Tag Archives: Editors Choice

Old Chapel: Liberal Arts Evolution

On the eve of the fall semester, President Liebowitz issued an exhaustive 11-page report to the faculty that was as bold and provocative in its thinking as it was ambitious in its length. In it, he addressed the evolving nature of a liberal arts education—specifically its cost and relevance.  We spoke to the president about his ideas.

Let’s start with cost and relevance. . .  

Well, I think there’s a tipping point beyond which people sit up and take notice about what they are paying for. And while I believe that a liberal arts education is priceless in the greater scheme and long-term view of things, people don’t always have the capacity and luxury to think long term, especially coming out of the worst recession in a century. I think more people have been paying more attention to cost, value, and relevance. And that’s why I wanted to address this issue.

What are some of the cost implications?
Wage and salaries represent about half of all of our costs. And we have significant fixed costs related to our infrastructure. So we have to take a look at how we deploy our staffing based on what we feel is the most important pedagogy, and where that pedagogy is absolutely essential and where it is a luxury.

As we think about a Middlebury education, we have to acknowledge that one of the most important reasons students come here is because of the personalized approach to learning that one will get, the opportunities to engage faculty who are committed to undergraduate teaching and who understand that the core mission of Middlebury College is undergraduate education.

But let’s step back and ask if that means students have to have that 100 percent of the time. If you look at a student who has gotten the most out of a Middlebury education, what does his or her four years look like? How much of it is really one-and-one instruction, how much of it is really in small seminars? Hopefully a large part of it, but it’s certainly not the entire part. So before we think about continuing to do what we have done as we have done it, we have to step back and ask, “Might there be another way?”

Let me give you one example that is illustrative of the opportunities we have (and it shows why we have a comparative advantage over our peers): Our Chinese department is second-to-none in teaching Chinese language, literature, and culture. It is remarkable both in its rigor and how our students emerge four years later with a fluency and a sensitivity to the culture of the language that they are studying. At the same time, we hear repeated commentary about the department’s narrow course offerings at the senior seminar level from students who have returned from studying abroad at our sites in China; [these offerings] reflect the professional experience and expertise from a relatively small number of faculty. The students see too few opportunities to apply their Chinese language capabilities to contemporary issues. So instead of hiring two more faculty in the Chinese department to cover China’s economy or Chinese-U.S. relations, in Chinese, why not tap into our existing resources in China, at our sites in Kunming, Hangzhou, and Beijing, where we cover environmental sciences (Kunming), the arts (Hangzhou), and the social sciences (Beijing)?Why not tie in classes that are going on in Beijing with classes at Middlebury? An 8:30 p.m. seminar in Beijing would be an 8:30 a.m. class for Chinese majors in Middlebury.

We’ve hired the faculty to teach our students in Beijing, and now we can have that course in two places using videoconferencing and technology that didn’t exist three to five years ago. The ability to bring in expertise from our 38 sites around the world presents this kind of opportunity for us in multiple languages across many disciplines. And so without ever increasing the size of our faculty, we can expand our curriculum significantly and provide important new opportunities to our students. And that’s just one area we can think about a little bit differently.

So, tell us more about untapped potential . . .     
Well, despite having great educational resources such as the language schools (since 1915), BLSE (since 1920), and schools abroad (1949), they have largely existed in a vacuum. They have served separate cohorts of students, with occasional overlaps with our undergraduates, but only recently. These programs represent untapped resources for the College. The challenge we face now is rationalizing—leveraging, if you will—these resources to the benefit of our core mission, which is undergraduate education. Which is to say, if these programs produce financial surpluses for the College, great. If they provide important and unique educational opportunities to our undergraduate students, then even better. So a lot of my attention is given to strengthening this network of educational programs to the benefit of the entire institution, and especially our undergraduate students. It’s time we capitalized on these long-standing programs.

What role do you see technology playing?
For a period of our history, our isolated location was a great benefit. It was an oasis of sorts, an escape from noise, a place where students could come and have a contemplative four years immersed in their studies. But the world has changed dramatically since those times. I don’t think students can afford to be totally checked out, isolated from what’s going on in the rest of the world for four years, and then jump in when they graduate.

Technology is a great leveler. Even for those students who go abroad—and that’s 55 to 60 percent of our student body—technology will still be key, because it will allow students to stay connected after they return. It also is a way in which faculty can rethink pedagogy. Collaborative learning and accessing information instantaneously have become so important. Technology plays a role in how faculty can do so much more than the standard 50-minute lecture three times a week. But we have to be smart. There’s good technology and there’s not-so-good technology, technology for the lazy and bored. We don’t want that. We want to retain our focus on undergraduate education, human contact, but that’s not mutually exclusive from finding ways technology can enhance that experience.

How might the curriculum evolve?
Students being learned in the classics and foundations of the liberal arts should not change. It’s crucial that students learn fundamentals from Western and Eastern texts. Those are building blocks to understanding the human condition, and they don’t lose their relevance.

However, when you talk about the organization of the curriculum, and you divide things by, say, the regional division of the world (Asian studies, African studies, Latin American studies, etc.) it assumes that the old order—state institutions—play the most significant role in world affairs. If we learned anything since 9/11, we learned how non-state actors are becoming more and more important. So, we need to think about how this kind of change alters how we organize, at the least, our international curriculum and also how we view “the world.” And then there are the ways disciplines have evolved. It’s tidy to say “I’m a biologist” or “I’m a chemist,” but what’s happening in between the established disciplines is, in many ways, as significant and exciting, if not more. Then again, graduate schools continue to produce PhDs almost solely within disciplines. So it’s tricky. But it’s worth examining what we learn, how we learn it, and what constitutes knowledge in today’s world. Just because something has been done a certain way doesn’t mean it should always be done that way.

Also, we need to set our expectations for what students need to know. What represents the best launching pad for students not only to get a fundamental base in a liberal arts education, but also best prepares them to thrive in the world?

This leads to how our students learn . . .
I’d like to think of a Middlebury education as being a sum of all the parts, and that they all support one another, rather than being perceived to be in competition with one another. So it’s not a zero sum game, but rather a summation game.

Now, there is a risk of charlatanism when students get involved superficially in a number of disciplines. But through projects like the Solar Decathlon or the “Hydrogen tractor” winter term course taught by two alums last year or MiddCORE, we see examples of where you have a superb academic experience in the classroom supporting and being supported by what students are doing outside the classroom. And that’s an important aspect of today’s liberal arts education.

Though I understand it, I don’t necessarily believe it’s in the best interest of our students that during the past 25 years, we have become so focused on excellence in the classroom, we have devoted less attention to what students are doing outside of class. We as a faculty need to see how life outside the classroom is a crucial element of a Middlebury education.

What about the evolution of the student body?
Diversity of life experience and diversity of thought are the two most important things in creating a vibrant learning environment. If we manage to bring together students of different world experiences and of different thought—political, social, cultural—it will enrich the educational environment significantly.

I started teaching here in 1984 and seemed free to make statements in my political geography class that 15, 16 years later would have been challenged by students whose life experiences would have rendered my positions and my lectures dated and, well, provincial. We now have students from more than 75 countries, so to speak about international development or dictatorships or freedom of speech takes on a very different character when people who have experienced a very different system or lifestyle can say, “Wait a minute, what about this perspective?” That’s what we try to do here: provide different viewpoints so as to stretch our students’ understanding and comfort levels as they study across the liberal arts.

If we successfully answer the relevance concern, does that solve the cost issue as well?
Partially, yes. It buys us time. But we can’t assume a five or six percent growth in the cost of a college education forever. So we need to work on both. We have to make “the relevance case” more strongly in order to attract and retain the best students, and we have to address cost before we lose too large a segment of the population who believes it would be impossible to finance a Middlebury education.

Dalai Lamas—in History and in Person

What is a Dalai Lama? And how is His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama different from (and similar to) the previous 13?

A week before His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s visit to Middlebury, a large audience at Dana Auditorium heard some answers to the questions, “What is a Dalai Lama?” and “Who is this Dalai Lama?” Professor William Waldron sketched the spiritual and temporal role Dalai Lamas have held since their rise to prominence in 16th century Tibet, adding insights about the particular life and role of Middlebury’s honored guest.

The title “Dalai Lama” itself suggests the complex history of Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism. “Lama” is Tibetan for “guru” or “teacher”; “Dalai” is Mongolian for “ocean.” The title is loosely translated as “Ocean of Merit” or “Ocean of Wisdom,” and Waldron explained how it harkens back to the Buddhist leaders’ patronage by Mongolian princes who ran—and defended—Tibet from the 13th through 17th centuries. Far from otherworldly spiritualists, these Buddhist lamas operated amidst Mongolian and Chinese political plays, with each power exercising control over Tibetans through their spiritual leaders.

Buddhism didn’t arrive in Tibet until the 7th century, and the monks who brought it from India were not entering a spiritual vacuum: practitioners of Tibet’s indigenous shamanic spiritual tradition, Bön, resisted the Buddhist influence. Originally armed pastoralists like the Mongolians, the Tibetans took to the Buddhist teachings of compassion. Bön and Buddhism ultimately developed a syncretic relationship, and during the four-century span prior to Mongolian political rule, it was the Buddhist monasteries who provided a stabilizing cultural force, serving as keepers of literacy and iconography, even lending money (similar to the role the Catholic monasteries played after the fall of the Roman Empire).

Waldron noted that while Dalai Lamas have for centuries wielded political and spiritual influence, it is the latter role Tibetans value most. Traditionally, the Dalai Lama is considered the reincarnation of the revered bodhisattva (or “enlightened being”) of compassion, Avalokiteshvara. Bodhisattvas cycle through many earthly lifetimes, delaying their own rest in nirvana in order to help liberate others from suffering. In the Tibetan Mahayana Buddhist tradition especially, Waldron noted, “the many bodhisattvas represent the potential for cultivating awakened properties within oneself.” This awakening, through meditation and other practices, allows a person to see reality without the ulterior motives and grasping of the ego; the awakened person is free to engage others with compassion and wisdom.

His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama was a toddler in his mud-and-stone village when a lengthy, detailed process identified him as the reincarnation of the 13th Dalai Lama. Given the restless time into which he was born, he went from a closely tutored child in a Lhasa palace whose only exposure to technology was an old film projector, watches, and a telescope to a world traveler who counts among his friends prominent scientists, philosophers, and religious leaders. (His own education demanded decades of studying scriptures and the highly advanced logic of Buddhism; he earned the equivalent of a Ph.D. in philosophy and is the author of dozens of books.)

And although Waldron noted that the 14th Dalai Lama “is not the first to be beleaguered by politics,” the politics that have beleaguered His Holiness are of a modern scale. Fearing for his life during the increasingly restrictive Chinese occupation of Tibet, he fled in 1959 and found asylum in Dharamsala, India, with many other Tibetans. As Pico Iyer notes in his biography of the Dalai Lama, The Open Road, “One in five Tibetans—more than a million—died of starvation or in direct encounters with the Chinese. One in 10 was jailed; all but 13 of the more than 6,000 monasteries in Tibet were leveled.”

While he has tirelessly engaged in efforts on behalf of Tibet’s autonomy, His Holiness recently abdicated his political role as his people’s temporal leader (Waldron noted that his traditional political authority lodged mostly in central Tibet, but that this abdication nonetheless changes “the religious polity of classical Tibet”). He remains active fostering Tibet’s monastic and cultural traditions in exile while calling for a “global ethics” that supersedes religion or culture to engage and develop what is common to all humans—kindness, responsibility, and compassion. Toward this end, he regularly hosts conferences in Dharamsala that pursue questions about cognitive science and meditation, Buddhist doctrine and quantum mechanics, and commonalities among religions. This self-described “simple Buddhist monk” doesn’t claim to have universal answers, and in fact, suggests that while Buddhism works for him, it may not be a good fit for others. As a quote from the Buddha displayed in the Dalai Lama’s home temple in Dharamsala says, “As one assays gold by rubbing, cutting, and melting, so examine well my words and accept them, but not because you respect me.”

Tickets to see His Holiness the Dalai Lama are now sold out. Live video feeds will be provided to both Dana Auditorium and the McCullough Social Space during both of his talks. Seating for these on-campus video viewing areas is free and open to the public, and is available on a first-come, first-served basis.

We will also be streaming the lectures live online. This link will be live a few minutes before the lectures begin: http://go.middlebury.edu/dlstream

Cashing Out

So, it appears that the physical paper dollar, that crumpled, bacteria-ridden, piece of filth that resides in your pocket—along with all its grubby cousins, coins—will one day, perhaps one day soon (!), go the way of the wampum, the animal pelt, the tobacco leaf as a form of tradable currency. That’s what David Wolman ’96 would like you to believe, and after reading his fascinating and thoroughly enjoyable book The End of Money: Counterfeiters, Preachers, Techies, Dreamers—and the Coming Cashless Society (Da Capo Press, 2012), I’m right there with him. Good riddance to the greenback, I say.

All I needed to know to come to this conclusion can be found in one sentence on page 28: “Traces of the bacteria staphylococcus have been detected on 94 percent of all U.S. dollar bills.” Never mind that, on the very next page, a friend of Wolman’s at the Centers for Disease Control essentially says that for people to become sick from dollar bills, they would need to be “sucking on banknotes or inserting them in their noses” to even put them at risk of becoming sick, to which I say, close enough. And indeed, Wolman joins me in being disgusted by food handlers who take a sweat-stained dollar from someone and then use the same contaminated fingers to drop a lemon into someone else’s drink. Gross, right?

Wolman’s case for the end of money goes far beyond the ick factor, though. As he points out, there are all kinds of reasons to get rid of cash. It’s the currency of crime, for one (think: robbery, counterfeiting, and drug dealing); it’s insanely expensive—and we’re not just talking about what it costs to actually make the currency but the cost of inefficiency associated with cash and cash transactions (or non-transactions); and it’s dangerous for reasons we don’t often think about (eco-costs, for example).

Throughout the book, Wolman finds fascinating characters to shed light on the inadequacies and toxicity of cash, and he spends just as much time talking about what will (and should) replace cash in the coming years.

Wolman is a contributing editor at Wired magazine, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise to find him spending a fair amount of time addressing the number of digital alternatives—and their inventors, champions, and pioneers—to cash transactions. (Some seem a little screwy to me, but others induce that familiar feeling of “of course,” followed by “why didn’t I think of that?”)

The most fun, though, might be the vicarious thrill of tagging along on Wolman’s Plimpton-esque journey of going cashless, himself, for a year. I won’t spoil anything, but there are some humorous moments where the rule of the given realm is still cash money.

I should acknowledge that David Wolman is a friend of mine. We’ve published his writing in this magazine, and I’ve been an avid reader and champion of not only his magazine journalism but also his previous books (A Left-Hand Turn around the World and Righting the Mother Tongue). Yet all these connections aside, The End of Money is just the type of book that curious readers, like me, would naturally gravitate toward. And I wasn’t disappointed.

You won’t be, either.


Fans of Eudora Welty, who died in 2001, will joyfully immerse themselves in yet another aspect of the much-loved and complex author, and lovers of gardens will discover a kindred spirit (or three) within One Writer’s Garden: Eudora Welty’s Home Place (University Press of Mississippi, 2011), by Susan Haltom and Jane Roy Brown ’75.

Playing off the title of another Welty favorite—One Writer’s Beginnings, her 1984 memoir in which she chronicled her life along with some instruction on how to write—Haltom and Brown have delivered an equally evocative narrative of a family garden, a fading Southern culture, and a span of time and history from the 1920s to postwar America.

For those who know Welty’s work, 1119 Pinehurst Street in Jackson, Mississippi, is as familiar an address as one’s childhood home. It was from here, after all, that she wrote so many of the stories that have earned a lasting place among modern short stories. But this beautiful book unearths a different and deeply rich glance into the Welty home that many have not seen before.

Haltom first became engaged in the project as a local gardener in Jackson, when she approached the aging Welty with an interest in revitalizing the family garden. The Welty home and surrounding gardens had been a celebrated centerpiece at the hands of a younger Eudora and her mother, Chestina, who had designed the original garden in 1925. Tended with care by Eudora for decades after that, it had fallen into disarray in her later years. With Haltom’s help, she began to re-imagine the once vibrant sanctuary, recalling the flowers and plants that had flourished under her mother’s hands.

Private papers released a few years after Welty died in 2001 affirmed that the garden had indeed offered both solace and inspiration for her. Haltom and Brown have included several writings that were previously unpublished, including literary passages and excerpts from her private correspondence. They highlight not only the connections to Welty and her writing, but also to the time period in which she lived. Divided into four parts, the book covers the gardening seasons and also illuminates four decades of radically evolving Southern culture—from the 1920s to the postwar 1950s. Through Haltom and Brown’s writing, we see the role of garden clubs and yardmen as social norms, and the way gardens were upheld as the ideal antidote to all that could possibly fail one—the healing quality of combining work and introspection. The writing is colorfully interspersed with handwritten notes, garden maps, local advertisements, and plenty of photos—both historical and contemporary. Appendices tucked into the back include wonderfully cataloged information, such as planting lists over the decades, a breakdown of roses and annuals, a partial list of plant names that occur in Welty’s works, and even a discussion guide for book club goers.

Those familiar with Welty’s writing will remember how she often included images of Southern flora in her writing—“The Worn Path,” and “Flower for Marjorie”  are but a few—and the authors of this book help draw those connections, giving one a better understanding of the role that flowers and gardens play in her works. One passage reads as follows:

References to flowers and gardens colored her fiction and correspondence. Their consistent presence in her writing reveals that the flower garden lay at the heart of her inner world, sustaining her creativity and stirring her imagination.

Complementing the authors’ well-tended prose is a rich collection of full-page images by noted landscape photographer Langdon Clay, who captured the revitalized garden at all its current seasonal highpoints.

This is truly a book to be relished over time and enjoyed for many years to come. The pages are silky smooth; even the type is carefully laid out. The heft of the book itself encourages long leisurely reading by a sunlit window.
—Blair Kloman, MA English ’94


Lessons from Liberia

Eight months and 3,000 miles southeast of my final game in Middlebury’s Pepin Gymnasium, I stand on the sidelines of a different court. With my eyes closed, they sound almost identical: shoes squeak, shots echo off the rim, players grunt, whistles trill.

But in the middle of Liberia’s capital city, only a few blocks from where Charles Taylor oversaw an unfathomable reign of terror, it’s strange to consider that a game like basketball could exist, much less flourish.

To an outsider, “flourish” may seem like an odd word choice. There is no roof on this gym. Garbage and sewage are swept into gutters on the sidelines, and paint peels off the concrete floor and wooden backboards.

Yet three times a week for the two hours before dark, the LPRC Oilers—a team in the Liberia Basketball Association—get to forget about life beyond the end lines and a community struggling to heal deep wounds, and they become enveloped in the coalescent and transitory power of basketball. I am their assistant coach.

On this day, the final practice before the beginning of the LBA’s Championship series, I recognize the quiet, focused energy of athletes on the verge, an intensity I lived for during my time playing basketball at Middlebury. It’s unnerving to feel it with another team, and in this environment, a bit out of place. But as incongruous as the feeling is, it is equally reaffirming—a testament that basketball isn’t about cameras, fans, or rankings, but about the guy next to you.

And the Oilers understand this better, perhaps, than any team I’ve ever seen.  Growing up amid some of the cruelest conditions on the planet, basketball represents something special to these athletes. For them, the game offers an escape from their common experience. Their wins are tangible evidence of the power of dedication, and their championship run an immutable statement to teamwork. While basketball is woven into my life, inseparable from everything else, for this team the game is discrete. It provides an alternative to a jaded reality that has been consistently marred by senseless violence. As Liberia looks to redefine itself as a functioning democracy and a model for post-conflict societies, smaller communities are increasingly important.

Paradigm shifts begin at the bottom, and this team is a shining example. And their example is spreading. For our final games of the season, LPRC’s local refinery has arranged for buses to ferry workers to the games. In an environment with precious little to root for, the Oilers have inspired a community.

Liberians still have a long, difficult road ahead of them: in my three months as an assistant coach, I have witnessed bribery, extortion, vandalism, ineptitude, and corruption; I have seen brawls break out over bad calls and games delayed by monsoon rains. But the attitude of the Oilers—their determination and teamwork—provide exactly the right place to start.  In so many ways, my experience in Liberia has been nothing like my experience with the placid dependability of Middlebury. But in important ways, it has been—you just need to close your eyes, shift your focus, and appreciate that the power of basketball knows no borders.

Andrew Locke was a tri-captain of the 2010-2011 Middlebury College basketball team.

Academy Honors

For over 200 years the American Academy of Arts & Sciences has been electing leading “thinkers and doers,” from George Washington to Albert Einstein. Recently the Academy announced its 2012 class and among those honored is volcanologist Katharine Cashman ’76, the Philip H. Knight Distinguished Professor of Geological Sciences at the University of Oregon.

Cashman’s research over the years has led to great insight into what triggers volcanic eruptions and has helped to predict those events. With a two-year Fulbright scholarship in New Zealand, where she earned a master’s in geology from Victoria University, and a doctorate from Johns Hopkins, she has spent her career researching volcanic hot spots on all seven continents. But her love for geology began at Middlebury. “I wouldn’t be a geologist if I hadn’t gone to Middlebury. First and foremost in terms of inspiration was Professor Peter Coney. From the very start, he treated all of his students as peers and professionals and truly challenged us to think for ourselves. Although sometimes frustrating, it was also exhilarating to be handed a problem and then have to figure it out.”

Another professor helped further Cashman’s interest in the study of volcanoes. David Folger, who had left Middlebury to work in Wood’s Hole, Mass., hired her as a research scientist for the U.S. Geological Survey in 1979. He then encouraged her in a transfer to the Cascades Volcano Observatory after the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens in Washington State. Although she had studied active volcanoes in Antarctica, this was a turning point for her. She arrived at Mount St. Helens just months after the eruption. “The opportunity to work with the USGS team at Mount St. Helens convinced me that this was the direction that I wanted to pursue—I love studying geologic processes that happen on human time scales and that affect human populations because it means that I can indulge my love of solving scientific puzzles with the feeling that maybe something I do will ultimately help to reduce volcanic risk.”

Her impressive body of work has done that and more. And her accomplishments caught the attention of the Academy of Arts & Sciences. While normally Cashman would have gotten the notification of her election while at the University of Oregon, she is spending a three-year leave at the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom as an AXA research chair and professor of volcanology. (AXA is a French insurance company that has recently started sponsoring research into environmental hazards.) So she received word she’d been chosen as a Fellow by the University of Oregon communications director. She says she felt “stunned” by the news—but obviously honored.

“It’s very humbling to be joining an honor society that includes so many people in my field, who I’ve looked up to all my career. The fact that my ‘class’ includes people like Hillary Clinton, Judy Woodruff, Andre Previn, Clint Eastwood, and Paul McCartney just seems surreal!”

As for opportunities that may open up for her, it’s too early to tell. But the Academy is also a leading center for independent policy research. For now, Cashman says, the announcement has led to some enjoyable personal benefits. “It reached several of my high school friends, from whom I’ve received a flood of e-mail. It’s been fun to reconnect with them after so many years.”

Kathy Cashman, along with sisters Susan ’72 and Patricia ’72, received an honorary doctor of science from Middlebury in 2008.

The Avocado Windfall

Originally posted on April 12, this story was updated April 26.

When Tony Jackson first heard that the College was getting 10,000 pounds of avocados this spring, he wondered, “How the heck are we going to go through all of those?”

When most people see avocados, they think: guacamole.

A veteran chef with 29 years in Dining Services, Jackson knew he’d have to come up with something more than basic guacamole, so he started scouring the Internet for avocado recipes. There were avocado salads, avocado soups, avocado dressings, avocado dishes galore. And for a chef like Tony Jackson with access to a vast array of fresh foods, the possibilities seemed endless.

He was not alone in the quest; all the other chefs on campus have been digging into their recipe boxes because a tractor-trailer load of refrigerated Ettinger avocados arrived in Middlebury direct from southern California on March 30. There were 400 cases of avocados with about 25 avocados per case, or about 10,000 avocados in all.

The avocados are a gift from a Middlebury parent who wishes to remain anonymous. Suffice to say that the parent’s business interests include the sourcing of avocados in large quantities. “I see it as a win-win,” the parent told middmag.com. “The Ettinger is not as marketable as the Hass avocado, which is really the coin of the realm among avocados today. So we are pleased to put some smiles on the faces of the students at Middlebury, and introduce the uninitiated few to the pleasures of eating avocados.”

Pleasures indeed. How about avocado cheesecake? Yes! Avocado frittata? Absolutely! Avocado coconut frozen yogurt? Delicious! Avocado fries with chipotle dipping sauce? Mmmm! All of these dishes have been served in the dining halls this month.

The Ettinger avocado is a large, green, pear-shaped fruit with smooth skin and a big seed. Weighing about a pound each, the Ettinger is not to be confused with its more-popular first cousin, the Hass avocado with its black, pebbly skin. High in Vitamins B, C, and K, and rich in potassium, the Ettinger is just as nutritious as the Hass, with a slightly milder flavor.

Last Thursday morning Tony Jackson was putting the finishing touches to the lunch he prepared for the language tables in the Redfield Proctor Room. The first course would be avocado crab soup made with chicken stock and cream, and for the entrée students could choose from three dishes, two of which featured avocado. There were grilled pork chops with avocado black bean salsa, and tofu avocado sauté with broccoli and red onion. Within minutes the room was filled with students speaking Italian and Portuguese and Chinese and German—a Tower of Babel with avocados on the menu.

They're great in Mediterranean salads

Since then the dining staff has served avocado cream cheese with smoked salmon (for Passover), Mediterranean avocado salad with artichokes and dill (an original recipe by Dawn Sumner in Proctor), avocado and tomato wraps (a big hit in Ross Dining Hall), and baby spinach salad with smoked salmon (and, you guessed it, slices of fresh avocado).

Yes, the sky’s the limit when it comes to avocados, especially when you have five tons of them to work with.

“Now, when students walk into the dining halls, they are on the lookout for the latest way that the staff has presented the avocados,” explained Robert “Bo” Cleveland, Middlebury’s executive chef.

“To say we are pleased with the efforts of the staff would fall far short of our feelings,” he added. They have “rallied around ways to present the fruit beyond the obvious” uses of avocados, and that has made it fun for everyone. “It has been a pleasure for us to work with such a prized commodity.”

Inside Proctor Dining Hall located right next to the apples, oranges, and bananas is a self-service station (below right) to peel and slice raw avocados. And although the Ettingers have been “on the menu” for barely a week, hardly a minute goes by before another student steps up, selects a ripe avocado from the basket, cuts it open, and goes back to a seat.

Avocados, like bananas, mature on the tree but ripen off it.

The director of dining services, Matthew Biette, worked directly with the donor to effect the shipment of avocados, which were harvested in mid-March, packed, cooled, and shipped straight to Middlebury.

“It is one of the most novel gifts I have ever heard of,” said Biette, “but avocados are such a valuable food source and so nutritious, how could we turn them down?”

The College has donated several cases to the high school culinary arts programs in Middlebury and Rutland, and is considering donating a few cases to the area food shelf for low-income families.

Meanwhile back in the Proctor kitchen, chef Richard O’Donohue and his staff are busy peeling and chopping avocados by the dozen. Will it be another gourmet dish, a grilled avocado with sweet relish perhaps? No, not this time. Thursday is Mexican Day in Proctor and—in addition to fajitas, refried beans, and vegetarian chili—guacamole will be on the menu.

Update: In response to questions raised by some readers of this story (below), the donor of the avocados explained that most major avocado packers, including Calavo, Mission Produce, Del Rey Avocado, IndexFresh, West Pak Avocado, and others, do not market “pollinator varieties” like the Ettinger. Instead, the pollinator varieties, called “Type B” avocados, are grown in fields with the more popular “Type A” avocados (such as the Hass) to increase production. When they mature, Ettinger and other Type B avocados are harvested and generally sold at California farmers’ markets and are not shipped great distances.

Before accepting the donation of avocados, Dining Services looked into the source of the fruit, researched uses for Ettinger avocados, and received a few cases so its own chefs could determine whether they would be of value to the College. Satisfied that the avocados from the anonymous donor would keep for weeks under refrigeration, that the chefs in Dining Services could create dishes using them, and that they would be well-received by students, the College accepted the 10,000-pound donation, which included the harvesting, packing, and shipping of the fruit.