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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.

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