It is true, as Ryan Kellett recently observed on MiddBlog, that this week marks a 10-year anniversary for the Commons. On October 31, 1998, the Middlebury Board of Trustees approved the development of a residential system based on three cornerstones: 1) continuing residency for all students in a single Commons; 2) proximate housing for a faculty member; 3) decentralized dining.
That was an historic day, which President John McCardell commemorated by issuing a special keychain. I’ve included a picture of my keychain below, and if you look closely you will see that the Middlebury seal has been redesigned to include the names of the five Commons in the outer ring. Given the logo controversy more than a year ago, one can only imagine how this graphic representation of Middlebury’s identity might have been received by the larger community.
Things have changed since 1998, and with the adoption of the 4/2 Commons system, one could say that we are on the threshold of another important shift in residential life at Middlebury. But even as res life moves in a new direction, the principles behind the system remain the same as they were when the Commons were established in the early 1990s. Yes, that’s right, this week is not really the 10th anniversary of the Commons, but rather the birthday of a particular vision of the Commons that was implemented in the months following the October 31st resolution. During those months, the College decentralized the Dean of Students office, and created Commons offices, with Deans, Heads, Coordinators, and res life staff. The new facilities—Ross and Atwater—came later.
In the first years of the system, from 1991 to 1998, each Commons was led by an Associate (an earlier version of the Commons Head) and a Commons Council (students). Together they organized lectures, social events, and other activities, all with an eye toward blurring the boundaries between academic and residential life, and creating more opportunities for community members to gather. It’s hard to believe, if you count all the events that currently take place on our campus, that this additional programming was necessary. But the truth is that the Commons was filling a vacuum, and it did so through a kind of messy democratic process that involved students, faculty and staff. Just ask Karl Lindholm, Brett Millier, or Martin Beatty, each of whom served as Commons Associates during these early years.
The genesis of the Commons can be traced to a report authored in 1989 by the Task Force on Student Social Life, which recommended that College create a system of dormitory clusters or “commons,” based on several principles. Where they came up with the term “commons” is hard to say, maybe from the many town greens or commons in northern New England, or the old English tradition of a community holding agricultural land in common. But regardless of the word’s etymology, the Task Force’s concern with promoting a residential culture that enriches social and intellectual life on campus and “celebrates the diversity and inclusion of the student body” is as legitimate today as it was almost twenty years ago.