Monthly Archives: October 2011

Five Questions for Dave Donahue

Our very first Five Questions candidate was President Ron Liebowitz. Here we are, almost a year later, and Special Assistant to the President Dave Donahue joins the club.

1. You started out at Middlebury as a student (Class of 1991!) and now you’re the Special Assistant to the President. In between, you’ve been Associate Dean for Library and Information Services and Associate Vice President of Operations in College Advancement and a dean in Student Affairs. What’s it like to have held so many different roles at the College?

It has been great. It’s allowed me to take on new challenges, to gain new skills, and to learn different parts of how a college operates first hand and up close. The variety has been very stimulating. At the same time, I’ve been able to maintain the continuity of being with one employer and to create a network of friends and colleagues that I continue to work with all the time. This last point is really important. Sometimes in a place as big as Middlebury, getting something done can be about knowing the right person to contact. And although it was entirely by accident, my career at Middlebury and the different jobs I’ve had (going all the way back to being a student) have been the perfect training for what I do now. I also really enjoy seeing people on campus whom I knew as a student and relating to them now as a peer and a friend.

2. What’s the best adventure you have ever been on?

It’s hard to pick just one, so I will tell you about a few. I spent a summer studying Spanish in Mexico at the Universidad de las Americas in Puebla, Mexico. Every weekend we traveled, and at the end of the program I took a week and hiked in the jungle. Over the course of the program we visited Palenque, Guadalajara, Guanajuato, Monte Alban, the ruins at Tikal, Bonampak, Yaxchilan, and the Rio Usumacinta. It was awesome and permanently changed my world view. I grew up in Lowell, MA, so the idea of “studying” during the summer or going abroad were both pretty foreign concepts to most my friends and high school classmates. It was impossible to be there and not get caught up in the ruins, the culture, and the history. The other adventure was a 35-day car camping trip with my wife, who at the time was my girlfriend. We traveled all around the West and by the end of those 35 days, we pretty much knew we could make any situation work and that we were ready to spend our lives together. We also saw parts of the country that I had never seen from Idaho, to Arizona, to Montana, to Seattle, WA. Finally, every time our family (three kids and wife) travels, it’s a major adventure, especially when we get on an airplane!

3. When you were a student, you played on the football and lacrosse teams. We hear you like to cycle and you were spotted out on the links this summer. What’s one physical activity you’ve always wanted to try, but haven’t gotten around to yet (or maybe never will)?

I’d love to try surfing. The attraction is two-fold. First is purely for the sensation of riding a wave. I’ve done some windsurfing, which I’m terrible at, but the sensation of being powered naturally is pretty special. I imagine the sensation of riding a wave would be even better. The second attraction is warm weather, not that all surfing takes place in warm weather climes, but the picture in my mind is definitely a warm weather one. A close second would be log rolling. I like the idea of head-to-head competition, balance, footwork, and water. Maybe I have a water obsession.

4. Has a liberal arts education served you well? If so, how? If not, please explain. Please cite at least one example.

My job is all about projects and communication. Some projects are in areas that I know a good deal about and are very much in my comfort zone. Others are completely new. The first step is to learn about the industry/area. I believe part of a liberal arts education is learning how to learn, learning how to identify critical information, and how to discern what is important from what is not. Project work is all about figuring out what needs to be done. The other important aspect of my work is communicating, whether it is in written or spoken form. If you can’t communicate effectively with people, you can’t get much done. I’d say a liberal arts education has served me extremely well on both fronts.

5.  Andy Warhol once said that everyone is famous for 15 minutes. What happened during your 15?

Wow, that’s a really hard question. I’m tempted to believe that maybe my 15 minutes is ahead of me, but that may be wishful thinking! If I had to pick 15 minutes, I’d go with a bunch of 5 minute blocks. I acted as a reader for the book Think Big Act Small by Jason Jennings; I’ve done a few interviews over the years for the paper and many years ago on WCAX; I won a write-in campaign for the school board in Cornwall, VT in a hotly contested election; and I’m childhood friends with Mickey Ward, the main character in the movie “The Fighter.” Added together, I’m thinking that is close to 15 minutes, but I’m pretty sure I’m stretching the definition of “famous!” Truth be told I’m actually pretty comfortable out of the spot light, but I appreciate the opportunity to be part of Five Questions!

Old Chapel Remediation

Even with the fine (and distracting) weather this past week, it’s hard not to notice the work now taking place around Old Chapel.  Some may be wondering what this project is all about.

The short explanation is that we are staving off mold growth in Old Chapel, and that we’re repairing the walls so that moisture can’t enter the building.  Moisture creates the conditions for mold growth.

The back story is that since Old Chapel was renovated 15 or 16 years ago, the mortar holding together the stonework has deteriorated as condensation—perhaps caused by air conditioning—has worked its way into the walls, eroding the mortar. The eroded mortar has in turn made it easier for moisture to come through the walls, especially on the first floor where the offices are below grade.  Also, as the photo below suggests, the original 19th-century foundation was constructed to hold up the building, not keep it airtight.  So it’s not surprising that moisture has seeped through the walls.

But conditions will be much improved after the mortar has been repaired.  The contractors engaged on this project, Liszt Historical Restoration, did a great job renovating Starr Library for the Axinn Center and they specialize in detective work like this.

You can expect to see this work continue through the fall.

Five Questions for Susan Campbell Baldridge

Vice President for Planning & Assessment and Professor of Psychology Susan Campbell Baldridge is in the Five Questions Hot Seat this week.

1. You’re a professor of psychology and Vice President for Planning & Assessment. It’s four weeks into the semester, and summer is quickly becoming a distant memory. We have to ask: What’s your present state of mind?

Well, I had a pretty fabulous summer – I got married and my husband and I honeymooned in Scotland – so just about any semester would be a come down from that. To make matters worse, you’re asking that question a few days before the reaccreditation review team visits our school abroad in Spain, and a few weeks before the full visit of the review team to campus here in Vermont. So I might be tempted to say, “Don’t ask.” But in reality, despite the stress I’m feeling leading up to all that, I’m also feeling pretty pleased that we’ve come this far and accomplished what we set out to do with respect to reaccreditation: We wanted to produce a self study that was inclusive of as many people as possible – including folks from all the College’s programs – and that reflected who are as an institution, celebrating our strengths and acknowledging our challenges. I think we did that. So I guess my state of mind is a mixed bag of pre-visit anxiety, pride in what we’ve accomplished, and wistful nostalgia for the summer.

2. As VP you have led the College’s reaccreditation process. Please tell us about your love affair with data.

It wasn’t love at first sight. I’ve always been competent with numbers, but they never had much appeal until I learned how to use statistics to help answer psychological questions in college and graduate school. Numbers became meaningful and useful in a way I hadn’t seen before. Teaching statistics is a way to help students see that value as well. But the real crux of that passion is less about numbers than it is about pulling order out of what seems like chaos. A statistical test can help do that by taking a spreadsheet full of numbers and telling us something about how the world works or how people think. But I get the same thrill from extracting meaning from any seemingly disparate sources of information, which might just as easily be qualitative as quantitative. I guess I just like to solve a good puzzle. (The New York Times crossword is another outlet for that!)

3. But you’re not just a numbers gal. Word on the street is you love to quilt, too. Why?

Well, there’s some overlap between my fondness for solving puzzles and quilting; cutting fabric into shapes and then recombining them to produce a pattern that’s pretty or fun to look at involves lots of working with numbers. But the real appeal for me is much more visual and tactile. I like vibrant colors and I like to play with the texture and the feel of fabric. I keep fabric organized by color and stacked where I can see it in my sewing room, with spools of brightly colored thread arranged next to it. The room is painted a vibrant pear green. All that color and texture feels like a nice escape when I’ve spent too much time with my nose in a data file.

4. What is the most beautiful place you have ever visited?

That one’s easy. On our aforementioned honeymoon, my husband and I went to visit the grave of Rob Roy MacGregor in Balquhidder, Scotland. (You may have seen the movie about Rob Roy, starring Liam Neeson, or read the novel about him by Sir Walter Scott.) My grandmother traced the genealogy of our family line back to Rob Roy’s brother, so there is a family interest in stories about Rob Roy. I’m particularly invested because my middle name is McGregor (the family dropped the “a” somewhere along the line), and I’ve always enjoyed the fact that, after spending the better part of his adult life fighting more powerful clans and royal foes who had outlawed the use of the name MacGregor, Rob Roy’s grave is defiantly engraved, “MacGregor Despite Them.” The tiny village of Balquhidder is set in the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen. It sits at the tip of Loch Voil, a long, calm lake in a steep mountain glen. Sheep and Highland cattle meander the lush valley and up the mountainsides, which are misty and atmospheric in the mornings and (at least sometimes) bright and sunny in the afternoons. That description doesn’t do it justice, but suffice it to say that I was awed by the beauty and peacefulness of the place.

Untitled by sergey vyaltsev


Rob Roy's Grace 1 by amypalko

5. You grew up in Indiana, and received your PhD from UCLA. What are your thoughts on Midwest vs. East Coast vs. West Coast?

If you’re asking where my loyalty lies, it’s in the Hoosier heartland. The people there – including my family, most of whom still live in Indianapolis – are warm and down to earth and have a sense of humility that I think the world could use more of. And ultimately, it’s still home to me. (Hearing Jim Nabors sing “Back Home Again in Indiana” at the start of the Indy 500 each year still gets me misty-eyed. As does rooting for Butler each year in the NCAA basketball tournament.) Living in Los Angeles while I attended graduate school was a great adventure, and I’m glad I had the chance to experience the hum and glamour of life in a big city. But ultimately, the smog, the crime, and the earthquakes were too much for me. So being able to live and work and raise my kids in a beautiful and close-knit community in Vermont seemed like a huge gift. Still does.

Atwater Finished, for now

From The Middlebury Landscape, Tim Parsons reports on the Atwater landscape progress. -Tim

We’re declaring a truce on Turf Battle, taking a break until next summer. Left for next year will be the planting around the northern retention pond, and the sidewalk removal and re-configuration south of Allen Hall, and completing the wall next to the patio.

This was my fifth growing season at Middlebury, and Turf Battle was the largest landscape project I’ve been involved with here. Feedback on all of the projects I’ve worked on is familiar and welcome, (first thing I learned here? Everybody has an opinion, many of them opposing each other), but I’ve never gotten so much positive feedback from a job than this one. Students smiling at me, thanking the crew, saying how much better the area looks. So I feel the need to let you know of the immense amount of people that helped this project come together. I’m the one with the loud mouth, but many more people behind the scenes at Middlebury deserve much more credit than I. Let’s start with Tim Spears, the driving force behind the Turf Battle contest, and Sarah Franco, his partner in crime. Also Dave Berthiaume, the crew chief in the landscape department for that area of campus, who listened to me talk through a lot of the nitty gritty design work on the plantings, and told me when I was losing my mind. Most important, though, is Luther Tenny, an Assistant Director of Facilities, and our resident civil engineer. The landscapers get all the glory work-we come into a job site that essentially looks like well-placed piles of dirt, and when we’re done, the area is gorgeous. The devil is in the engineering, though. Drain placement, sidewalk and ADA ramp layout, handrail construction, job scheduling, budgeting, timing, and talking me out of crazy ideas, yeah, that’s the idea. Atwater would be a big hot mess were it not for Luther. I’ll attempt a photo tour, and explain some of the changes we made during construction to the actual plan. As always, click on the picture for a larger view. Let’s start at the Atwater Dining plaza. This is an overall view, from the Atwater Dining hall roof. (In all these pictures, you’ll have to imagine the dirt patches as grass. It’s up now, but not when I took the pictures) The new handrails show on either side of the stairway, with the brown mulched beds on either side. Originally, the landscape architect’s plan called for the entire area from Allen Hall to the stairs and the island formed by the ADA ramp to the right of the stairs to all be one giant planted bed, with shrubs and some flowers. In talking it over with Dave and his landscape crew, we decided this would be far too much to take care of, too much weeding and maintenance until the beds get established. This is in line with much of our landscaping we perform at Middlebury now. With less crew and more areas to maintain, the old style landscaping of large planted beds are no more. Instead, we prefer to have small focused beds in high traffic areas, and take very good care of those. In this spot, though, we were having troubles designing how these smaller beds should look. No matter how we laid the shapes out, it all seemed a jumbled mess.  After fussing for a while, we stumbled across the brilliance of the Wagner plan. His layout of the beds to either sides of the stairs were in straight lines off of the stairs. The problem we were having was the multitude of lines in the tight area; the curving roof line, the arch of the ADA ramp, the columns on dining hall. How did we mesh all of that together in the landscape? Simply put, we didn’t. Straight lines off the stairs relate the importance of that feature in the landscape, making the passage the dominant feature. The confusion of the curve of the ramp fades in significance. Alternating these beds on either side of the stairs with grass gives the walk down a sense of rhythm, and simplifies the landscape. These beds are followed through across the area formed by the ADA ramp, blocking a shortcut we didn’t want to turn into a grass path. We also carried one more bed to the dining hall side of the ramp, matching both the parallel sides and the size. This should help in making the plaza area feel more enclosed in a garden space. River birch trees (Betula nigra) were planted throughout the dining plaza area, much like the grove at Ross Dining. We modified the locations of many of them, in part to enhance the garden feel, but also to provide screening from the area above. We’re hoping for an intimate feel down on the plaza, and limiting the views of the upper areas, and of Battell  Beach. Admittably, the least popular bit of landscaping we did is right next to Allen Hall, blocking the dirt path that leads down to the Johnson Parking lot. While we would have liked to have put a sidewalk here, the topography made it impossible, and for a variety of reasons, including erosion, dorm window privacy, and accessibility, the area was planted in native White pine and Red Twig Dogwood, and will blend with the native retention pond below. Moving up the stairs, I once again had the pleasure of working with Brad Lambert, our stone mason at Middlebury. A flaw in the sidewalk layout with no graceful way of fixing means people cut the corner across the grass as they turn to descend the stairs. Pouring a triangle of concrete would have wrecked the graceful lines, and while some were advocating for a well-placed BFR, Brad and I instead did a simple little Panton stone wall, to limit the area of dead grass. The stone used is a match to the ledge behind, and is recycled from a stone wall that surrounded the Proctor deck before its renovation several years ago. I became fixated on approaches and entrances. Notice above how the two flower beds to either side of the first stairs are placed. The further one comes all the way out, while the closer one with the birch is placed further away from the main walk, subtly leading you into the stairs, implying the inevitable turn. Above is the new sidewalk across the west side of Allen Hall. It’s one of those “aha” moments you have, when  you can’t believe this sidewalk wasn’t always there. The large bed on the left has a disease resistant ‘Accolade’ elm in the center, and the contrasting focal point in front is a Dwarf Hinooki Cypress, as I’m a fool for dwarf conifers. This is a fairly large bed by our standards, but the space deserves it. Here’s the view from the front of Allen, with that new sidewalk leading off to the right.The gardens in front of the ledge are to the left. We’re picking up on the same effect here as at the top of the Atwater Dining, with more gardens on the left subtly steering toward the dining hall. Looking toward Atwater dining, across the Panton stone ledge, so you can see the gardens around the ledge. And remember Brad Lambert? I forget the student that came up with the suggestion to have pathways through the garden to the ledge, but I roped Brad into making a couple. They look good on the photographs, but really should be seen in person. Once again, they are composed of recycled wall stone from Proctor. Here’s a view toward Atwater Dining from the top of the ledge. The plants in the garden are mainly summer and fall flowers and grasses, including Black Eyed Susan, White and Pink Coneflower, Japanese Anemone, and several varities of grasses. The effect we’re looking for is to echo the roof planting, composed of wildflowers and grasses, with the gardens surrounding the ledge, joining two major landscape elements.
  The gardens wrap around the stamped concrete patio next to Hall B. Like the Dining Hall plaza, we’re hoping for the feeling of being enclosed by the garden. One of the most asked questions I’ve been getting on the project is the reason for the large berm behind Chateau. The long answer is that the hill breaks up the relativly flat topography in the area, and offers a new perspective for views in the landscape. Short answer? Needed some soil to grow a grove of trees. The plans called for a grove of single stem River birch, but we changed it to Honeylocust. The pH of the soil was too high for Birch, and we were also concerned about overplanting one species in the landscape. Honeylocust is one of my favorite shades-a dappled light dark enough to be cooling in the glare of summer, but bright enough so it doesn’t feel cave-like. The Honeylocust were planted in lines specifically to preserve views of Chipman Hill. The stairs on the plan turned out to be recycled granite that facilities had in storage. Top of the berm looking north, down toward the parking lot. Anyone with a history in Atwater are probably wondering what that foriegn green is between the halls-it’s grass. The trees shown below are Sycamore, a great fast growing shade tree. The wall, without the stone face, is visible to the right. Standing on the sidewalk in the middle looking toward Battell Beach. Up at the top are more elms, also to the west of Chateau, to provide some screening between the Atwater area and the quidditch pitch. One final picture, more grass, and a view down towards the lower retention pond. We’re going to get to the planting around the pond next year.

Five Questions for Erik Bleich

This week we talk with Erik Bleich, Professor of Political Science. For the record, we do not have any moles…just squirrels.

1. You recently published The Freedom to Be Racist? How the United States and Europe Struggle to Preserve Freedom and Combat Racism (Oxford University Press, 2011). Your book “starts from the premise that liberal democratic citizens love freedom and hate racism, but have a difficult time deciding what to do when those values collide.” In fewer than 224 pages, can you summarize how societies can preserve freedom while combating racism?

One main point of the book is that we have to view both protecting freedom and fighting racism as truly important values—neither trumps the other in all circumstances. Almost all of us reject the “free speech absolutist” position that anyone should be allowed to say anything racist at any time, and nobody wants to live in a country that forbids all racist statements. In fact, there are some instances where we view fighting racism as crucial (we don’t allow aggressive racist speech among members of the Middlebury College community), and others where we have decided that protecting freedom is more important than curbing harmful racism (such as when the Supreme Court permitted neo-Nazis to march in Skokie, Illinois, in a famous 1978 case). It helps to start by recognizing that we are engaged in a delicate balancing act between two vitally important values, and that working out the best way to balance them takes some thought and effort.

2. Where do you think the line between free speech and racist speech lies?

This is the $64,000 question. I think we have to look closely at the harm that racist speech can cause. Unlike some, I am not a fan of banning racist speech because it is offensive. Feeling offended is real, but it is subjective. If you’re going to call the police and ask the courts to punish someone, the harm has to be greater than that. It might involve a measurable trauma for the individual victim, such as a physiological response to harassment or threat. This type of harm is, in fact, punished in all liberal democracies. It might also involve a likelihood that the public statement drives a wedge between groups and stirs up hatred against one particular group. Most countries outside of the United States also have workable laws against these kinds of harms. We do not. Why are Americans so attached to protecting harmful racist speech?

3. Racism can be a difficult and uncomfortable issue to discuss in class. How do you create an environment in which students are willing to talk about it?

This can be a real challenge, but I think it is incredibly helpful to make sure the students get to know each other as quickly as possible. The better you know the person you disagree with (at least in a classroom), the easier it is to see him as “Tom” as opposed to “that racist guy.” In most cases, Tom is not actually a racist, but has had some experiences that have to be understood for everyone else to grasp his perspective—and his perspective is usually really valuable. Students will definitely have disagreements when discussing race and racism, but if they know each other, they can disagree with each others’ ideas without becoming personal or acrimonious.

4. If you could live under any political system (besides democracy), what would you choose?

Ha! Now I know you have a mole, since this is a question I ask my students in Introduction to Comparative Politics! Of course, I also ask them to develop an ad campaign to convince their fellow students to come over to their non-democratic regime. I’m glad you’re not holding me to the same standard. My own preference would be for a benevolent dictatorship run by a wise philosopher-king. Spearsistan?

5. If you had one free hour every day to do whatever you want, what would you do?

Last year, a couple of young people wandering the streets of Middlebury pulled me aside as I was running somewhere in town. They put a microphone in my face and pointed a camera in my direction and said: What do you love more than anything else in the world? I panicked and had one of those life-flashes-before-your-eyes moments where all the good things I’ve ever experienced practically overwhelmed me. Then it hit me. Playing with my kids. And I’m really lucky, because I get to do that for at least an hour every single day.