The “4/2” Commons System

Dean Tim Spears mentions on his blog a proposal to amend our Commons residential system. The so-called 4/2 system would involve four years of membership in the same Commons, regardless of where one lives, and two years’ residency in the housing associated with one’s commons. In other words, first years and sophomores would live in their Commons, and juniors and seniors would be free to draw rooms anywhere on campus. But all students would be affiliated with one Commons and retain their Commons Head and Dean for their four years at Middlebury.

Here is the outline for a 4/2 Commons system in draft form, but there are many things to address and issues to resolve. Feedback — especially from students — will determine the final shape of the plan.

Why change? During my first year as president, I recommended to the Board of Trustees that we should delay the further development of the Commons infrastructure until extensive discussion of College priorities with the community had taken place. At that point, the infrastructure of two of the five commons — Ross and Atwater — were largely completed. But we needed time to rebuild our financial capacity if we wanted to add what would be three to five new residence halls, three dining halls, and at least one new house for a Commons head in order to “complete” the system. You’ll find a detailed detailed history and description of the enhanced Commons plan on the College’s web site. 

As a result of the strategic planning process, plus dozens of discussion with students and faculty over the past three years, my thinking on the Commons has evolved and led to the 4/2 Commons concept. These factors, articulated largely by students, influenced my thinking:

1) student study and enrollment patterns: one of the three main cornerstones of the system is building “continuing” communities for a student’s four years, yet 60% of juniors spend at least a semester abroad. This fact makes it impossible for the system to achieve one of its major goals for more than ½ of our students. And how can the system accommodate our “Feb program”? A significant number of first-years do not experience the Commons as the community is supposed to provide until their second year.

2) the increasing independence of students during their four years at Middlebury: our residential life system should mirror our expectations for the increasing independence of our students as they move from their first year to graduation. Most who support the Commons believe it is most valuable during a student’s first and second year. After that, students should be given greater independence while having the opportunity to remain active within their Commons.

3) the opportunity cost of completing the original vision: we estimate the cost of completing the Commons infrastructure to be $100 million. Moreover, the incremental cost of operating the new infrastructure, including staff for the new dining halls, would add at least $6 million to our budget every year. If we pursued the original Commons plan, we would not be able to improve financial aid, increase the size of the faculty to ensure small classes, or enrich our existing academic and co-curricular programs.

4) the impact of our location and size: students have argued since the introduction of the enhanced Commons system in 1998 that we are a small institution and that limiting where they live and with whom, for four years, would be quite stifling. In their words: we are a small place, not one with 5,000 or 6,000 undergraduate students or a large number of graduate students, and we are not located in a city. Many students say they need every one of the 2,350 students who are on campus over the course of four years in order to have a satisfying social and intellectual experience, and dividing the campus into smaller communities makes that more difficult.

Reactions and Ideas

Dean Spears and I will be hosting some open forums at which we will seek your reactions, suggestions, and input to the ultimate plan we will pursue. We look forward to seeing you at one of the meetings as well as hearing from those of you who will not be able to make to those gatherings. In the meantime, post your reactions and suggestions right here.

4 comments

Since I’ve already told you everything I think about the proposed 4/2 Commons System, I’m just here to show all of the MiddBlog readers out there that 1) you really do want students to provide you with feedback and 2) nothing bad is going to happen if we do (assuming we’re respectful).

I think it’s great that you’ve made the leap to the blogosphere, but now the students have to meet you half-way.

Matthew W. Motley

Matthew W. Motley’s avatar

I think that’s a great idea. As someone who transferred from a school with a complete Commons system (Harvard), I never thought there was a rational for, say, seperate dining facilities for each commons at Middlebury. Middlebury, because of its small size, has many of the advantages of such a sytem built-in. Moreover, it often seemed over my three years at Midd that train had left the station. It’s good to see that prudence has been exercised: surely 100 M is better spent on other things. It seems you have a proposal that preserves the best aspects of the commons system while adapting it to Middlebury. Bravo!

As for your last post RE: student workload, I am curiuos what the issue is. In my five years at two different colleges, the only problem I had with workload (and this is coming from someone who had 10 problem sets per week one semester) was teachers, particularly in the humanities, assigning more reading than was humanly possible and expecting the students to determine which reading was necessary. This approach, I think, is reasonable if the reading is outlining concepts: it is worth teaching college students to turn to different sources to find, say, which explanation of the Brownian motion is most comprehensible. However, if the student is “responsible” for each sentence of an impossible amount of reading, this strikes me as, at best, unproductive–class discussions suffer when some have read one text and others another–and at times unfair. I would cite John McWilliams as a humanities professor who appreciates the wisdom of assigning a realistic amount of reading. The sciences, I found, did not suffer from this problem–instead there was the issue of not receiving more credits for classes with laboratory components. I hope this oversight will be addressed, out of fairness and to remove impediments to taking classes in the sciences.

Generally, though, learning how to manage a high workload is a very useful skill indeed.

Looking forward to reading more of your posts!

I would support any plan that does not involve the current “infrastructure plan” of building three new dining halls. This plan has always struck me as incredibly extravagant. First of all, it would divide even further an already somewhat cliquish student body. Much more importantly though is the question, WHY exactly do students need 5 dining halls? I have never heard anyone complain about there “only” being 3 dining halls on campus. Moreover, the fact that building new dining halls would even be CONSIDERED as a priority over increasing financial aid and increasing the salary/number of faculty is offensive to me. If the goal of the Commons System is fostering rich and diverse social/intellectual interactions, shouldn’t we be considering that the cost of this school is what keeps many, many students from attending or even applying? THE most effective way of increasing diversity on campus, in my opinion, is improving financial aid. If the college goes on with its current infrastructure plan, I am only glad that I will graduate soon enough not to witness the inevitable skyrocketing of tuition.

I appreciate that the College has worked with ACTR and Marble Valley Transit to allow college employees to ride free on the Rutland to Middlebury Connector bus. I have been riding for four weeks now and I am enjoying it. Many thanks.

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