Wanted: Student Spaces


The Crest Room: formerly a meeting space for the SGA during some hours, arts and crafts center at others and ambiguous pseudo-lounge when unlocked and unoccupied. Now it is a faculty lounge from the hours of 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and a student lounge from 4:30 p.m. onwards. This makes the Crest Room one of precious few student spaces left on campus.

Several grades are overenrolled. Most dorm lounges have been converted to doubles or forced triples. The new meal plan will limit access to the dining halls, previously some of the most open, accessible places to congregate. And the organic farm, cherished by students for its beauty and idyllic sunsets, has now been rebranded as “The Knoll.”

Student spaces are neither prioritized nor present enough on campus, and the administration takes unilateral action too often. “The Knoll” is perhaps the best example. It is not clear why the organic farm was renamed, but many people, both students and garden staff, felt surprised by the change. It was negligent and patronizing to make such an unnecessary change to a place that is mostly enjoyed by students. The farm is a sanctuary that is used for events like picnics and star-gazing, which get students out of the library and enjoying the natural beauty of Vermont. Naming it the “The Knoll” feels like a commercialization of the experience at the farm. This renaming is part of a trend of the administration devaluing spaces specifically popular among students.

Even our student center, McCullough, the one space defined by its purpose to serve students, is threatened. McCullough is enjoyed and utilized by the student body, from academic study groups to gallivanting crowds on late Saturday nights. But the Crest Room, one of the better study areas in the student center, now belongs to faculty most of the day. While the room is not habitually used by students, it should still be a room for students.

This new role reversal is all too consistent with a general negligence regarding student held space. The student center should be a place of stability and comfort, which the students can always enter. It should not be conditional on how often we use it or whatever reason prompted the new faculty presence.

Middlebury staff know that student spaces are an issue, but there has been little change in the right direction. In October 2016, the college dean’s office launched a study, called “Social Life on Campus: Student Satisfaction and Social Culture,” to better understand student life. The report, conducted and prepared by James Terhune Consulting, was the result of focus groups with Middlebury College students.

They found that “virtually every group (including faculty and administrators) identified concerns about insufficient common areas and social spaces available to students.” Further, “many students expressed disappointment that McCullough is underutilized and is not a place that students use to hang-out, or where they are likely to casually encounter one another. Several students indicated they would like to see the Crossroads Café and the Grille open and accessible to students more often.”

The weekend hours of both the Grille and Crossroads are limited. A crowd manager could open these spaces on weekends in order to increase their use. Many students are crowd manager trained, and would jump at the chance to earn a little extra cash.

The administration ought to act swiftly given the results of the report they themselves commissioned. Our lack of a fully-functional student center is less pressing in early autumn, when outdoor picnic tables and Adirondack chairs are an option. But winter is coming, and with it a need to find suitable study and social spaces indoors.

In the past, the dining halls have served as a warm, available place for students to get together. Professors are technically welcome too. But for students, the experience is now fraught due to overwhelming lines and cluster created by the swipe system. It is near impossible during peak hours to go to the dining halls for a cup of coffee or just to socialize.

Indeed, the swipe system isn’t going away, but the college should listen to student feedback. Our formerly open dining plan had a tangible impact on Middlebury culture. The social aspect of the dining hall is critically important and must be preserved.

The concluding paragraphs of the James Terhune Consulting report assert the following: “The biggest take-aways . . . center on the ways in which the College engages, interacts, and partners with students on matters related to social life and the student experience broadly. Increasing student participation in governance and policy development, and improving communication with and to students about matters that greatly impact their lives and experience is crucially important.”

The college should take the findings of this report seriously. Student voices need to be included in discussions about repurposing and renaming spaces. Student life and overall happiness will benefit from this inclusion. After all, the best marketing strategy is to let the product speak for itself.