In 2001, Vanderbilt's administration unveiled plans for the school's Residential College Initiative, the result of several years of groundwork designed to improve campus life at the school. “The goal was to create a living/learning environment, rather than separate living and learning environments,” explains Camp Howard, director of dining.
One of the major impediments to developing such an environment was the way entering classes felt alienated.
“Their surveys had highlighted an initial problem with each freshman class, that they didn't ‘gel’ with the campus community like they wanted to,” says Howard.
What the committee studying the problem eventually came up with was a plan for a new commons complex that would serve as Vanderbilt's social center, drawing students from all classes together, along with faculty and staff. This complex would be surrounded by freshman housing so that first-year students would be in the middle of the mix from their first day at Vanderbilt.
The site chosen for this complex was the Peabody area of campus, which had once been a separate school, Peabody College, that merged with Vanderbilt in 1979. The Peabody area included residences and an outdated student center building from its independent days.
The plan was to renovate five of the residence halls and build five new ones totaling 1,600 beds for incoming freshmen. Meanwhile, the student center building would be razed and replaced by an ultramodern commons facility that would include community and activity spaces, an academic support center, group study spaces, exercise facilities, ancillary services (copy center, mail center, etc.) and dining facilities.
In fact, dining was to be the centerpiece. “We were brought in early in this process because everyone knows food brings people together,” says Howard. “I had already had some experience with concept development, so I was put on the committee to work on the design of the planned new dining center.”
That was in 2003, the same year Howard was named assistant dining director. The dining facility that emerged from those planning sessions became the centerpiece of the new Commons Center, opened in fall 2007. A LEED Gold Certified facility by the U.S. Green Building Council (only the second building in the state to get such a designation), the Commons Center includes a spectacular main dining hall as well as a 24-hour coffee shop/campus market (Common Grounds) offering grab-and-go meal alternatives as well as hot and cold beverages and some sundries, and private dining rooms for meetings and events.