How Middlebury’s 16th president shaped the institution.
Few things reveal a college president’s values and priorities more visibly than financial hardship. When a global economic recession began in 2008, colleges and universities across the country cut programs, laid off staff, and eliminated majors. Middlebury was not immune to this economic reality, as the endowment plunged more than $300 million, contributing to a projected operating deficit of $30 million.
But Ron Liebowitz did not resort to draconian measures. Instead, he began a process of aggressive communication with faculty and staff, equal parts explaining the College’s financial position and listening to suggestions in return. Soon he outlined three principles that would guide his actions: no layoffs, sustained benefits, and protecting the College’s academic program. Middlebury would not solve its problems by dropping courses, majors, or faculty and staff.
The challenges were a long way from his ambitions upon taking office four years earlier. He had to put the brakes on an institution-wide strategic plan, while also introducing a hiring freeze, halting building projects, and installing a moratorium on wage increases for all salaries above $50,000. But by 2012, in a report to faculty and staff, Liebowitz was able to detail the results of the College’s efforts: Middlebury was back on sound financial footing.
But there was more.
The number of faculty actually rose during and following the financial recovery—from 223 faculty positions to 249 today—while voluntary early retirements reduced staffing by nearly 150 positions.
By contrast, federal Department of Education data shows that at America’s colleges and universities, faculty growth has lagged far behind administrative and staff positions: between 1993 and 2009, non-faculty hires increased at 10 times the growth in teaching positions. In effect, Liebowitz balanced the books by accomplishing precisely the opposite of a national trend. He also revealed what he most believed in: preserving the College’s core academic mission and, just as importantly, still finding room to grow and innovate.
“The recession was an incredibly uncertain and painful time,” Liebowitz says. “It was a true test of our institutional values. And not only did we maintain those values, we reasserted them.”
The first thing a visitor sees when entering the president’s office in Old Chapel is a pair of globes. They, along with framed maps on the walls, reflect Liebowitz’s academic field of geography. But the cartography also represents the vast enterprise that Middlebury has become.
The institution’s growing complexity, and the imperative to demonstrate its merits in times of rising costs and competition, have occupied much of Liebowitz’s presidency. As he prepares to leave office, Middlebury is in sound financial and academic condition. The endowment has rebounded from its recession depths to surpass $1 billion, and the strategic plan’s core goals are again being met.
For decades, Middlebury has been multifaceted. When Liebowitz took office, the College consisted of the undergraduate school, nine Language Schools, 16 sites abroad, and the Bread Loaf programs—the School of English and the Writers’ Conference. Today Middlebury operates all these entities, plus the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, two additional Language Schools, multiple campuses for the Bread Loaf School of English and Writers’ Conference, an entrepreneurial summer program at Lake Tahoe, an intensive summer School of the Environment, a Center for Medieval Studies at Oxford University, and 20 additional sites within Middlebury’s Schools Abroad. Total count: 54.
The student body is more diverse too. Nearly 40 percent of the students in this past year’s incoming class are either students of color or of international origin—more than a four-fold increase since Liebowitz joined the faculty in 1984. Further, almost half the class entering in 2014 received financial aid, more than double the percentage in 1984.
Providing a high-quality liberal arts education remains paramount, but there are many challenges:
* New instructional modes. Now that online classes and low-residency programs are proliferating, do small classes and seminars reflect an outdated approach?
* Cost. U.S. median family income fell five percent between 2001 and 2011. Are the numbers willing to pay nearly $60,000 a year in tuition dwindling?
* Technical education. Students of engineering and other practical disciplines command high salaries upon graduating. Is a generalist education still professionally meaningful?
This spring, Sweet Briar College, a 114-year-old all-women’s college in rural Virginia, drove these issues home. Citing “insurmountable financial challenges,” the administration announced the spring semester would be the school’s last.
“The world our students graduate into,” Liebowitz says, “is vastly more competitive than what it was just 20 years ago. College graduates used to compete for jobs against smart young men and women from around the country. Now it is a competition with candidates from all over the world—that’s a field of six-plus billion rather than 250 million. So one’s education must deliver more.”
The answers to these pressures, which Liebowitz has detailed in speeches, blog posts, and a 6,000-word letter to faculty and staff in 2012, is not to wait for a liberal arts education to reveal its powers later in life, when the seeds of broad and deep learning, critical thinking, and persuasive expression bear fruit. It must show its value today as well, while students are still enrolled.
“In many ways, students are ahead of us,” explains Liebowitz. “They are looking down the road. And to provide student innovation, we need campus innovation.”
As a prime example of campus innovation, Liebowitz points to a recent program, funded by the Hearst Foundation and anonymous donors, in support of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) interdisciplinary learning. Three veteran faculty mentors—Noah Graham (physics), Frank Swenton (mathematics), and Jeremy Ward (biology)—have staffed the STEM program, but the students are responsible for conceiving the problem they will attempt to solve. The annual course begins in winter term, proceeds with group work during the spring, and then concludes after a summer of building and testing a product. Graham says he sees the STEM innovation approach as one that complements—rather than replaces—the “traditional disciplinary approach.” It’s work that gives students a broad perspective on how their skills apply to today’s technological challenges.
“With ‘regular’ classes we generally follow a linear sequence, with one subject leading directly into the next. This is a necessary efficiency to fit hundreds of years of knowledge into a four-year education,” Graham says. “But scientific and technological progress tends to unfold in a much more haphazard way—often the biggest challenge is knowing what equation or experimental technique to draw on.”
What the STEM program does, he says, is provide students with “meaningful exposure to that creative process, giving students an opportunity to apply the in-depth knowledge they’ve gained through their majors in an interdisciplinary way, while allowing them to return to courses in (and outside of) their majors with a new perspective on learning.”
And while STEM work has a lot of buzz throughout higher education, Liebowitz points out that classroom innovation isn’t confined to the STEM fields. He mentions a history class in which the instructor, Rebecca Bennette, working with the Blavatnik Archive—a private collection of documents, personal letters, diaries, photographs, postcards, periodicals, and oral testimonies pertaining to 19th- and 20th-century Jewish history—allowed students to complete an archival project in lieu of their final exam.
“When you do history, it’s bigger than you finding something out, writing your term paper, and getting a grade,” Bennette says. “In this project, you take on a fair amount of responsibility, especially with sources that are not published and are personal. You are truly recovering a piece of history.”
A few years ago, Liebowitz led the Olin College of Engineering 10-year reaccreditation review. The tuition-free school in Needham, Massachusetts—founded with the mission to revolutionize how engineering was taught—had a young, still-developing curriculum. The review process galvanized Liebowitz.
“I was having the time of my life on that review,” he says. “Olin had inverted how classes were taught at the introductory level. There were no introductory courses. They threw these kids into a design/build challenge right away, in their first year.”
Provost Susan Baldridge was also on the review team. “It was extraordinary, watching the light bulbs go on. In a classroom nothing like Middlebury, students were given problems to solve, teams in which to solve them, and the energy in the room was palpable.”
For Liebowitz, the experience confirmed his ideas about giving students opportunities to apply their learning. “Olin had me rethinking so many things about how students learn,” he says. He began to think about how to effectively apply what he saw at Olin to the liberal arts. What if you take the liberal arts as a foundation, he wondered, and go one step further.
The breakthrough was less than a semester away. “The watershed, for me, was the Solar Decathlon,” Liebowitz says. “This was where academics and design-based thinking could meet.”
Key data points illustrating the growth and evolution of Middlebury under the leadership of Ron Liebowitz.
(Click image to enlarge)
The decathlon is a U.S. Energy Department 10-event contest among colleges and universities to design and build affordable solar-powered homes, which are displayed and judged at a central site—the Mall in Washington, D.C., in 2011; Orange County, California, in 2013. Typically engineering and architectural schools from around the U.S., Europe, and Asia compete.
“We had long odds in that experiment,” Liebowitz says, “including writing a compelling and competitive proposal as a liberal arts college rather than a specialized and graduate institution. Yet it showed the Middlebury students what was possible. It inspired them to see that their ceiling was way, way up there.”
“Or,” he adds, “maybe there is no ceiling.”
“That project was two-and-half years of my life,” says Abe Bendheim ’10, who served as architecture co-lead on the solar-powered farmhouse. “This idea came at me from a unique perspective. The sustainability movement could be more than a luxury-goods pitch. Because of Ron’s pledge to use the resulting building for campus housing later, we knew the house had to be functional and make economic sense.
“While we had very much appreciated what we were learning in the classroom, we also felt like we were putting something valuable in the world,” Bendheim says. “A final paper or presentation is not as fulfilling.”
The house placed fourth out of 20 finalists, with Liebowitz on hand to celebrate the achievement. “There’s something pretty incredible about capping a four-year education by producing something visible,” says Bendheim. “And it is definitely a huge part of why I am in architecture school now.”
“It showed the resourcefulness of our students,” Liebowitz says. “It demonstrated
decisively the power of a liberal arts education. It was outrageous.”
The idea behind Liebowitz’s liberal-arts-plus model is not replacement of the traditional curriculum, but enrichment outside it. “It’s not either/or,” Liebowitz says. “We need all of the brilliance that goes on in the classroom, of course. But a 21st-century liberal arts education requires a melding of the foundational, theoretical, and applied where possible and where it makes sense.”
Among the programs to launch during Liebowitz’s presidency:
* The Center for Social Entrepreneurship (CSE). “I was teaching a winter term course, 21st Century Global Challenges,” says CSE Director and Economics Professor Jon Isham. “Instead of a traditional class, the students designed a white paper on what a center like this would do, and we brought it to Ron that February. He absorbed our ideas immediately, speaking at a hundred miles an hour, making larger strategic sense of what we had put in front of him.”
Now the center offers fellowships so students can develop ideas for fostering a more just world. It also conducts research and hosts annual events featuring leaders in the field. One student—an ROTC cadet, now an intelligence officer in the Army—started a company that works with veterans to turn surplus military material into handbags. Another expanded a nonprofit that works on gender equity for Muslim women.
* MiddCORE. Evolving from Digital Bridges, a winter term course started by Economics Professor Michael Claudon in 2000, this program “relies on experiential learning, taught by mentors, in leadership, strategic thinking, ethical decision making, crisis management, empathy, negotiation, and design thinking,” says Jessica Holmes, economics professor and current director of MiddCORE.
In a winter term course, a five-week summer program at Sierra Nevada College on Lake Tahoe, and in workshops throughout the school year, MiddCORE brings alumni, business leaders, nonprofit innovators, former governors, and more to guide students through exercises that cultivate real-world leadership skills.
“Students become incredibly engaged,” Holmes says. “They’ll be working at 11:00 on a Saturday night, not for credit but for their personal growth. And these skills are applicable to anything they might one day want to do. I get calls from other campuses—they want to know how we did this, and I tell them: Ron was willing to take risks.”
* Old Stone Mill. This historic facility, beside Otter Creek in Middlebury, offers studios for writers, artists and musicians, plus gallery and performance space. There are no assignments, no grades, only opportunities to pursue one’s passions and create.
These offerings operate under the administrative umbrella of the Programs on Creativity and Innovation (PCI), which is directed by Elizabeth Robinson ’84, associate dean for creativity, engagement, and careers. Among PCI’s other offerings: MiddStart, which gives students a micro-philanthropy platform to fund their ideas; TEDx Middlebury, a local, student-led TED conference; MiddChallenge, a competition for College-funded summer programs in business, social entrepreneurialism, and the arts; the New Millennium Fund, which enables student internships at Vermont nonprofit organizations; and more.
Students who have experiences outside the curriculum are different in the classroom, says Peter Hamlin, the Christian A. Johnson Professor of Music. “Students at Middlebury are so good at responding to challenges we set up for them. But in terms of creativity, it’s good to get out of that mode and explore. It’s liberating. And they don’t know they’re getting new knowledge and benefiting from it.”
Hamlin remembers teaching a course on songwriting and production, and the final recital was held at 51 Main at the Bridge, the College’s restaurant, bar, and performance space. “We had people from town as well as students. A real audience. It seems pretty natural to deploy these offerings.”
Not everyone agrees. Some faculty and students maintain the liberal arts are a last bastion of open intellectual inquiry, where learning is revered for its own sake. To them, MiddCORE and its ilk are unduly vocational, constraining students’ academic experiences at precisely the time when their minds ought to be the most unfettered.
“I have two kinds of critics,” Liebowitz says. Those who are exceedingly skeptical, he explains, people “who oppose change without giving new approaches serious consideration. And thoughtful people, who have good points to make. Stephen Donadio, for example.”
Fulton Professor of Humanities Stephen Donadio has an office in Hesselgrave House packed with books—on chairs, all over his desk, stacked atop other books. One shelf holds a 25-volume Encyclopedia Brittanica, circa 1889.
“Ninth edition,” Donadio notes with a smile. “The same one James Joyce used.”
His defense of the liberal arts is spirited. “Countless alumni have come back and made it clear that they took subjects they didn’t think would have any bearing on their lives, and it turned out to be extremely important.”
Donadio says the real friction arises from issues around whether internships should receive academic credit or when mentors may be business leaders, nonprofit managers, or politicians. “I’m all in favor of internships, but you have ceded authority to those outside the institution. The fact that something has value doesn’t mean it should take the place of a course at Middlebury College.”
By contrast, he says, the career of Juan Machado ’11 exemplifies the merits of the liberal arts.
“I was passionate about economics, but double-majored in literary studies because it allowed me to take courses in lots of departments,” says Machado. “I read great stuff, including Lu Xun, the first modern writer in Chinese literature. It was amazing, and connected to what China is going through today. His books were held up by protesters in 1989 in Tiananmen Square.”
Machado took a job with the Asia Society, a New York-based global organization where he’s now the senior media officer. “Having read a little bit helps in relating to my colleagues and gives me a deeper understanding of Chinese and Japanese culture.”
Donadio says Machado’s experiences confirm his argument: “The point of wide reading is that you prepare for jobs you would never have imagined, and you discover yourself at least somewhat qualified.”
Perhaps it would be instructive to hold a debate between Machado and Ryan Kim ’14.
“I did MiddCORE, and took advantage of a lot of those opportunities,” says Kim, a recent graduate. He worked on a TEDx event and hung a photography show in the Old Stone Mill, along with other things.
“Before my last semester I realized I had not fulfilled Middlebury’s writing requirement. I had done independent studies, published in Middlebury Magazine, written a column for the campus newspaper . . . but I had not enrolled in a class under that requirement.”
He protested, without success. “I didn’t see why I had to force myself to endure a class I believe I had earned an exception for. But the system proved itself inflexible.”
When there is division, change is difficult. And in higher education dissent is business as usual. Liebowitz can quickly name the nine constituencies whose interests must be considered in everything the College does: “Students, faculty, parents, staff, trustees, alumni, prospective students, the town, and government regulators. Any step I take is going to upset someone who wishes I’d gone in another direction.”
This was evident shortly after Liebowitz took office in 2004 when Middlebury was presented with the opportunity to acquire a graduate school in California: the Monterey Institute of International Studies. There were supporters, to be sure, but also strong resistance. Some said acquiring Monterey would dilute Middlebury’s mission, others that it presented a financial risk. When the faculty voted on the Monterey proposal, they rejected it by an overwhelming margin. But in what would become a defining moment of his presidency, Liebowitz pushed forward.
“Going ahead with that deal didn’t win him many friends, right?” says Rory Riggs, ’75, a fervent supporter of the College’s innovations under Liebowitz. “But Ron is a master of calculated risk.”
Eleven years later, not only is Monterey a key satellite to Middlebury, strategically positioned on the West Coast, but the two institutions complement one another. Exchanges between Middlebury and Monterey faculty afford each an opportunity to teach in new environments, while Middlebury undergraduates have access to courses and fieldwork at a professional graduate school that would not be possible at a liberal arts college.
It has been Liebowitz’s ability to balance competing interests, while soliciting ideas from all directions, that has won the support of people like Riggs. A New York-based biotechnology investor, Riggs not only supported the Monterey acquisition but also PCI and its programs, and was one of the first to donate to the new Fund for Innovation. “I hire 50 interns a summer, and I don’t hire economics majors. I want smart kids who can do multiple things. That’s the nature of the world now.”
Liebowitz, he says, has not let pushback from some corners keep Middlebury from meeting this demand. Says Riggs: He’s developed a culture of innovation in students—and in Middlebury itself.
Study of the Classics is, in some respects, the pinnacle of the liberal arts—a field as far removed as possible from a design-build pedagogy. But in the past decade, the public square has been rough on the subject. Mary Beard wrote a 2012 New York Review of Books essay titled “Do the Classics Have a Future?” And this sentiment is indicative of the hundreds of books, articles, reviews, and op-ed pieces that have similar themes: “Classics in Crisis” or “Who Killed Homer?”
So when President Liebowitz announced this spring that classics would be the first department at the College to be endowed in perpetuity, it was as if he were saying, I mean it when I say the liberal arts are the foundation of what we do.
The endowment supports a second endowed professorship (to go along with one established four years ago) as well as the department’s annual operating budget, while also providing funding for students to pursue and enhance their classics education. Funding may support intensive Latin and Greek language study in the summer, participation on archaeological digs on site in Greece, the hosting of classics scholars for lectures, symposia, and short-term residencies, as well as other activities the classics faculty deems valuable. (The endowment will also support professional development needs of the classics faculty.)
Says Liebowitz: “It makes the important statement that, while new opportunities and approaches for students are necessary, the foundation of the liberal arts is vital and needs to be supported and ensured.”
That move earned Donadio’s admiration. “It preserves the study of the classics under economic circumstances in which they might be first to go. That act went against the sense that this is all about occupational training.”
The globes in Liebowitz’s office—because of changing boundaries and political upheaval—are no longer accurate. And thus they offer a metaphor for higher education today: they manifest the need for colleges to evolve.
“One of my favorite examples is what Steve Trombulak did with environmental studies in the mid-1980s,” Liebowitz says.
Established in 1965, Middlebury’s environmental studies program is the nation’s oldest, but upon Trombulak’s arrival, its founders had passed on and the program was struggling; at one point it only had three students as majors.
“Steve single-handedly pulled it out of the doldrums,” Liebowitz says. “He underscored its value as an interdisciplinary program, involving people like John Elder from the English department, political scientist Chris Klyza, chemists, historians, economists, and others. And he accomplished this as an untenured faculty colleague. Twenty-five years later, environmental studies is thriving and is the second-largest major on campus.”
Liebowitz says the tools for 21st-century survival in higher education are innovation, collaboration across disciplines, and building programs that serve students’ yearning for purpose. The “content” remains anchored in the liberal arts, but the pedagogy and many assumptions about learning are evolving.
“Ron is actually an entrepreneur,” says Charles MacCormack ’63, longtime leader of Save the Children and now executive-in-residence at the College. “It’s unusual, especially in a college president.”
Liebowitz, in his final year as president, has still been pushing for big achievements—some that for decades have been just out of reach. Last year saw the long-awaited (or derided, depending on your point of view) deal with the town to swap land holdings. The College will help build new town offices on former College land while acquiring town property that will become a park—and a new, attractive entrance to campus.
This effort is the latest in a series of investments the College has made with the town. The largest was College support for the construction of the second bridge in town following 50 years of failed planning. But perhaps the richest partnership has been with the Town Hall Theater, a restored facility in Middlebury that hosts 165 events a year.
“John McCardell helped us strongly in the beginning,” says theater Executive Director Doug Anderson. “But we thought restoring this place would take two years and $1 million, and it took 10 years and $5 million.
“At one point we were at a critical crossroads, and I asked to see Ron. Turns out he had been developing his own ideas. I had a speech all prepared that I didn’t have to give. Now we have students through there by the hundreds.”
The Town Hall Theater also provides much-needed performance space for summer Language Schools, and Middlebury students put on a musical there every winter.
Listening to Liebowitz speak at length about this partnership, one momentarily forgets he won’t be around to see future performances or plays.
He also becomes very animated discussing the coming centennial of the Language Schools. The Russian School, after all, was his introduction to Middlebury, when he was a graduate student at Columbia. In fact, when he delivered his inaugural address in 2004, he mentioned the Language Schools’ founding and how an ambitious German instructor from Vassar, Lilian Stroebe, and Middlebury’s President John Thomas made an intellectual leap of faith to create the first Language School 100 years ago this summer—an early example of Middlebury ingenuity and creativity.
Yet when talk turns to his legacy, Liebowitz won’t have it.
“That’s a bad word,” he says. “The better question is why do you do this work? Nobody goes to grad school in geography and Soviet studies to become a provost and president. I’m doing this job because I’ve been part of this place, and I believe strongly in its mission. It was so for 20 years before I became president. I love this place and care about its future.”
He adds, “If that’s what guides you, I don’t think there’s time to talk about accomplishments or legacies. There’s always more work to be done.”
So, while his days in Old Chapel are waning, his calendar remains full. That work ethic commands respect.
“Although we disagree on some matters,” says Donadio, “it must be said: Ron has taken the crisis in higher education seriously. He has looked to the future here.”
“When I was younger, I was a pain to deal with,” Trombulak says. “Angry all the time; every issue was a battle. But Ron hung in there. He has been a great colleague through the years, and look where we are now.
“I am really going to miss him.”