Admin Addresses Student Concerns at Open Forum

By Elizabeth Sawyer, Staff Writer

The College’s Senior Leadership Group (SLG) hosted an open forum in Dana Auditorium on Feb. 22. The administrators who attended included Vice President for Communications Bill Burger, Special Assistant to the President Dave Donahue, Vice President for College Advancement Colleen Fitzpatrick, Executive Vice President for Finance and Administration David Provost, Dean of the College Katy Smith Abbott, Vice President for Academic Development Tim Spears and Dean of Students Baishakhi Taylor.

The three main topics they planned to discuss were the College’s current financial situation, changes to dining and changes to residential life, specifically concerning what is now known as the Commons Residential Director (CRD). Students were also afforded the time to bring up other topics of concern.

College Finances

Provost began the forum by addressing the College’s finances. “Middlebury College is an extremely financially healthy institution…We are not in a crisis, we are not at risk of being in a long term financial issue as long as we can address what we’ve seen as rising costs,” he said. “This isn’t about cutting student services. This isn’t about changing the Middlebury College experience for our students…We’re trying to drive down costs that don’t affect what goes on in the classroom, and long-term those savings will help us return to [a] break-even point,” he said.

Provost described plans to utilize the resources that are already at the College’s disposal, including the golf course, the Snow Bowl and 51 Main. “My job is to figure out how we can leverage those assets to generate other revenues that are not on the back of tuition and fees,” he said.

Dining Changes

Provost then transitioned to dining by elaborating on the potential for reducing costs. Provost praised the plan to adopt a swipe system this spring and a meal plan for the fall. “[These changes] are good things. It will help us control cost. We’ve been able to capture that there are days at lunchtime where were feeing 103 percent of the student population at Middlebury … The national average at any meal including lunch across American is around 77 percent,” he said.

Smith Abbott addressed concerns that students on financial aid will be burdened with extra costs with the implementation of a meal plan. “There will not be a differential in what students pay. Students who are on financial aid will continue to receive full aid toward their meal plan. Its more about where you want those dollars to go,” she said. Both Smith Abbott and Provost described the option for declining dollars, in which students will be able to use their meal plan dollars at retail locations on campus such as Wilson Café, the Grille and 51 Main.

Smith Abbott added that Dan Detora, executive director of food services, and his student advisory committee will draft potential meal plans which the Student Government Association (SGA) and Community Council will then analyze. “We’ll hold focus groups with students on campus so that lots of student opinion can be integrated into the decision-making process. We’re not trying to do something in a cookie cutter sort of way, but rather tailor something to what’s important to students,” Smith Abbott said.

Several students questioned whether the administration may choose to abandon the plan to establish a meal plan if student feedback from both The Campus’ survey and dining services’ advisory committee is overwhelmingly negative. Provost responded that if students do not want a change, they would have the option to select the current “open plan” as an option within the new plan. “We are moving in the direction of a new meal plan, capturing the current meal plan and giving more choice. If everyone chooses the existing meal plan as is, that informs us that that’s what we will do,” he said. “If we get down to the end of this and we are saving on food costs, gaining control and are able to give choice but the entire student body is absolutely miserable, that’s not a win or a success in my mind. So I welcome your feedback.”

Changes to CRA Role

Taylor then addressed the change that will take place next year to the CRA position. In response to changes in the Fair Labor Standard Act, the CRA will now be titled as Commons Residential Director (CRD). Taylor explained that role will keep all of the core essential functions of the current CRA, such as ensuring that these are still positions that live on campus and providing 24/7 on-call support. “What will change is that we are now looking at recruiting new colleagues who have at least a Master’s degree,” she said. “We are getting ready to form the search committee and the search committee will include representatives of the commons as well as students. We are planning to recruit five new colleagues who will start here in August.”

Students expressed concern at the prospect that CRDs may not be housed in first-year dorms. Smith Abbott described the “live in” or “live on” options for CRDs. “Live in” refers to the current CRA apartments, while “live on” refers to other types of on campus housing that is outside of the dorms. “We want to create a structure where [CRDs] are absolutely kept on call, even during the middle of the night when [First Year Counselors] or [Residential Advisers] need to turn to them, or when a first-year student may need to find them … We would never put FYCs in a position where they didn’t feel like they had a competent, trained and in this case Master’s level person to whom they could lean on,” she said.

Student Concerns

Several students expressed concern toward a lack of communication and transparency from the administration in advance of such decisions such as the transition to a meal plan and the development of the CRD. Smith Abbott responded by emphasizing her commitment to working on effective communication. “I think poor communication or feeling that students have of deep frustration that we’re intentionally keeping information from you is definitely not the culture that any of us wants to perpetuate,” she said.

Many students acknowledged the benefit of having open forums such as these in which multiple representatives of the administration are in attendance.

In an email in the following days after the event, Smith Abbott wrote, “I am very grateful for the student turnout last Wednesday, and I am committed to scheduling an open forum at least once a semester. I think last week’s gathering confirmed that this is an effective mechanism for opening up more dialogue between students and administrators…I am eager to hear more from students about the best ways to communicate when changes or new initiatives are in the planning stages. I have scheduled a number of conversations with students on this topic, and would be happy to make time for more.”