During the past 18 months of budget discussions on campus, the most common request I heard from students, aside from preserving the academic excellence of the College, centered on dining.
We converted the use of one of the three large dining halls from meal plan use to daily language table use and special event use, which means students all now dine in Ross and Proctor, both enlarged in the past year. Though some bemoan the loss of convenience of having fewer options for where to eat (mostly students living in the Atwater suites since first-years in Allen never knew of the convenience), and wonder whether the servery area is larger enough to accommodate the 15-minute rushes at lunchtime, a surprising number like fewer dining halls as they can see more of their friends more frequently. In fact, a major criticism of the original commons plan (1998), which proposed having five (yes 5) separate dining halls, was that we would be carving up the campus and students would see less of their friends than before during a crucial (for Middlebury) social event—lunches and dinner. Moving from 3 to 2 dining halls, then, at least addressed this issue.
But the BIG issue students raise with me is the unique meal plan we have and have had for more than a decade. We have no 21-meal, 16-meal, 12-meal options, or weekday versus 7-day options either. We have one plan: all meals all the time. That is, students can eat all they want, and do it at both Proctor and Ross, even during the same meal period. They can meet with friends at Ross, have an early dinner, and then meet other friends 90 minutes later and have dinner again. In addition, there are no “checkers” at Middlebury, which means students come and go without having to swipe an ID or be checked by anyone and so friends visiting their Middlebury students can eat as guests of the College (at no charge).
From a strictly business perspective this seems ludicrous…and some have said as much. There is an extra cost to this kind of meal plan. Yet students, and I mean a lot of students, and a good number of parents, have stated over and over how important an element of the Middlebury experience our unique (and more expensive) meal plan is: through it, students argue, meals remain a central part of their experience here. Students tend to linger far longer over meals than would be the case if we had the typical kinds of restrictions one finds elsewhere and therefore our students engage their peers and quite often faculty and staff who join them for meals in ways that are very valuable and important to the overall educational experience. Having taken many lunches in Proctor this year (and some in Ross), I can affirm this observation. I have been to enough dining halls elsewhere to see the difference and believe the students (and parents) who make this argument make a lot of sense.
On the other hand, the question is whether all that this meal plan brings is worth the premium. More directly, I would love to know, in specific ways, what about our meal plan do our students love most, and what about it should be preserved, and preserved above other aspects of Middlebury that are going through budgetary review.
- Is it the freedom to come and go without having checkers so the dining experience feels more like home and not a college dining hall?
- Is it the freedom to eat multiple times and eat all one wishes to eat at every meal?
- Is it the freedom to bring friends along and not have to worry about paying for them?
- Is it is something else?
I would love to hear from as many students as possible on this issue to get a better feel for what we need to consider preserving; budgets continue to be scrutinized in our efforts to retain our balanced budget and to help us allocate resources to those things that are truly institutional priorities, so please send your thoughts. I get the “official” or administrative view on this, just as I get the official/administrative perspective on other issues, during administrative meetings. I need the “unofficial” view, too.
It would be most helpful if you at least identified your class (’10, ’11, ’12, or ’13, with Febs adding the appropriate “.5” as desired), or how you are associated with the College if you are not a current student.
I look forward to hearing your views.