• August 31, 2015

Middlebury College Invents a Pushy Redhead to Ease Dishware Theft

Middlebury College Invents a Pushy Redhead to Ease Dishware Theft   Middlebury College Invents a Pushy Redhead to Ease Dishware Theft 1

Middlebury College

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Middlebury College

Middlebury College students may need a refresher course in mealtime etiquette.

After diners stole and trashed close to $50,000 worth of dishes, the college created its own YouTube character to attract students' attention and possibly save some cash (although with tuition and fees exceeding $52,000 a year, Middlebury could offset the loss by admitting one extra freshman next fall).

The video campaign, which began in October, features the fictional Aunt Des: a redheaded, acrylic-nailed caricature of a Greek-American New Jerseyite who's hell-bent on recovering the dishes.

The first of the three videos shows only the back of Des's head as she and Middle­bury's dining-services director, Matthew Biette, sit across a table from each other in a darkened room, à la The Godfather, as Mr. Biette describes the problem like a mob boss instructing one of his goons. The scene is in black and white, save for the color of Aunt Des's auburn hair and flaming red nails.

The videos "are very low budget," says Stephen Diehl, a Middlebury spokesman. "But we're trying to use some humor while at the same time getting the message across."

Mr. Diehl produced the videos, which star Maria Theresa Stadtmueller as Aunt Des. Ms. Stadtmueller, a college communications writer and former stand-up comedian, drew inspiration for the character from her real-life Aunt Despina.

"She always had the nails and a lot of bling and the big bouffant hair," she says. "It was bulletproof, basically."

Ms. Stadtmueller embraces the role in videos and live appearances—Aunt Des made a surprise visit to the library during exam week last fall to hand out cookies—but she also thinks the campaign is an effective way to start a dialogue about the dish issue.

Middlebury's video campaign grew to include other technologies, such as posters with a smartphone QR code that links to Aunt Des's videos, and Aunt Des's very own Facebook page.

College officials first tried more practical solutions, like allowing students to deposit dishes into a receptacle away from the cafeteria. Middlebury had to abandon that approach after student volunteers were bombarded with overflowing bins of dirty dishes.

Cafeteria shrinkage is a problem on most campuses, but the high price of Middlebury's pickle might be a result of the college's unique dining policies: Students are allowed to take food and dishware out of the cafeteria as they please, a privilege that Mr. Biette considers one of the "beauties of the college." So far, dining services hasn't considered discontinuing the system.

The campaign will expand this spring with life-size Aunt Des cardboard cutouts and a smartphone app that plays sound bites of her most memorable quotations (among them, one-liners about "sloppagees" and "zoons," words the original Despina used, that Ms. Stadtmueller says loosely translate to "slobs" and "animals").

The campaign may have sparked a conversation, but so far it hasn't changed the campus culture, aside from introducing a new campus icon. "I'd like to say the campaign has had an impact," says Mr. Biette, "but the quantity of dishes in the dish room is depleting at the same pace."


1. middstudent - January 31, 2011 at 07:05 pm

As a Middlebury College student, I admit I am extremely embarrassed that my fellow students have been so rude and irresponsible with the enormous privileges that college dining services give us. It is hard to believe my bright, friendly, and caring peers have been so careless and lazy. I believe the majority of students wish to be a part of the solution and consider this problem to be a terrible reflection upon us as students and as people. I have had many discussions with fellow students who are disgusted with the way many of us refuse to take responsibility for ourselves. A great article by Dean of the College Shirley Collado in regard to this issue:


The open dining system is truly wonderful and a huge privilege, and I hope we, as a student body, can assume more collective responsibility for our actions so we can continue to enjoy this freedom the college offers us.

2. middstudent - January 31, 2011 at 07:09 pm

As a caveat to what I just said, my main concern is that the publicity of this issue characterizes Middlebury students as apathetic, over-privileged, and irresponsible, which I believe the majority of us are not. In fact, I find the majority of students to be the exact opposite, which is why this issue is so ridiculous. Props to College Communications for its creative efforts in resolving the issue!

3. englishwlu - February 04, 2011 at 06:38 am

Good grief, just get a stack of reusable takeout containers--the incentive to bring one back is that you get a token for the next one you want to carry out.

4. bdr8y - February 04, 2011 at 07:30 am

Dishes aside, let's not kid ourselves regarding apathy, privilege, and responsibility in our nation's "elite" institutions. These institutions, and I am at one, are simply the Willy Wonka's of privilege reproduction and the whole dish issue is simply a very small product of the privilege problem. Sure they have an ample supply of trust fund Teach for America and Peace Corp babies that they like to point to as examples of their populism, but after their students leave their one to three year stints among the paupers it's on to law school and Wall Street. But hey, they work hard, are very meritorious, exceptional, talented, blah, blah, blah, so they must deserve all the great things that happen.

5. 12039333 - February 04, 2011 at 08:28 am

Oh, for heaven's sake. Make them eat in the dining halls, like we did.

Catherine Rogers
Midd '73

6. grmoore - February 04, 2011 at 09:11 am

I'll certainly re-evaluate my annual alumni donation.

7. jffoster - February 04, 2011 at 09:26 am

Gamaliel Painter is probably rotating in his grave. Now we know why when he died and left it all by will to the College on the Hill, he included in a codicil a cane. Maybe it's time for less "Tap, tap, tap" and more "Rap, Rap, Rap"!

8. namenottaken - February 05, 2011 at 07:29 am

bdr8y - i think your comment is a bit harsh. as a faculty member at middlebury college, i can assure you that our students are not by any means apathetic or privileged. yes, the majority of our students come from families that are financially well-off. BUT they do not take much for granted. they are hard working, diligent, and poltically/socially/academically involved not only with the college but with the larger society - locally, nationally, and globally. the dish issue is about laziness, a characteristic common to virtually ALL of us regardless of our class or educational backgrounds and has nothing to do with middlebury students sense of privilege.

9. arthist030 - February 05, 2011 at 07:38 pm

As an alumnus of an expensive, prestigious private college, I always felt that my classmates' disgustingly cavalier attitude towards stealing cafeteria dishware was a disturbing symptom of a hypertrophied sense of entitlement.

Number two on the list: the treasure trove of perfectly useful goods abandoned every spring by rich kids moving out of their dorm rooms.

10. cnuttall - February 07, 2011 at 10:27 am

Admitting an extra freshman won't offset the dishes. I would assume there are some costs associated with educating a student and the school doesn't make 100% profit off each student.

11. crazyj - February 07, 2011 at 03:43 pm

In my own day (class of '89), everyone had a coffee mug or two, probably a few spoons, and likely a tray lying around the dorm room. We'd get some kind of note near the end of each semester reminding us to return dishware and most, if not all, of it came back unmolested. I can't recall anyone ever trashing this stuff. Kids today! Le sigh...

12. tdr75 - February 11, 2011 at 09:01 am

@#9 -- I furnished my first apartment with the throwaways from my old college apartments. Lasted me several years...

Entitlement is definitely an issue...even at less-well-off places than Middlebury.

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