Senior administrators held an open forum with students Tuesday evening, discussing the results of recent student surveys and fielding questions about institutional transparency and student life.
Student attendance at the event was relatively sparse, with the number of students roughly equaling the two dozen administrators present.
“There is a lack of student presence in the room,” conceded Kyle Wright ’19.5, who serves as Community Council Co-Chair. “A lot of students are jaded to an extent that engaging with the administration is deeply taxing, so there’s a certain hump we need to get over in terms of re-engaging students to be able to do this work.”
College dean Katy Smith Abbott began the event by discussing the results of the 2016 CIRP senior survey. The survey is utilized by schools nationwide and conducted at Middlebury every two years, asking graduating seniors a range of questions regarding their time at Middlebury.
The 2016 survey, Smith Abbott said, “brought [the administration’s] attention to the fact that the level of satisfaction with student social life had dropped noticeably between 2010 and 2016.”
Specifically, the number of students who reported being very satisfied with social life at the college dropped from one in five in 2010 to one in 15 in 2016. Meanwhile, those who reported being dissatisfied with social life rose from one in five to one in three.
Within the group of schools that Middlebury considers its “peer institutions,” Middlebury now ranks “at the bottom of the heap in terms of student satisfaction,” Smith Abbott said.
The survey’s troubling findings prompted the college to enlist Jim Terhune ’86, a former dean of students at Colby College, to lead student focus groups in order to interpret the results.
Terhune found the top areas of student concern to be alcohol and partying culture, residential life and the commons system, student social space, diversity and inclusion, and student-administration relations.
With regard to drinking culture, Smith Abbott said the focus groups revealed a need for new social opportunities not involving alcohol.
“Rather than imagining that non-drinkers and moderate drinkers will just figure it out, there’s a need to be more intentional about partnering with that cohort of students to develop a plan for what social life looks like,” she said.
Focus groups revealed mixed perceptions of the commons system, Smith Abbott said. First-years reported positive experiences with residential life, finding that the commons system helped them form relationships and navigate college life.
Considerable dissatisfaction emerged with the Feb program. The often-isolated Feb housing and lack of access to First-Year Counselors contributed to these negative attitudes, Smith Abbott said.
Terhune’s recommendations concerning the commons system included conducting an external review of the commons system, working to increase the number of social houses and integrating Feb and first-year housing.
Terhune also identified discontent about the lack of suitable social spaces on campus. Many identified dining halls as the only social spaces they used regularly.
“What was striking to [Terhune] when he first started talking to students was the extent to which the dining halls played a major role in how students understood social experience,” she said. “So there’s a level of imaginative programming development that still lies ahead for us when thinking about dining spaces.”
Student feedback concerning diversity and inclusion was “both not surprising and really tough,” Smith Abbott said. According to Terhune’s findings, students of color often feel as though they are “less than fully-vested members of the community,” reporting feeling physically unsafe on campus and not valued by the college.
Finally, Terhune found relations between the student body and administration to be “strained”—likely an understatement, Smith Abbott noted. Students largely perceived the administration to be out-of-touch and untrustworthy, concerned more with maintaining the school’s image than responding to the needs of its students.
Smith Abbott stressed the importance of student-administration communications. “Almost every other section of the report is impacted by this section,” she said. “If we’re going to make any headway on any of these recombinations, it will be because we make headway here.”
Administrators addressed these palpable gaps in trust between students and the administration. “It’s based on personal relationships.” Smith-Abbott said in response to a question on concrete steps the college is rebuild ties. “You’re right that if people don’t want to step into those relationships and they don’t trust someone enough to start to build on a more personal level with staff, faculty, and administrators it’s hard to move anything.”
Elizabeth Dunn ’18 followed this question by sharing concerns about the perception that the voices of alumni and trustees are privileged over the voices of current students of the College, and the role that donations play as a “middleman” between what the students want and what the administration is able to do.
There was a “divide in the alumni population as well as among parents about how the situation was treated on campus,” noted Meghan Foley Williamson ’17, an administrator in the Advancement Office. “Some showed great sympathy and empathy with the student situation, while others were quite adamant that there should be more discipline and more stringent policies.”
Williamson went on to note that some donors were not inclined to support Middlebury in the short term but there were others who wanted to continue financial ties. The net result was an almost flat result in fundraising but a small overall decline in donors.
David Donahue ‘91, an assistant to college President Laurie Patton, went on to speak about transparency on the board of trustees, noting that that the entire structure of the trustee board was changed three years ago to add a student constituent overseer who is also part of the college board of overseers.
Finally, Donahue shared that the College is “exploring the possibility for student liaisons to different standing committees to increase student access.” He also said he is willing to sit down with members of the student body for conversations about topical issues.
Judicial dean Karen Guttentag also expressed her hopes on making “structural working more transparent so people’s expectation on where they can go and when are their voices welcome and when are there moment where they may not have a voice and someone else will make a decision and why that might be.”
Faculty dean Andrea Lloyd noted that questions asked by students were “very similar” to those coming from the faculty and that “sense of trust in our community has been broken and that we have serious heeling to do is not unique to students, but something that cuts across community.”
Shifting to more financial matters, financial administrator David Provost stressed that the administration, not the board of trustees, remains the main decision maker. In regards to transparency, Provost and Patton are exploring options for sharing the financial realities of the college such as the fact that it takes “277 million dollars a year to run this institution.”
Provost later shared more justification on the new swipe system in the dining halls, maintaining that students should not be buying lunch for non-students. Provost went on to stress that the swipe system offers new data that could help to better the dining experience.
In response to questions about the possible impact of financial constraints on the college, Provost shared that Middlebury has not been “living within its operating means for five years. The dollars that we bring in from comprehensive fees, release from the endowment and gifts are not covering expenses. Last year that loss was almost 17 million dollars.” Provost continued that when compared to the 1.1 billion dollar endowment of the college this is not truly a crisis. Rather, the college is striving to be more responsible to students and alumni and cutting waste such as 51 Main which drained 200,000 dollars a year.
Dining director Dan Detora stressed that discussions on various options for a meal plan have been brought before various committees and the SGA but more consequential answer necessitates a “serious input from the student body.”
Addressing complaints against the swipe machines, Detora noted efforts are being made to speed up the systems, but the influx of 1400 students at peak lunch hours guarantees a line no matter what.