Reflections from Old Chapel

By Laurie Patton

The construction of a new residence hall—the first at Middlebury in more than a decade—has sparked an important discussion in our community over what standards we should set for ourselves regarding the accessibility of our campus. I’m sure we all wish this question had arisen last spring during the open meetings held on campus and before ground was broken on the project.

That said, I’m very glad to see the passion and interest this topic has engendered. And I believe it will lead to a better process moving forward so that we do not find ourselves in this situation again.

The conversation about inclusion of differently abled people is exactly a discussion worth having; as I mentioned in my inaugural address, it is an argument for the sake of the common good. In that spirit, I want to share with the entire community a straightforward and open assessment of the limitations and opportunities we have before us. They involve two goods.

The first good is our responsibility to spend within our budget so that we can work together to make Middlebury the best it can be. This includes addressing issues of academic excellence, global engagement, environmental stewardship, diversity, financial aid and other forms of student, faculty and staff support. The second good is increasing our ongoing commitment to accessibility on campus, and finding ways to spend the dollars that we have in a manner that will have the biggest impact for all students, faculty, staff, as well as visitors and families. Good non-profit management requires that we carefully pay attention to both of these goods; it also means we must make tradeoffs from time to time to strike a balance between them.

Given these two common goods, we have before us two decisions. Both are important. The first decision is one I hope all of us will embrace with enthusiasm, commitment, and intellectual engagement: to create a task force on Accessibility to begin the process of formulating a new set of accessibility standards for Middlebury. These standards should be rooted in our principles and must go beyond mere compliance. That principle is another I articulated in my inaugural address: diversity as an everyday ethic. We should have no illusions that this will be a simple process. Even when acting on principle, people will come to very different conclusions about what we should do. But these will be arguments worth having and we should embrace them. The task force will include faculty, staff, students and outside experts who have written, thought and advocated for more inclusive living and working spaces. This task force will hold open forums that bring to Middlebury leading thinkers and consultants who can advise how we should go about increasing accessibility. It will engage with students who are interested in pursuing this topic in their own design work. And it will lead us to think seriously about the massive challenge facing us to bring buildings on campus compliant with federal and state regulations—something our best estimates say would cost upwards of $50 million.

The second, more difficult decision is what we can and should do with the Ridgeline project. To recap the decision before us, the larger dormitory, containing 62 beds, is accessible and visitable on all floors. There are, in addition, three townhouse units that contain 96 beds. Those structures do not have elevators and so anyone with a mobility challenge will find it difficult to visit the lower and upper floors. (The middle floor, which is the ground floor when approached from Adirondack View, is accessible.)

This means that a mobility challenged student who drew into one of the townhouses could not move between floors in his or her own residence hall.  It also means a parent with a mobility challenge could not visit his or her child’s room if it is on a lower or upper floor. Both of those scenarios (and there are more) are disheartening to consider.

However, the fact remains that the design of these buildings conforms to our current building guidelines, as well as to state and federal regulations on accessibility.  And 94 of the 158 beds in the complex overall are visitable by everyone. Are these standards enough as we think about further building? In my view, no. I think we can and should hold ourselves to a higher standard as we move forward with new buildings during my time as president. Will it be a perfect standard given our budgetary limitations? No. Will it move us in the right direction and be better than we have now? Yes.

The other consideration is a financial one. At this point, adding full elevators to the townhouses would require major work and delay, beyond what we can realistically accept given our fundamental budgetary responsibilities. When we were asked about changing the buildings last week, we quickly began looking at what might be possible. Our research showed that we would have to do several major things: 1) pull out the foundations already in place; 2) redesign the structures and seek permits for the new designs; 3) renegotiate numerous binding contracts and; 4) pay significant penalties to do so. And finally, it is not a given that the site we have chosen could accommodate the larger buildings with elevators. Our best estimate is that stopping the project and redesigning the structures would add between $5 million and $8 million to the cost of the complex.

This large increase would occur at a time when we, like other institutions of higher learning, must exercise increased fiscal discipline to hold down rising costs. It also would come at a time when our investment in financial aid continues to increase and when we have many new and ongoing programs we want to provide to our students to further our academic mission. With great regret, given all the other educational obligations we have and our limited resources, I cannot see how we could justify such a large expense.

Nonetheless, we are committed to work toward making the townhouses more welcoming and visitable—even as construction continues. In doing this, we will be guided by the principle of “diversity as an everyday ethic,” even within our limited means. We are meeting with architects who are experts in accessible design to see what we can do within the current footprint of the building. We have and will continue to look for ways to make spaces in the greater Ridgeline complex easier to visit and live in for anyone with a mobility challenge. We must do so quickly, as every day we put more resources into the project. These improvements will come at a cost, but it will be one we can take on.

I realize that our decision not to spend the full $5 to 8 million to install elevators at this late stage of the project will disappoint some in our community.

Most important, following the long-term principle of diversity as an everyday ethic, I want to encourage all of us to raise the bar on this conversation going forward. Out of this, through an accessibility task force that will engage all members of the community who wish to participate, we will create a new standard that will guide us for years to come, and that will become a source of pride for all of us. For calling us to a higher standard, and encouraging us to act on such standards in the future, I am deeply grateful to everyone who has joined in this conversation, and I will make sure it continues.