Healthy Competition

So the Juice Bar lives. The menu put together by the student team looks unambiguously healthy and profitable. Everyone will live happily ever after.

Thanks to crowdsourcing.

The Juice Bar competition was the most prominent example of the administration looking to harness the power of a crowd of students to solve one of the tougher campus challenges brought about originally by financial lows and now by some sort of “new normal.” Why hire professional consultants and staff to dream up new business models when students can conceive, build, and market it back to students?

It’s also appealing as a teachable experience. After all, that’s the idea behind the Solar Decathlon team too — task students with designing, building, and managing a solar powered house and they will learn a ton. Middlebury is clearly encouraging students to find their inner entrepreneur or at least find practical experience and skills applicable in the post-grad world.

But as with most crowdsourcing efforts, someone always asks: why are you pushing all the work on someone else? Why does everything have to be a competition? Don’t students have something else to do? Like study? Well, maybe there are ways to even wrap an academic element (heaven forbid) into some of the crowdsourcing efforts across campus. As the Atwater Turf Battle rages marches on with valiant blogging by Tim Parsons, students are inevitably marrying their architecture and geography (plus econ, math, etc.) classes with real challenge and real consequence.

That’s also where the administration hasn’t quite bit the bullet of really sticking to a real-world rules. While the Solar Decathlon team grapples with setbacks determined by the U.S. Department of Energy, Middlebury’s administration is mostly flexible in awarding a student “contract” because it will rely on strong mentorship from staff. But would a venture capitalist really allow unlimited start-up funding and no target profitability date for the Juice Bar venture? Is it even realistic to at least partially compete against dining halls which operate 9 hours a day? Even if it is an experiment, the mentality going in should always be that the project matters deeply and has definable success (even if it is not financial). Any evidence to the contrary will definitely sink hopes of sustainability. In other words, there needs to be the real threat of failure (even if there’s a safety net) and a healthy sense of competition (your move, Gamut Room). On the flip side, if students keep any profits they make, it would do a lot to keep the venture going, no?