External Reviewers Assess Impact of Commons System

“How Will We Live Together”

By JAMES FINN and SABINE POUX

An external review committee has released a report evaluating the commons system and delineating areas of potential improvement as a continuation of the college’s “How Will We Live Together” residential life assessment. The committee, which published the report earlier this month, included staff from Connecticut College, Kenyon College, Rice University and Carleton College, and based its analysis on observations from a visit to campus last October.

The committee’s suggestions address the shortcomings of the commons system, many of which were noted in the “How Will We Live Together” self-study report last September. The September report outlined data collected by an internal steering committee of students, staff and faculty from the college and was later shared with the external review committee.

In their analysis, the external committee attributed many of the programs’ failings to financial constraints that severely limited the implementation of certain “Cornerstones” of the commons system in the late nineties. “The consequences of these compromises have played out over the past two decades,” the committee reported. “Leading to the conclusions of the Self-Study, the Terhune report, and those set forth in this report that question the value of continuing the program as it is currently designed.” 

After laying out these concerns, the report identified the strengths of the commons system as it exists today, namely the presence of commons deans, First-Year Seminars,  commons residence directors (CRDs), faculty heads and regular commons “family” dinners. It pinpointed the commons deans in particular as “one of the greatest strengths of the commons.” The deans, according to the report, have become a “central locus of support for students over their four years at Middlebury.”

Instead [of commons dinners], [the report] recommended using the heads to host more community events and foster out-of-classroom discussions through events, teach-ins and gatherings.”

The report then notably recommended that the commons be redefined as a first-year program. “Creating a dedicated first-year experience program focused on high-touch and high-impact practices should increase students’ sense of belonging at Middlebury, and reduce some of the tensions related to diversity and inclusion that we heard about during our visit to campus,” the committee said. It noted that students feel connected to their commons during their first years at the college but not in the years following, and suggested redistributing first-year housing to be more centralized, among other changes.

The report also suggested enhancing faculty engagement in the programs, and proposed separating the commons heads from their commons. “The current connection confines the role,” the report said, “Limiting its impact while resulting in large expenses for many dinners with first-year seminars that students do not perceive to be connected to their commons experience and produces minimal sustained faculty-student connection.” Instead, it recommended using the heads to host more community events and foster out-of-classroom discussions through events, teach-ins and gatherings.

The main part of the report ended with seven suggestions for improving the programs more generally, including co-locating Febs into one shared residential space and revising the commons dean structure.

In the conclusion, the committee restated its recommendation for the commons to be a first-year program.

“Middlebury has a tremendous opportunity in the coming years to adapt key aspects of the commons system to develop a signature first-year program that best supports student and distinguishes the college from its peers,” the committee reported. “The proposed changes also maximize the impact of the financial and human resources dedicated to supporting students’ experiences outside of the classroom.”

According to co-chair of the How Will We Live Together Steering Committee and Senior Associate Dean of Students Derek Doucet, the initiative’s Steering and Advisory committees will draft a list of possible recommendations informed by the external review, their own self-study, and feedback on the external review from the Community Council, Student Government Association (SGA) and commons staff and faculty teams. Discussions have already begun, and Doucet hopes the draft will be completed by the end of the winter term.

Middlebury has a tremendous opportunity in the coming years to adapt key aspects of the commons system to develop a signature first-year program that best supports student and distinguishes the college from its peers.”

— How Will We Live Together Steering Committee

Doucet also stressed that the final product will rely heavily on feedback from the community.

“When we have what feels like a solid draft of possible recommendations, we plan, in collaboration with the Community Council and SGA, to make them broadly available to the community for comment,” he said. “This final opportunity for community input feels critical, and is consistent with the approach we’ve taken all along in this process.”

The committees are already soliciting feedback for the other parts of the process on the How Will We Live Together webpage, which students can find at go.middlebury.edu/commonsreview.

Ultimately, the committee will refine the list of recommendations and submit them to Vice President for Student Affairs and Dean of Students Baishakhi Taylor, which Doucet hopes will occur early in the spring term. According to Doucet, Taylor and the rest of the Senior Leadership Group will decide which, if any, of the recommendations to implement. 

While the reassessment process is only partly underway, there seems to be a sense of optimism and excitement about the road ahead.

“There’s a lot of work ahead before any decisions can be made and it’s too early to predict what the future direction might be,” said Bill Burger, vice president for communications. “But I’m confident these questions will get a lot of attention this spring as Dean of Students Baishakhi Taylor and others in the administration focus on the How We Live Together initiative that started last year.”

*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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About the Writers
JAMES FINN, News Editor

James Finn ’20.5 is a news editor. 
He previously worked as staff writer, features editor, opinion editor and Senior Opinion Editor. 
Finn is pursuing...

SABINE POUX, Senior News Editor

Sabine Poux ‘20 is Senior News Editor.
She previously served as a news editor, an arts & sciences editor and a staff writer.
At Middlebury, Sabine...

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External Reviewers Assess Impact of Commons System