Author Archives: Ronald Liebowitz

“CPI + 1″

It has been a while since I posted, but my silence was not because there was little about which to communicate; just the opposite.  Much has gone on since my last post, including another great Winter Term (highlights to come), the start of the “spring” semester, the trustees’ annual February meeting, Winter Carnival, which coincided with the Vancouver Olympics, where Middlebury alumni excelled and garnered silver, and great athletics performances by our winter sports teams.

Though I hope to write on a number of these happenings over the next few weeks, the one issue that has generated more e-mail and telephone traffic to my desk was my proposal to limit comprehensive fee increases at the College to “CPI + 1,” which means increases of up to 1 percentage point above the consumer price index as reported each December prior to the next academic year (so that next year’s comprehensive fee would be based on the December 2009 CPI).  The proposal was part of an address I gave on campus on February 12.

Quite frankly, I am surprised this proposal has generated such publicity; I have received many, many e-mails and interview requests, and both Inside Higher Education and the New York Times’ “The Choice education blog have covered the proposal.  For those not familiar with the issue, or the trend in comprehensive fee increases during the past few decades, here is the context: last year our comprehensive fee increase was 3.2 percent above the previous year.  That increase represented the lowest increase in 37 years.  The increase came following a year (as measured in December of 2008) in which the consumer price index increased +0.1%, or was almost flat.  Thus, our comprehensive fee increase was 3.1 percentage points, or 310 “basis points” above the CPI.  What I am proposing is that we set our comprehensive fee increase to be within 100 basis points of the most recent CPI, which, given the CPI of 2.7% measured this past December, would mean our comprehensive fee for next year would have a ceiling of 3.7%.  Or, had we decided to do “CPI + 1” last year, the comprehensive fee would have increased up to 1.1% and not the 3.2% it did.

How much of a change would CPI + 1 be for us going forward?  During the past 18 years, Middlebury raised its comprehensive by more than 100 basis points (or greater than 1 percentage point above the CPI) 14 times, and the mean annual increase over the 18-year period was 2.36 percentage points, or 236 basis points, above the CPI.

The purpose of restricting our fee increases relative to the CPI beginning this year is in recognition that the price to attend Middlebury has grown far faster than inflation, and such increases cannot continue without a negative impact on the institution.  Although the demand for a Middlebury education is stronger than ever (we received a record number of applications this past year—just shy of 8,000), one has to wonder how much families will be willing to pay for a four-year education, and how many excellent would-be applicants have already decided, or will soon decide, not to apply due to the escalating price.

Critics of this “CPI + 1” approach argue that the demand for an elite, private liberal arts education is less elastic, or more inelastic, than I may think.  They also note that all students already receive a $30,000 scholarship to attend colleges like Middlebury (since the true “cost” of educating each student is closer to $80,000/year with the endowment and annual gifts funding the difference), and that many families are willing to accept the high annual increases that have been the norm for a better part of 35 years.  Finally, some also argue that we will put ourselves (unnecessarily) in a disadvantageous position vis-à-vis peer institutions because they will charge more and therefore have greater annual resources with which to enrich their students’ experiences.  I believe it is time to limit our fee increases and force ourselves to make more thoughtful and consequential decisions regarding the resources available to us.  I am curious to hear your thoughts.

51 Main To Remain Open

Thanks for the many thoughtful replies to my call for input on 51 Main.  I have continued to think about these comments and 51 Main’s evolving role in our community. It is clear that 51 Main provides an important social outlet for students and gathering place for faculty, staff, and townspeople. More than a bar or restaurant, the venue has become a catalyst for a variety of cultural and artistic activities, which I think is good for both the College and our town.  It’s worth noting that during the past year 51 Main has reduced its monthly deficits by more than 75%—a significant achievement for a new enterprise in such a short period of time.  These financial gains come close to meeting the expectations of the BOC recommendation that I accepted just over a year ago.

Given these developments, plus the fact that 51 Main’s operating deficits have been covered and will continue to be funded if needed by a generous donor for up to three years, I have decided that 51 Main should remain open.  We will continue to push for more financial accountability so the business can pay for itself without the support of a donor, and we will review the venue’s status on a regular basis, as we do with the Grille, the Snow Bowl, and our other auxiliary operations.  Meanwhile, I hope many of you will take advantage of what such a large number of blog posters (plus many who sent e-mails to me) have cited as such a valuable addition to the town and College.

Space and Creativity

My most recent Middlebury Magazine column addresses the issue of student use of space to pursue creative endeavors outside the aegis of the academic program.   It speaks to how central it is to a liberal arts education for students to have the opportunity to pursue such creative endeavors, yet how difficult it sometimes is for some to find the space to do so.

I received this response to the column:

Dear President Liebowitz,

I applaud your recent article in the Middlebury magazine regarding space, the arts at Middlebury, and creativity in general.

I was at Middlebury in the 1970s. I came as a French major, and graduated a music major in 1977. This was in no small part to the many and wonderful opportunities I took part in at Middlebury. I have been a professional musician now for 33 years and my expertise is due in no small part to what Peter Hamlin mentions about space use after hours: I managed to sign up a few hours in the (then) Johnson Music Building during 9-5 hours. but, for the most part, I practiced virtually every single evening from 10 pm in Mead Chapel. The night watchman knew me, and I was able to promise to make sure the lights were off & the door locked after myself when I left. Many (most) nights I stayed til 1 or 2 am, practicing on a splendid church organ and a 9 foot concert grand. When I went on to conservatory for graduate degrees, I realized that had I gone to one of those schools as an undergraduate, I would have been stuck in a tiny, claustrophobic practice room on a mediocre instrument – and likely kicked out at 11 pm. How to compare playing a top-notch instrument in an acoustically grand space to…feeling like a chicken on an egg-laying farm, in my cubicle…I have to say that without this experience that I had at Middlebury, I am quite sure I would not be doing what I do today; nor, would I be as good at it as I am, had I not trained my ears and brain for the realities of real concerts on real spaces. (That’s not to diminish the copious amounts of love & attention I had from my music professors…but still, the unfettered use of the chapel was very important.)

So how wonderful to read your analysis of the effect of unscheduled space on creativity at Middlebury. I must admit, every issue I read of the magazine highlights the “Middlebury is green” theme and the marvelous advances in science, sports and other achievements. And to be sure, you mention many wonderful arts achievements by students and student groups. However, as now the parent of two daughters (17 and 19) and a son (younger), I had the experience of taking both daughters on tours of the college and seeing it fresh from their eyes.

My eldest visited 2 years ago just after spring break. Eagerly I showed her all my old haunts. She is a visual artist, interested also in drama, cognitive science, languages, literature…I thought, what a great fit for Middlebury. But after a tour around campus & wandering around Johnson, she said, “Mom, I can’t apply here.” I asked why not. She said, “I wouldn’t feel creative. I can’t do art here.” You see, we had seen many schools and art departments already. The others (Bennington/Sarah Lawrence/ Skidmore/Bard/ Connecticut/Vassar) had vibrant art departments; students wandered in and out of studios. In most, she was able to wander in, too, and talk to the students about their art. There was a “buzz” that was palpable to me. Middlebury, by contrast, I realized, felt dead & lifeless as we visited. The studios were mostly locked; way too clean & uncluttered; there weren’t any students hanging out, playing raucous music as they worked. Why was that? I began thinking about it & reading the magazine more carefully. In music, it seemed like many professional level & department-organized activities were mentioned. I talked a bit to faculty who mentioned various frustrations. And I noticed especially that the new Arts Center was so far “in left field” that one had to make a real commitment to being there & using it, rather than dropping in with any frequency.

Two years ago I attended a large presentation at Chelsea Piers in New York City. Perhaps you recall: I was the woman who stood up & said “we’ve heard all about a lot of great things, but what about the arts?” – to a certain significant amount of applause from my alumni compatriots. I have to say, your letter is the first sense I have that perhaps you really are committed to regaining that “buzz” of creativity that was palpable, exciting, and ever-present when I was a student at Middlebury. Please, continue to grow the school in this direction!



I found this perspective on things very interesting, and I would love to hear from other alumni on this topic: what was it like when you were at Middlebury in terms of your access to space in order to carry out creative pursuits?  Please note when you studied at Middlebury.

51 Main: Opinions Sought

51 Main is on my mind, as it will soon be time to decide whether or not the College should continue to run the in-town venue or close it down.

Last year, the Budget Oversight Committee (BOC) recommended that the College close 51 Main. The primary reasons given were that, in light of the ongoing budget cuts, it was wrong for the College to fund an establishment that was not “core” to our academic mission, and it was losing money.  I accepted the BOC’s recommendation, but gave 51 Main until December of this year to show whether it could break even financially for two successive months.  If it could not, it would close.  I should mention that, as of November 1, it looks like 51 Main is very close to meeting its two month break-even requirement, and so feedback from community members on the existence and possible continuance of the establishment will be helpful as we assess our options.

Reactions to the BOC recommendation and what drove it have been the topic of many e-mails sent to me, conversations initiated by students, faculty, and staff during my office hours, and questions raised during lunches I have had with students in Proctor and Ross Dining Halls.  Whenever I discuss 51 Main I explain the history behind its founding, which is critical to understanding whatever success it has to date, and to considering whether its goals are as compelling now as they were three years ago.

The idea to open a place in town came from a student-only task force on social life, which I appointed three years ago to combat the collective student sentiment that campus social life had become sub-par: limited, predictable, “the same old same old,” dominated by social house or smaller suite parties that had at or very near their center of fun beer and alcohol.  The task force report included several recommendations, some of which we have implemented during the past two years.    More to the point, the report stated that, because of the size of our campus, federal and Vermont liquor laws, the growing difficulty of hosting parties spontaneously on campus (related to the state’s liquor laws), and the accelerating demand for more diverse social options as a result of our increasingly diverse student body, providing a place with rich and varied programming would make a huge difference to many students.  In follow-up meetings, students identified the desire and need for a place off campus that brought students and town folks together in a social setting, offered musical and other social events (poetry slams; stand-up comedians; exhibitions of students’ art work; etc.), and did not have the feel of a “College venue,” nor center predominantly on alcohol.

The idea for 51 Main sprang from these task force discussions, and when the space became available a donor made a gift to cover the start-up and operating costs for the venue for multiple years. He also funded several other proposals in the student task force report, because he was well aware of the harsh criticism by students about the limited social life on campus (he had children who had attended Middlebury).  Thus, none of the funding for 51 Main comes from the College’s operating budget, but rather is paid for from a gift that would cover 51 Main’s operating budget for four years, and is restricted to that use.

Since 51 Main opened, many have criticized its existence.  Several in the town community felt it was wrong to add competition to a downtown that was having a hard enough time attracting business.  Some countered this by noting that healthy competition would be good for townspeople and for our students alike; it would provide something new and perhaps nudge existing enterprises to introduce new and exciting programming.  Some merchants agreed and welcomed the new venue; others did not.

Based thus far on anecdotal evidence alone, opinion on campus has been divided.  Staff in general, and a good number of faculty, have been highly critical, arguing that running what they see as a nightclub is problematic, even unethical, in the face of budget cuts and reductions in staff positions through voluntary departures and attrition.  Many share the concern about the College “competing” with businesses in town. 

A number of faculty, however, some of whom have performed at 51 Main several times, view it as a unique venue and describe it as a “beacon of social life” for the town and for college students.  They point to the fact that in no other place in Middlebury do college folk and townspeople socialize as they do at 51 Main.  They also say that the kind of programming at 51 Main is special, diverse, and provides the closest thing to an urban feel one finds in Addison County.

Students seem more positive about 51 Main, but again, my information is only anecdotal and thus my desire in posting these remarks is to collect more feedback.  From what I hear, when the venue first opened, it was mostly the underrepresented groups at Middlebury—students of color, inner city, and international students—who visited 51 Main, and found it very much to their liking, just as the student task force on social life had envisioned.  But towards the end of last year, and throughout this semester, a greater portion of the student body began to frequent 51 Main.  Indeed, I have heard this fall from many parents across a broad spectrum of backgrounds that 51 Main has caught on.  Their sons and daughters claim it is an important social option for students who want more than a social house or suite party—for those who want to see, be with, and engage people from town who are not from the College, and listen to interesting bands, including student bands whose members include their college friends.  Many townspeople, too, have commented very positively on 51 Main, noting how it adds to social options in town, and how enjoyable it is to be among College students in a relaxed and new kind of social setting.

The negative voices I have heard, though I don’t know their number, are the loudest.  They convey their thoughts and say they speak for “many” in their opposition to this venture, again on ethical grounds.  Interestingly, I know many of those who criticize 51 Main are also the strongest supporters for greater diversity on our campus, and one has to wonder whether they see any connection between the presence of a 51 Main on the one hand, and the College’s need not only to matriculate diverse students, but also to provide the kind of support, including a social life, that helps a more diverse student body to thrive when they come to a place like Middlebury.

I am interested in your views of 51 Main and whether it should continue if it can break even financially.   Please identify whether you are a student, staff member, faculty member, community member, parent, or other.  Thank you.

Double Majors and a Liberal Arts Education

I am often sent interesting posts from blogs having to do with higher education.  The following link was sent to me by a parent who heard my commentary on the ever increasing over-specialization in undergraduate education, and in particular, my opposition to students selecting double majors at Middlebury.

The post, written by a current Williams College student, is from EphBlog, a blog having to do with “All Things Eph,” according to the blog, and it is worth reading, along with some of the thoughtful comments.

I oppose double (and yes, triple) majors on three grounds:

  1. A liberal arts major is supposed to educate broadly.  With the average major at Middlebury requiring about 11 courses now (some require 10, many require more than 11, and many also have “cognate” requirements), students who choose to double major will concentrate more than 2/3 of their studies and course selections in two areas.  We have more than 40 majors and 31 academic departments, so students who double major have 10 or fewer courses with which to explore 40 other majors or 29 other academic departments.  From an educational perspective, students would seem to be defeating the purpose of coming to a liberal arts college if they chose to concentrate their studies like this.  In addition, there are scores of excellent faculty who, quite routinely, change students’ lives by introducing them to subject matter many would otherwise never have encountered if they hadn’t, without previous reason, taken those classes. 
  2. The false notion of “credentialing.”  Students tend to think it “looks better” on one’s resume to have two, or even three majors.  Not the case.  For years now, CEOs of businesses and non-profits have stated clearly on campus and in discussions with students that it really doesn’t matter if one has two versus one major.  The issue really is how well a student has learned to think critically, assess accurately, synthesize information well, and write and speak clearly.  One learns these things best by being exposed to as broad a range of material and modes of analysis as one can. Transcript building runs counter to a liberal arts education and also prevents a student from experiencing the richness of Middlebury’s curriculum, and it is not something that will help students after the graduate.
  3. The resource issue.  Double-majoring has a significant impact on College resources, both teaching resources and financial resources.  If a student body with 2400 students had 20% double majors, the faculty would have to offer a curriculum to meet the needs of more than 2800 students.  That is, with double majors come extra teaching requirements for the faculty, which has a negative impact on the curriculum and our students insofar as the opportunity costs they incur.

For instance, take a department that has 150 majors right now, with 60 in the senior class (students do not declare their majors until sophomore year).  That particular major requires two senior seminars (which many do), which means the department must allocate teaching resources so they offer at least 120 slots to meet the senior seminar requirement for the 60 senior majors.  With 15 students the typical upper limit to a seminar at Middlebury, the department would need to offer 8 seminars to accommodate the seniors.  Now suppose 20% of those 150 majors were “double majors.”  That would mean 30 of the 150 majors, or 12 of the 60 in the senior class, had other majors, and were taking two other seminars to fulfill the requirements in their other major.  Those students would be taking four senior seminars, and the first department would have to offer spots for 24 students (the 12 seniors taking 2 seminars in their senior year), or two seminars, that they otherwise would not have to offer if there were no double majors.  Those two senior seminars could be replaced by other lower level courses for the general student population, a first-year seminar, or perhaps reduce the teaching by faculty in that department if its classes were filled and it was overloaded with majors, which some departments are.

With limited resources, should we encourage/permit double majors when it requires departments to offer additional sections of courses when students are already getting their senior seminar experiences in other majors? Since we are not a university with graduate students who might cover a single course we need taught, and since we have no other colleges and universities nearby, we often need to hire a number of full-time faculty to teach the one or two additional courses generated by the large number of double majors when faculty who teach those courses are on sabbatical, which is a costly proposition.

I am interested to hear your thoughts on this issue.  Are there other reasons for why you (the students) choose to double major, especially when you hear about the costs of doing so?  Send along your thoughts!

UPDATE: for those who inquired via e-mail, I did a combined major (economics and geography) as an undergraduate.

Budget Cuts and The New England Review

After announcing the third round of budget cuts a few weeks ago, I received more than 50 e-mails protesting my decision to accept the Budget Oversight Committee’s (BOC) recommendation, slightly amended, that the College reduce support for The New England Review.  Although the BOC proposed that the College cease all financial support of The Review, I elected to give The Review until December 31, 2011 to eliminate its deficit.
I am writing this post to acknowledge the many people who have written to me, and to respond to the concerns they raised in their individual letters.

The message common to virtually every e-mail is not surprising: all who have written point to the great value of The New England Review; the loss of intellectual life that would be felt by its going away; the frailty of literary magazines in general and how none can exist without external support; and how places like Middlebury have some kind of obligation, moral and otherwise, to continue their support of such publications in the name of supporting the arts and intellectual discourse.
I agree fully with the first three items above, but not necessarily the last.  That is why I decided to give The Review an additional two-plus years to consider how it might garner greater financial support beyond the subsidy it now receives from Middlebury College.  Given current financial circumstances, which none of the e-mailers seemed willing to confront, I find asking families who are paying $50,000/year in comprehensive fees to, in effect, subsidize a literary magazine that serves a very small slice of the general population and is known only to a handful of Middlebury students, a very hard sell.  That some e-mails mention how several universities, with far deeper pockets than Middlebury, have closed down literary magazines in better economic times should mean something to those who insist that Middlebury continue to subsidize The New England Review.

I am a fan of The Review, and have been for many years.  But as president of this liberal arts college, I also have a responsibility to the students, faculty, staff, and the generous supporters of the College.  In contrast to the small number of people who have published in the NER or read it regularly, I must consider how our institution will weather the current financial challenges and, first and foremost, preserve what is most central to our students’ education.  Perhaps it is normal to pronounce that “no literary magazine breaks even; all require subsidies,” as many e-mailers claimed.  However, it seems unreasonable, indeed illogical, to expect an undergraduate liberal arts college to provide those subsidies when there is little direct benefit to the students who are covering the costs of operation.  This is not to say The Review is not excellent, valuable, or worth preserving.  It surely is.  It simply cannot continue operating as it has, and my hope is that by increasing subscriptions and sponsorships (gifts), plus exploring whether there are alternatives to the current (and expensive) method of production, it will be able to operate without such a significant subsidy.  I should add that, to my knowledge, not a single individual who has written in protest of the College’s decision has contributed financially to help subsidize The Review.
We are committed to assisting editor and colleague Stephen Donadio find ways to increase revenues and reduce costs so The Review can continue to publish the high quality writing it has for the past thirty years.  And, of course, I am interested in any suggestions you may have for bolstering The Review’s revenues or reducing its operating costs.

I close by providing a link to an article that appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education, just as I was completing this post.  An interesting read, and certainly germane to the issue we are facing with The Review.

UPDATE: I have received e-mails letting me know that at least two individuals have made contributions on behalf of the NER since information about the financial situation became public.  We thank those who have made contributions and hope others will do the same and also become subscribers to the magazine.

Breakfast venues for 2009-10…

I have a guest post on MiddBlog, asking students if we should change the College’s planned breakfast venues next year so that Atwater Dining could offer a continental breakfast.

Students: if you are interested in weighing in, please go to Middblog.