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

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
  • a new student activities center
  • renovation of, and a major addition to, Starr
  • 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

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

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

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.”