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Category Archive for 'Commons'

4/2 Commons, Part IV: Done Deal?

This Wednesday at 4:30 (in McCullough) we’re hosting our second and final student forum to discuss changes to the Commons system. If turnout is anything like it was at the first forum—5 or 6 students—then I will be inclined to believe (along with the President) that students are basically okay with this change and that the consulting phase of this next phase in the Commons’ development is over.

Am I right about this? Another possible interpretation—apart from the usual caveat that students are very busy—is that people really only pay attention when they know change is imminent. So as the administrator whose office will be tasked with the responsibility for managing this change, I will (recklessly) hazard the following conclusion: this is a done deal. Maybe that pronouncement will boost attendance.

Of course, nothing is ever really done, which is why students may want to join this discussion. One question that warrants more consideration has to do with juniors and seniors. Once upperclassmen are “free” from the current room draw guidelines to live anywhere on campus, what will they have to do with the Commons? This general question is probably best explored through a series of more specific questions:

  • Assuming most juniors and seniors will live in res halls that are not assigned to Commons, who will administer these dorms? Should the RA’s report to some central office, as opposed to a Commons office?

  • How about the classrooms, lounges, and other public spaces (like the library in Hall B)? Will these be Commons-free zones, or should they—for the purposes of programming—be assigned to Commons?

  • Commons Councils: will older students “return” to their Commons to play a leadership role on Councils? What sort of role do we imagine the Councils playing in the Commons of the future?

  • Should each Commons set aside rooms in the geographic heart of each Commons for students who would like to continue to play a leadership role in the Commons? Does proximity matter at all for juniors and seniors?

Having reached the wall in these 1-2-3-4 musings about 4/2 Commons, I will stop here, and wait to see if students take the next step at our forum on Wednesday.

Have we missed anything?

Housing: the bête noire of Commons. Concerns about real estate and room assignments permeate discussions of the Commons, frequently overshadowing the system’s programmatic benefits. The hope is that by addressing these concerns, we can get to the good stuff more easily.

My purpose in this post is to describe in concrete terms what the 4/2 Commons system may mean for housing and room draw. If you haven’t looked at the President’s overview of the 4/2 plan, I suggest you do so, as my comments are an elaboration of the bullet points that appear on his blog.

The 4/2 plan stipulates that first years and sophomores will live in the geographical heart of their Commons, while juniors and seniors will be able to draw rooms (almost) anywhere on campus in a seniority-based room draw, free from Commons points. In other words, if housing is a market, we are deregulating the economy for juniors and seniors.

How will this new system affect current housing assignments? Freshmen will see virtually no change. However, sophomores could see a lot of change since the 4/2 plan mandates (let’s speak plainly here) that they live in Commons neighborhoods. In order for this to be possible, we will need to set aside rooms for sophomores in each of the Commons. In Atwater or Ross or even Brainerd, this will not present much of a problem since those Commons already have a goodly amount of “sophomore housing.” But in Cook, where sophomore housing is largely limited to Pearsons (about 70 beds), we will need to reserve beds in Forest to make space for the 100+ first years who now live Battell—a move that will displace some of the juniors and seniors who traditionally live in Forest. You see the problem: controlling the market for freshmen and sophomores will affect housing patterns across campus.

One solution to this potential problem is to build another one or two residence halls. This solution would loosen up the market, and allow us to alter the landscape for Wonnacott and Cook. For instance, a new first-year residence hall on the south side of 125 (across from Ross) would allow Wonnacott freshmen to move out of Battell and live next to Gifford (near sophomores). And it would allow us to thin out Battell, turning doubles into singles for Cook sophomores. Moreover, a second dorm would give us a swing space to house students while we renovate older dorms, like Forest, which need work.

And juniors and seniors? Many of them would live in residence halls that would cease to have Commons designations. This would allow Hall A and Hall B to become the generic senior suites that they really already are. I will speak to some of these administrative wrinkles in my next post.

P. S. Don’t forget the forums to discuss the 4/2 plan that President Liebowitz and I will be hosting on October 18 and 31. Check your email or the Events calendar for details.

We — and here I mean administrators — need to do a better job explaining what the so-called 4/2 Commons plan gives in the way of educational benefits. Yes, we should certainly explain how the new plan will address student concerns about housing inequities, and enable juniors and seniors freer choice in selecting rooms and roommates. But we also need to be clear that the changes we are pursuing in the 4/2 plan go beyond traditional res life concerns. Lest anyone think this plan resembles a product recall — and the end of the Commons — they should read more carefully President Liebowitz’s outline of the program. The ideas presented on his blog show the 4/2 plan moving the Commons in new educational directions by building on current successes and encouraging experimentation in some key areas.

The most important principle at work in the plan is the idea that our residential arrangements should reflect the evolving needs of students. Freshmen and sophomores would live together in their Commons because they will benefit more from the educational support and advising available to them there, while juniors and seniors would be free to live elsewhere since their intellectual and social agendas are more advanced.

Two changes in program spin off from this principle — one fairly modest, the other more ambitious.

First of all, we would like to house every First Year Seminar by Commons. Currently, 75% of our fall seminars are Commons based, while none of our February seminars are (this is due to the difficulty of housing Febs in class-sized clusters). Moving to 100% participation would enable all first-year students to profit from living and learning with their classmates.

The second idea we are considering is a sophomore year experience that would extend the sense of community developed during the first year. The Faculty Heads would be responsible for developing this program, and it might consist of a series of lectures, symposia, or public service projects that give sophomores a shared experience. Initially, this idea was touted as a way of addressing the academic “drift” in the sophomore year, the fact that many students have not yet latched on to a major. But more recent discussions have pushed this program beyond the academic realm. For instance, one great idea for a sophomore experience that has emerged from Ross Commons would have students working on barn-raising projects at local farms.

The combined effect of these two programs — and others — would be to provide the Commons community an intellectual and social cohesion that it now lacks. Both programs would be residentially based, and the connections forged during the first two years would give students good reason to push off for their junior and senior years, and return to home base.

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.

4/2 Commons, Part I: Backstory

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.

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