Tag Archives: Featured Dispatch

Old Chapel: A Robust Public Sphere

In early April, I spoke to the Middlebury faculty about free speech and the public sphere. My remarks were prompted by the events of March 2, in which a scheduled talk by political scientist Charles Murray was disrupted by demonstrations. The events of that day and the ensuing debate about the value of public discourse made national news. And while I told the faculty that I would not have asked for a national platform to discuss in an urgent fashion the paramount importance of creating a robust public sphere at Middlebury, I am proud that we are having this discussion. I see it as a sign of our vitality, and I would like to share with you what I said to our faculty. 

I believe that a true commitment to education must embrace an uncompromising commitment to free and open dialogue that expands understanding, challenges our assumptions, and ultimately creates a more inclusive public sphere.

Controversial speech, or speech by a controversial speaker, can be challenging in a time when the very idea of a public sphere seems fragile. Controversial speech is also more difficult in a time when issues that should be contested and addressed become exclusively owned by “the left” or “the right.” In our current state, deep educational commitments, such as exploring the history of oppression and freedom, may be difficult to share as common public goods. But they should be understood as such, and it is our responsibility to teach them and to discuss them with candor. That is the only way we can reach the truth.

There are many struggles playing themselves out on our college campuses: how does one acknowledge the discomfort that a true liberal education must entail, while at the same time recognizing and respecting the often difficult and unfair experiences of our students who have walked in the American margins? Acknowledging and honoring those margins as real spaces is essential. Honoring the study and articulation of those experiences is crucial to our well-being as a society. And in honoring those margins, we must pay attention to hurt, to offense, to accumulated injury. So, how do we relate these two fundamental values—the necessary discomfort of a liberal education, and an honoring of the difficult experiences of our students who have walked in the margins? And how do we do so in the context of free speech debates?

Geoffrey Stone, a University of Chicago Law School professor and First Amendment scholar, has cautioned that if we are permitted to silence distasteful views, we risk becoming silenced ourselves. And once censorship becomes acceptable, those most likely to be silenced are our citizens who find themselves in the minority—be they religious, racial, or political minorities.

With this in mind, I believe that if there ever was a time for Americans to take on arguments that offend us, it is now. If there ever was a time for us to challenge influential public views with better reason, better research, better logic, and better data, it is now. If there ever was a time when we needed to risk being offended, to argue back even while we are feeling afraid, to declare ourselves committed to arguing for a better society, it is now. 

The questions that we encounter strike at the very heart of who we are as an institution, and we should take our time to learn, to debate, to understand, and to reflect.

In its tradition as an institution of excellence and of courageous engagement, Middlebury must find a way to connect the principles of free speech and the creation of a robust public sphere. I believe we all can agree that education is about exposing students to different ideas and giving them the skills and courage to choose between them. And I believe we all can agree that education should give students the skills and courage to make this a better world. These values are usually not in conflict. However, in our most painful moments, such as the one we experienced in early March, they were indeed conflicting.

In my view, the first of these commitments is a necessary precondition of the second. Education must be free enough to expose students to a wide range of conflicting and even disturbing ideas, for only then will we be able to give our students the wisdom, the resilience, and the courage to make this a better world. 

I will work tirelessly for both inclusivity and freedom of speech. There are no more important projects than these. But this is possible only if academic freedom and freedom of speech are defended on all sides. It is only through this principle that we will enable our students to discover truth and achieve the work of making society more just, and it is only in this way that we will in the long run ensure a public sphere that is more inclusive, more vibrant, and more engaging. That is, after all, what we are most fundamentally about. 

 

Old Chapel: A Sense of Belonging

You are reading this column shortly after the 45th president of the United States was inaugurated on January 20. Inauguration Day, where the transfer of power happens peacefully, is a cornerstone of our democracy. It’s a time when, as Americans, we face forward together and start anew.

The contentiousness and divisiveness of this past election cycle won’t be old news by Inauguration Day. Indeed, one candidate winning the Electoral College and another winning the popular vote, and the evidence of how urban areas versus rural areas voted, reveals how we are in some ways a deeply divided country.

Like most communities, we feel the divisions at Middlebury, too. Many voted for Clinton. Many others voted for Trump. The aftermath of the election revealed that the deep divisions in our country are also evident on our campus. We would expect nothing less in a diverse community of vibrantly shared educational ideas. That is the Middlebury that I know, and the Middlebury that you know.

But now more than ever, we must affirm that the Middlebury we know is a place where everyone belongs. While we may have philosophical and political differences among us, we are also committed to engaging courageously and curiously in the public sphere to explore these differences.

We encourage conversation about disagreement. That’s the robust public sphere that we all should be working toward, and what the idea of “rhetorical resilience” that I have been promoting this academic year is all about.

Every single one of us belongs here—our students, our faculty, our staff, our alumni. We belong here whether we graduated in 1946 or 1976 or 2016, because despite radical changes to the size and scope of Middlebury, we are essentially the same institution: one that lives up to its motto of Knowledge and Virtue. We belong whether we earned our bachelor’s degree in English or economics, whether we played lacrosse or played violin. We belong whether we studied abroad or never left Vermont. We belong whether we studied at the Language Schools, or Bread Loaf, or are part of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies—the newest part of our newly complex Middlebury—because we all have high standards, we all believe in excellence, we all believe that education is a powerful tool of transformation.

Middlebury is an evolving community, just as our nation is changing, evolving, becoming more diverse, and more integrated. We hope to avoid the stratifications that we have seen evolve in our country, but where we do see them, we must address them. We must build bridges among our student bodies in Vermont, and California, and abroad, among our alumni communities, so that we all are welcome and able to cross them.

How do we build those bridges? By having conversations. By connecting and listening, respectfully, to those with whom we believe we may have little in common and discovering our commonalities. By understanding that we don’t have to agree to be in community together.

We build our bridges and celebrate our belonging, by focusing on what brings us together. We understand how Monterey, a campus with a 10-year relationship with Middlebury, belongs because of the shared values that unite us. We understand how a talented and ambitious student who is the first in his or her family to attend college, and a talented and ambitious student who is the fourth generation in his or her family to attend Middlebury, both belong because they both possess the gifts of intellect and curiosity that we value most here. We understand how conservative alumni, liberal alumni, and apolitical alumni all belong because regardless of political outlook, they all have looked at the same mountains that surround our campus, and walked the same pathways, and learned in the same halls.

When Middlebury College was founded in 1800, it was after a divisive episode involving the allocation of government funds. There were then further arguments about whether the campus was to be built on the east or west side of Otter Creek. And yet, there was a clear sense that no matter on which side of the creek the campus was to be built, a strong bridge over the river always needed to be part of the design. And the citizens of Middlebury remained genuinely and openly committed to building a college together, and a campus was built, and an educational community formed that has been working to build bridges, both literal and figurative, ever since.

We all belong because we are all Middlebury, and we are a community that builds bridges, and then crosses those bridges, together.

Patton can be reached at president@middlebury.edu.

Old Chapel: The Next Level of Discussion

LaurieWEBThis has been a year of uncomfortable conversations on campus. And that makes me comfortable.

This year, the administration, the student body, and campus as a whole had some difficult conversations with each other. We talked, sometimes calmly, sometimes heatedly, sometimes quietly, and sometimes loudly, about diversity and inclusivity, and what that means and should mean at Middlebury in 2016.

These conversations at times have been painful for those in the center of them, and for those who were closer to the edges, listening in. We heard truths, and sorrow, and impatience. We heard hopes, and fears, and dreams, and frustrations. And we heard moments of real engagement and possibility.

Why does this make me comfortable? Because these are important conversations, and our ability to have them reveals our strength as a community. We all, from time to time, must speak uncomfortable truths to one another. That is what it means to have “arguments for the sake of heaven,” as I mentioned in my inaugural address. These are discussions worth having. Part of the nature of a college campus, and certainly a campus such as Middlebury, is that a free exchange of ideas is not only expected but encouraged. Uncomfortable truths are a matter of course. Professors present ideas to their students that make them uncomfortable. Students in turn can present ideas to professors that make them uncomfortable. Students can also wrestle with  course material, or class discussions, or campus events, or with each other. Staff have also played critical roles in these tough conversations.

But  discomfort is not a reason to avoid free expression, even when it comes to expressing thoughts and ideas and beliefs about  inclusivity. Supporting free speech and supporting inclusivity in our language, our conversations, and our actions are not goals that are at odds with each other. In fact, they are helpful complements to each other. Supporting both allows us to take our discussions to the next level, where we can make mistakes without fear because we want to become more aware than we are today. We want to be stronger. We want to do better.

Diversity and inclusivity are not “problems” that we’re going to “solve.” They are part of an ethos that we need to hold up every day, even if we might fail to fulfill that ethos on a regular basis. They’re values that we live by. They are values for us to talk about, and consider, and embrace, as we grow in our understanding of what they mean today—at Middlebury and in the wider world.

There are many ways to have these conversations. We talk in person, one on one, in groups, in meetings, in symposium. We talk on the phone, through text and email. We put our names, our voices, our faces to our words. We humanize them. We own them.

But we must be more mindful, I believe, about our conversations when we talk through social media, which has an ever-increasing multitude of channels for us to communicate though. There are so many ways to speak one’s opinions. But there are also so many ways to be silenced. Tap a few keys and you can shut down a conversation you disagree with, or mute a voice you don’t like, or send a message of shame without ever having to own your words. The worst conversation is the conversation that isn’t allowed to be. My rule for us is: Face-to-face conversation first. Social media second.

We have had uncomfortable conversations, and we will keep on having them. And we’re bringing our conversations to the next level: The Alliance for an Inclusive Middlebury is planning a spring conference titled “Activists, Allies, and Accomplices: Responses to Racism Today.” The conference will consider contemporary responses to racism and examine historical precedents. Middlebury students will discuss white ally-ship and student activists from other colleges will discuss their experiences this last year and the issues they faced. Rinku Sen, the editor of Colorlines, will be the keynote speaker and Rashawn Ray, professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, will discuss racial uplift through activism and social policy. JusTalks will be working with every incoming student next year in workshops helping them live in community while developing the crucial skills of engaging with real differences.

Yes, some of our conversations have made  us uncomfortable this year, but I’m comfortable that we’re having them. I’m comfortable knowing that we are learning from our mistakes, and we’re holding each other accountable—to own our words, to push us to the next level of inclusive excellence. We have so much we can learn from each other—as long as we keep talking, and keep listening.

Patton can be reached at president@middlebury.edu.

Old Chapel: Vibrant Research at a Liberal Arts Institution

LaurieWEBOne of education’s great aims is to help students see beyond a world of black-and-white and to perceive and be comfortable with the various shades of gray surrounding us. We teach our students to consider ambiguities in scientific, historical, moral, and many other forms of reasoning; in artistic critique; in the digital worlds we all now inhabit. 

And yet, ironically, we still encounter black-and-white perceptions within the world of higher education. One particularly tenacious perception is the difference between the aims of a liberal arts institution and those of a research university. I spoke to a prominent foundation leader who had recently led a meeting between faculty and administrators from liberal arts colleges and research universities, and he said, “Despite their good intentions, everyone still stereotyped the other side, and we at the foundation still had to interpret each side to the other.”

These stereotypes he referred to are ones we encounter all the time: liberal arts colleges are only about teaching and universities are only about research. Universities are supposedly filled with professors who have little time for their undergraduates’ needs. Professors divide their attention between their graduate students and their research—with the classroom a distant third in their priorities. Liberal arts professors, on the other hand, supposedly spend all their time teaching and never think about research. They seldom look up from their pedagogical tasks to engage the outside world, and they’re not committed to intellectual inquiry except as character formation for the young.

But counterevidence of these stereotypes exists all around us. Universities house extraordinary teachers who frequently are also top researchers in their fields. And, as you will read in this issue of Middlebury Magazine, liberal arts colleges have extraordinary researchers active in their fields and pushing the boundaries of knowledge in exciting ways. Nowhere is this more true than at Middlebury College.

Indeed, I believe liberal arts colleges have the potential to rethink and reclaim some of the original purposes of research. So many researchers I have known in higher
education—no matter the institutional context—have said to me, “What I really wish I could work on is this question, not the question I know will be funded or the question the current trends in the field suggest I ask.”

Because research foundations don’t drive the funding structure of liberal arts colleges, researchers in liberal arts often can work on research without being burdened by its “fundability.” They’re not constrained by intellectual fashions, nor the ability of their inquiries to fulfill the common good. While all institutions have to pay attention to questions of funding, larger intellectual contexts, and peer review, liberal arts institutions exist in a space that encourages independence from trends—and thus, creativity.

In addition, because we often exist in smaller, more intense communities of inquiry, we have opportunities to think about and conduct interdisciplinary research in exciting ways.  And because we work in closer proximity to other disciplines than do our peers in research universities, we’re generally much more interdisciplinary in our classrooms—something we can take advantage of in our research as well.

Finally, the research we conduct can be more responsive to the questions of local concerns. It’s no accident that alumni, students, and townspeople collaborated on the hydrogen-powered tractor created one winter term. Nor is it an accident that the levels of toxicity in our region’s lake water concern students in our School of the Environment and our science classes. And it’s no accident that some of our  classics professors teach students to research the ancient world in part by bringing them to the Vermont legislature to see the continuity of certain democratic traditions.

Research can and should be a vibrant part of our lives in an institution like Middlebury
College. What’s more, Middlebury can be a place for a different kind of research that inspires colleagues at different kinds of institutions in higher education—and that breaks stereotypes along the way.

Patton can be reached at president@middlebury.edu.

Old Chapel: Vibrant Research at a Liberal Arts Institution

LaurieWEBOne of education’s great aims is to help students see beyond a world of black-and-white and to perceive and be comfortable with the various shades of gray surrounding us. We teach our students to consider ambiguities in scientific, historical, moral, and many other forms of reasoning; in artistic critique; in the digital worlds we all now inhabit. 

And yet, ironically, we still encounter black-and-white perceptions within the world of higher education. One particularly tenacious perception is the difference between the aims of a liberal arts institution and those of a research university. I spoke to a prominent foundation leader who had recently led a meeting between faculty and administrators from liberal arts colleges and research universities, and he said, “Despite their good intentions, everyone still stereotyped the other side, and we at the foundation still had to interpret each side to the other.”

These stereotypes he referred to are ones we encounter all the time: liberal arts colleges are only about teaching and universities are only about research. Universities are supposedly filled with professors who have little time for their undergraduates’ needs. Professors divide their attention between their graduate students and their research—with the classroom a distant third in their priorities. Liberal arts professors, on the other hand, supposedly spend all their time teaching and never think about research. They seldom look up from their pedagogical tasks to engage the outside world, and they’re not committed to intellectual inquiry except as character formation for the young.

But counterevidence of these stereotypes exists all around us. Universities house extraordinary teachers who frequently are also top researchers in their fields. And, as you will read in this issue of Middlebury Magazine, liberal arts colleges have extraordinary researchers active in their fields and pushing the boundaries of knowledge in exciting ways. Nowhere is this more true than at Middlebury College.

Indeed, I believe liberal arts colleges have the potential to rethink and reclaim some of the original purposes of research. So many researchers I have known in higher
education—no matter the institutional context—have said to me, “What I really wish I could work on is this question, not the question I know will be funded or the question the current trends in the field suggest I ask.”

Because research foundations don’t drive the funding structure of liberal arts colleges, researchers in liberal arts often can work on research without being burdened by its “fundability.” They’re not constrained by intellectual fashions, nor the ability of their inquiries to fulfill the common good. While all institutions have to pay attention to questions of funding, larger intellectual contexts, and peer review, liberal arts institutions exist in a space that encourages independence from trends—and thus, creativity.

In addition, because we often exist in smaller, more intense communities of inquiry, we have opportunities to think about and conduct interdisciplinary research in exciting ways.  And because we work in closer proximity to other disciplines than do our peers in research universities, we’re generally much more interdisciplinary in our classrooms—something we can take advantage of in our research as well.

Finally, the research we conduct can be more responsive to the questions of local concerns. It’s no accident that alumni, students, and townspeople collaborated on the hydrogen-powered tractor created one winter term. Nor is it an accident that the levels of toxicity in our region’s lake water concern students in our School of the Environment and our science classes. And it’s no accident that some of our  classics professors teach students to research the ancient world in part by bringing them to the Vermont legislature to see the continuity of certain democratic traditions.

Research can and should be a vibrant part of our lives in an institution like Middlebury
College. What’s more, Middlebury can be a place for a different kind of research that inspires colleagues at different kinds of institutions in higher education—and that breaks stereotypes along the way.

Patton can be reached at president@middlebury.edu.

Welcome, Laurie Patton

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Laurie Patton; her husband, Shalom Goldman, the Pardon Tillinghast Professor of History, Philosophy, and Religion; and their two Great Pyrenees, Padma and Suka.

It was a few minutes after 8:30 on the morning of July 1 when Laurie Patton steered her silver Prius into a parking space on Old Chapel Road. Middlebury’s 17th president was about to begin her first day at work.

“I write to send warm greetings on my first day as Middlebury’s new president,” she had written in an email that was sent out to the community later that morning. “The glorious Vermont summer weather has matched the excitement I feel in coming to work with such an extraordinary community.”

Though that day’s weather was not cooperating with Patton’s sentiments—leaden skies prompted rain showers throughout the morning and afternoon—the excitement of which she spoke was evident the moment she walked into Old Chapel.

Greeting her new colleagues with the familiarity one gains from eight months of visits, phone calls, and correspondence, Patton drew smiles and hugs as she made her way to the building’s third floor.

“Hi, dear,” she said to Barbara McBride, embracing her assistant in a big hug. “It is so good to be here, and one of the best things is that after all we’ve done together already, this feels like just another day.”

“It does,” McBride replied, “but it’s not just another day for Middlebury.”

After a morning spent in meetings, Patton took advantage of a slight break in the weather to walk the campus with her husband, Shalom Goldman, who has been appointed Pardon Tillinghast Professor of History, Philosophy, and Religion, and their two Great Pyrenees, Padma and Suka.

On their stroll, the couple encountered and chatted with a distinguished faculty member; an alumna; a prospective student and her father visiting from Oregon; and two sophomores, from India and the Philippines, respectively, who have stayed on campus for the summer—one to work in Armstrong Library and the other to help a professor revise a textbook. Patton conversed in Hindi with the young woman from India before finishing the loop back to Old Chapel.

More meetings followed, and then Patton ended her day in Mead Chapel, speaking at the opening Convocation for the second session of the Language Schools. It was the second time Patton had spoken in Mead, the first occurring a little more than eight months ago when she was introduced to the community as Middlebury’s next president.  

Laurie Patton will be inaugurated as Middlebury’s 17th president on the weekend of October 1011. Visit www.middlebury.edu/inauguration for info.

Laurie L. Patton Named Next President of Middlebury

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The Middlebury Board of Trustees today named Laurie L. Patton, dean of Duke University’s Trinity College of Arts and Sciences and the Robert F. Durden Professor of Religion, as Middlebury’s next president. Patton will take office on July 1, 2015, succeeding Ronald D. Liebowitz, who has served as president since July 2004.

Patton, a distinguished religion scholar and translator of classic Indian Sanskrit texts, joined Duke in her current position in 2011. Trinity College is the largest of Duke’s undergraduate schools, with 5,200 students, 36 academic departments and programs, and 640 faculty members. It awards nearly 80 percent of the university’s bachelor degrees. As dean, she is responsible for overseeing the educational mission of Duke’s core undergraduate liberal arts programs, including curriculum, faculty hiring and development, student research, assessment, and the College’s $370 million annual budget. Under her leadership, Trinity College raised more than $300 million for professorships, financial aid, educational initiatives, and other priorities.

Patton’s selection followed an extensive, six-month search conducted by a 20-member search committee chaired by Middlebury trustee Allan Dragone Jr. ’78. The committee engaged in a process of broad outreach to students, faculty, staff, and alumni. From an initial list of more than 250 individuals nominated or put under consideration, the committee gradually narrowed the pool to a dozen and then to a small list of finalists, before unanimously recommending Patton to the full board on Tuesday. Patton will be the first woman to lead Middlebury in its 214-year history.

“I can’t imagine a place that more fully exemplifies my interests and commitments to higher education than Middlebury,” said Patton. “These last five months have been a wonderful experience for me as I have had the opportunity to learn more about this great institution and the values it holds dear. I have so many people to thank, starting with the search committee and Al Dragone, and I am truly honored with the confidence the Board of Trustees has shown in me today. I look forward with anticipation to joining this community of faculty, staff, students, alumni, parents, and friends.”

Marna C. Whittington, chair of the Middlebury Board of Trustees, called Patton an “outstanding choice” to be the next president. “Laurie is an accomplished scholar with a deep commitment to the liberal arts and a global perspective on the value and role of education,” said Whittington. “She lives the values of Middlebury, and I am confident she will provide the leadership and innovative thinking required to maintain the positive momentum and success Middlebury has experienced during Ron Liebowitz’s tenure as president.”

Patton, 53, is married to Shalom Goldman, professor of religious studies and Middle Eastern studies at Duke. The two met at Emory University. Goldman will become a tenured professor in the Department of Religion at Middlebury College.

Dragone, who led the search process and spent many hours with Patton in recent months, said the search committee was deeply impressed. “Laurie combines qualities of scholarship and leadership to an extraordinary degree,” said Dragone. “She is enthusiastic and passionate about students and the totality of their experiences, from the classroom to the lab, from the performance space to the playing field, from the time they spend abroad to the way they can participate in the life of the Middlebury community in Vermont. We have found an exceptional leader in Laurie Patton and I know she is committed to building upon the institution’s strong foundation.”

Patton earned her undergraduate degree in comparative religion and Celtic languages and literatures from Harvard University in 1983. She received an MA from the University of Chicago Divinity School in 1986 and her PhD in history of religions from the University of Chicago in 1991. Patton’s first teaching position was at Bard College from 1991 to 1996.

Before she joined Duke, Patton taught from 1996 to 2011 at Emory University in Atlanta, where she was the Charles Howard Candler Professor of Religions. While at Emory, Patton served as chair of the religion department from 2000 to 2007; founded and co-convened the Religions and the Human Spirit Strategic Plan; was the inaugural director of the Center for Faculty Development and Excellence; and from 2000 to 2010 was founder and co-convener of Emory’s Religion, Conflict, and Peacebuilding Initiative. In 2005 she received the Emory Williams Award, the university’s most prestigious teaching honor.

Patton is the editor or author of nine scholarly books on South Asian history, culture, and religion, includingMyth as Argument: The Brhaddevata as Canonical Commentary; Bringing the Gods to Mind: Mantra and Ritual in Early Indian Sacrifice;and Jewels of Authority: Women and Text in the Hindu Tradition. From 2008 to 2011, she served as president of the American Society for the Study of Religion.

In addition to writing two volumes of original poetry, Patton has translated the classical Sanskrit text, The Bhagavad Gita, for the Penguin Classics Series.

“Laurie Patton’s commitment to the success of students and faculty has made her an extraordinary leader at Duke,” said Duke Provost Sally Kornbluth, the James B. Duke Professor of Pharmacology and Cancer Biology. “She is energetic, creative, and passionate about scholarship and learning. We could not be more proud of her appointment at Middlebury.”

Liebowitz announced in December 2013 that he wished to step down following the 2014–15 academic year. By that time he will have served as president for 11 years and as a member of the Middlebury faculty for 31 years.

“Ron Liebowitz has been a transformative leader and his impact upon this institution will be felt for generations,” said Whittington. “Middlebury students have a richer experience than ever before because of the innovations he championed, and the institution is stronger than it has ever been.”

Liebowitz called Patton a “remarkable scholar whose deep commitment to her field would be an example and inspiration” to students and faculty alike. “I look forward to working with Laurie in the months ahead to create a smooth transition to what I am sure will be an outstanding presidency,” he said. “Jessica and I look forward to welcoming both Laurie and Shalom to Middlebury.”