Commons Review Shows Discontent in Student Life

The results are revealed of the "How Will We Live Together" study that was conducted last spring.

By NICOLE POLLACK

An internal review of the college’s commons system revealed a significant disconnect between students and their commons, and highlighted key areas of concern within residential life, including a lack of student spaces and a strong feeling of disconnectedness among minority students, low income students and Febs. 

Interim Vice President for Student Affairs Baishakhi Taylor presented the results of the “How Will We Live Together” study at a Community Council meeting last month. The study was conducted last spring by a team of students, faculty and staff, and was the first such review since the commons system started in 1998. 

Psychology professor and faculty co-chair of the review Robert Moeller gathered data in focus groups, and developed and distributed a survey to 440 students in the classes of 2018-2021.5. Of the surveyed students, 27 percent identified as a racial or ethnic minority, 27.6 percent played at least one varsity sport, and 15.4 percent were Febs. Taylor said the student sample was highly representative of the larger campus.

Students participated voluntarily and remained anonymous. They demonstrated their level of agreement with given statements using a five-point scale, ranging from “strongly disagree” to “strongly agree.”

More than half of those surveyed students responded “agree” to the statement, “I am satisfied with the residential experience at Middlebury,” with another 10.5 percent strongly agreeing. However, responses relating specifically to the commons system were more neutral or negative.  

About two-thirds of students surveyed either disagreed or strongly disagreed with the statement: “My Commons is a strong part of my identity,” while 13.7 percent agreed or strongly agreed. For other questions, students were more ambivalent — a strong majority of respondents neither agreed nor disagreed with statements such as, “I like being a part of a Commons for all four years” (45.7 percent), and “I feel like I am a valued member of my Commons” (43.4 percent). Responses were spread more evenly across the five options in response to, “The Commons system is a valuable part of my experience,” and “My Commons FYC or RA is a valuable resource to me.”

Minority students and low income students reported a drastically lower sense of belonging compared to other students. 

“The theme of not belonging at Middlebury was strongly expressed among racial/ethnic minority students and students who described their family socioeconomic statuses as low,” the summary reads.

The summary reports that most students socialize in the dining halls, but a division between minority and non-minority students reportedly exists there as well. 93.8 percent of respondents said they used the dining halls as a social space and 94.9 percent said it was important to them that all students have equal access to the dining halls. However, several students reported that “students of color tend to eat lunch in one dining hall, while other groups of students may eat in another.” Though the How Will We Live Together team could not confirm this alleged trend, they write that “the perception of segregated spaces in the dining halls was pervasive.”

Students reported frustration with the college’s requirement that they live in their commons during sophomore year. 25 percent agreed or strongly agreed that “picking a sophomore year roommate from my same Commons is a good idea,” with 37 percent disagreeing or strongly disagreeing. Many said the requirement prevented them from forming “meaningful communities of their own.” 

Dislike for the two-year requirement was even stronger among feb participants. Feelings of isolation and disconnectedness “persist through their sophomore year, due largely to the 2-year-in-Commons residency requirement that forces them to remain housed in a Commons with which they feel little affinity.” 

The summary directly implicates the commons system as a potential obstacle to an inclusive community. 

“The decentralized nature of the Commons system may in some ways unintentionally limit movement towards full inclusion, as their largely autonomous natures make coordinated cross-commons programming difficult and further divides students,” the report reads. 

The internal review details an insufficient number of social spaces on campus, and recognizes that this lack could contribute to general student unhappiness. 

Spaces for socializing, both informal ones such as residence hall lounges, and reservable spaces for events of all sizes, are extremely limited and in some cases and buildings, nonexistent”

“Spaces for socializing, both informal ones such as residence hall lounges, and reservable spaces for events of all sizes, are extremely limited and in some cases and buildings, nonexistent,” the summary reads. “The loneliness and isolation many students report is consistent with the availability and organization of spaces we provide students.”

John Gosselin ’20, a member of the How Will We Live Together team, shared his thoughts on the results in an interview with The Campus. 

“My preliminary takeaways are that the commons system is working to a certain extent, but could work better, that the current student center is wholly ineffective as a social space, and that the sophomore housing requirement may be detrimental to students’ general development, although I would like to reserve my final judgment until the external review is complete,” Gosselin said.

Moeller sees the study as an opportunity to change several aspects of student life for the better.  

“We’re trying to improve the student living experience, make meaningful improvements to the student social experience, which has been declining, find opportunities to make this a community all students feel welcome in and better integrate the Febs, among other things,” he said.

Student activities dean Derek Doucet was the other faculty co-chair of the study. 

They suggest, not surprisingly, that students’ perceptions of the present system are mediated by their various identities, and so it would be a mistake to imagine a single student experience of residential life and the Commons”

— Derek Doucet, student activities dean

“The findings are fascinating,” Doucet said. “They suggest that there is much that our present system does well, and also that there are areas for considerable growth and improvement. They suggest, not surprisingly, that students’ perceptions of the present system are mediated by their various identities, and so it would be a mistake to imagine a single student experience of residential life and the Commons.

“Overall, I’m more excited than ever to see where the project takes us from here,” he said.

The study is only one half of the review process. During an external review that will begin in late October, residential life experts from similar colleges will come to campus and submit their own report. Moeller said that the How Will We Live Together committees will then look at both the internal and external reviews, draft recommendations and present them to the college community.  As a final steps, the committee will consider feedback and submit the final recommendations to Taylor, who will then decide which recommendations are implemented.

The executive summary of the review’s results and the survey data can be found at go/commonsreview. 

*Editor’s Note: News Editor Bochu Ding is a member of the How Will We Live Together steering committee. Ding played no role in the reporting. Any questions may be directed to campus@middlebury.edu.

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Commons Review Shows Discontent in Student Life