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Category Archive for 'Commons'

Today, I am writing about plates. It seems almost comical that this is the subject of my post, but since pilfered dishes have been a major topic of discussion throughout campus lately, I’d like to bring up an aspect of this issue that has not received much attention.

We’ve talked about the extremely high cost of replacing dishes, the hundreds and thousands of missing plates, and the efforts undertaken by Community Council, Student Government, and the administration to resolve the problem. But there has been less discussion about what this situation says about our students. I believe it’s not a plate problem, but an issue of privilege.

It is one thing for students to be unconcerned about costs, but it’s quite a different matter to be unconcerned about people—and the message that this behavior sends is, “This is really convenient for me, and I don’t care who has to deal with it. I don’t care if other people have to clean up after me.”

We are approaching a holiday in which people in this country and around the world don’t have enough food to eat and are trying to find a warm place to live. Yet, here at Middlebury, we live in an incredibly privileged environment that is beautiful and pristine. I am sure that everyone among us is thankful for this environment. It takes a lot of hard work to create and maintain it—work that scores of staff members put in on our behalf every day.

They move through campus, mowing lawns, shoveling snow, keeping lights running, mopping floors, scrubbing toilets, and thinking about how to make our campus safe and clean. When they have to contend with ant infestations from food-caked dishes left in dorms, or with picking up dirty plates piled in bathrooms, or with hauling large boxes full of filthy dishes down flights of stairs, or with soaking and then hand scrubbing them, I imagine that they can’t help but feel undervalued—or worse, unseen. They are being forced to do work that is incredibly menial and unpleasant because of thoughtless behavior.

I would like to call students to action to think more critically about the human face behind the dish problem. Think about what it says about us as a community when these small acts of thoughtlessness create a collective problem that impacts all of us in a negative way. This thoughtlessness speaks volumes about what kind of people our students are going to be when they leave this institution.

As we pause with family and friends this Thanksgiving to reflect on the many blessings we enjoy, please take time to see—really see—the people here who make our campus a haven of calm and beauty. Perhaps, even, ask yourself how you can show your appreciation for their efforts.

Dear Readers,

I asked Natasha Chang to share with us part of her story, and to talk about why she decided to do her work as a faculty member and Commons dean. In this week’s post, Natasha shares her experience about finding a sense of identity and provides a very personal and enlightening viewpoint. As always, I welcome your comments and observations.

—Shirley M. Collado

This year, as I took up my new position as dean of Brainerd Commons, I was very aware of embarking on yet another hybrid endeavor in my life, that is assuming the dual roles of Commons dean and professor.

I’ve always defined myself in hybrid or multiple terms throughout my life. As a child I straddled three cultures simultaneously—Serbian, Korean, and American—experiencing them as an insider and an outsider, never fully being part of any world, yet never fully being able to disassociate myself. I’ve always expressed myself and found my identity reflected in a variety of languages: the accented and idiosyncratic English of my two first-generation immigrant parents; the American slang of the kids I grew up with; my mother’s Serbian that she passed down to me; my father’s Korean that still remains a mystery to me; and my passion, Italian, the language that became my love and my life’s work.

At one time, I desperately wanted to belong simply and fully to only one culture, to identify unequivocally with a single group, to feel like a full-fledged citizen rather than a masquerader, and to be able to respond to the question “Where are you from?” without embarking on a complex explanation. What I have learned over the years, however, is that multiplicity, hybridity, and difference are positions of unique strength and power. My background has taught me to be attuned to multiple perspectives, to be comfortable not “knowing it all,” to seek compromise between even the most divergent of positions, to reserve judgment based on appearance, and to have faith in my own values.

Returning to my current combined role of Commons dean and faculty member, I can say without a doubt that I’ve found my hybrid line of work personally satisfying since it allows me to advise students, give support, and provide guidance, while at the same time continuing to teach in the classroom and pursue my ongoing research projects. In other words, it allows me to productively dialogue with and bridge two campus cultures: the academic culture and the culture of residential life.

But there is a larger and more important point to be made here. In my eyes, the hybrid position I occupy represents but one example of the strength diversity can bring to our community. By diversity, I mean diversity broadly defined. I am speaking not only of class, race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, ability, religion, and—well, you fill in the blank—but of the many overlapping and complex ways in which we find our identity. Taking inspiration from the recent Midd OUT day, in which the organizers thoughtfully engaged the common phrase “coming out,” I’d like to suggest that we actively think about what diversity means here at Middlebury. As I see it, diversity is not an issue that belongs only to other people; it is an issue that is relevant to everyone, period. This year—my first in a new job—I’ve set a challenge for myself that I’d like to pass on to each of you: to identify events (talks, meetings, conferences, classes, groups, etc.) that are a bit out of my comfort zone, and then immerse myself. I’ve had a great year of learning so far, and I hope you do too.

—Natasha V. Chang
Dean of Brainerd Commons

The recent, very sad events at Rutgers University have lain heavily on my mind—and that of many others within our community.  For Rutgers freshman Tyler Clementi, the world should have been opening up with exciting, new possibilities; yet, soon after beginning college, he ended his own life.  He was beaten down by the unthinking cruelty of classmates and belittled publicly over the Internet.

This situation disturbs me because there are surely people among us, on our own campus, who need compassion and support. In fact, this could be any of us, given the right circumstances. But there is another aspect to Clementi’s experience that is alarming—the cavalier invasion of his privacy that seems to have become far too prevalent today.

Here at Middlebury, I hope we are taking stock of our own community, asking some tough questions: How do we, individually and collectively, look out for one another? How do we honor individual privacy and the right to exist in peace? What type of community do we wish to create and live in?

I sent the following letter to the campus last week. As always, I would welcome your thoughts.

Dear Members of the Middlebury Community,

Over the past month, there has been significant media coverage of homophobia-related suicides and deaths, bullying, and harassment among youth in the U.S., both teen and college age. It is saddening and has been weighing heavily on the hearts and minds of all of us here at Middlebury. Incidents like these affect us all, directly and indirectly, in a variety of ways. Any act of bias, hate, harassment, or violence has the capacity to diminish the quality of our lives personally and as a community.

Here at Middlebury, we continue to be committed to creating and maintaining a safe environment for all. We do not tolerate discriminatory behavior of any kind. We seek to encourage an inclusive, engaged, and welcoming community, in which everyone participates within an atmosphere of mutual respect. The College is fortunate to have an abundance of programs, centers, and resources that support diversity and community in many different ways.

If you have concerns or ideas related to the Middlebury community; how you fit in; issues related to disability, identity, campus climate, or respectful treatment; how we can help you explore and share your interests; or anything else that relates to our becoming a more open and engaged community, we’d like to hear from you. Our doors are open. Students may seek confidential support through your Commons deans and the Center for Counseling and Human Relations. Staff and faculty can find support through Human Resources and the Dean of the Faculty’s office. Students, faculty, and staff alike can seek assistance, as well, through the Human Relations Officer (HRO) and the Office of the Dean of the College and Chief Diversity Officer. The HRO provides support to anyone who suspects harassment.

I encourage each of us to consider what it means to be part of this community and recognize that we all play a part. There will be several events on campus over the course of the fall term connected to the awareness and education of issues facing LGBTQ students, staff, and faculty that we hope you will participate in. We believe that this kind of support enriches us as a community.


Shirley M. Collado
Dean of the College
Diversity Officer

As the Class of 2014 and I start the school year together, we share a similar sense of excitement and anticipation of what life at Middlebury will be like. We may also share some concerns and questions. And as I step into my new role as the dean of the college, there is one question I find myself asking often: What should we ultimately be doing for Middlebury students?

Last week, the student life team gathered for a retreat to consider this question. We discussed our vision for student life and the core values that drive the vision. It was a wonderful meeting of the minds, in which we broke down some barriers and expanded our collective sense of our work with students.

The vision that emerged from our meeting is ambitious, global, dynamic, and broad. It requires a huge commitment from students—and to be successful, I believe it requires a similar commitment from faculty, staff, and administrators.

Our vision is derived from Middlebury College’s mission statement, in part: “We strive to engage students’ capacity for rigorous analysis and independent thought within a wide range of disciplines and endeavors, and to cultivate the intellectual, creative, physical, ethical, and social qualities essential for leadership in a rapidly changing global community.” To me, this means that we in student life must focus our efforts on helping develop global citizens.

It is no longer enough for students to come to Middlebury to get good grades, study abroad, and participate in student groups and athletics. While all of these are worthy pursuits, we are asking more of our students. We are asking our students to hold themselves accountable, to show respect for others, and to take risks to be leaders.

We wish to give degrees to young people who have a moral compass and who are using the skills acquired at Middlebury to advance humanity—to become responsible members of this world.

We are asking a lot. And I believe that faculty, staff, and administrators need to model the behavior and attitudes we wish for our students. We must walk the walk. We will need to push ourselves to collaborate across different functions and areas of responsibility, to take risks, to step outside of our own comfort zones, to reflect the culture we strive for.

While our efforts are student centered, we’re not here to provide just for students; we are here to create a complete community, a neighborhood that transcends the local area, moving ever outward, creating a ripple effect. I believe that if we do this, along with all of the other academic and cultural endeavors, we will benefit as a community—and ultimately as a world.

I’d love to hear from the faculty, staff, and administrators. Do you think I have this right—do you see creating global citizens as part our job? And if you do, how do you think it can be accomplished?

And students, I would love to hear from you. What do you think your responsibility as a Middlebury student should be? And how do you think we can help you achieve that end?

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.


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.


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

The Commons system was founded in 1992 for several reasons, but probably the most important reason was the desire to create stronger intellectual communities outside the classroom.  Behind the emergence of the Commons was the complicated history of the fraternities, and the belief—held by administrators, trustees, and some faculty—that social life at Middlebury lacked options.  This perspective was fleshed out in at least two major committee reports that examined the nature of student life in the late 1980s.

As the system took shape under the encouragement of President John McCardell, faculty members—known first as Commons Associates—invigorated the campus with a range of academic and cultural activities.  Not all the Associates came from the faculty, but their work brought an intellectual edge to campus activities that mainstream (read alcohol oriented) social events did not.   Student critics believed the Commons was a plot to eradicate the social houses and change the character of the student body, while some faculty members worried about the flow of resources away from departments and traditional academic programs.

Almost twenty years later, the Commons has gone mainstream (as an organizing structure of the College), boosted the intellectual tone on campus, and enabled faculty—serving now as Commons Heads—to play a meaningful role in student life.

Yet I fear we are in danger of taking this success for granted.  There is still plenty to debate about the “true” value of the Commons, especially during these challenging economic times.  And I recognize that students may feel that the Commons system is not as effective as it could be in promoting student social life (more on that in a subsequent post).  But to assume that the kind of co-curricular activity that now takes place through the Commons could have happened without the efforts of faculty Heads is to ignore history.  Here is a partial list of what the job of Commons Head currently entails.

Mentoring: at the most basic level, the ongoing presence of Heads in residential life (especially in first-year residence halls) gives students a visible and personal connection to faculty and staff.  It lets students know that faculty are approachable and interested in their lives beyond the classroom.  This sort of connecting with students is fundamental to the work of the Commons Heads.

Program Coordination: the Heads provide the venue—their homes are supplied by the College—the framework, and the tone for discussions that extend what transpires in classes and seminars, in visits from outside scholars, journalists, musicians, artists, diplomats, business people, educators and writers and others.  This work has been vital to the first-year seminar program (remember that all fall first-year seminars are Commons based), and Commons Heads also provide social spaces for departments and various faculty, by sponsoring regular late-afternoon get-togethers that might include department colloquia, reading groups, and other academic events.  In planning events, Heads also engage students’ intellectual and social interests, and help them turn an idea or observation into a discussion or event.

Residential Life: Heads work closely with the First Year Counselors, helping them in their efforts to support and mentor other students in the residence halls.  Heads also provide a faculty perspective in meetings with the Commons Dean, not so much in the routine stuff, as the Dean handles this work very well on his/her own, but in the difficult cases, when the Dean needs support, a sounding board, and an institutional perspective.

All this strikes me as critical work, though taken together, it may be invisible to much of the campus.  What do you think?   Comments welcome.

Ten Years After, and Before

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.

Looking Ahead

Ever since Commencement I’ve been meaning to close out the year with some comments about the past eight months at Middlebury and some thoughts about what’s in store for next year. Rather than repeat what I’ve already covered in other posts, I will try to distill these thoughts into an agenda that we are likely to pursue next year.

  • Alcohol: This is a perennial topic on college campuses, and President Liebowitz gave it special attention in his baccalaureate speech at Commencement. The critical issue here is not whether students should or shouldn’t drink, but how we as a community address the irresponsible behavior that frequently comes with extreme drinking, and reaching agreement on the role of each individual in setting the standards of behavior for our community. This subject needs to move off the blogs (mine included) and become a topic of discussion on campus.
  • Self-governance and collective responsibility: I’ve been a broken record on this matter, but the subject encompasses so many of the challenges that arise on our campus that it is hard not to return to it. As one of my colleagues put it, we need to think “creatively and deliberatively about what friendship and loyalty and mutual responsibility mean in the context of a residential college. Only in those broader conversations (about community) will we be able to address alcohol issues (along with sexual assault, homophobia, and other campus problems).” Look for these themes to guide campus discussions, beginning next fall.
  • Social life and creativity: The two concepts are connected, or they should be, especially as we continue to develop additional venues in downtown Middlebury for student social life and artistic expression. By the end of the summer, Middlebury students will get an email about how they can get involved (and why they should care) about three interrelated projects: 51 Main, the Mill, and the Town Hall Theater.
  • 4/2 Commons: The top item on next year’s to-do list is probably the development of a sophomore year program in the Commons. But as the Commons sifts into quasi separate realms for first years and sophomores on the one hand, and juniors and seniors on the other, we will need to sort out the implications of these changes for Commons councils.

As the date on this post suggests, I will be blogging less frequently during the next couple months but plan to return to weekly reports once the academic year begins. In the meantime, I wish everyone a relaxing and productive summer.

Consider the following account, written by a staff member in Dining Services, which appeared in one of the incident reports that Public Safety filed this weekend:

Saturday night in Ross dining hall I witnessed several intoxicated students. I saw one student taking a whole bottle of half and half and asked him why he was taking a whole bottle and he rudely told me that it was for making drinks and walked away from me. Three students started wrestling in the middle of the floor right after we had opened and I had to ask them to break it up. One student fell out of his chair while eating. Another approached me at the pizza station and told me that he was too drunk to eat and that the pizza he was getting was for another student that was too drunk to get his own food. We had several broken dishes due to students dropping them throughout the night. At about 5:45 there were two tables of intoxicated students throwing food across the dining hall; when I approached them they denied throwing any food although I saw them do it. At about 6:30 a student entered the dining hall with his pockets full, so I watched where he sat down and a few minutes later had to ask him and his friends to leave the dining hall because they were shot gunning beers at their table. By the end of the night we had collected about 12-15 beer cans from the dining hall and off of the tray return area as well as an empty fifth of vodka. At the end of the night the dining hall was a disaster. There was food all over the place, dirty dishes, broken dishes and empty beer cans everywhere. Overall the students were very loud and disrespectful and many of them smelled very strongly of alcohol.

I’ve argued on this blog that our campus suffers when responsible drinking disappears from civic spaces (see What’s In A Beer). But something worse happens when alcohol generates the kind of conduct described here: we lose our capacity to imagine a better, more fulfilling social life.

By the way, it’s worth noting that Ross dining hall is a licensed facility—like a bar or restaurant—which means that these students violated Vermont law (as well as College policy) by bringing alcohol into the space. Ironically, the College acquired a liquor license for the dining hall so that alcohol could be more easily (and responsibly) served at Ross social events.

Saturday night’s episode is outrageous in several ways. Have these students no regard for anyone but themselves? How could Middlebury students be so disrespectful of staff? And the obvious question: what does this example of collective intoxication tell us about drinking habits on this campus?

When considered alongside other examples of excessive drinking, this incident suggests that it’s time for our community to have a sustained conversation about the use and abuse of alcohol. I would like to know from readers what might the best way to approach this discussion. How can we make a difference?

Your comments?

We’ve talked, blogged, and held forums on the 4/2 Commons plan. Here now is an outline for implementing it.

This approach, which is an update of the housing scenarios that President Liebowitz and I described this fall (see the postings below and Ron on Middlebury), will guide this year’s room draw.

Please leave a comment if you have a question, suggestion, or concern. Or, if you like the plan, we’d like to know that too.

Basic Principles

  • Students will typically belong to the same Commons during their four years at Middlebury.
  • First-year students and sophomores will live in their Commons neighborhood. Note that sophomores will still be eligible to live in academic interest houses; second-semester sophomores will be eligible to live in social houses.
  • Juniors and seniors will be free to draw rooms anywhere on campus, except in those residence halls/beds that have been designated for first years and sophomores within the Commons neighborhood.
  • Residence halls occupied by juniors and seniors (e. g. Halls A and B, Voter, the small houses) will not be affiliated with a particular Commons, although specific program spaces (lounge, library, etc) in those halls will be.
  • Juniors and seniors will follow up with Commons Deans and Heads to resolve individual academic and personal matters. However, the RAs who work in unaffiliated halls and houses-and deal with mundane res life issues-will report to a staff member in the Dean of the College office who works closely with the Commons deans.
  • Academic interest houses will no longer be affiliated with particular Commons.

Housing Guidelines

  • Juniors and seniors will participate in open draws based on seniority and random numbers. Commons affiliation will no longer play a role in these draws. These draws will take place online, as they did last year.
  • 8 to 10 beds will be set aside in a residence hall proximate to each Commons office for seniors who wish to “give back” by organizing social events and Commons activities. These beds will be of relatively high quality. Students will apply for these slots by submitting a written proposal to the Commons Head and Dean, who will work with a small group of seniors to decide who gets these beds.
  • Beds will be set aside in each Commons to accommodate all rising sophomores in that Commons. All five Commons will hold separate room draws for their rising sophomores. These internal draws will take place in real time-not online-at social gatherings organized by the Commons.
  • Two special “super blocks”-30 beds each, 60 beds in all-will be available on the ridgeline next year. To be considered for these blocks, student groups must submit a proposal to Doug Adams, Director of CCAL, explaining how they will use the house to support social life on campus. Only juniors and seniors will be eligible for these blocks. Small groups of 5 or 6 students may choose to collaborate with other small groups to make up the larger block of 30 beds. Students, not the administration, will be responsible for forming these coalitions. Representatives from the blocks will sit with IHC, and work with the social houses to generate social activities on the ridgeline.
  • First-year students will be assigned housing as they have been in the past. Beginning next fall, however, all First-Year Seminars will be Commons based.
  • We will expand opportunities for Febs to live in first-year residence halls by allowing a limited number of September first years to change their housing assignments at mid-year, and move into rooms formerly occupied by sophomores and juniors-that is, rooms that have historically been assigned to Febs. These housing swaps will help integrate Febs into the first-year class, and give some September first years other housing options.

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