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Road Taken: Serving Me Well

Categories: Midd Blogosphere


After I graduated from Middlebury, I waited tables. I found pleasure in learning long wine lists, working by candlelight, and timing 12-course tasting menus to the minute. I am persnickety by nature, which is excellent for high-stakes fine-dining restaurants where minutia like matching all the handles of the oyster forks at Table 34 takes on astounding importance. But serving was not what I imagined for myself post college. In the summer and fall of 2010, I interviewed for a few editorial assistant positions and almost got a job in management consulting. Eventually, by winter, I took what I thought was an editorial research position at a business-to-business journal, but it was actually telemarketing. Surprise! The job didn’t pay enough to cover my rent, student loan payments, and living expenses, so I quit in May and got a job serving. I worked first in Portland, Maine, and then in Washington, D.C., where I served at the most-booked restaurant in the country for three-and-a-half years.

Occasionally my friends and relatives expressed confusion about why someone—me—with a degree in international studies was scraping plates and cleaning out drip trays for a living. But here’s the thing—just as Professor Jay West taught me to love 19th-century German literature, angry patrons and drug-addled chefs taught me never to feel above anything. I toughened up and learned to take responsibility. I also learned salmon roe kohlrabi foam exists (but maybe shouldn’t); anything can be made into a velouté; and grad school is not always the answer—even though, late one night, smelling like truffle oil and sitting on a bus next to a vomiting sous chef, I thought it might be. I applied to MFA programs and got waitlisted.

When I graduated from college, part of me believed the world had a perfect, golden niche waiting to be filled with my skills and abilities. This is embarrassing and obviously not the case. In her opening address to Middlebury, incoming president Laurie Patton said students “increasingly must create their own worlds—their own forms of employment, their own ways of being in the world.” That’s a great sentiment, and I think it’s true.

Eventually I left serving, and after several months of scrambling/freelancing (and nights spent staring at CodeAcademy, wishing I might magically become a Javascript genius), I got an editing job I love. Working in an office is different than working in a restaurant: it makes small talk easier, and it’s nice to get a lunch break. But part of me misses the hustle and delicacy of restaurants—and the feeling of being in a club of people who choose to work in the shadows of everyone else’s lives. More than anything, I still believe my success as a person shouldn’t be measured by the job I have or don’t have.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently because of all the talk about the relevancy of a liberal arts education—whether courses on European structuralism sufficiently prepare students to meet the demands of today’s job market. But the liberal arts are also about adaptability, persistence, intellectual generosity, restlessness, tradition, and grit.

Middlebury allowed me, even in moments of selfish, myopic despair, to step back and find perspective. And as for structuralism, I remember hearing my trendy restaurant’s spring menu—some elevation of local honey and stone-cooked peasant bread—and thinking of nothing but Pierre Bourdieu’s Distinction.

Rachel Siviski ’10 still enjoys finding just the right wine to pair with dinner. She lives with friends in Vermont.

Island Time

Categories: Midd Blogosphere


I check my watch again—likely for the 10th time these past two minutes. It’s 6:25 p.m., and the 5:30 “Speedy’s” ferry has yet to leave the dock. I do the math in my head, even though I know there’s no chance I’ll make the connecting ferry to Virgin
Gorda in the British Virgin Islands.

I flip through my notebook, where I’ve written down phone numbers for other ferry services and hotels in the area. I like schedules, efficiency, timeliness. And this night is not going as I’d planned.

I’m about to begin a monthlong internship, an environmental research expedition in the Caribbean. The other ferry passengers around me don’t seem concerned about the lack of timeliness. A baby peeks over the seat, chocolate-brown, sleepy eyes watching me tap my fingers.

Looking for assistance, I ask the man working at the ferry dock when we might be leaving.

He laughs.

“Why are you in such a hurry?” he asks.

Without waiting for an answer, he tells me about “island time.” Apparently island time means nothing is on time.

An hour and fifteen minutes after the scheduled departure, we push away from the dock. We pick up speed, crashing over waves in ways that seem reckless. “Finally,” I sigh.

I’ve always been obsessed with moving forward. In high school I worked endlessly, participating in every imaginable activity to craft the perfect resume to get me into a school like Middlebury. And while I enjoyed these activities—at least I thought I did; in retrospect, I’m not sure I took the time necessary to enjoy them properly— often my primary motivation was to check another item off my mental list: things I needed to do to succeed.

At Middlebury, I’m always working, distributing my hours between athletics, academics, two jobs, and a social life—doing so hoping I’ll find a job after graduation. I have no patience for sitting still. I must always be making progress, always moving forward.

Lately, I’ve been thinking that my exposure to “island time” is starting to change that mindset. While on island time, no matter how badly I wanted to move forward, I couldn’t.

Boxes weren’t checked. And it was okay.

Now, I can’t say that this time of self-
reflection allowed me to “figure everything out.” While gazing out at the beautiful water, I didn’t suddenly realize what I’m supposed to do next; I didn’t figure out how I was going to make an impression upon the world. What I realized—perhaps for the first time—is that trying to figure everything out is a fool’s errand.

When I returned to Middlebury, I resisted the temptation of falling into old habits: I had responsibilities, of course, but I wanted to be responsible for the moment, not the future.

Moving forward may mean a long run down a country road instead of rushing from activity to activity; time doesn’t stand still, but my time does. Instead of devoting countless hours to future plans, I try and turn this devotion to those around me. Instead of worrying about a murky future and trying to blast through the haze, I try to become comfortable with ambiguity.

With graduation approaching, I’m cognizant of the landmark events—graduations, new jobs, promotions—that will mark life’s progression. But if I’m always checking the seconds that go by and focusing on where I need to be next, I’ll forget to notice where I am.

Elizabeth Reed ’15 will graduate this spring as a sociology and anthropology major. She’ll let us know what she plans on doing next—on her own time.

Old Chapel: Looking Ahead

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

middlebury future president

As Ron Liebowitz enters the twilight of his presidency, we asked him to reflect on the new challenges that leaders in higher education can expect to face, while examining where these challenges came from and how they can be confronted.

What challenges will future leaders of colleges and universities face that presidents of the last decade either didn’t face or faced only in
limited ways?

At the risk of annoying a whole lot of people, I will start with the issues of cost and relevance. I tried out this issue as a topic of conversation with my faculty colleagues almost three years ago, and let’s just say it was not the most popular topic I ever introduced for collegial dialogue. And I can understand why. Yet it is something that the private institutions, especially, cannot afford to ignore, as the cost of such an education is now around $250,000 for the four-year BA degree.

This figure becomes even more astounding when one learns that the annual cost (room, board, and tuition) of around $60,000 represents only about 70 percent of the actual cost of that education per student. Annual gifts and earnings from the endowment provide what amounts to a hidden “scholarship” of more than $20,000 to even those who pay the full price.

This leads to the question of relevance, whether a degree today ensures what it did for earlier generations…

Right. Our current students are entering a world vastly different than the one their parents and grandparents encountered when they graduated from college. And people want to know: is a liberal arts degree worth worth the investment.  And this holds true for everyone, even those most able to afford this high cost.

As taboo as it might be to say aloud, when one is paying a quarter of a million dollars for an education, one of the things one inevitably considers is whether such an investment is relevant to one’s son’s or daughter’s future—whether the four years will help them acquire the knowledge, character, habits of the mind, and skills necessary to compete in a world that is very different from just a generation ago. More and more parents are beginning to notice that the education that worked for them 25 or 30 years ago will not suffice for this generation.

Of course inside the academy and at Middlebury we all know the value of a liberal arts education: it is, in the long term, second to none in preparing young adults for a fulfilling and productive life. Yet, the many defenses of a liberal arts education that are offered up more and more frequently, while convincing to those already committed, are not fully understood by the uninitiated. Unfortunately, this group represents an overwhelming majority of families with soon-to-be college-bound children.

What, then, is the solution, or a solution, to this information or curricular gap?

Well, we need to continue to extol the virtues of having generations of liberally educated graduates while, at the same time, building on what a liberal arts education has traditionally offered students. That is, the 21st-century version of the liberal arts, different from the 18th-, 19th-, and 20th-century versions, should evolve as its predecessors have done and include components that require students to experiment, conceive, design, build, and engage in uncertainty. It needs to provide the opportunity for students to take all they learn from studying across multiple disciplines and through different modes of inquiry and apply their learning to real-world challenges, questions, and numerous unknowns. Students need the opportunity to take risks, experience failure, and learn lessons from such failure without fear of a bad grade or having to wait until their first job or endeavor after graduation.

The combination of intense specialization and technological innovation, spread so easily and rapidly over the past decade as the result of globalization, requires the liberal arts to evolve and become more dynamic. It needn’t become diluted or beholden solely to the trendy or the here and now. Rather, it needs to equip its students not only with the timeless virtues of the liberal arts of the past but also with the tools, perspectives, and experience necessary to adapt to our rapidly changing and competitive world.

The two Department of Energy Solar Decathlon competitions, the STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) summer program, the Center for Social Entrepreneurship, MiddCORE, Middlebury FoodWorks, our faculty-student summer research program, and the annual Spring Student Symposium are all examples of programs that can define, complement, and transform a traditional liberal arts education. These programs provide opportunities for students to follow up their course work with experimentation, design work, problem solving, collaboration, and the experience of creating something new, or at least the setting out to do so. Failure is a common and inevitable part of each program. What one learns in the process is invaluable: students graduate possessing a combined breadth of knowledge and set of skills that are today so necessary to succeed in a highly competitive and increasingly specialized world.

And so why is this so different now from what presidents faced 10, 20, and 30 years ago?

As I mentioned previously, the world has changed dramatically since many of the faculty and the parents of our current students were themselves in college, and the rapid pace of change challenges our education systems, from kindergarten through higher education. It has become harder and harder to keep up and evolve with the times and what they demand from our graduates. It remains to be seen if colleges and universities, let alone K–12 schools, can blend the best of what I would call traditional pedagogies with what might be called new pedagogies that recognize the ways current and future generations of students will learn. We already see a large proportion of students shying away from text-based materials and gravitating almost naturally to digitized content. The attention span of the current generation of students is far shorter than it was 20 years ago, which translates for many into an inability to sit for 50 minutes and enjoy, let alone learn from, a lecture without texting or checking Facebook. Yet this should come as no surprise. At the same time, an expectation that faculty can and will adjust to these changes and do so seamlessly, while pursuing their research and professional obligations, is optimistic, at least in many of our disciplines.

Robust and generous faculty-development programs are essential if higher education as we know it is to thrive in this century. And a willingness on the part of faculty to engage in such professional development is equally—and perhaps more—essential.

While our faculty are incredibly committed to and excel at the human-intensive pedagogy that sits at the core of a residential liberal arts college education, the incentive for faculty to build upon that pedagogy and amend the curriculum accordingly to meet the needs of students is not quite apparent, or at least not obviously so. And therein lies the challenge for current and future presidents of colleges and universities: to articulate creatively a vision for the liberal arts and higher education that is both timeless and time sensitive, and that recognizes how what was valuable in the past can serve as the foundation for the future. It must be a vision that motivates and inspires faculty, and one whose new pedagogies must be based on a deep understanding of one’s students, align with how those students learn, and allow for the kind of dynamism in both the pedagogy and curriculum essential for the 21st century.

Old Chapel: Arts Scene

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

Middlebury dance finalThe arts have a rich history at Middlebury, playing a fundamental role in the life and culture of the College. We talked to President Liebowitz about the importance of the arts, its evolution inside and outside the curriculum, and its future in higher education.

Let’s start broadly: What is the role of the arts in a liberal arts education?
It’s an integral part of a liberal arts education. To be liberally educated you have to have an understanding, an appreciation, and a critique, in some way, of the arts. The arts are an embodiment of the human endeavor, a product of creativity, and an expression of one’s relationship to oneself, to other people, and to the environment. The arts are central to our educational mission.

Students come to a liberal arts college like Middlebury for both the breadth and the depth of what we offer. If you’re a chemistry major or a political science major, you’ll take 18 to 20 courses outside your chosen field of study. You’ll be exposed to various ways of thinking, creating, and appreciating. This broad education includes the arts.

The College recently received a generous grant from the Mellon Foundation to support a multiyear project to bring emerging artists in dance to collaborate with Middlebury faculty and students in other disciplines. This seems to be a groundbreaking effort.
I’m very excited about this. “Movement Matters” will address the question of how human bodies can shape—both literally and metaphorically—our political and physical worlds. Christal Brown, an assistant professor and chair of the dance program, will direct the project, and she’s done an amazing job. She’s an incredible ambassador and spokesperson for the performing arts becoming more central in the lives of our students, faculty, and staff.

To be honest, I think students are already there. With this project, I think faculty and staff will be the ones being pushed to think beyond the traditional boundaries of a liberal arts education. As faculty advisers, we always encourage students to broaden their experiences by taking courses outside their areas of endeavor. But this project goes further. It will compel faculty to think about how art meshes with their disciplinary teaching.  It’s a wonderful reinforcement of the liberal arts ideal.

During your time at Middlebury, have you seen an increase in student interest in the arts?
I believe there’s greater student demand to engage in artistic endeavors. There’s always been great interest in the arts curriculum here, and this student body has consistently been a bit more arts oriented than other student bodies I’ve encountered in the academy.

I’m seeing an expansion of interest outside the curriculum. We have amazingly creative students working on, say, playwriting in the Old Stone Mill or pottery on Adirondack View. Both spaces fall under the auspices of PCI, our Programs on Creativity and Innovation in the Liberal Arts, and they’re serving as creative laboratories for students who want to experiment outside the classroom.

Now, there’s healthy debate among some faculty as to whether we should be facilitating this experimentation outside of the curriculum. Some arts faculty feel students should understand the fundamentals of what they’re doing, rather than just attempting it. I understand their thinking, but another perspective is unquestionably compelling. Peter Hamlin, the Christian A. Johnson Professor of Music, says that among his composition students, those who have composed music experimentally in the Old Stone Mill have arrived in his class having already learned, to an appreciable, if not complete, extent what works and what doesn’t work, and he senses a constructive confidence as they discuss their creative endeavors.

Like in other disciplines, in the arts, there’s theory and there’s practice. How valuable are the opportunities students have to engage in these “real world” programs like the Potomac Theatre Project in New York or the Town Hall Theater in town?
Extremely valuable. Let’s look at the Potomac Theatre Project (PTP). Since Cheryl Faraone and Richard Romagnoli founded PTP (with Jim Petosa) in the mid 1980s, scores of Middlebury students have been involved with this professional acting company, working alongside equity actors, learning the art of acting as well as set and costume design, in ways really hard to replicate in the traditional classroom or theater program. And since PTP moved to New York and off-Broadway seven years ago, the experience has gotten that much richer. Our undergraduate theatre program already is amazing; access to PTP makes it, in my view, remarkable.

As well, our partnership with the Town Hall Theatre not only supports a local cultural institution but also expands our students’ opportunities. (For more on this partnership, see p. 32) During the school year, students act, co-direct, and stage productions in collaboration with community actors and performers. Each January, THT also houses our winter-term musical, which typically plays to full houses every night. And in the summer, our Language Schools students perform in the space, as the arts constitute an important part of the learning process and Language School mission. We have flexibility in our accessible venues, and we also place unique artistic offerings right in town.

There are two other programs emblematic of both the thirst for, and success of, the arts for our students. During fall break, senior majors in architecture studies will visit cities—recent locations have been Montreal and Boston—where they will view and study important architectural works. They’ll meet with the architects of those projects, when possible, and also visit architectural firms, both large and small, to see first-hand what it means to work in this field; this kind of exposure to the profession is difficult to obtain in the Champlain Valley.

Another extraordinary opportunity is the Museum Assistance Program (MAP). Students learn how to be docents of a collection—they learn how to show, talk about, and teach art. But they are also learning to speak intelligently to audiences and to carry themselves in professional ways. They’re acquiring interpersonal and intellectual skills that will help them in any profession.

There’s also a fund that allows winter term students to…
They purchase art for the museum! Yes, that’s another wonderful opportunity. Through the generous gift of an alumna, the students research art, they learn about art acquisition, and they learn about the marketplace. It’s an incredible experience, and they get to work alongside the donor to the fund, an art gallery owner, who comes to campus and provides advice and expertise. Another fund, given by parents of a recent graduate, provides residences for visiting musicians. When these professional musicians come to campus, they spend a little time on campus and work with students, giving the students a feel for performing or composing at a professional level. These experiences are invaluable.

The College recently received a generous gift of a Steinway concert grand piano, and part of the donor agreement was that this piano be made available to the entire community.
It’s a beautiful gift to the College, and this aspect of the gift especially so. We have far more musical talent than what we regularly hear about. When the piano arrived, this became abundantly clear. You wrote about it in the magazine—we had sign-up opportunities for people to come into the concert hall and play. The list filled up immediately. And interest has continued, as it has with people getting to play other pianos. If anything, we’re many pianos short in terms of demand on campus!  A gift of 10, 20, and maybe 30 pianos for practice and leisurely playing would probably still not meet our campus demand; one can hope!

Middlebury has celebrated music for a long time. We have a concert series in its 95th year, and recently I looked at the entire lineup of performers who have come to campus during this period. Both the evolution and the continuity in this music series is remarkable. Middlebury cares about music, and this Steinway is symbolic of that commitment to the art form.  It has all the more meaning by coming to us as a gift from parents whose son excelled here in music and the performing arts.

There are well-documented economic pressures on higher education. Where do the arts fall in these discussions of cost and relevance?
It’s a real question, specifically one of cost.  To circle back to the beginning of our conversation: the arts are essential to a liberal arts education. Appreciating the arts doesn’t end when one graduates. Rather, if we are successful in educating our students in the liberal arts tradition, that appreciation becomes a lifelong endeavor.  Learning about artistic forms allows one to appreciate life. We’d be delinquent if we didn’t recognize the arts’ place in our students’ educations.

Does this mean always having the most expensive things? No. It means always making artistic endeavors a part of students’ educational experiences. Students must be exposed to, and inspired by, the arts—by what they see and hear and learn. Middlebury has long been committed to this philosophy, and I believe we’ll not only retain this commitment but strengthen it in the years ahead.

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.

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.

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.