September 11, 2002

Contact: Sarah Ray
Posted: September 11, 2002

MIDDLEBURY, VT At a dedication ceremony on Friday, Sept. 13, Middlebury College will celebrate the construction of a new dining hall and dormitory-the first phase of a restructured residential life system. The opening of Ross Dining, a new 275-seat facility, and LaForce Hall, a new 67-bed student residence, marks the completion of Ross Commons.

Located on the western edge of the campus, the new buildings are part of the College's effort to create small communities, or commons, where living, dining and learning all take place in the same area in an environment that encourages a melding of academics and social life. Ross Commons is the first of five commons to be completed, and also includes four pre-existing dormitories now connected to the new buildings by an enclosed walkway.
Construction on the new facilities began in September 2000. Tai Soo Kim Partners of Hartford, Conn., designed the buildings and New York City-based Barr & Barr, which has an office in Middlebury, constructed the $19.5 million project.

LaForce Hall was designed to provide senior students with high quality housing. Four-bedroom suites include kitchen and bathroom facilities. Eleven single rooms on the fifth and highest floor share a communal kitchen and lounge. The building's other features include additional social space; offices for faculty, the Ross Commons dean and other commons staff; a classroom and a study space. All rooms in the building are connected to the campus computer network.
The new dining hall has high ceilings and one of its walls, consisting largely of windows, faces New York's Adirondack Mountains. Four stations offer diners options ranging from pizza and deli items to food cooked on a Mongolian grill.
Tom McGinn, Middlebury College project manager, said, "Wherever possible, we used local products and drew on the talents of the Vermont labor force."

The College made these efforts as a partner in the Cornerstone Project, an initiative coordinated by the nonprofit Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund that encourages Vermont institutions to purchase Vermont goods and services.

The College also used 32,500 feet of "certified" wood for the project. Sixty percent of this wood was harvested from College forests on its Bread Loaf campus in Ripton. Certified wood must meet standards that conform to sustainable forest management practices. In the case of Ross Commons, the international environmental organization Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) supplied the criteria for harvesting the wood, which was used throughout the project for all wood floors, ceilings, paneling and trim.

Work will begin this week on the next phase-the construction of two dormitories and a dining hall for Atwater Commons-and is scheduled for completion in 2004.
College officials said the impetus for restructuring residential life at Middlebury comes from the desire to broaden 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 developing a more comprehensive learning environment, 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, "The completion of Ross Commons provides the first physical space on campus designed specifically to encourage this kind of exchange."

"We'd like to see the new spaces in Ross, including the dining hall, become places for spontaneous student expression. On a random afternoon you might hear music being made in the lounges, or have your meal interrupted by a short one-act play. Anything goes as far as we are concerned," said Steve Abbott, associate professor of mathematics. He and his wife Katherine Smith Abbott, visiting assistant professor of art history, are also co-faculty heads of Ross Commons.

The Commons System

The commons, a residential life system, first developed at Middlebury in the early 1990s, but it was not until 1998, with the trustees' vote of approval, that the College embarked on construction projects that ultimately will define each commons physically as a distinct community with its own dining facilities.
Each residential cluster, or commons, houses 400-500 students. Middlebury students are assigned membership to one of the five commons upon enrollment at the College.

Every commons is led by a team-a faculty head, a dean, a commons coordinator and two commons residential advisers-who counsels and supports student residents and guides the cultural and intellectual life of the community.
The commons system is based on three governing principles: continuing student membership, decentralized dining and proximate faculty residence.
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 residential commons to living in neighborhoods. He believes that the old 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.
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. "We are looking forward to seeing this vision fully realized in the new dining hall in Ross Commons."

The third principle, proximate faculty residence, adds yet another dimension to the enhanced educational setting. The faculty members designated as commons heads live with their families in College-built houses located near each student commons residence.

"The raw material of students' education-the books, the lists of theorems-isn't really going to change much from place to place. What makes Middlebury different is what we do with each other. The attraction of the commons system to myself and my wife Katy is that it takes direct aim at this principle by fostering new and innovative ways to live and learn together. And the reason it works is that it puts a great deal of the responsibility for making this happen in the hands of the students," said Abbott. McCardell believes, "Institutions that claim as their mission to educate young men and women in the tradition of the liberal arts must define education broadly and acknowledge that education takes place around the clock and in all venues. The commons supports this mission."