAMPUS editorial mentions “community” twice, mainly to underscore the intangible benefits that each Commons brings to its residents and affiliates (faculty and staff). This is a crucial issue, because the Commons system was built around Middlebury’s larger commitment to maintaining a smaller, human-scaled atmosphere as the College got bigger. Even the name “Commons” is wrapped up in this vision of small-scaled community, since the term refers to the town greens (and affiliated political customs) that distinguish the New England landscape.

But the view from 30,000 feet — in particular, the experience of students — tells us that there are various kinds of community on this campus. Indeed, the irony of the CAMPUS editorial is that a good number of students have resisted the Commons vision precisely because it doesn’t reflect their understanding of how student communities function on this campus.

How do students form communities and make connections around social and intellectual interests? What role should a revised Commons system play in these processes? I hope we can discuss these questions at the open forums that President Liebowitz and I will be holding this fall. In the meantime, let’s tread thoughtfully on the ground that each Commons shares with other communities at Middlebury, and think about how the 4/2 plan might reconcile and support a vision of student life that transcends our current system.

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