Posts by Ronald Liebowitz

 
 
 

On Middlebury’s Endowment

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

Dear Students, Faculty, and Staff,

This fall, several student groups on campus have raised questions surrounding the College’s endowment, specifically with regard to holdings related to fossil fuels. One group, the Advisory Committee on Socially Responsible Investing (ACSRI), has been meeting regularly with Patrick Norton, the College’s Vice President for Finance and Treasurer, and one of its members attends Investment Committee meetings of the Board of Trustees. Other groups, some part of a national movement on college campuses, have also engaged the College administration and community, hoping to learn more about the College’s endowment, how it is invested, and whether we should divest of our investments in fossil fuel companies.

As an academic institution, the College administration and the Board of Trustees are interested in engaging our students’ interest in the endowment. Such engagement, however, must be serious and be based in responsible inquiry and research. It must also be respectful and inclusive of all opinions. A look at divestment must include the consequences, both pro and con, of such a direction, including how likely it will be to achieve the hoped-for results and what the implications might be for the College, for faculty, staff, and individual students.

With input from several groups on campus, including ACSRI, we will set up and host panel discussions with experts in endowment management and divestment. It will include, for example, representatives from the firm that manages our endowment (Investure), veteran investment managers, and our own Scholar-in-Residence, Bill McKibben.

The management of Middlebury’s endowment is complex and has evolved over time. We are part of a consortium with other colleges and foundations whose pooled resources are invested in a number of “fund-of-funds” and therefore the College is very limited in either selecting or deleting any particular investment within its overall portfolio. Despite such limitations, the Investment Committee, the Administration, and Investure have been working with ACSRI to ensure that socially responsible investing is discussed and reviewed as a regular and ongoing part of the investment process. We have instructed Investure and the managers they engage to follow the environmental, social, and corporate governance (ESG) principles that align investors with broader objectives of one’s mission and society at-large (see: http://www.middlebury.edu/media/view/437641/original/proxy_voting_priciples.pdf )

At the same time, the primary fiduciary responsibility of our investment committee is to maximize its investment returns to support vital programs including financial aid and staff and faculty compensation, while managing risk. Currently, the endowment finances approximately 20 percent of the College’s annual operating cost—approximately $50 million this past year. It is vitally important to understand both the risks and rewards of one’s investment decisions as we are the stewards not only of the endowment for the current generation of Middlebury students, faculty, and staff, but for future generations as well.

At present, approximately 3.6 percent of the College’s $900 million endowment is directly invested in companies related to fossil fuels. For those interested in the amount directly invested in defense and arms manufacturing, the share of our endowment in those companies is less than 1 percent—approximately 0.6 percent. I have included an explanatory note at the end of this communication to provide information on the methodology used to determine these percentages. I encourage you to contact Patrick Norton (pnorton@middlebury.edu) if you have any questions about this methodology or about the College’s endowment.

I, along with my administrative colleagues and fellow board members, look forward to engaging the community on an issue of great interest and import to the College and its many constituents. I will be sending more information on the first panel discussion when plans are finalized.

Sincerely,

Ron

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Notes on the reporting of Investure and Non-Investure Managed Funds

Investure Managed Funds:

Data on investments in fossil fuel and arms for Investure-managed funds (the “Investure Funds’) were provided by Investure, LLC (“Investure”) to Middlebury College upon request and only covers the underlying long holdings of the Investure Funds in those circumstances when information was available as described below. This information is presented on a lagged-basis, and does not include any underlying holdings in a client’s legacy fund portfolio. Moreover, this information is not based on a comprehensive review but rather is based solely on available information on the underlying long positions of the Investure Funds of which Investure has actual knowledge from third-party managers and/or reporting on the exposure of those underlying positions.

As a result, underlying positions may be missing from this analysis that, if included, could be material to an understanding of the College’s portfolio’s underlying positions in fossil fuels and arms. In those cases where Investure had actual knowledge of underlying holdings from managers and/or reporting on an Investure Fund’s exposure, Investure utilized a combination of third-party classifications, at its discretion, including but not limited to certain Standard Industrial Codes and the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, to help identify investments in fossil fuel and arms companies. This information is solely for informational purposes, is not complete, and does not contain material information about the Investure Funds and a client’s portfolio. This information should not be relied upon in any way in making an investment decision. Investure reserves the right to make changes in a client’s portfolio at any time and Investure is under no obligation to update the estimated information included herein. With the aforementioned in mind, of the Investure Funds approximately 3.75% is invested in fossil fuels and 0.8% is invested in arms.

Non-Investure Funds (“Legacy Funds”):

For its Legacy Funds the College used the exact methodology to determine percentages invested in fossil fuels and arms as is described above for the Investure Managed Funds. With the aforementioned in mind, of the Legacy Funds approximately 3.2% is invested in fossil fuels and 0.1% is invested in arms.

A Summer Report to the Middlebury Faculty

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

This post is a bit unorthodox in its content and length—it is very long, yet I invite comment, as always. It is a report I sent recently to our faculty to set the context for some of the discussions we intend to have this year about our curriculum, pedagogy, governance, cost, and defining a liberal arts education for these dynamic times. As you will see, I have more questions than answers about how we should address the changes that are reshaping American higher education. But I firmly believe that we must engage them and I welcome your thoughts.

— Ron

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Dear Faculty Colleagues,

I hope you all have had good summers, finding the right combination of relaxation and productivity as we approach the coming academic year.

At about this time each year, I provide the Trustees with a summer report on significant campus issues. Often my report concerns the summer programs, but I also comment on matters that are likely to require their time, attention, and study during the coming year. Given the challenging times for higher education, the work we need to do on campus as follow-up to our NEASC ten-year reaccreditation review, and issues of general concern within the faculty, I thought it would be a good idea to share some thoughts with you as we look forward to a busy year come September.

Even if one tried, it would be difficult to ignore the increased scrutiny to which higher education has been subjected during the past five years. Such scrutiny is not aimed only at public institutions, where shrinking tax revenues have forced dramatic cuts in support for colleges and universities and generated tension over how best to deal with declining support and increasing costs of operations. Private education, including liberal arts colleges, is under similar scrutiny, largely over the cost of attendance and the perceived declining value of a four-year liberal arts degree. Critics are quick to point out that the annual average increase in the cost of private undergraduate education now outpaces the growth in health care costs, leading them to ask whether it is worth it to pay more than $200,000 for a degree that provides few guarantees of a job out of college.

These questions come from beyond a particular segment of society, and the federal government has entered the fray. Before the recession, Congress was pressing to force colleges and universities to spend more of their endowments in lieu of larger tuition increases. The push now, following the recession, is to tie federal funding and tax-exempt status to smaller tuition increases, or withhold federal support for institutions that exceed a particular tuition increase. Our own Congressman Peter Welch has been vocal on this issue, calling for tuition increases to track close to inflation.

It would be easy to believe, with nearly 9,000 applications to the College this past year, the demand for a Middlebury education is strong, highly inelastic, and insulates the College from all the negative banter. It would be foolish, however, to ignore these criticisms and the wide range of student choices within higher education; both suggest a far greater elasticity of demand than our application numbers would suggest.

One concern I’ve heard numerous times over the years is the perception that our administration adopts an excessively business or bottom line orientation to making decisions for the College, and to a large extent I understand this concern. At the same time, it is undeniable that calls for improved compensation, lower teaching loads, a more diversified faculty and student body, improved facilities, and additional support for the academic program—all essential priorities for many, if not all, of us—require us to employ a smarter business model in the future if we are going to continue progress on any of them. In some idealized world, we would have 4% (or higher) salary increases every year; richer financial aid packages to attract the brightest students; a larger faculty to ensure the excellent teaching and high level of attention we give to our students; feel no pressure to recruit students or fundraise to ensure financing this idealized existence; or be accountable to the many constituencies that will play significant, if differing, roles in the College’s future success and long-term sustainability (those being faculty, staff, students, alumni, trustees, parents, the federal government, townspeople, and prospective students).

I am not suggesting we stray from our core mission—educating students in the liberal arts tradition. However, the external environment in which we now operate is so dramatically changed, even from a decade ago, that we must adapt to those changes in some fundamental ways if we wish to sustain the quality of the education we offer our students, retain an excellent faculty, and continue to attract a diverse and talented student body. That environment has not only changed, but the speed at which it is changing requires us to ask some fundamental questions that we and our peers have, until very recently, chosen to avoid. In my view, and in the view of many, we no longer have that luxury.

Within this context, I would like to (1) provide an update on the College’s financial health; (2) address aspects of the reaccreditation report that will be a large focus of our work together if we are to improve on the areas of weakness identified by the visiting reaccreditation team; and (3) share some views on what I see as the two greatest challenges we, and private higher education, face in the coming years.

On College Finances

A little more than a year ago, a number of colleagues pointedly asked that I cease providing all-campus financial updates shortly after the world-wide recession had been declared over. A greater number now, however, seeing how the U.S. and global economies have not rebounded as expected, have asked for an update with some specific questions: (1) what the impact of the past four years of economic churn has been on the College’s financial foundation; (2) whether our goals to reach financial equilibrium were achieved and, if so, has there been slippage; and (3) what can we expect in terms of compensation, program enrichment, and new faculty positions in the coming years. (For those colleagues who are new to the College, or others who simply want a reminder of the steps taken and cuts made by the College as a result of the recession, see: http://www.middlebury.edu/about/president/finances.)

If I had to summarize in one sound bite where we are today in terms of finances since the economy went into recession (late 2008), I would say, “As good as we could have hoped.” We appear to have eliminated what would have been a $30 million deficit in fiscal years 2014 and 2015, we have recorded balanced budgets the past three years with modest surpluses (which have been added to our reserves or put into the endowment), and we project balanced budgets for the next three years, barring any significant financial event.

Through recommendations coming from the campus-wide Budget Oversight Committee (BOC), which based much of its work on surveys distributed to students, faculty, and staff, we eliminated our projected budget deficit by a combination of lowering expenditures and increasing revenue. During the year-long process, we were guided by two principles: (1) avoid layoffs of staff; and (2) protect the academic program. We managed to do both.

Our primary savings came from reducing staff from a pre-recession high of 1,036 FTEs (full-time equivalents), where an FTE equals a staff person working full time for the entire year, to around 890 FTE today. In eliminating nearly 150 staff FTE through voluntary means alone—voluntary separation and early retirement programs—we adhered to our first principle. This significant reduction in FTEs has had a great impact on our remaining staff, as a good proportion of the work that had been done by the positions that were eliminated was added to the remaining staff’s responsibilities. In some cases—though fewer than was first expected—services performed by those positions are no longer offered.

Our staff has shown enormous resilience, commitment, and loyalty as we have worked to find the best way to prioritize what the remaining staff needs to do, recognizing it cannot cover all that was done before. We have made some progress this past year, but we have a significant way to go in balancing our expectations for what work needs to be done, on the one hand, with the amount of work that can be done given budgetary constraints, on the other. Either expectations or staffing levels or both need to change, and we are committed to working with staff, especially managers and supervisors, to find that balance. Our management training program this past spring, taken by nearly 200 employees, represents a major step in addressing these issues by creating a common language around managing the institution and giving managers and supervisors new skills to allow them to set goals, prioritize their work, and communicate better with their supervisors.

Beyond the staff reductions, we froze salaries for one year for faculty and staff making more than $50,000/year; added students; reduced the number of dining halls serving the student meal plan; delayed renovations of facilities; reduced the amount of funds we set aside each year for renovations of our physical plant; and froze or reduced many operational budgets across the campus.

By making these and other changes, we were able to adhere to our second principle as well: protecting the academic program. Not only did we continue our national searches for faculty positions, including a number of tenure-track hires, but we were able to add faculty positions during the economic downturn. Our faculty FTE count, which includes the number of faculty in the classroom and excludes those on leave, increased from 224.5 in 2009 to 238 this coming year (2012-13). In fact, since 2005, when the College’s strategic planning committee introduced a number of curricular proposals including mandatory senior work, our faculty FTE count has increased from 210 to 238, an increase of 28 faculty FTEs. While many institutions froze or reduced the size of their faculties with the onset of the recession, we recruited and hired a remarkable group of faculty, whose teaching and scholarship have strengthened our academic program. Since 2005, then, our faculty FTE count increased more than 13% while our staff FTE count remained flat: staff FTE in 2005 was 886 and is 890 today. Enrollment increased by 52 students (2%) during the same time period.

Looking more specifically at this past year (fiscal year 2012), we managed our finances well despite the relatively poor performance of the stock market and its impact on our endowment. We rely on the endowment for just shy of 20% of our operating budget, and our financial model assumes a 5% growth rate for the endowment each year. This past year (the fiscal year ends June 30) our endowment returned +2.7%, which, despite falling below our target of 5%, will probably rank in the top quartile of college and university endowment returns. The below-expected return this year will not have as great an impact on our operating budget as one might imagine, because we use a three-year moving average to determine allocations from the endowment, and our two previous years were both well above the 5% growth assumption we use in our financial model (the endowment returned 17% and 18% in FY 2010 and FY2011).

Central to the current fiscal health of the College is that all of our academic entities registered operating surpluses this past year—the undergraduate program, the Language Schools, the Bread Loaf programs, the Schools Abroad, and the Monterey Institute of International Studies (MIIS). This is important for understanding how the College is able to balance the budget (or create a surplus), provide competitive raises and compensation, invest in our physical plant as we do (we set aside upwards of $10M to ensure that our campus avoids deferred maintenance), expand the faculty, and support some new initiatives despite having, quite literally, half the institutional wealth of many of our peer institutions. Amherst, Williams, Wellesley, and Pomona all have endowments that are at least $400 million larger than Middlebury’s, and some are more than $700 million larger. To put this in perspective, while Middlebury drew $49 million from its endowment to support its operations in fiscal year 2011 while spending above the 5% normal ceiling for college and university endowments, Amherst, Williams, Wellesley and Pomona drew from $10 million to $30 million more than Middlebury’s $49 million to support their operations, and all of them spent at or below that 5% ceiling.

Since all the colleges mentioned, including Middlebury, charge about the same comprehensive fee for their students, and gift revenue from the annual fund that goes straight to the operating budget is similar, one can see how important the College’s non-undergraduate programs have been to our overall resource base. The Language Schools, the Bread Loaf programs, the Schools Abroad, and Monterey diversify our sources of revenue beyond the undergraduate college’s traditional revenue generators (tuition, endowment earnings, and gifts), leaving us less dependent on any one source of income, and less vulnerable to economic volatility than would otherwise be the case.

All of this is good news. The financial planning model we use today is far more conservative than it was prior to the recession. Our assumptions regarding comprehensive fee increases have been lowered to a ceiling that equals the consumer price index plus 1 percentage point, or “CPI+1”; we assume our endowment will grow 5% rather than 9%/year; and our annual fund expectations now track with our best estimates of trends in the general economy. These assumptions will, and are intended to, constrain our planning and our spending by projecting fewer available resources each year than our former financial models. In addition, we have refinanced our variable debt, which reduced our annual debt payments and eliminated the negative impact of unpredictable spikes in those payments, and we have continued to bring our endowment spend rate closer to what is standard for colleges and universities (5%).

Despite all these positive developments, there remains a slim margin of error within our, and private higher education’s, financial structure. Another deep economic decline in the U.S. would place great stress on operations and our long-term financial stability. Not only would our endowment and overall institutional wealth suffer as it did between 2008 and 2010, reducing funding to our operating budget significantly, but the demand for private education in general would likely look very different than it has looked up until now. Family income, the median of which decreased by 5% on an inflation adjusted basis between 2001 and 2011, would decline further, leaving an appreciable number of those who have been willing to pay upwards of $55,000/year for college, to choose less expensive options for their sons and daughters. I will come back to this issue later.

Looking back four years, we should all take great pride in how the College came through what was the worst recession of our lifetime. It has not been an easy four years, especially for our staff. Yet I believe, from a short-term financial perspective, we are in as good a place as we could have hoped to be three years ago when we faced a projected $30M annual budget deficit and a great amount of uncertainty.

Reaccreditation and Faculty Governance

Our recent ten-year New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC) reaccreditation review highlighted, among other things, the need for improved faculty participation in the governance of the institution. I agree fully with this recommendation, and am committed, along with the entire administration, to work collaboratively to achieve an effective model of governance for the College. Faculty Council will be the primary vehicle through which I and my administrative colleagues will engage these recommendations from the NEASC report, but we are also interested in working with departments and programs to involve faculty more visibly and meaningfully in setting the direction for the College.

The visiting review team’s report called for faculty to “exercise a central and consistent role in agenda-setting for faculty meetings, in conversation with the president,” and that is already happening. In addition, I discussed with last year’s Faculty Council the formation of a budget committee whose role would be to help to develop the College’s annual budget before it goes to the Board of Trustees for final approval. I shared with Faculty Council detailed information about budget committees at eleven peer institutions—their charge, composition, frequency of meeting, etc.—and the Council recommended which committee among the eleven represented the best template for our budget committee. I will follow up with this year’s Faculty Council to finalize the creation of this committee, which we hope can begin meeting by October to begin work on the FY2014 budget. In addition, Patrick Norton, the College’s chief financial officer, will introduce a regular schedule of financial seminars, open to faculty, staff, and students, through which he will share financial data, take questions, and engage in discussion about College finances.

The reaccreditation visiting team’s report also noted that, while committees and structures are in place to allow for the proper faculty role in the governance of the College, there appears to be no committee to ensure faculty committees carry out their stated responsibilities. The visiting committee recommended a faculty committee to have such oversight, and this role might be best played by the Faculty Council, which is the body responsible for appointing faculty to all but our five elected committees. I will be asking Faculty Council to determine how best to accomplish this recommendation and to report on their conclusions to the administration and faculty.

The centrality and importance of institutional governance, especially during such a dynamic and challenging time for higher education, extends also to the Board of Trustees and to our staff and students. In fact, the Board of Trustees’ retreat this coming October will focus on the role of governing boards and individual board members, with the goal of engaging broader institutional governance issues with campus constituencies at the February and/or May board meeting. An effective and inclusive governing structure will require a clear understanding of roles and responsibilities for all parties, as well as a willingness to learn best practices in these dynamic and turbulent times. Over the next academic year, we will work with an experienced scholar and specialist on higher education governance to help us sort through these issues and to develop a stronger system of governance for the College.

Looking Ahead

Though we are in as good a financial position as we could have hoped for back in 2008-09—we project balanced budgets for the next three years using our new planning assumptions and financial model—some big challenges remain. Long term, we have yet to engage two major issues that threaten the success of Middlebury and higher education in general: cost and relevance. These two issues are interrelated, for if there were no question about the relevance or value of a college degree, the question of cost would be muted considerably. But that is not the case.

Cost

We are all familiar, to some extent, with the cost issue: since 1980, the average annual increase in the cost of a Middlebury education (6.2% per year) has outpaced the CPI or consumer price index (2.9%) by 330 basis points. The comprehensive fee in 1980-81 was $7,800; today it is $55,950. The reasons for the large annual increases are many: a pedagogy that depends on small classes and a small student-to-faculty ratio; the desire to diversify the faculty and student body to ensure a better education; a commitment to supporting faculty development, especially in their research; the development of varied co-curricular programs to match the diverse interests of our students; the demand for state-of-the art facilities (academic, residential, and social); the unplanned growth in mandatory federal regulations; and increased administrative costs, a major part of which is linked to today’s hyper regulatory and legal environment.

If compensation for faculty and staff represents today half the annual operating costs to an institution like Middlebury, and expectations for annual salary increases exceed inflation, one can begin to see why average comprehensive fee increases have exceeded inflation each year by more than two times. Starting salaries (excluding benefits) have increased more than fourfold between 1980 and 2012, annually by 4.7% since 1980, or a growth rate that is 60% greater than the annual growth in the CPI. Compensation (salary plus benefits) has grown by even more. Spending increases in other areas of the College—on the physical plant, scientific/artistic equipment, co-curricular programming, the faculty leave and development programs, and financial aid—push the cost structure even further beyond the CPI.

During the past thirty years, we have seen the introduction of all the above mentioned costs to higher ed. Desktop computers, and all their related infrastructural costs, arrived and became a significant recurring expense; diversity became a major goal for many elite institutions and, as a result, the financial aid budget increased a staggering twenty-four fold between 1980 and this year (from $1.6M to $42M); and competition for the best students and faculty spurred the modernization of residential and academic facilities, creating what critics have cynically labeled another “arms race.” Middlebury invested more than $375 million in its infrastructure between 1990 and 2005 alone (unadjusted for inflation), and increased its square footage on the main campus by a million square feet, or by 80%. With the cost of maintaining new facilities averaging $7/square foot, the incremental cost to the operating budget as a result of the new square footage, beyond the initial construction costs, exceeds $7 million, and that is a recurring cost. That new square footage has also increased by more than $4 million the amount we set aside from our operating budget each year and put into our reserve for renewal and replacement of our plant.

The funding of all these developments was made possible by greater access to low interest debt and unparalleled growth in the traditional three sources of revenue: the comprehensive fee, endowment earnings, and gifts. The comprehensive fee is the primary revenue source, accounting now for about 65% of the College’s revenue. The greater-than 6% annual increases in the comprehensive fee were critical to the funding of all those things listed above, but was also the result of doing all those things. Given the changed economic environment today, and the public’s reaction to the cost of a private college education, the days of such tuition/comprehensive fee increases are over.

A major question, then, is how to continue to do what we do so well when we know the traditional sources of revenue will not grow as they have over the past thirty years, especially revenue derived from the comprehensive fee. Though the modifications in our financial model (see: http://www.middlebury.edu/about/president/finances/20100212_president_finances) represent some material changes in how we have operated for nearly thirty years, they alone will not address the prohibitive cost structure of a human-intensive education; ultimately it will require a combination of reducing overall costs per student and increasing overall revenue. Without a change in our overall cost and revenue structure, we are likely to confront a number of choices, none of which are attractive. Admissions is likely to be the first place we would notice changes, as the cost of being need blind (for U.S. students) and meeting the full demonstrated need of all admitted students has grown faster than any other expenditure in our budget. Wesleyan University this past June announced it would no longer be need-blind in admissions, as the cost has become too great, and those costs are only likely to rise given the shape of the economy and the changing demographics of the higher education applicant pool.

But admissions would not be the only area under greater scrutiny. A good number of policies and practices that many view as critical to the College’s success would need to be amended, including our commitment to international students (matriculating >10% of each incoming class); the 9:1 student-faculty ratio; the rich co-curricular program for students; teaching loads for faculty; administrative support at all levels; the faculty leave program; and maintenance of the campus/infrastructure. Reducing funding to these programs would have a significant impact on the Middlebury experience as we know it today. It behooves us to think collectively and creatively about how best to preserve what it is we do and value most, while understanding, too, the need to think about the future and the consequences—both intended and unintended—of whatever choices we make in amending what has become an unsustainable cost structure. Faculty serving on the three task forces on curricular innovation began to wrestle with some of these issues, and will continue their work this coming year. At the same time, it is important that other faculty members also become familiar with the scope of the challenges that higher education in general, and Middlebury in particular, faces in the coming years.

Can hybrid education, a combination of our traditional classroom teaching and learning, coupled with an online component whose specifics we have yet to consider fully, help to address the cost structure issue? We have been experimenting with online course development for secondary school students, largely as a supplement to traditional classroom activities, through Middlebury Interactive Languages and we are learning a lot about hybrid pedagogies. One of the curricular task forces discussed how technology can enhance our teaching and learning by bringing together faculty and students at College sites around the world, and we must continue these discussions. Coursera, Udacity, 2tor, and edX are but four ventures that are offering on-line college courses through partnerships with (mostly) leading Research-1 universities. Some of these organizations have contacted us to see if we would join with the likes of Stanford, Princeton, Duke, Penn and others to offer such courses, but before we move in that direction, we need to have a broad faculty discussion about these possibilities, and the sooner the better. Not to understand this educational space and use it to our advantage—beyond how online content and courses have been conceived of to date—will be a missed opportunity and, in my view, a major strategic error in considering the long-term well-being of the institution.

Relevance

The second issue, and one I believe is more concrete, has to do with the growing perception that a liberal arts education might no longer be worth the cost. As our Dean of Admissions Greg Buckles wrote to me just last week in reviewing what it now takes to bring in a first-year class: “I’ve been hearing about overpriced liberal arts colleges my whole career, but we do seem to be on the edge of a tipping point for ‘return-on-investment’ in people’s minds.”

I am sure 98% of liberal arts colleges would love to have Middlebury’s admissions profile and success. Yet to believe that current strong student demand, shown by nearly 9,000 applications this past year, an increase of 76% over the past eight years, is immune to the public’s growing questioning of private education’s so-called “value proposition” would be irresponsible. Greg’s comment about a tipping point cannot be ignored, and we need to ask ourselves how we can stay ahead of the curve and address the question in people’s minds about the value of a Middlebury education.

For years, professional organizations, college presidents, and faculty have written hundreds if not thousands of papers and given countless speeches on the value of a liberal arts education. The point of the majority of those defenses, which remains 100% valid, doesn’t hold as much sway today outside the academy as it once did for a number of reasons. I already mentioned the cost issue: given the rise in the cost of a four-year liberal arts education, people are far more wary of believing that all the good one gains through the study of the liberal arts is worth the financial sacrifice. Parents (and prospective students) believe in the virtues one acquires through the study of the liberal arts, but they are seeking, or better put, demanding, more. In their view, colleges need to better prepare students to reflect the very different world our graduates—their sons and daughters—are entering.

By different, families point to how much more competitive graduate and professional school admissions, employment opportunities, and other post-graduate pursuits have become as the world has become smaller and flatter. Virtually all post-graduate opportunities today are open to young people from around world, not just those in the United States, which was not the case when I (and the majority of the faculty) completed college. This new, hyper-competitive world creates a very different set of anxieties and expectations for parents and students. Learning how to read and think critically, how to synthesize knowledge from across a wide range of disciplines, and how to communicate thoughts clearly and effectively, is of course recognized and valued. But many believe these attributes of a liberal arts education alone no longer adequately prepare students for the world they will face upon graduation.

If we were starting a four-year, undergraduate liberal arts college from scratch, what would we expect our students to know upon graduation in order to be successful in their post-college lives? Our current requirements for graduation have not changed much, if at all, since the mid-1990s, yet the world has changed quite dramatically. It has not only changed dramatically, but the speed at which it is changing has accelerated, and the impact of technology on those changes extends quite prominently to how our students learn, what they learn, and when. Scientific discovery has exploded since the 1990s, providing strikingly new knowledge about climate change, biological threats to humankind and food sources, ecological disasters in the making, and more. Do we really believe, as a faculty, that our students do not need to engage and learn science at some point during their Middlebury education, if, for no other reason, than to be able to make sense of all the scientific information now available that is germane to one’s everyday life? I doubt it, yet that is where we are, despite having exceptionally strong science programs.

Similarly, our well-respected international studies curriculum remains regionally or area-based, yet “regions” as foci of study are less relevant today, relatively speaking, than at any time in the past fifty years. Our 21st century world is defined more significantly through invisible networks of social, cultural, and economic activities than by political boundaries and the concept of sovereignty. Yet a great number of students continue to study “international studies” predominantly through the prism of what are largely dated, or at least significantly less important, regions. Global warming; human rights; ethics, religion, and morality; desertification and water issues; censorship and creativity; wealth inequality; issues of race and identity; risk; sustainability; bio-ethics; and many other vital aspects of the human condition we study in the liberal arts know no political boundaries. These issues transcend any particular region, many of which were established by colonial conquest. Their study and our students’ education, therefore, need a new or certainly additional structure and analytical lens that reflects the world today.

More broadly, since our strategic plan (“Knowledge Without Boundaries”) was adopted in 2006, I have been explaining to our external constituencies our goal to be the first and finest “global liberal arts College for the 21st century.” This tag line has been somewhat misunderstood, as most seem to equate it with the College’s physical presence—expanding our global footprint with more locations abroad. That is certainly part of what we have done in order to provide more educational opportunities for our students. But it also involves our curriculum and our commitment to matriculating a relatively large number of international students, who collectively bring such varied and valued perspectives to our campus. In stating that we seek to create the finest global liberal arts college for the 21st century I mean something far less specific and far more relevant to all of our students and faculty. To me, becoming the finest liberal arts college for the 21st century is about creating the educational environment that best prepares our students, regardless of their major, to understand the larger world around them; to enable them to enter with confidence an interconnected world that is rapidly changing; and to appreciate the great diversity in the world that will further and more significantly affect their lives than anything past generations have experienced.

Whether a student is a chemistry major, a philosophy major, a comparative literature major, an international politics and economics major, or whatever, he or she should, over the course of four years, develop a keen sense of the world and its complexity through our curriculum; through the diversity of our students, staff, and faculty and the discussions and engagement that such diversity allows; as a result of tapping into the rich and unique educational resources available to all of our students—the intensive Language Schools, our Schools Abroad, the Monterey Institute of International Studies, and the Rohatyn Center for International Affairs; and through projects and activities outside of class that build upon, complement, and enrich our academic program—volunteer work in town and Addison County, internships both in the U.S. and at our many sites abroad, and “hands-on” learning opportunities like the Solar Decathlon, the hydrogen tractor winter term course/project, and initiatives developed through our Center for Social Entrepreneurship, the MiddCORE program, and the Center for Education in Action. All these things combine to offer students the opportunity to build upon the traditional liberal arts curriculum and to develop valuable skills that they otherwise would only first develop after leaving Middlebury: these would, in effect, help to make a college education more relevant for the times.

But what should that 21st century curriculum look like? What should all students learn while at Middlebury to best prepare them for their post-college lives now and into the future, not for a world twenty years ago? What should those hands-on co-curricular opportunities be and how should they relate to the traditional classroom learning experience? How should future faculty be recruited, hired, and better supported throughout their careers to be successful and able to teach and guide students most effectively? How can we encourage, accept, and embrace new methods of pedagogy so faculty are more free to teach as they see most fitting for their subject matter and most conducive to our students’ evolving ways of learning? How can faculty better use the College’s educational resources now scattered in more than 35 sites and partner universities around the world both for their own professional and scholarly development and for expanding opportunities for our students? And how might the faculties at those partner universities enrich our curriculum and academic community?

I will not try to answer these questions, or any from the preceding sections of this report, in any kind of detail here, but the faculty at-large should and indeed needs to engage and answer them. And while the three curricular task forces made good progress last year on a number of issues related to these questions, I believe the faculty must engage this topic at a more fundamental level than we have in the past, and to chart an appropriate course for the curriculum, for faculty development, and other things that can address quite directly this second, large challenge: showing the so-called value proposition for a Middlebury residential liberal arts education today. It is no longer feasible to believe that each of us can focus only on our campus, only on our individual disciplines and departments, and only on our students’ four years here, yet remain relevant, vibrant, and appealing to the brightest and most diverse students seeking a college education. Fear of how changes in what we offer, how we offer it, and where we offer it might affect enrollments or the number of majors in our departments and programs cannot compromise these discussions. The stakes are too high.

The Year Ahead

There is much in this communication that requires consideration, discussion, and ultimately action. I, along with my administrative colleagues, look forward to working with Faculty Council, the Educational Affairs Committee, the successor curricular task forces, academic departments and programs, Staff Council, and any other member of the faculty or staff to engage these issues and create a collaborative plan of action. Now is the time to begin such discussions, when we are in a strong position both absolutely and in relation to our peers. We may not be as endowed/wealthy as most of the institutions with whom we compete for the best students and faculty, but we have other, more important and long-lasting advantages: unprecedented educational/academic resources among liberal arts colleges with which to collaborate, expand, and enrich opportunities for our students and faculty, and a history of innovation that has allowed us to, in many ways, overachieve and become one of the very best colleges in the country.

Therefore, I will be discussing with several committees and groups on campus how best to approach the major issues I have raised. Some standing committees have their agendas set for the coming year, or might not wish to take on what I have put forward in this document. Some colleagues, with or without committee assignments, might want to provide responses and pursue solutions to the challenges I have defined; please let Vice President Tim Spears know if you are interested.

This is a remarkable, resilient, creative, innovative, and special 212-year-old institution, and one that has evolved over time to survive and thrive. It is blessed with a loyal and dedicated staff, and a profoundly talented and committed faculty. Its biggest challenge right now comes from without, and we cannot afford to allow the changes we see occurring in higher education to render all that is so good at Middlebury less meaningful and less valuable to future generations of students. But the response to those challenges must come from within and needs to be based on a firm understanding of the forces that are rapidly changing the environment for higher education. I am confident the College will once again rise to the occasion and address these issues thoughtfully and with great success.

—Ron Liebowitz
August 2012

Back from Asia

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

We have now completed our four-city trip, and it was both a great success and a reaffirmation of the College’s strategy to engage Asia more purposefully.   If one believes that “one needs to see to believe,” then a trip to Asia will underscore that this might indeed be Asia’s century, and that any American institution that chooses to ignore this in planning its future is putting itself at great risk.

Our trip had three major goals: (1) to meet and thank our alumni, past and current parents, current students studying in Asia, and friends of the College for all they do on the College’s behalf; (2) to seek increased support for the College, both financially and in helping to create greater opportunities for our students and (mentoring, internships, and jobs); and (3) to strengthen the College’s network by integrating alumni of the undergraduate college with Language School, Schools Abroad, and Monterey alumni.  A few words about these goals and how we advanced them on our trip.

We held receptions in Tokyo, Beijing, Hong Kong, and Singapore, and had between 60-80 guests at each one, by far the largest gatherings in Asia the College has ever hosted.  The critical mass in each of the four cities demonstrates the growing global character of our programs and the success of our graduates.  It was so rewarding to see the size of the crowds, and the enthusiasm for the College—what it is doing both in Vermont and around the world—was palpable in all cities and in the many individual meetings we had during the trip.

Our current students who are studying at our programs in Tokyo and Beijing are thriving and had much to say about their experiences abroad.   A panel in Beijing, which was part of our reception, featured two alumni from the College (’98 and ’08) who are working in Beijing—one of them a native of Shanghai and the other from Brooklyn, along with two alumni from the School of Chinese (1966 and 1977).  The four shared their experiences in China and how Middlebury influenced their careers and lives.  It was a remarkable display of talent, perseverance, and, in the case of the Language School alumni, history: one of the alums was among the first nine students to be invited into China in the early 1970s as part of Zhou Enlai’s ping pong diplomacy, which eventually led to Deng Xiaoping’s initiating China’s reforms in 1978, and the other was among the first Americans to be allowed to remain in China and work among Chinese (in a factory in northern China) in 1978.

The panelists represented multiple generations and a wide range of expertise; all have remarkable knowledge of China and connections within Chinese society and all are eager to assist recent graduates and current students interested in the region.  The evening allowed the large number of attendees, all with Middlebury connections (the College, Language Schools, Schools Abroad, and Monterey), to come together, network among themselves, and help us create a tighter and stronger alumni group, which, in turn, will provide greater support and opportunities for current students and graduates.

Perhaps the most moving part of the reception was how one set of former parents traveled by overnight train to attend the reception in Beijing simply to thank us in person for all the College did for their daughter, who graduated in 2008.  They could not speak a word of English, but they expressed their deep gratitude for their daughter’s education via a translator, and then far more in their non-verbal expressions of appreciation to the College.

We succeeded in obtaining commitments for internships for our students in each of the four cities.  We sought internships for students who might stay on for a Winter Term following a fall semester of study, for those who might stay for the summer following their spring semester abroad, and also for students who could manage an internship during their semester of study.  We will be following up with a number of parents, alumni, and friends of the College to establish these internships, which are becoming more and more helpful for those who are seeking longer term opportunities in Asia.  We also received immediate and unexpected financial support, as attendees made gifts and commitments to the College on the spot, which is unusual but, needless to say, very welcome.

Our final goal was to continue the process of leveraging all of our resources related to our rich array of international related programs.  In particular, by inviting alums of the College, of Monterey, of the Language Schools, and the Schools Abroad we are consciously attempting to more than double, and nearly triple, the number of individuals who could (and should) serve as resources for our students and other alumni.   If we are successful in bringing together alumni from all these programs we will increase our alumni body from slightly fewer than 30,000 graduates of the undergraduate college to about 80,000, which includes attendees and graduates of the Language Schools, attendees of our Schools Abroad, and graduates of Monterey.  Those 80,000, as our receptions showed, live throughout the world, and should be a great support system for students and alumni who are increasingly seeking work and lives not only in Asia, but in literally every corner of the world.  No liberal arts college can boast as large, distinguished, and global alumni network as ours, and with as many potential benefits to our students.  Judging from the rich discussions at each reception among attendees from each of our programs, we made very good progress in establishing a more unified alumni network for the College.

If you can’t drop by….

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

During office hours this summer, I was visited quite often by Language School students and faculty, but also by staff who work year-round at the College and by students who were on campus to work or to do research with Middlebury faculty.

The students who dropped by said they never seem to be able to stop by during office hours during the academic year, and felt that many other students can not as well.  I told them I would try to vary my office hours this coming year, which they thought was a good idea.  They also suggested I specifically ask students, via the blog, to send along “big” issues or items of concern that they would like me and/or my fellow administrators to “look into/engage/address.”  They emphasized big issues and ones that seem possible and not, for example, something like, “can you consider ways to make the winters shorter?  I am of course most interested in issues related to your educational experience here at the College.

So, in that spirit, and because I am interested in hearing what students think needs special attention, I encourage students to let me know.  Please send your thoughts along.

If this works, I will encourage staff and faculty to do the same.

 

Atwater Reopens for Regular Lunch….

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

Though it is August, and the start of the academic year is a month away, the campus has been as busy as ever hosting the summer Language Schools and a vibrant faculty-student research program.  And, the solar decathlon students have just completed their house, which they will soon disassemble and move to Washington to rebuild on the mall for the competition in late September.

In addition, one of the most commonly sought changes by students has been addressed—the re-opening of Atwater for regular lunches.  Language Tables, which have been housed at Atwater the past two years, will move to Redfield Proctor (upstairs in Proctor).

Atwater will continue to serve continental breakfast and host themed and special dinners.  We hope the re-opening of Atwater for lunches will address concerns about overcrowding in Ross and Proctor despite the additional seats we introduced two years ago.

As Patrick Norton’s memo announcing this change states (below), other suggestions students have made to improve dining and to reduce the loss of dishes, bowls, glasses, and silverware have also been acted upon, too.  This fall, we will invite students to assess other aspects of dining and offer recommendations on how to improve our current offerings and options.

I look forward to seeing many of you next month.

********************************************

From: Office of VP and Treasurer
Sent: Thursday, August 04, 2011 8:59 PM
To: students; All Faculty; Byerly, Alison; Baldridge, Susan Campbell; Collado, Shirley M.; Keyes, James R. (Jim); Schoenfeld, Mike; Donahue, David A. (Dave); Geisler, Michael E.; Liebowitz, Ronald D.; Spears, Tim; Corbin, Thomas J.; Biette, Matthew R.; Etchells, Timothy P.
Subject: Atwater Dining Hall Re-opens for Regular Lunch Plus Other Dining News

Atwater Dining Hall Re-opens for Regular Lunch Plus Other Dining News

I write to share the good news that Atwater Dining Hall will be open again for regular (meal plan) lunch this fall, with continued service in Proctor and Ross.

The hours for lunch will be as follows:

  • Atwater will remain open after serving continental breakfast, and serve lunch through 2 p.m.
  • Ross and Proctor will continue to serve hot breakfast, and remain open for lunch through 2 p.m.
  • Bagged lunches will still be available in Proctor from 7-9:30 a.m., seven days a week.

The “language tables” that had assembled for lunch in Atwater will now gather in the Redfield Proctor Dining Room, upstairs in Proctor, with the same menu and waiter service.

Also this fall, Dining Services will be offering students what we’re calling “go” containers, portable, reusable, washable bowls, with covers, that can be used to take food out of the dining halls, when students just don’t have the time to sit down for a meal. Students will be able to purchase these containers for a small fee. They can trade used containers for clean ones during their next visit to any dining hall. You’ll be hearing more about this program from Dining Services, in the near future.

These changes are designed to address student concerns, and are part of an ongoing discussion about the structure of our dining operations at Middlebury.  If you have questions, please contact Matt Biette, Director of Dining Services at: mbiette@middlebury.com.

— Patrick Norton, Vice President for Finance & Treasurer

May 3rd Alcohol Forum

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

Last evening, Dean Shirley Collado and I hosted a student forum on student alcohol use and its effects on the campus community.  The purpose of the evening was to share results from a survey administered on campus in the fall of 2010, and then to hear directly from students about how the College might address any and all issues related to the causes and ill effects of alcohol use on our campus.  And there appear to be many issues to address.

There was a large turnout in McCullough, perhaps a result of the rumor that the purpose of the evening was for us to announce we would become a “dry campus.”  The email invitation to the event, which asked whether a dry campus was the only alternative to excessive irresponsible drinking, was intended to be provocative, but, while it drew the hoped-for audience, it also seemed to miss the mark.  Many students saw the email tease as yet another example of administrative heavy-handedness rather than a way to encourage more discussion of a vexing and troublesome issue.

Though this is hardly a new issue or administrative concern, and there seems little new one might learn from a conversation among 300+ students, the evening proved valuable for a number of reasons.  Students got to let us know directly what they saw as problematic with their social lives on campus and how those problems contributed to alcohol abuse; they talked about stress and how that played into their self-described “play hard” weekends and all the consequences; they offered up a number of worthwhile recommendations to address some of the concerns we have about student life and student safety; and it succeeded in getting a good number of students to volunteer to pursue further conversations with the administration to implement changes intended to address the identified problems.

MiddBlog is covering this issue (http://midd-blog.com/2011/05/04/alcohol-forum/#comments ) and The Campus will do an article as well.  I should note that we are working with our fellow NESCAC schools, all of whom share similar experiences with alcohol use, to improve education about alcohol use and to offer alternatives to a social life currently so centered on alcohol.

I hope students, parents, faculty, staff, and alums will send along suggestions and best practices that we might consider alongside what we are doing, and will do, to provide a more balanced, safe, and fun environment for our students.

Beyond Aunt Des

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

I have been away too long from this blog, but with the renewed energy brought to campus by the arrival of the “Febs’ (class of 2014.5) two days ago, it is time to start posting again.

I was going to write on the goings and comings of Febs—the class of 2010.5, which celebrated its graduation this past Saturday in a terrific ceremony, capped by the traditional ski down in robes at the Snow Bowl, and the new Febs, the class of 2014.5, which arrived two days ago, in the middle of a snowstorm—but decided to save that and some thoughts on the Feb program for a later post.

Instead, given all the attention Aunt Des has garnered in recent weeks (a piece in The Chronicle of Higher Ed and in several Vermont newspapers), I thought I would use the occasion to follow up on the pointed criticism that has come from the very reason this never-known-before relative has shown up on campus—missing dishes—-and seek some student input and opinion on how to address this issue with some renewed sense of urgency.

MiddBlog’s recent post underscores the issue, which, to the outsider, is quite easy to solve: 1) provide environmentally sensitive “take out” containers for students with schedules that do not allow them to sit down and have a meal; or 2) bring checkers/monitors back to the dining halls.

I am very interested in hearing from students about this issue and some solutions, as many students have reached the point of recognizing that Aunt Des, as wonderful as it is to have her on campus, will not change the student “dish culture” and it is time to do much more.  Many of my administrative colleagues share this view.

I have linked a past post on dining at Middlebury (pre-Aunt Des) to remind readers of the complexities and popularity of our current meal plan system, which relates quite directly to how we might deal with the dish issue most effectively.  I suggest readers review the comments to get the full picture of student views on this issue.  Suggestions welcome.