Commons May Soon Undergo Major Changes

By NICOLE POLLACK

The Residential Life System is poised to undergo major changes, which could include building renovations, a new student center, and the elimination of a commons dean. 

After a 10-month review, members of the How We Will Live Together Steering Committee charged with reimagining the system presented its recommendations to the community in a forum Tuesday evening. 

The Student Government Association (SGA), Community Council and the steering committee hosted the forum in Wilson Hall. After the presentation of the draft’s seven key recommendations, the floor was open to discussion, and students expressed their concerns about issues including ADA compliance and changes to staff positions.

The draft is the culmination of an extensive review of the college’s Residential Life system, which included surveys of staff and student feedback as well as internal and external reviews. Those reviews showed discontent with the second-year aspects of the commons system, dissatisfaction with social spaces on campus and feelings of isolation among minority students, low-income students and Febs.

“What we now have is one of the most expensive residential systems among all of our peer institutions, with some of the poorest outcomes, particularly around student satisfaction,” said Robert Moeller, assistant professor of Psychology and co-chair of the steering committee, in an email to The Campus. “It is time to make some changes.”

What we now have is one of the most expensive residential systems among all of our peer institutions, with some of the poorest outcomes, particularly around student satisfaction.”

— Robert Moeller

The new draft recommendations prioritize improving housing and infrastructure. Its main suggestions include renovating Battell Hall, reclaiming lounge areas currently being used as student rooms or office spaces, eliminating restrictions on sophomore residency, increasing support for students staying on campus during breaks, improving integration of Febs into the rest of the campus community and constructing or developing a new student center.

“We need a student center,” said Derek Doucet, associate dean of students for student activities & orientation and one of the heads of the steering committee. Although McCullough Student Center is an important space, he said, it is not a true student center, since the building currently houses staff offices, a faculty and staff lounge, and the Mail Center. Crossroads Café and the Grille have limited open hours and remain locked when closed.

Another critical element of the proposal is improvements to new student experiences. This pertains to all aspects of new student orientation, including First@Midd, International Student & Scholar Services (ISSS), orientation trips and better placement of Febs. The goal of the proposal is to create an improved residential education program with clearly communicated, measurable goals and outcomes.

The proposal also suggests changes to the placement and role of commons deans. The five current deans would be reduced to four and assigned to first-year seminars instead of commons, and would work in designated offices in a more central location. They would be partnered with a newly designated case manager, whose tasks would include consolidating the presently disjointed student care practices and transforming administrative support for students in crisis from a reactive process to a proactive one.

Deans’ work would be refocused on student support, with some of their additional roles delegated to other staff members. The draft recommendations also include the repurposing of commons houses, all with the goal of deepening the connection between students and the faculty and staff associated with their commons.

“How are we keeping the coziness of ResLife?” asked John Cambefort ’21, a Wonnacott First Year Counselor (FYC), during the forum.

Doucet responded that closeness and immediate accessibility remain important considerations in the steering committee’s decision making process. He also acknowledged that many of his colleagues and students have a strong investment in the present system and that for those students the process can be an emotional one. 

After the forum concluded, Ross FYC Steph Miller ’20 told The Campus she was concerned that newly consolidated Deans’ offices would be “less cozy, less homey, less accessible, less social.”

We’re virtually certain to make mistakes along the way, so careful and ongoing assessment, an area where we’ve frankly been weak in the past, will be essential.”

— Derek Doucet

The Friday before the forum, Doucet spoke to the intercommons Residential Life team about the proposed changes. Still, several members of Residential Life who attended Tuesday’s forum mentioned feeling excluded from the development of the recommendations.

During the public comment period of the forum, Doucet asked that everyone look through the full draft, available now at go/livetogether, and share their questions and concerns online. After incorporating feedback and making final edits, the committee will submit a final report to Baishakhi Taylor, dean of students and vice president of student affairs, and the Senior Leadership Group, who will decide which aspects of the plan, if any, will be incorporated into the residential system.

“A critical thing to acknowledge is that depending on which recommendations are ultimately adopted, implementation may be an extended and iterative process,” Doucet said in an email to The Campus. “We’re virtually certain to make mistakes along the way, so careful and ongoing assessment, an area where we’ve frankly been weak in the past, will be essential.”

*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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