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Town & Gown

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

middlebury working togetherThe town and the college of Middlebury share more than a name. They share a history and a living arrangement that is, in the words of President Liebowitz, inextricably linked. We spoke to him about the current state of this town-gown relationship.

I’ve heard you say several times that “a strong town makes for a strong College, and a strong College makes for a strong town…”
It’s absolutely true. In a small, rural community such as ours, the connection between town and gown is far more intertwined than it would be in a metropolitan center or a suburban environment. When you factor in our history, the attachment becomes deeper. Middlebury College was founded not by an individual, but by a group of people—Gamaliel Painter, Seth Storrs, Samuel Miller, Daniel Chipman—leaders in the community who had a vision of the town of Middlebury as a cultural center in western Vermont. The establishment of the College was a huge part of this vision. Just look at the first line of David Stameshkin’s two-volume history of Middlebury: “In the beginning, it was the town’s college.” We’re not named for Painter or Storrs. We’re named for the town itself.

OK, let’s jump forward a century or two. How has this relationship evolved?
First, it’s important to establish the fact that students have been engaged with the community for the entirety of those two centuries that we just jumped over. When students choose a college like Middlebury, they are making a conscious decision about the environment they’ll be living in for the next four years. When you come to rural Vermont, when you come to Middlebury, you are joining a local community as well as a college. Since the College’s founding, students have been actively engaged in the community, in the life of the town, in the lives of its people. They volunteer in the community. They tutor in the schools. They coach and mentor sports teams. They devise programs that fill community needs. They even run for public office.

What has evolved dramatically is the College itself, and its relationship to the town, and this has had both positive and challenging consequences. As the College has grown in size and in stature, we’ve been able to offer more to Middlebury and Addison County. Technologically adroit students are taking projects that they have started in classrooms and in learning environments like our Programs on Creativity and Innovation in the Liberal Arts and are applying them in the community. Just last month came the story of two recent graduates, Nate Beatty ’13.5 and Shane Scranton ’13, who founded a company here in Middlebury that uses three-dimensional architectural modeling and virtual-reality hardware and software to help architects—and their clients—better envision space during the design phase of building projects.

A company like this isn’t happening by accident. These young alums—and others like them—are working out of a local technology incubator, the Vermont Center for Emerging Technologies (VCET), of which the College is a partner. VCET has two locations, one in Burlington and one here in Middlebury. The opportunity for students or recent graduates to incubate their projects locally is just one part of what I believe is an increasingly fertile environment for an entrepreneurial ecosystem that benefits both the town and the College.

Think of it this way: a student comes to Middlebury and studies in our liberal arts curriculum intensely; she engages in an experiential-learning opportunity like the Solar Decathlon; she takes a MiddCORE course in which she is mentored by alumni, Middlebury parents, or local townspeople, and acquires valuable skills; she enrolls in the student-taught Middlebury Entrepreneurs course and develops a proposal for a nonprofit or writes a business plan, which she then pitches to investors; and then, finally, she incubates her project at VCET. All of these parts of a Middlebury experience are conspiring to create an entrepreneurial ecosystem that enriches both the town and the College.

Taking this notion a step further, two years ago the College partnered with the town to create the Middlebury Office of Business Development and Innovation, staffed by a director whose job is to develop new enterprises and grow existing businesses, leveraging the assets of the town and the community. It’s exciting to imagine alumni bringing their ideas and businesses back to Middlebury, which would help the local economy and provide more opportunities for students—it would also make the town an even more appealing place to live and work and innovate.

This sounds great, but you also mentioned there are challenges to the town-gown relationship as the College has grown…
It’s complicated. Middlebury is a quintessential Vermont village and the shire town of Addison County, an area rich in natural beauty and agricultural resources. Yet nearly 10 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, and the median household income is well below what it costs to attend the College for one year.

Two hundred and fourteen years after the College’s founding, we don’t look as much like the community as we did two centuries ago. With our $1 billion endowment and students from all over the country and the world—we have twice as many international students as students from Vermont—we have greatly diverged from the town in many ways, which obviously sets the stage for potential conflicts.

For me, it’s important to contextualize any criticisms aimed at the College from the town and to understand that despite our differences, we are as entwined as ever, and that it’s incumbent upon us to work together.

I know that there are some who would wish that the College would just retreat to its position on the hill and stay out of the town’s affairs, but there are far more who appreciate what we bring to the community—financially, culturally, and intellectually. We are and should be partners.

These criticisms that you speak of were evident during the recent debate over a town-college real-estate deal…
Right. For those who don’t know, Middlebury residents recently voted to approve a plan in which the town and the College will swap land holdings, and the College will help the town build a new municipal building and recreation facility. The College will acquire the land where the town buildings currently sit, raze the structures, and create a public park in this space. In turn, the town will acquire College land adjacent to the Ilsley Public Library, the College building (Osborne House) currently located there will be moved, and new town offices will be constructed in its place. Further, a new recreation facility will be built on Creek Road off Route 7 south, adjacent to town playing fields. The total cost of the project is estimated at $7.5 million, $5.5 million of which will be contributed by the College.

Some residents opposed this plan, and the vote was close—915 for and 798 against.  People have very strong opinions. They are passionate about the town, and honestly, I see this as a sign of a strong, confident community, whether these sentiments are in line with the College’s position or not.

When members of the Middlebury Select Board came to the College with this proposal, I wanted to ensure that we were thinking about ongoing initiatives that would benefit the entire town and not just this one particular proposal (for the new municipal building). That’s why we reached an independent agreement in which the College would acquire (from a private entity) and transfer to the town the vacant property on Main Street located along Printer’s Alley next to the National Bank of Middlebury; this property will subsequently be razed, creating a beautiful open space on Main Street leading to the Marble Works complex. And that’s why we gifted to the town 1.4 acres of riverfront land behind the Ilsley Library. Again, a strong town makes for a strong College, and I believe all these moves will strengthen the town,

These ideas and plans have not occurred in a vacuum. I see these as examples of the College and the town collaborating in a wonderful, innovative way to reimagine what this town can be. In 2007, we formed a partnership with a cultural icon, the Town Hall Theater, pledging $1 million to complete its renovation, while establishing programmatic ties that serve both the community and our students. In 2010, we partnered with the town to fund the new bridge spanning Otter Creek. And soon, one may be able to walk from a new park serving as the gateway to the College, up Main Street past the new bridge and a new, energy-efficient town office building, toward the opening to the Marble Works, with the Town Hall Theater just down the street.

We’re very fortunate to be in a position to expand and strengthen a relationship that has already spanned more than two centuries. Our futures—the College’s and the town’s—are inextricably linked. And I wouldn’t want it to be any other way.

Old Chapel: Board, Restructured

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

'M' at workAt its December 2013 meeting, the Middlebury Board of Trustees unanimously approved revisions to its governance structure, which will go into effect July 1, 2014. We spoke to President Liebowitz about what it all means.

What led the Board of Trustees to decide to revise its governance structure?
There were many factors, but I think they fell into two categories: internal and external. Externally, the world has changed dramatically since Middlebury, and its board in particular, has had a chance to step back and review the way in which it governs itself. The business of higher education has become infinitely more complex. Colleges and universities today face an array of challenges, from important questions of cost and competitiveness to applications of technology and issues relating to the management of large endowments, just to name a few. These require strong governance structures.

Looking at Middlebury internally, we haven’t made many substantive changes to how we are organized and how we run things in the past 50 years. But in that time this traditional, small, residential liberal arts college has been transformed into something quite different. In the 1960s, we had 1,200 students; now we have 2,500. We had about 80 or 90 faculty; now we have almost 300.

Geographically, we were overwhelmingly a local, Vermont institution. The Bread Loaf campus was the farthest extension of the College, save for a small number of programs for our Language School graduate students in France, Spain, and Italy. Now we have operations in almost 40 sites around the world. One of those is a graduate school in Monterey, California, with almost 700 students.

These internal changes required us to step back and ask some critical questions: Is our board organized in the best way possible to know what it needs to know about this dynamic institution? And is it properly positioned to guide Middlebury through what many have said are likely to be turbulent times going forward? Our trustees carry the ultimate responsibility for the long-term well-being of the institution. Understanding this, it made sense to ask the fundamental question of whether our current board governance structure was helping the trustees be good fiduciaries of the institution.

We’re fortunate that we are undertaking these adjustments from a position of strength. The College has never been stronger, and it has a great future. But we can’t sit back and not engage in the broader issues affecting higher education. We thought now would be a good time to make this governance change.

Tell us about the process, how long it took …
The process began shortly after the College’s 2011 ten-year reaccreditation review. That was an important driver because the review highlighted just how complex Middlebury had become. And it noted that our governance structures in some cases hadn’t kept pace.

In the summer of 2012, I wrote a lengthy letter to the faculty, about the dual challenges of cost and relevance in higher education. I think that also played a role in the decision to move forward. Trustees began asking the question that so many outside the academy are asking: Why is higher education so expensive, and are students and families and supporters of our institutions getting all that they should for that type of investment? Are there ways to control those costs? The other key issue from that letter had to do with relevance.
Is a BA degree the same today as it was 200 years ago, 100 years ago, 50 years ago? Or do we need to start thinking differently about higher education, especially within the context of the changing, more competitive global environment? Are our graduates getting an appropriate mix of theoretical and hands-on applications given the realities of their post-college lives?

The combination of the reaccreditation review and the letter to faculty led to a series of discussions, influenced by the impact of the 2007–10 recession. The vulnerability of even the most wealthy private educational institutions cannot be dismissed and certainly affected how we assess risk and how we think about governance. It was largely these issues that led Marna Whittington, our board chair, and me to engage the trustees on a process that would allow them to better understand—and engage more meaningfully—the emerging trends in higher education and the demands placed on Middlebury.

In these conversations, we thought about governance in many ways. We thought about faculty governance. We thought about trustee governance. We thought about broader institutional governance. We decided that it made sense to start with the Board of Trustees due to the role it plays as the fiduciary body of the institution. We engaged an educational consultant, well known in higher education and familiar with Middlebury, and together we created a process that would identify what we wanted to achieve and how we would go about achieving it. This led to the appointment in the fall of 2012 of a governance working group, which included veteran trustees, two faculty members, and two staff members. Marna and I laid out a charge for the group, which was to think broadly and long-term—and not to be afraid of bold change.

Two notable changes in the governance structure were paring the 15 standing committees down to six, while making them broader in scope, and creating three boards of overseers—one for the undergraduate college, one for the Monterey Institute, and one for the “Schools.” What will this mean for the individual trustees?
For many years, trustees have sat on anywhere from three to six committees, which forced us to divide up the available time into short blocks—about an hour and 15 minutes for each committee. That made it very hard to go deeply into a subject. That was a major deficiency of the old system.

The working group examined the current committees and their respective charges and reconfigured them into a smaller number of committees based on the overlap of their respective purviews. This will allow trustees to take deeper dives, to think about issues as they relate to one another rather than in isolation from one another, and to do so over a longer period of time, a three-hour block of time. The boards of overseers will work largely as program committees that relate to each of the major areas of the institution: the undergraduate college, the (graduate) Monterey Institute, and then all of the “Schools”—the Language Schools, Bread Loaf School of English, the Schools Abroad, the School of the Environment, and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. And, I suspect, future endeavors we may pursue.

Each trustee will sit on one standing committee, which will meet for three hours in the morning, and one board of overseers, which will meet in the afternoon, also for three hours. What will it mean for these trustees? We expect the experience will be one of greater focus. Their committee work will probe more deeply into the issues and questions facing the institution. We know from our trustee surveys that this is what they want. They want to be more of a “doing board” rather than a “listening board.” They believe that by developing more expertise and a deeper understanding of the issues, they will be better fiduciaries for the institution.

What is the charge given to the overseers?
They will focus on curriculum and academic programs, the quality of the student experience, fundraising, and those unique characteristics and qualities that distinguish each of our programs. The College board of overseers will do this for the undergraduate College, which is the core of our identity as an institution. The Institute board will focus exclusively on those same issues as they pertain to Monterey. And so on.

The overseer boards will vary in size, but trustees will comprise a majority of each. The College board will have 18 sitting trustees, the Monterey Institute board will have 9, and the Schools board will have 8. And then every one, two, or three years, trustees will rotate from one board to another so that over a five-year term or even a 15-year or lifetime term, each trustee will become much better acquainted with each of our programs. In addition, each board will have “partner” overseers and “constituent” overseers. Partner overseers will be individuals who have particular expertise or who are invested in the institution in some meaningful way. Constituent overseers will be students, faculty, and staff who will bring their own unique perspective to the membership. Each board will have one student, one faculty, and one staff member as constituent members. The inclusion of non-trustees brings diversity of experience and expertise to these boards, which I think is crucial.

Overseers will make recommendations that will then flow into the appropriate committee on the standing side. If one has a proposal for staffing or for a new program, that would go from the overseer committee to a standing committee or to the full board. All board-level decisions will ultimately be made by the full board, after recommendations come from the board of overseers or from a standing committee.

The creation of the boards of overseers is really quite significant for the institution. Historically, trustees–most of whom attended Middlebury as undergraduates–have tended to focus their attention overwhelmingly on the undergraduate experience. The complexity of Middlebury today demands we broaden that focus. Fortunately, our trustees are eager to learn more about the Monterey Institute, the Language Schools, Bread Loaf, etc. They are eager to engage issues pertaining to these areas of Middlebury. That’s another great benefit of the new structure.

Civility, Please

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

tolerance finalOn the afternoon of September 11, 2013, a Middlebury student and four acquaintances, who are not enrolled at the College, removed 2,977 American flags that had been placed in the lawn in front of Mead Chapel by members of a pair of student groups—the Middlebury College Republicans and Middlebury College Democrats.

The flags were set as a memorial to those who lost their lives in the 9/11 terror attacks, and the act of vandalism left many in the community shocked, angry, hurt, and confused. The student who helped uproot the flags said she found the display offensive to Native Americans and believed the area on which they had been placed had once been an Abenaki burial ground (a claim a local Abenaki chief disputed).

In the days that followed, media attention—mainstream and social—prompted an outpouring of commentary, which included threats and vitriol directed at individuals and the College itself.

In the wake of these events, we sat down with President Liebowitz to talk about civility, responsible discourse, and community standards.

In your e-mail to the community after the incident on campus you made a specific point of stating that as an academic community it’s incumbent upon us to encounter difficult issues, but that doesn’t mean that civility goes out the window when you do so, which is what happened.  
Right. We cherish freedom of speech, but it can’t be at the expense of silencing others. And in this case, we had people who felt very strongly about something, and whether or not we agree with it, it’s their right to voice it. But they can’t voice it by silencing others, by being destructive, and that’s what they did when they forcefully removed the flags.

Civility is a must. We’re an academic institution, and so we don’t only teach facts. We also teach how to argue, how to debate, how to engage, how to learn. And being civil is a key part of doing all of these things.

It seems that when the degree of passion rises, civility starts to slip. Not always, but often.
I think the larger political environment is really in some ways the genesis or the driver of what you’re talking about. If we become less civil on this campus, it’s a reflection of, or it’s an inability to stay removed from, the vitriol that one sees in current national politics.

I mean, I don’t remember this ever—I’ve been a political junkie for a long time, and I can’t recall this level of vitriol. I believe in some ways that models behavior for some individuals, and it only takes one person at one point in time to create this feeling.

There’s a paradox here too, and that is the fact that within this community, we’re overly polite towards one another most times. We’ll have less rigorous and vigorous debate and discussion than one might find, say, if they were in Morningside Heights or in Cambridge. So things can get bottled up, and then when emotions do boil over, people don’t always know how to disagree.
So it’s a combination of things, but I think the bigger issue for us is that Middlebury in some ways is a reflection of a larger political environment that isn’t always pretty.

One of the things that happened in response to this was a flood of vitriolic commentary. Not to excuse the original act, but at the same time, nothing warrants threats against one’s life.
No, it’s terrible. I myself received hundreds of e-mails, literally hundreds of e-mails, and some of them were beyond imagination in terms of the anger, the vitriol, the hatred. The Campus editors told me they got these commentaries in comments on their blog as well. I think many of those writing were not a part of this community, but some of them were.

But let’s not forget what was done here and on what day. September 11 is still an emotional and significant event, and the impact of that day was felt—and continues to be felt—by many, many Americans. People were angry about the disrespect shown for the nearly 3,000 who perished in the attack, but the deep emotions extend far beyond that.They extend to all those who, on the account of that terrorist attack, went to two wars, many of them killed or injured. Their families, no doubt, would view what happened on our campus as unacceptable—not to mention the legal, but highly provocative desecration of the American flag. So the anger and harsh response, while itself very unfortunate, reflects the deep feelings held by so many. There are obviously other ways a protest can be done.

But I do think the tenor of the reaction is also linked to this polarizing political climate. Instead of debate, we mostly see and hear only the extreme views on both ends of the ideological spectrum.
When Bill O’Reilly talked about this incident on his show, The O’Reilly Factor, it was a terrible display of reporting. It was irresponsible and unnecessarily fueled the anger. The show’s producers obviously didn’t check facts with anyone familiar with what actually happened.

After the segment was over, I went upstairs and stopped at my computer. In the three minutes that it took me to close up downstairs and come upstairs, I had already received 18 e-mails, 18 e-mails from people who had watched The O’Reilly Factor, e-mails from Abilene, Texas; Salt Lake City, Utah; Chicago, Illinois—writing threatening comments that were largely uninformed. They took verbatim what they heard on the show from “reporter” Adam Carolla and from Bill O’Reilly. And it continued for several days.

Wow.
And to answer your question, no, I don’t think such a response was warranted. Though again, I understand the anger and disgust at what happened. Certainly it’s disappointing to see any of them come from Middlebury students, but I would say the overwhelming majority came from outside the College.

But even the ones from Middlebury students point to something that you’ve talked about—close the laptop and go talk to somebody.
Right.

And don’t rely on a comment section or Twitter or—
Anonymous comments, anonymous comments.

Anonymous is even worse. But even when comments are attributable, go talk to someone. Why do you think folks are more likely to respond to a comment section than walk down the hall and talk to someone?
I think it’s just a reflection of how technology has made it so easy for people to comment.  It’s far easier to do something in a faceless way because you don’t have to face the response. Angelique Kidjo, in her Fulton lecture, made this point very, very strongly.  She told the students: “You must face the person with whom you have a disagreement.  In the end, you might not ever speak to that person again, but you can’t end a relationship—you can’t say, ‘I’m not going to speak to my friend for 10 years’ and not speak to them, you’ve got to talk it out.”

This message is a tough one for this generation, because this generation relies so much on, and has really grown up with, social media as the major source for interpersonal communication. So it’s a real challenge.

There were opportunities for students to talk about the flag issue at a series of forums with faculty members. But they were poorly attended, with the exception of maybe one.
I think two.

One or two.
There were, I believe, at least six sessions, and  the best-attended one had maybe 12 students, which is a nice size for such a discussion, but yes, overall attendance was less than what we thought it would be.

In the days after, I went up to Proctor, and I sat down at a table with students and tried to figure out why that was the case—why an incident that created angry debate did not lead to large gatherings to discuss it with faculty. I think by the time the open sessions rolled around—which didn’t take place until the following week for a whole host of reasons—people were formulating their own ideas, they were having so many discussions about this in the dining halls, in their dorms, in their classes,  that they were unsure about what the open sessions would be like. Or maybe it was our students’ already full schedules.

And there’s an interesting twist that students are talking about, which is to say, “What do you think President Liebowitz, what do you think the ultimate harm to the community has been as a result of this?” I pushed them to explain what they meant. At first I was thinking they were concerned that Middlebury’s reputation had been dragged through the mud. But no, they didn’t mean that at all.

What those in Proctor meant seemed to be much more nuanced. They said, “If, in the future, this act serves to silence people who want to speak out and have honest debate, it will have hurt us terribly.” And this was coming from people who largely disagreed, some passionately so, with the act this student committed. Students feared it would further shut down future conversations on important issues.

The strength of this institution is the ability to engage in debate and hear other people’s views and learn from them. And if this incident leads to even a subtle silencing of people to speak out and question the status quo or the prevailing thought, and question even the institution’s perspective on any and all issues, we will have really hurt the College and our students. They need to hear different viewpoints—we all do.  This incident cannot diminish people’s willingness to engage in difficult topics. If it does, then the College will have become a lesser environment for learning.

In the Queue: A Man’s World

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

realmanT Cooper ’94 has done an extraordinary thing. He has written a book about a subject that many people either find uncomfortable or uninteresting because it is so far removed from their own lives, and he has made it entertaining and consciousness expanding. Cooper’s latest book, Real Man Adventures, talks about the world of the transgender male, which is Cooper’s world. He takes us through his transition from female to male to the point today, where he is an adoring husband and stepfather to two children; he tells this story with humor and without dwelling on the intensely personal details that discussions of transgender sometimes do.

Reading Real Man Adventures is a little like eating  a smorgasbord. The dishes are all different and served in a variety of ways, and when sampled in small portions, they are fully satisfying. Cooper’s chapters are similarly set out for sampling—highly varied, short, and delectable. There are interviews, lists, letters, descriptions of dreams, snippets of conversations. In a brief interview with his wife, he asks her to list five ways that he is “typically male.” First on the list: he’s “self-involved.” An interview with an LA police officer, who transitioned from female to male, includes a discussion about the fact that the officer transitioned into “America’s most hated (a black male)” and Cooper transitioned into “America’s most loved (a white male).”

In one chapter, a transcript of a telephone conversation between Cooper and a State Department official shows a frustrated Cooper, who had been living as a man for years, desperately trying to change the gender on his passport: “All those guys in Iraq, getting their genitals blown off by IEDs, do you make them change their passport from M to F when they come home, because they don’t have penises anymore?” he finally asked, because the rule required him to prove that he’d had complete sexual reassignment surgery. On a similar bent, another chapter is devoted to a survey Cooper conducted of 31 men about whether they pee standing up or sitting down, and one chapter lists “40 successful men my stature or shorter.” Among them: Jon Stewart and Justin Bieber.

Having experienced life as both genders, he certainly can speak with authority about the differences. He claims that men have it better. Males earn more income, do not get sexually assaulted or beaten, and have more power and clout in general, he says. And all men are members of the “Man Club,” of which there are many benefits: “In Man Club, if you raise your voice and express anger about something, other members of the club actually pay attention and often respond favorably.” And, “In Man Club, you really do talk about sports with strangers when at a loss for conversation.”

But, unfortunately, there is fear mixed in with the pleasure of being male, and these fears are also documented in Real Man Adventures, from incidents of transgender people being assaulted in public restrooms to being unmasked by airport body scanners. Cooper describes a nightmare in which he’s rushed to the hospital, bleeding, and the doctors and nurses are working feverishly to save him. As they cut away his pants, they discover he’s not what they expected, and the shock causes them to lose focus on saving his life.

Cooper wants people to understand that “I am happy and able to be myself in the world.” Although, he says, if he could ask for anything, he’d ask for a few more inches of height

Serene Velocity

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

TedPerry__BMA1564When Ted Perry first stepped foot on the Middlebury campus in 1978, having been lured away from the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, where he held the lofty title of director of film, he discovered a college that had no film courses in its curriculum; it had no film equipment; it did not have a professional screening facility.

Now, look at that photograph on this page, an image captured by one of Ted’s former students. Look at that impish half grin; look at how Ted smiles as much with his eyes as with his mouth. It’s not hard to imagine him looking that way when he arrived at Middlebury 35 years ago, seeing a blank canvas stretched out before him. He surely delighted in imagining what could be, just as we can express a measure of delight in recognizing what has been.

Ted has worn many titles—too many to mention here, at least in any way that gives them proper weight—and has taught an array of bright students at Middlebury and elsewhere (Iowa, Texas, NYU), yet what has remained constant is a state of what colleague and friend Stephen Donadio has described as “serene velocity,” (which is also the title of a film that Ted has long admired).

This is what set Ted apart in the classroom—and as a scholar, as a teacher, and in the world of film, where he is held in such high regard. No doubt this state of serene velocity will accompany Ted into retirement, as he turns his attention and that impish smile to further avenues of exploration that await his attention.

A recent Sunday tested that theory. An overcast afternoon found Ted in Otter Creek Bakery with one of his grandsons, 10-year-old Sutton. As the young boy quietly enjoyed a giant chocolate cookie, Ted softly greeted other customers (a neighbor, a former chair of the Middlebury Board of Trustees). How serene (!).

“What a nice way to spend the afternoon,” a friend remarked.

“We’re about to go clean the third floor of the house, then we’re going to unpack and shelve my books. After that, we’re going swimming,” Ted replied, as casually as one would ask for a pack of sugar. “Now, when are we going canoeing in the Adirondacks…?”

Inside Out

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

PrintWhen you approach New York’s Bellevue Hospital on 1st Avenue and 26th Street, its magnificent gated fence looms above. Enclosing the original redbrick structure, it stands tall and spiked, constructed from wrought iron and coated in black. Menacing yet strikingly beautiful, the main gate bears the simple words “Bellevue Hospital” in a font imbued with traces of an asylum. Separating interior from exterior, it speaks of a time long past. The imagination can only run wild with what lies beyond their craggy form.

Bellevue is a buzzword. It denotes “nuthouse,” and “loony bin.” It is referenced in countless films and books as the solution for the mad hatter traipsing through the house uttering nonsense. It is its own punch line.

Unbeknownst to many, however, it is also the oldest public hospital in the country and the training ground for many top American physicians; yet, its infamous moniker often conceals the care and compassion that happen inside.

During the past year, I have worked in Bellevue’s child and adolescent psychiatric inpatient unit, conducting trauma screens, in-take interviews, and assessment scales for various psychiatric disorders. Many of the children I screened were plagued by loneliness. They had slipped through the cracks and seemed lost to the world. They ran the gamut of personas and ranged in age from five to 17.

Some refused to speak; others could not stop talking. Some came from the foster-care system; others from the Upper East Side. Some hugged me; others spit in my face.

Several months ago, I attended the initial assessment of a 10-year-old boy from the Dominican Republic. Having the fewest credentials in the room, I pulled up a chair and sat in the back.

The boy had been adopted and entered the United States at the age of five. Prior to his adoption, he suffered from severe neglect and malnourishment. His mother had admitted him to Bellevue for disorganized thought patterns, increased mood swings, and overt aggression at school. When I entered the room, he sat facing the wall, crouched like a timid animal with eyes tight shut. It was hard to imagine that such a child a few days ago had put his fist through the window.

He was asked questions and answered few. When the boy was asked to recite his birthday, he said he didn’t know. How odd, I thought. With the other patients I had met, even the most damaged, all knew their birthday. Children love to tell you their birthday. They tell you their age down to the very last detail—eight and three-fourths, ten and a half, nine and a quarter. I had never met a child who could not recall his own birthday.

After the assessment, I was invited to meet with the physicians and discuss the diagnosis. I sat in the corner as each resident and medical-school student presented. Their diagnoses were elaborate, layered, and sophisticated beyond the little medical knowledge I had gained. The birthday episode was not mentioned. The attending physician nodded her head and said little. To my surprise, she asked me what I thought.

“I find it very odd that the boy doesn’t know his birthday,” I said.

The attending offered a small, knowing smile.

“Yes,” she replied, “it is quite unsettling.”

It was later discovered that the boy was mentally retarded. In accordance with the group’s original assessment, there were signs of comorbidity with bipolar-1 and generalized anxiety. However, the true culprit was more obvious: the boy didn’t know his birthday because his brain could not comprehend the concept.

I am at the bottom of a long ladder that points toward medicine. Sometimes I’m not even sure if I’ve made it onto the first step. However, I have discovered that my intuition—my ability to sense when something is awry—is perhaps on the right track. Sometimes the solution to the problem is simpler than we perceive. Often, the solution is in our capacity to listen.

Jessica Halper ’11 lives in New York City, where she is finishing her postbaccalaureate for medical school. She currently works as a research assistant on trauma and posttraumatic stress disorder studies at NYU Langone Medical Center.

Things That Happened, Things to Do — Week of April 15

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

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Our regular recap of goings on at the College and a look ahead to events on the horizon. As always, we hope to call your attention to items that captured ours and alert you to events that you won’t want to miss. If you have a news item that you think we’d be interested in, drop us a line at middmag@middlebury.edu.

  • Jay Parini weighed in at CNN.com on whether paper-grading software could replace the human, professorial version. The D.E. Axinn Professor of English and Creative Writing drew on his 40 years of teaching (and paper grading) to limn the difference.
  • With a Supreme Court ruling on affirmative action in the wings, Professor of Political Science Erik Bleich wrote in Atlantic.com that “A collective, nationwide effort by private institutions can transform the debate about affirmative action.”
  • Cold stone seats and leaden skies fit the occasion. On Tuesday, April 16, Middlebury joined 300 venues worldwide marking the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” with public readings.  The lunchtime audience sat in the wind at Gifford Amphitheatre as theatre professor Dana Yeaton first read the letter from the eight white Birmingham ministers who scolded that the freedom march was “unwise and untimely.” A tag team of 26 student and faculty readers then delivered the fruits of King’s mighty pen. Read the letter here.
  • The Spring Student Symposium kicks off Thursday evening with a keynote address by actor and alumna Cassidy Freeman ’05 and performances of all kinds. Friday is filled with visual art and architecture exhibits, oral presentations, and poster sessions. The range and sophistication of student work is mind-blowing. Plus it’s all very fun. The full schedule is here.
  • Boston Globe jazz critic Bob Blumenthal calls him “a jazz treasure.” Now a Middlebury resident, sax and trumpet master Miles Donahue will bring his quintet to the Town Hall Theater Friday evening. Everyone gets a free CD, too.
  • Earth Day is Tuesday, but since many Earthlings gotta work, the Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op will host a party on Saturday from 12-3 pm at the store on Washington Street. Live music, a seed and seedling exchange, stuff for kids. Not to mention our planet’s signature contribution to the Milky Way—food.