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The Foreign Student

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A journalist embarks on a voyage into the unknown.

I started studying French two years ago. I was 36, and it had dawned on me that there was something embarrassing about the fact that I was monolingual. Perhaps this was about class, as I had gone from my working-class Baltimore roots to the literary world of New York. Perhaps it was about New York itself, where in a 30-minute subway ride you can easily hear five different people speaking five different languages. Perhaps it was my wife, who’d fallen in love with Paris and demanded that I visit, sure that I would fall in love, too. Or perhaps it was just me, feeling a little too settled and looking for something radical to shake up the routine. I had no idea how radical the experience would actually be.

The thing about studying a foreign language is that it really is a foreign language, which is to say that it’s a dizzying array of words to be memorized, rules for how those words should be assembled, and customs for when those assembled words should be deployed. And those customs sometimes bend back on themselves—the polite form of a personal pronoun can be both self-deprecating and threatening. You have to recognize the context. This is the reason why I speak of the process of “studying” French and not the impossibility of “learning” it. I am a native English speaker and a writer. A large part of the joy of my vocation comes from understanding that it’s impossible to “learn” the English language, if only because the language refuses to sit still. I acknowledge that the French tend to be more conservative in this regard, but the point still stands due to the sheer size of the language.

What I quickly learned was that saying I am going to “study” French was like saying I am going to sail to China. The language is so vast that one can, all at once, feel both great progress being made and a great distance still to go. Sailing from California to Hawaii is far and difficult to achieve; getting to China is farther—and harder—still.

I faced this dynamic several times this summer while studying French at Middlebury. The College’s 11 Language Schools are the gold standard for those seeking to go beyond their mother tongues.
Middlebury insists that you not speak your native language for the entirety of your stay, communicating solely in the language that you are studying. For me this meant seven weeks of all French; no English.

The effect of this was to turn every single encounter, large or small, into a mental Pilates class. This is true, not simply because of the difficulty of the language, but because of what that difficulty does to the ego. The kind of students attracted to the language tended to be people who were educated and smart. And yet to learn French, most of us were reduced to the mental equivalent of three-year-olds. The result was a constant mental exercise, not simply in recalling the language, but embracing the fact that whatever we might say would almost certainly be wrong. The onslaught was forceful and unremitting—the most basic requests became an exercise in one’s capacity to endure humiliation.

And I think this was Middlebury’s greatest reward, and also the greatest reward in studying another language. Many of us were from worlds where we were constantly complimented on our intelligence. But acquiring a foreign language—at least as an adult—requires you to part with all of those compliments and the assumptions you make about yourself. That is the place where true learning can occur, in that uncomfortable spot where your “smartness” cannot save you. I came to Middlebury to continue to study French. But what quickly became clear was that I was, in fact, studying how to study.

A Planet Without Apes

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Peter Walsh ’82 believes that wild gorillas and chimpanzees face ecological extinction unless we radically rethink conventional conservation strategies.

A deadly virus sweeps uncontrolled across Africa, leaving thousands dead. The scenario is now bleakly familiar, but this particular Ebola outbreak—in 2006—wasn’t nightly on our television screens, nor did it galvanize the international community. Why?  Because its victims weren’t humans, but gorillas.

The virus didn’t quite wipe out the western gorilla populations found in Cameroon, the Central African Republic, and both the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Republic of Congo. But diseases and poaching have left these animals in catastrophic decline, and the World Wildlife Fund has classed them as “critically endangered.”  The question becomes: how to save them?  Perhaps, says one expert, vaccinations are the answer.

The opinion isn’t popular, since conservationists have traditionally favored a more hands-off approach. However, Peter Walsh, lecturer in primate quantitative ecology at the University of Cambridge, is challenging the orthodoxy. “Some people in the primatology community hate me,” he says. “My criticisms are fairly blunt. But being popular is not my objective in life.”

Walsh knows about unconventionality. After graduating from Middlebury with a BA in history in 1982, he spent several years “bumming around.”  He drifted to California, cutting lawns and working as a busboy and in a shoe store. He took community college classes in basic math and science and realized his aptitude in these disciplines. And after seeing a job posting for a field assistant on a project studying prairie dogs in South Dakota, he applied, got the job, and was hooked. Now he advocates using rigorous scientific reasoning to gain insights into animal populations.

His work has led him to some of the world’s most distinguished universities—he received his PhD at Yale, was a group leader at the Max Planck Institute of Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany, and currently lectures at Cambridge—and to the depths of the African jungle.

Today, Walsh is sitting in his Cambridge office, readying himself for his next trip to the Republic of Congo. “Ten hours in a 4×4 just to get to the site,” he says. Huge photographs of gorillas decorate his walls. On his office bookcase, he has a pygmy crossbow, complete with a quiver of black-tipped arrows.

Walsh was among the first to identify the threat Ebola poses to the gorilla population (and, by extension, the threat it poses to the humans who live near the animals and hunt them for meat).
Nature published his groundbreaking study, in which he identified Ebola as killing 5,000 gorillas. Now, eight years later, a new epidemic is causing havoc across West Africa.

At the time of this writing, the virus has killed 3,800 people in Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Nigeria—with another 8,000 confirmed or highly likely cases. Walsh believes we need bold thinking to save both humans and gorillas. It’s time, he says, to concentrate on what’s effective right here, right now.

He says the hands-off, “Garden of Eden”-style approach to saving gorillas hasn’t worked. “They are in precipitous decline. But primatologists say we can’t disrupt the balance of nature, that vaccines are the agents of the devil. That the gorillas would be so stressed out by the process of daring that their immune systems would be suppressed, or they’d freak out and kill people.

“Well, I can tell you one result of our captive gorilla study: they did not freak out. To get that study off the ground, I wrote to hundreds of people explaining that vaccination was not dangerous. I had to make rigorous scientific arguments to counter irrational, hysterical, emotional ones.”

This first-ever trial of a measles vaccine in habituated gorillas took Walsh years to set up. Funded by Paul Allen, cofounder of Microsoft, the study is being prepared for publication.

He also recently coauthored a study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that examines the first Ebola vaccine trial on captive chimpanzees held at the New Iberia Research Center in Louisiana. The study found the vaccine safe. But the National Institutes of Health, which runs the primate center, has decided to shut the center down, saying that chimpanzee research is now “largely unnecessary.”

Walsh, though, remains undaunted. He’s now looking to the private sector, which shares his willingness to take risks. Currently, he’s working with German philanthropist Sabine Plattner and prominent conservationist Magdalena Bermejo on a new project that uses telemetry to track western gorilla populations, which move far more quickly and further than their mountain gorilla cousins.

Now it takes up to five years to find a group of lowland gorillas and acclimate them to tolerating visitors. But if these populations, situated in the Republic of Congo, can be efficiently tracked and vaccinated against communicable human diseases, they can be habituated to tourists much more rapidly. Responsible tourism—run by businesses but advised by conservationists—will help locals find live gorillas more valuable than dead ones. And it’s this kind of project, Walsh says, that will save these animals.

But he believes the conservation establishment needs to wake up if gorillas are to survive beyond the 21st century. “Conservation has this learned-helplessness thing,” he says. “This is the way it’s always been. You’re not going to be able to change things. You can’t do that. I understand Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and Steve Jobs now—and their thinking that if you want to do something, you should just go ahead and do it, shut your ears, and be willing to fail. Eventually, you’ll succeed.”

Animal Tales

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Here are a few things to know about Antonia Losano and her relationship with animals. She loves dogs, cats, and otters. She’s terrified of horses and mice. She thinks bats are creepy. She says that the fox couple that lives near her house are adorable, but admits to mixed feelings when one morning she saw the two trotting through her yard with a freshly killed rabbit dangling from one of the fox’s jaws. ¶ And she loves to tell you that animals are “everywhere, not just outside.” They are a part of our language (“he’s a fox,” “what a cute chick”); they’re part of our social identity (the geopolitical “Russian Bear”); and above all they are a part of our literature. Losano, an associate professor of English and American literatures, teaches a course called Animals in Literature, and here she offers a few of her favorite animal literary references. (With an assist from her husband, Dan Brayton, also an associate professor of English and American literatures, who gives us his take on the Whale in Moby-Dick.)

rabbit1The white rabbit from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking Glass
“ ‘Oh my ears and whiskers, how late it’s getting!’ ”
He’s so very un-rabbit like. We think of rabbits as fuzzy and cozy and cuddly, and he’s absolutely not. The White Rabbit signals to us that not all is normal in Alice’s brain.

Mr. and Mrs. Mallard the ducks from Robert McCloskey’s Make Way for Ducklings
“When they reached the pond and swam across to the little island, there was Mr. Mallard waiting for them, just as he had promised.”
I study romance and courtship plots, and I’m continually struck by how often literature, especially children’s literature, relies on birds—ducks, turtledoves—to serve as stand-ins for monogamous love. There seems to be a desperate desire to say: “Look at those ducks, Mr. and Mrs. Mallard, raising their children. Aren’t they an iconic heterosexual couple, married with children, devoted to each other and family?” It’s as if we need these examples—pictures of marital bliss—to say “it’s normal to mate for life.”

Mr. Fox, the fox from Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr. Fox
“ ‘I therefore invite you all,’ Mr. Fox went on, ‘to stay here with me for ever.’ ”
Traditionally, we think of foxes as sly and clever, a depiction that dates back to the Middle Ages with the fable Chanticleer and the Fox. (Chaucer memorably captured this same tale in The Nun’s Priest’s Tale.  Barbara Cooney has also used it in her 20th-century children’s book, Chanticleer and the Fox.) But Dahl’s fox is a bit different. Dahl managed to preserve all of the fox’s slyness while also making him lovable. Dahl’s fox, at his core, is a patriarch who cares for his family and friends; his slyness is in service to the greater good.

Napoleon the pig from George Orwell’s Animal Farm
“ ‘Four legs good, two legs better! All Animals Are Equal. But Some Animals Are More Equal Than Others.’ ”
The word “pig” has undeniably negative connotations, and Napoleon is a particularly piggish, a pig. Yet he is a pig who, by the novel’s end, is indistinguishable from humans. For a while, you can fool yourself that he’s just a pig, but the moral of Orwell’s allegory is that there’s something inherently destructive in the human search for power. We may be tempted to say that power is “dehumanizing,” but Orwell suggests otherwise.

bearThe bear from William Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale
“Exit, pursued by a bear.”
What’s great is that the bear is famous for not really being there. It’s fleeting. present just in this one moment, this one stage direction. Scholars have argued over whether a real bear performed the role, as there were performing bears during this time, or whether a man in a bear costume played it. Bears have an iconic status as an animal that could surprise you in the woods—they’re large, they can be frightening—so to be pursued by a bear would be a classic nightmare. Yet Shakespeare turns the nightmare into something almost comic.

The wolf from Angela Carter’s short story “The Company of Wolves.”
“The girl burst out laughing; she knew she was nobody’s meat. She laughed at him full in the face, ripped off his shirt for him and flung it into the fire, in the fiery wake of her own discarded clothing.”
Wolves are a fantasy of the familiar made strange; they’re like dogs, but they’re not dogs. Perhaps this is why they make such good heroes in supernatural romance fiction; part of our erotic makeup desires something as familiar as a domestic pet, but wild like a wolf. Angela Carter retells the “Little Red Riding Hood” fairy tale, but here Red, isn’t frightened by the wolf with his big eyes and his big teeth. Instead of running away, she throws off her clothes and begins to undress him.

The cockroach from Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis
“He was a tool of the boss, without brains or backbone.”
Part of what Kafka is saying is in our present corporate culture we’re all bugs anyway. Gregor is a company man, a traveling salesman, who is a slave to routine, rising at the same time every day, catching the same train, following the same patterns. When he wakes up as a cockroach, he doesn’t particularly notice. He’s concerned that he can’t get out of bed, but the fact that he’s s a bug is less important than the fact that he’ll miss his train to work.

MOBY1The whale from Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick
So utterly lost was Flask [the third mate of the Pequod] to all sense of reverence for the many marvels of their majestic bulk and mystic ways; and so dead to anything like an apprehension of any possible danger from encountering them; that in his poor opinion, the wondrous whale was but a species of magnified mouse, or at least water-rat, requiring only a little circumvention and some small application of time and trouble in order to kill and boil.”
The White Whale in Moby-Dick symbolizes our desperate quest to conquer what we don’t know; in the course of the novel it also comes to symbolize how little we do know—about whales, the ocean, the biophysical environment, and ourselves. Melville was a profoundly liberal thinker (small “l”) whose narrative of a lost-soul mariner (Ishmael), a monomaniacal whaling captain (Ahab), and a noble savage harpooneer (Queequeg) is in fact a relentlessly critical scrutiny of the limitations of our systems of knowledge. In the story, whales begin as fearsome beasts and evolve into emblems of what we don’t know about ourselves—they become us, our humanity.

Buck the dog from Jack London’s The Call of the Wild
“And each time the joyful bark that trembled in Buck’s throat was twisted into a savage growl.”
In the first part of the novel, Buck is a complacent domestic tyrant. He’s king of the castle, but has done nothing to earn that position. When he’s stolen and shipped off to the Yukon and forced to become part of a sled pack team, Buck must do something that domestic dogs don’t typically have to do—test his mettle in the “real world.” First he has to fight for survival in the harsh winter; then he has to fight to become alpha male in the pack. It’s a brutal and violent stage of his life (and of the book). Then he meets Thornton, a man who can inspire loyalty, and the tale becomes a human/animal love story. Yet when Thornton dies, Buck reverts to the wild, literally running with the wolves. In this one character, we see all the possible options that a dog can be.

The geese from the Mary Oliver poem “Wild Geese.”
“Meanwhile, the wild geese, high in the clean blue air / are heading home again.”
Oliver offers us an exquisite image of wildness, mystery, and the inevitable cycles of life. Geese are harbingers of spring and fall. Here in Middlebury, it’s a part of our annual ritual. The geese have left; snow is coming. For Oliver, geese mean that and much more: they are “harsh and exciting—/over and over announcing your place in the family of things.”

Black Beauty the horse from Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty
“Why don’t they cut their own children’s ears into points to make them look sharp?”
When Sewell wrote Black Beauty, people had radically different relationships to horses than they do today. In 19th-century London, horses were more populous than people. Horses were work animals, They were the primary method of transportation. Everyone was intimately acquainted with horses then, and this book captures those lives. Today, horses are very expensive pets.

Aesop’s Fables
I can’t pick just one to illustrate the significance of these fables—it’s the very collection that’s so revealing. Why do we have these moral fables, really the first children’s tales that teach us how to be good—and almost all the characters are all animals? Why can’t we teach our children how to behave by telling stories about humans? I think it’s because we need the animals to provide distance from ourselves. And it works. Psychologists have conducted research that shows children do learn morals from
animal stories. From animal tales.

Paging Doctor King

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Being a veterinary surgeon in a 24-hour animal hospital means each day’s cases are unlike the last.

All that’s visible above the blue surgical drapes is the dog’s lower jaw, tilted up as she lies anesthetized on her back. Her mouth is open, her black fur and whiskers sheared to the skin, and her cuspid teeth, under the lights, appear to glow. She’ll soon lose those teeth. Her name is Stella*, an eight-year-old Labrador who went in for a dental checkup several weeks prior and came out with a diagnosis of cancer: a soft-tissue sarcoma, jelly-bean sized and nestled between her lower lip and gum. The doctors cut it out once, but it returned. Removing it for good means taking about two inches off her jaw.

In the next room, veterinary surgeon Dana King ’89 puts on a cap and mask, opens a package of surgical soap, and scrubs up at the sink. Then she steps into the operating room, where two technicians are at Stella’s bedside, monitoring her vital signs and her anesthesia, and unrolling packs of sterile instruments on the tray to the side. An iPod plays Paul Simon. And outside the window, midafternoon traffic hums along the highway. “How’s she doing?” King asks. And more softly, looking down at her patient: “All right, Stella. Here we go.”

Stella’s surgery is the last order of the day for King, one of two surgeons at Veterinary Emergency Service, a 24-hour clinic and specialized-care facility (which also employs an internist, cardiologist, and oncologist) in Middleton, Wisconsin, just outside Madison. Mostly the clinic serves dogs and cats, although it also sees some rabbits and, occasionally, birds or other exotics. This morning, a Wednesday in early September, King arrived just before 9:00 to make the rounds, checking on the patients who’d stayed overnight in the hospital. There’s Clyde, a retriever from West Texas, with a mysteriously swollen back paw.  Probably a puncture wound that got infected—he’s in Wisconsin training to be a competitive field-trial dog and spends his days running through woods and weeds—but so far King hasn’t found the pathogen. Tests for fungal infections came back negative, and a bacteria culture grew only “garden-variety skin bugs,” she says. A biopsy ruled out cancer. She may never determine what happened. Which is OK, she says, as long as Clyde keeps getting better.

Then there’s Lily, a six-month-old Bernese mountain dog who ate part of a couch the day before and came to the ER with a stomach full of wool batting. Her owners tried an emetic to help her body rid itself of the batting, but she still required surgery to remove what was left. “Apparently she’s eaten socks before, and other stuff, so she’s probably going to be a frequent flyer here,” King says.  She bends down and takes Lily’s face into both hands; the dog’s tail wags, thumping against the side of the cage. “Hi!  You’re very sweet,” King tells her. “Yes, you are.  Looks like you’re feeling good today.” Along with tumors and orthopedic problems, “foreign-body removals”—opening up an animal to take out something it shouldn’t have eaten—is one of the most common surgeries King performs. Cats tend to ingest ribbons, coins, sewing needles, and thread.  Dogs eat socks, underwear, fishhooks, wooden skewers, and—well—just about anything. King once pulled a rubber duck from a dog’s stomach. “You could see it in the x-ray,” she says.  Its bright silhouette was outlined against the animal’s dark belly.

Last in King’s rounds: Megan, a black-and-white Shih Tzu who the day before had abdominal surgery to remove two tumors. King is a little worried about her. The vet took out half the dog’s small intestine and biopsied some nodules on her liver. Eighteen hours later, Megan’s still curled on her blanket and uninterested in food. A feeding tube gives her constant liquid infusion, and an IV catheter delivers pain medicine. King talks with one of the overnight vet techs about how Abby’s doing: no appetite, but a few hours ago, she went outside and walked, and this morning she had been sleeping soundly until they shifted her to measure her heart rate and temperature.

“Did she yelp or try to bite you?” Biting indicates pain; yesterday Abby was snapping at everyone.

“She did not physically bite anybody, but she tried to.”

King opens the cage door. “Hi sweetheart,” she says, touching the dog’s incisions. “Are you going to try to bite me?” Megan doesn’t. She lifts her face weakly and whimpers for attention. “Hi,” King answers, almost whispering, stroking the dog’s head. “How are you?”

Being a veterinary surgeon is the only job King ever really considered. She grew up on Long Island, in a house full of pets: cats and dogs, mice, rats, gerbils, a rabbit, and a hamster. When she was five or six, she and her brother set up a maze for the hamster and somewhere along the way as he ran it, a block fell on his head. The family took him to a veterinarian. “So it was a hamster with head trauma,” King says, suppressing a chuckle over what now seems to her an absurdly futile vet visit. “They talked to me with a straight face, but I’m sure behind the scenes, they were saying, ‘There’s not much we can do.’”

Nor was there.  The hamster didn’t survive, but King’s path was set. “My parents said that from then on, that’s what I talked about.”

Another important influence came when King was 13 years old, and her grandmother passed away, leaving her some money, which King used to buy a horse. On Long Island, where she was surrounded by horse farms and racetracks and equestrian schools, getting a horse seemed like a natural thing to do. After only a few months, the horse died suddenly—after breaking its knee running in a field, he had to be put down—and so a short time later, King got another horse, a beautiful chestnut named Justin. He was an ex-racehorse, three years old, silly and sweet—the same color as Secretariat, with none of Secretariat’s talent. “He was a disaster at being a racehorse and wonderful at being a trail horse,” she says. When she came to Middlebury, she brought Justin with her. After classes, she’d get on her bike and ride six miles out to the farm where Justin was boarded.  She’d saddle him up, and they’d go out on trails.

After Middlebury, King went to veterinary school at Cornell and then followed her schooling with an internship at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada.  Justin came along, too. Then in 1996, she got a residency at the University of Pennsylvania. By then, Justin was an old man, and King knew she’d be too busy to spend much time with him. He was happy in Ontario, so she decided to let him stay. “He was just retired out in a field in Ontario for the last couple years of his life,” she says. “In grass up to his knees.” When Justin died from intestinal cancer, he was 26 years old.

Timeline: Town & Gown

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During the past decade, Middlebury College has engaged with the local community on a number of landmark initiatives:

2004
The College and the town renegotiate a “payment in lieu of taxes” (PILOT) agreement in which the College will make an annual contribution to the town, the sum of which is tied to the performance of Middlebury’s endowment. (In 2013, this payment was $251,617.) Middlebury annually pays around $690,000 in taxes on property being used for purposes not directly tied to the mission of educating students.

2007
The College pledges $1 million to complete the renovation of the Town Hall Theater (THT), an ambitious community effort to renovate and restore a 19th-century building—which once housed the town hall and later an opera house—in the heart of Middlebury. The $1 million pledge, on top of an earlier $250,000 gift, capped off the $5 million project. With this partnership, Middlebury students are afforded the opportunity to work with community members on theater productions, while THT also commits to working College productions—including summer Language School performances and a winter term production—into its seasonal lineup.

2007
The College pledges $9 million to help fund the construction of a new in-town bridge, which will provide a second major crossing of Otter Creek. Designed to ease traffic congestion and provide an additional route for emergency vehicles, the new bridge carries a cost of $16 million; with the College’s contribution, the project is fast-tracked, ending more than 50 years of stalled efforts to construct a second in-town crossing. The bridge opened in 2010.

2013
The town and the College reach an agreement to jointly fund the construction of a new town hall and town recreation facility, with the College contributing $5.5 million toward the $7.5 million project. In addition to the new construction, the College and the town agree to swap land parcels. The new town office will be built adjacent to the Ilsley Library on land once owned by the College. The College will acquire town land at the intersection of Main and College Streets, turning this area into a triangular public park and green space. The town of Middlebury voted to approve this proposal in 2014.

2013
The College and town finalize a project in which the College acquires and conveys to the town an empty building on Main Street, which will be razed and turned into pedestrian access to the town’s Marble Works commercial district.

2014
The College conveys to the town more than an acre of riverfront property behind the Ilsley Library, which the town will join with its own land holdings to develop future retail, commercial, and residential projects.

2014
The College renegotiates its PILOT with Ripton, agreeing to a 10-year deal to pay the municipality $157,000 annually in recognition of the nontaxable property the institution owns there. In addition, Ripton schoolchildren are to be provided free ski lessons at the Snow Bowl and Rikert Nordic Center.

This Is Not Business As Usual

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Jamie Gaucher, Director of Business Development, Town of Middlebury

Jamie Gaucher, Director of Business Development, Town of Middlebury

How an innovative partnership between the College and town is boosting the local economy.

Just after breakfast on a warm fall morning, Jamie Gaucher walks down the steps of the Middlebury Inn and around to his Honda minivan. He noses the car out of the parking lot, following an itinerary that’s become very familiar. “I like to start downtown,” he says, pointing out the white façade of the Congregational Church, driving past the town green and down Merchant’s Row, then heading left on Main Street and up toward the College campus.

He’ll take a visitor inside the Davis Family Library before returning to the car. Then he continues out past the athletic facilities and back toward Middlebury’s industrial park on Exchange Street. All the while, he asks polite questions about the guest’s business, what resources it needs to be successful—and offers subtle guidance on why setting up shop in Middlebury would be a great way to help the enterprise grow.

Gaucher may seem an unlikely tour guide: Before 2012, he’d never been to Vermont. But since April of 2013, when he became the town of Middlebury’s first-ever director of business development, he’s been talking up the region at trade fairs and on cold calls—and when he finds a receptive business owner, he invites them for this nickel tour.

Gaucher, a 6-foot-4-inch New York native who came to Middlebury after 14 years as an economic development official in West Virginia, is the most visible evidence of an unusual initiative that’s the culmination of years of work by College officials. The aim: to bring new economic vitality and more jobs to the town of Middlebury in an attempt to reduce tax burdens, assist with faculty recruitment, and create new opportunities for students. “We have a guiding principle that what’s good for the College is good for the town, and vice versa, so to the extent we can help each other, all the better,” says College President Ronald Liebowitz. “Jamie Gaucher’s position is part and parcel of that.”

It’s an effort that goes far beyond the hiring of the man the local press has dubbed “Middlebury’s jobs czar.” It’s an opportunity to leverage burgeoning student interest in entrepreneurship, a passion fueled by academic programs that have grown over the last decade. It’s also aimed at convincing a growing class of telecommuters—who, in theory, can live anywhere—to consider relocating to Middlebury. Although the various initiatives, some of them funded by the College, are not yet a clear-cut success, most observers are encouraged by early results. The effort seems likely to be one piece of what people in Middlebury will recall about Liebowitz’s decade-long presidency when he steps down in 2015. “This is one of Ron’s legacies,” says Jon Isham, an economics professor who’s been a central part of the efforts. “It wouldn’t have happened without him, and the reason it happened is that he brought us all together, then let us all run with it.”

Indeed, the efforts underway today are only part of a broader strategy that emerged a decade ago. Though Middlebury is sometimes referred to as the “Town’s College,” the relationship between the two hasn’t always been so symbiotic. For generations, while many students moved back and forth between the College and the town without a thought, there was little cooperation at an official level. It was almost as if the two existed in different worlds.

RDLBiz

Middlebury President Ronald D. Liebowitz

Soon after Liebowitz took office, Bruce Hiland, a former McKinsey consultant and publishing executive who had moved to Addison County in 1987, approached the College’s new president and proposed a meeting with a group of local business leaders. Even today, Liebowitz recalls that he was skeptical given the often-stated “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” reality when it came to greater College engagement in the town. But Hiland was persistent and challenged the group to come up with some “big ideas” for the town. Once they started talking, progress came quickly, though the project first identified was not feasible and came to naught. Within three years, though, the College had pledged $1 million to support the $5 million renovation of Town Hall Theater and then $9 million to help fund construction of an in-town bridge over Otter Creek, an idea that had been a seemingly unachievable dream for 50 years. The bridge opened in 2010.

But even with the investment in infrastructure and amenities, the need to bring more jobs to the area remained. In 2006, the College hired Spencer Cox ’08 as a summer intern to work closely with Dave Donahue ’91, special assistant to the president of the College, and Hiland to study the issue. “Although the town of Middlebury is not in a state of crisis, long-empty storefronts [and] a slowing economy have sparked concerns that Middlebury is falling behind,” Cox wrote in a report that examined how other institutions—including Dartmouth, Marlboro, and Colgate—were partnering with their towns.

Within months of Cox’s report, concern over the lagging local economy spiked. In January of 2007, two of Middlebury’s largest employers, Standard Register and Specialty Filament, announced plans to close their local facilities, resulting in a combined loss of 287 jobs. (The College, with approximately 1,200 full-time employees, remains the largest employer in both the town and in Addison County.) Middlebury has just 6,588 residents and 1,996 households (according to the 2010 Census), so that scale of job loss had a giant impact. The fallout from the plant closings served as a reminder of something Liebowitz had been saying for years: that beneath the “veneer of prosperity” created by its rural beauty and picturesque campus, the town of Middlebury isn’t as affluent as it might appear. According to census data, 17.5 percent of town residents live below the poverty line, and its median household income of $47,849 falls below the state average by more than 10 percent.

Cover Essay: What’s on His Mind?

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

harlowWebFor many years, my parents had a rough-coated Jack Russell terrier, a breed of dog known to be tough, tenacious, very smart, and extremely moody. (About the only quality he shared with Harlow, our cover dog and model on this page, was his smarts. Harlow is chill and very sweet; and very sweet; Woody, most definitely, was not.)

In his later years, as Woody’s energy began to wane, it seemed that his mental acuity—which would occasion behavior best described as devious—increased. Jack Russells are an active breed; when Woody’s stamina started to slide, his mind took over. Or so it appeared.

When my sister was getting married, my parents threw a cookout for out-of-town guests; my family being from the South, barbecue was the featured fare. It was a casual gathering, paper plates on laps enjoyed outside in the mid-spring weather. Of course, paper plates on laps subsequently became paper plates on the ground. And this is where Woody comes into the story. At one point that night, I witnessed Woody trot by with a half-eaten barbecue sandwich in his mouth. I chalked it up to him having received a right generous snack from one of our guests—until a few minutes later when I saw him trot past with another sandwich. I followed him this time, watching him scamper under a bush, only to emerge moments later with no sandwich. After he had trotted off again, I looked under the bush and discovered a pile of sandwiches, in various states of being consumed. Woody had been pilfering sandwiches off the plates of unsuspecting folks and . . . was saving them for later? Are dogs capable of planning ahead?

I hadn’t thought much about this particular episode until I found myself sitting in on Jason Arndt’s first-year seminar on animal cognition. On the morning of my visit, the class was discussing mental time travel. The question being examined: “When animals plan, are they imagining the future?” I was barely sitting down before I was wondering, Was Woody imagining himself in the future chowing down on those sandwiches?

While my thoughts were on Woody, the attention of the class—eight women and five men, plus their instructor, arrayed around a long table—was focused on a chimpanzee that lived in a zoo in Sweden. On the days when the zoo was to be opened, this fellow would gather rocks, store them in specific, strategically located piles, and then, hours later, hurl them at gawking visitors.

“I don’t know how strong of an argument this is, but he had to have thought this through,” one student said. But does planning ahead equate to mental time travel? Arndt wondered. Is the chimp thinking, as he’s gathering rocks, I’ll show them! “As far as I know,” he added, “chimps don’t cache things in nature.”

The consensus  was that yes, this chimp was picturing himself throwing those stones as he gathered them. (“He’s thinking, I’m so pumped.”) The scientific community seems split on the subject of
mental time travel in animals. But I know where I land. I’m convinced that Woody was thinking, on that spring evening, I’m so pumped.