November 5, 1998

Middlebury College Trustees Vote to Implement Restructuring of College's Residential Life

Changes will increase student, faculty, staff interaction, and enhance the educational experience of the residential college

In a decision expected to fundamentally change the ways in which students live and learn, the Middlebury College board of trustees has voted to institute an enhanced structure for student residential life on the Vermont campus. The action, which follows nearly 18 months of discussion and planning at the College, came in the form of a resolution passed unanimously at the trustees' fall meeting on Oct. 31.

When completed, the new system will consist of discrete residential clusters called commons, each housing 400-500 students. Each commons will include kitchen and dining facilities, social space, offices for deans, study space, a computer room, and a nearby residence for a faculty associate. Each Middlebury student will be assigned to membership in one of the five commons upon enrollment at the College.

The trustee resolution accepts the majority of recommendations contained in a plan submitted by the College's residential life committee. The plan recommends a system based on three governing principles: continuing student membership, decentralized dining, and proximate faculty residence.

The board's resolution also authorizes the College administration to proceed with the construction of the new system. Projects planned for the first phase of construction include:

  • a new campus dining facility in an existing dormitory complex
  • a new student activities center
  • renovation of, and a major addition to, Starr Library
  • renovation of an existing dining hall
  • two new 100-bed dormitories
  • a new residence for a faculty commons associate

Construction for phase one will begin immediately and is planned for completion within six years.

College officials said the impetus for restructuring residential life at Middlebury comes from the desire to broaden, deepen, and enrich the residential college experience. "There are some who argue that the knowledge that professors convey to students in the classroom and the laboratory can be delivered to students using the Internet and the World Wide Web," said Middlebury College president John M. McCardell, Jr. "One way residential colleges can combat the charge that technology can essentially replace us, while at the same time develop a more comprehensive learning environment for our students is by making certain that what takes place outside the classroom in the residential facilities makes a substantial contribution to the educational experience of our students," he said.

According to McCardell, Middlebury's new residential system will achieve that. "The system we are about to create will, we believe, blend the academic and social aspects of life on campus in ways that provide broader and deeper educational experiences for the students who live and learn here," he said.

The principle of continuing membership in a commons, according to College officials, is intended to provide a more stable, cohesive community atmosphere in the residential facilities. McCardell compared the experience of living in a residential commons to living in neighborhoods. He believes that the current system, in which most students live in a different room or dorm each year and which would be considered jarring and disorienting outside the college setting, inhibits the formation of close and lasting friendships among students.

Katherine Ebner, Middlebury's director of residential life and co-chair of the residential life committee which authored the plan for the new system, agrees. "With continuing membership in the same commons over several years, relationships can deepen and grow in ways that don't happen when you move constantly," said Ebner. "The Middlebury commons approach," she said, "will provide richer and more varied sets of relationships that complement the interaction that takes place on sports teams, in clubs and organizations, and in other settings where students live and learn together."

Decentralized dining, the second principle, will extend the opportunities for intimate contact among students and with faculty and staff. "Smaller dining spaces encourage people to linger after meals for conversation," said McCardell. "Conversation opens doors to informal learning and enriching interaction, which is entirely different from the learning that occurs in the classroom," he said. Smaller dining areas are also expected to be used by commons residents for classes interspersed with lunch and dinner, as well as for social and other events.

The third principle, proximate faculty residence, adds yet another dimension to the enhanced educational setting. The five faculty members designated as commons associates will live with their families in College-built houses located near each student commons residence. According to Timothy Spears, associate professor of American literature and civilization who co-chaired the residential life committee with Ebner, the intention is to create situations where interaction becomes a natural part of daily living for students and their faculty associates. "What we hope and expect will happen," said Spears, "is that students will come to consider faculty an integral and important part of their lives both in the classroom and in their residential settings, and that there will be more interaction taking place in the evening and on weekends, in addition to weekday working hours."

The system that will be created as a result of the trustee decision is an expansion and enhancement of an existing commons system developed at Middlebury College in the early 1990s. Though positively impressed with many aspects of the existing system, College officials feel its full value is limited because it has been a peripheral part of the residential lives of most students.

McCardell believes the trustees' action is historic. "To be sure," said McCardell, "this will not alter the essential qualities that, in aggregate, define what this college is. What it will do, we expect, is provide more opportunities for meaningful interaction among the extraordinary people who come to this place to live, to teach and to learn."