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On the Hunt

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Hunt

For 72 hours in late January, a campus becomes consumed with the unusual.

Ten hooded figures crept across West Cemetery, the small graveyard along Route 30 and across from the Mahaney Center for the Arts. It was just before sunrise on a frigid January morning, and the only sounds were footsteps crunching through hard-packed snow.  Marching in two parallel lines, the 10 carried between them a plank upon which a motionless figure rested. They arrived at a large stone mausoleum, setting down the plank and assembling around the body.  One person knelt as if to perform rites and thrust into the air a limp, yellow figure.

Then a young women intoned, “We gather this day to sacrifice…SpongeBob.”

And in fact, the object is a stuffed SpongeBob SquarePants. As the yellow blob is held aloft, the group manages to chat several rounds of “SpongeBob, SpongeBob,” before breaking into laughter.

The second day of the Hunt has begun.

***

The Hunt is a three-day competition that many would likely call a scavenger hunt, except this search-and-discover mission is unlike most others.

Two Hunt masters compile 100-plus clues.  (By rule, the masters are the leaders of the previous year’s winning team.) Hunt masters can task teams with anything from building a Rube Goldberg machine with no fewer than seven components (clue #85) to recording an interview with someone from the Class of 1975 (clue #78).

The first Hunt was held in January 2008 and arose from Middlebury’s Programs on Creativity and Innovation in the Liberal Arts (PCI). The year before, Ron Liebowitz and his wife, Jessica, had convened a working group of five faculty members to brainstorm extracurricular programming and a dedicated workspace that would facilitate creative problem solving and intellectual risk taking among students.  The Middlebury president felts these traits were lacking—not just among the student body, but among 18–22 year olds more broadly. This committee—Daniel Scharstein, the late Ana Martínez-Lage, Noah Graham, Suzanne Gurland, and Antonia Losano—included professors in computer science, Spanish, physics, psychology, and English.  And their ideas were as diverse as their disciplines.

“Ron believed that students had to be given more opportunity to be creative and stop doing everything that they were comfortable with,” explained Liz Robinson ’84,  who has overseen PCI since its creation. “In high school, many students were perfect and had done everything really well, and Ron wanted them to take some risks and try some things they were interested in, whether they were going to fail or not.”

It was an hour before the 2015 Hunt would begin. Joy Wood ’17, captain of “Scott’s Tots,” stood before her assembled team. Nine people sat around a circular table, watching the clock and discussing strategy. Joy announced that her dorm room would serve as team headquarters for the next three days. It would be home to all the team’s video cameras and chargers, she said, as well as a base for video editing. Anyone interested in learning about basic video editing, she added, should come by later in the afternoon to sharpen their skills.

She explained how to access the team’s Google spreadsheet and made sure that everyone had the proper contact information to coordinate communications. When no one had any more questions, the nine team members stood and formed a queue behind a cardboard box at a neighboring table. Each person grabbed from it a blue sweatshirt—the de facto team uniform—and then left to take care of any last-minute preparations.

As it came closer to the 9:00 a.m. clue release, anticipation continued to build.  Across campus, eight people—members of a different team—sat around a table while five stood behind seated members, peering over their shoulders. Five laptops were arrayed around the table, sharing space with three cameras, two external hard drives, a pocket camcorder, and a nest of chargers and cords. People continued refreshing their computers in anticipation of the Hunt clues being released.

“They’re up!” someone yelled.

Across campus, 12 other teams bunched around their own computers and smartphones, reading the same clues and preparing to dive into three days of competition.

“Seeing the clue list is like opening your Christmas presents,” said Angela Santee ’13, Brainerd CRA and five-year Hunt veteran. “But what makes our Hunt grounded in Middlebury are the efforts that the Hunt masters make to connect it to the community and talk about topics that are relevant to us.”

The clues makes evident why the Hunt is special. This year, the two Hunt masters—Kirk Horton ’17 and Melissa Surrette ’16—came up with 106. They started developing them last summer.

The clues are designed to encourage Middlebury students to solve problems they’d never find in a classroom, to create connections with other people and places, and to celebrate Middlebury’s institutional and student culture.

“The Hunt connects people,” said Liz Robinson. “Those cohorts become really close because they are together for those three days and they are so intense and competitive. There’s the connection there, but then there’s the connection to […] older alums, to the past and to people in the past, to their peers at our institution, and to people around the world.”

Per tradition, the Hunt masters develop clues that encourage participants to engage with professors, administrators, staff members, town residents, and each other. “The year we competed, we noticed that while the clues were a blast they also engaged with different parts of the community and the town,” said Horton. “So we made a conscious effort to include all of those aspects.”

The Hunt is at its best, said five-time participant Angela Santee, when the Hunt masters decide to really push the teams to see what they can do in three days.…“Because you just never know what people will pull off.”

***

Clue number eight: freestyle rap battle.

“We should charge you a fee, we’re gonna bask in glee, Monday night, you grovel before me!” Tom Dobrow ’16 rapped to a thumping bass line as his teammates cheered and his opponents looked on. “We’re going off the top of our head! The Hunt 2015 is life, and y’all are DEAD!”

To wild applause, Dobrow, in a purple Brainerd tank top, sunglasses, and a metallic green necklace, worked his way around Hepburn Lounge, adding the opposing teams’ names into his rhymes.

Some of these rappers were team members; others were friends willing to spit rhymes. Dobrow repped Trial by Combat, Santee’s squad, and he was among the dozen or so participating in this rap battle, which started around 10:30 p.m. on the Hunt’s opening day. All the furniture had been pushed to the room’s perimeter to give the rappers mobility—and they weren’t shy about using it. Rappers yet to perform were waiting for Dobrow to finish so they could take their turn. After everyone rapped to the first song—Ratatat’s “Loud Pipes”—they’d get a second shot with Eve’s “Let Me Blow Ya Mind.” None of the rappers knew which songs would play or wrote their raps down.

Members from the 13 different teams filled the lounge. During the competition, each team was allowed 10 official competitors, but could also use as many “contributors” as they needed—and plenty of students were willing to join in. “Everyone contribute[s] to different degrees—some people maybe in one video and other people may … just write one ode to a Battell bathtub—so it’s collective,” said Wood, the captain of Scott’s Tots.

Organizers believe a well-rounded team is necessary to win the Hunt. Some team captains recruit for specific skill sets, and competition for prized team members can become fierce.

“It’s really good to have a nice blend of talents,” Erika Sloan ’16 said. “Not everyone has to be artistic or musical or good at singing or shameless in public, you just need a good mix of all of those things.”

While important, team construction is only one part of Hunt strategy. Successful Hunt teams have highly organized systems of communication and coordination. Santee’s group used a Google Doc to coordinate completing different clues—a typical strategy. She had arranged the Google Doc—which team members updated constantly throughout the competition— to show the 106 clues, their point values, those members currently working on the clue, and any associated notes/tips about the clue others might find helpful. The spreadsheet was color-coded—challenges deemed impossible were tagged red, challenges underway tagged yellow, challenges completed were green, and challenges that required group participation were purple. As soon as Santee’s team successfully completed the rap battle, they changed the tag for clue eight, “Freestyle rap battle,” to green.

***

On the Hunt’s second day, and three hours after sacrificing SpongeBob at the mausoleum, two members of Trial by Combat were en route to Burlington to visit the Echo Lake Aquarium and Science Center. For the entire ride, they were balancing an egg on a spoon. The two were about to complete clue three (Roooooooaaadtrip!! To the Burlington Aquarium—six points; bonus points if you keep an egg on a spoon for the entire trip without breaking it). Pulling into the parking lot, they were careful not to dislodge the camera documenting the egg still balanced in the spoon.  As the two walked into the aquarium’s lobby, a number of pedestrians turned and looked quizzically at the two guys bustling past them with an egg on a spoon, a giant poster, and a camera.

“For an individual participant, I think the shamelessness is a pretty big part of success,” said Erika Sloan. “A lot of the clues involve embarrassing yourself in public or doing silly things in public, so you really can’t be afraid of that kind of thing. Creativity is really important.”

Certainly many Hunt clues require students to shed their self-consciousness. “Civilians” walking around on campus who are not participating in the Hunt would likely be scratching their heads if they saw people licking strangers’ elbows or walking around clad in nothing but a banana peel—but for Hunt participants, it’s all part of the game.

The Hunt’s beauty isn’t in its competition, however, but in the collaboration it spurs. “On the one hand we can be isolated in Vermont, and this is a problem sometimes,” said President Liebowitz, explaining this rather unusual spirit of collaboration. “On the other hand, it is an incredible benefit to student culture that is unique even among residential liberal arts colleges. Students, during their four years here, are socialized into an unconscious understanding that they are going to rely on the 2,400 students on this campus for most of their cultural, social, and intellectual stimulation. Therefore, there is an unwritten rule about how kids here interact with one another—it’s less competitive, despite being such a high-pressure-packed academic institution. Within the student body, there is an incredible civility and also a collaborative, noncompetitive type of environment.”

Hunt2A few members of the original Innovation Competition Committee—including Suzanne Gurland, an associate professor of psychology—had experience with academic scavenger hunts, which they thought could serve as models for Middlebury’s competition.

“I was a college student at the University of Chicago in the late ’80s and early ’90s and there was an annual scavenger hunt,” said Gurland. “One of the things that we all loved about it was the intellectual fun. Everyone was having a blast but it was also really challenging, hard questions.”

In fact, Chicago’s scavenger hunt—known to Chicago students as “Scav”—is the largest of its kind. Created in 1987, the competition began as a part of the university’s summer carnival and has since taken on a life of its own. Similar scavenger hunts exist at other schools. For instance, MIT has hosted its “Mystery Hunt” since 1981. While both of these competitions involve some lateral creativity, they heavily rely on engineering problems and puzzles that require what may be thought of as classroom knowledge for success.

At a meeting on August 8, 2007, Middlebury’s Innovation Competition Committee resolved to create a competition “different than many that we have heard about at other schools. Ours will be deliberately broad in scope as to reflect innovation in a liberal arts environment.” They decided upon the scavenger-hunt format and by September, a list of tentative names for the competition had already emerged: the J-term Chase, the Middlebury Mystery, and Mystbury were early top contenders. In January the committee had created a final product: the Hunt.

“I would wager that competitions at Chicago and Cornell take on a more cutthroat type of approach,” said President Liebowitz. “Competition for [our Hunt] is intense as well, but I know that the way that Middlebury students work together and the way that they ‘compete’ is a little bit different.”

***

It was early evening on the Hunt’s second day, and Melissa Surrette, a Hunt master, sat on her bed while two Hunt participants reenacted a scene from Fifty Shades of Grey. (Don’t worry, it wasn’t too explicit.) Crouching behind Melissa’s pullout closet in the corner, Kirk Horton, the other Hunt master, tried not to laugh too loudly.

The Trial by Combat members were trying to solve two clues. Clue one: a dramatic reading from Fifty Shades of Grey—three points. And Clue 93: on Fridays Surrette goes to bed at 8:00 p.m; come read a bedtime story to put her to sleep—five points.

Outside Surrette’s doorway, about 25 Hunt participants had lined up to regale her with their own bedtime tales. A mermaid was waiting, as was a guitarist and a group that had brought hot cocoa to sweeten the deal. Many team members knew Surrette prior to the Hunt and one girl, who was in a class with her, had taken a story they’d read together in class and modified it so she became part of the story. For another 40 minutes, Surrette sat in bed listening to bedtime tales. Horton, giving away his hiding spot by laughing, eventually moved to the other side of the room to enjoy the creative performances.

While Surrette and Horton successfully orchestrated the 2015 Hunt, not all Hunts have gone as smoothly. During the Hunt’s first year, members of its advertising committee put stickers all over doors and walls on campus—a campaign the College’s custodial team understandably found frustrating. Another year, a clue inadvertently encouraged teams to hack into the all-student email system. By 2010, student interest in the Hunt seemed to be on a terminal downswing.

“I was given the authority to support student initiatives and programs,” Robinson said. “But I couldn’t run them myself if there wasn’t interest. There were a couple years where the Hunt wasn’t as popular, and then in 2010 we didn’t have it.”

In 2011, after a winter without a Hunt, two seniors—Ben Wessel ’11 and Taryn Tilton ’11—approached Robinson, telling her they wanted to resurrect the competition. She happily complied.

Wessel and Tilton put in play several techniques to revitalize the competition and encourage broader participation. One method: encouraging more photo and video documentation—both to increase visibility and to enable students off-campus to participate.

Wessel and Tilton’s efforts were successful. That year, the Middlebury Campus published an article titled “The Hunt Comes Back With a Bang.” And since 2011, the Hunt has gone on every year, as has the practice of using technology in creative ways to make connections. In recent Hunts, social media platforms like Twitter and Instagram have become integral to the competition even when the Hunt masters don’t specifically include them in the clue list.

***

The 2015 Hunt was coming to a close. Horton and Surrette, standing onstage in Crossroads Café, asked the cheering crowd to hold their applause so they could announce the competition’s winner. All the Hunt participants—and more than a few of their friends—had arranged themselves around six round tables before the stage.

Many were still laughing, having just watched a video presentation of the most interesting and hilarious submissions (as chosen by the Hunt masters), and talking about their favorite clues. Everyone looked exhausted, as staying up all night the final evening of the competition has become a Hunt tradition.

“The first night I went to sleep at 4:00 a.m., and the second night I went to sleep at 6,” laughed Wood. “And the last night I obviously don’t sleep at all.”

“It’s exhausting,” said Sloan. “But it’s so much fun and it builds friendships to stay up all night like that doing ridiculous things.”

Friendships forged during the Hunt are often some of the strongest participants make at Middlebury.

“My freshman year when I did [the Hunt], those kids that I did it with became some of my best friends,” Wood said.

Angela Santee recalled how the Hunt shaped her relationships during her junior year, giving her and her friends a foundation for lifelong friendship and communication.

“As juniors—already divided in our social circles because half of everybody was abroad—we really bonded over those three days, and then afterwards we had so many great memories crammed into a 72-hour period that we could draw upon,” Santee said. “We still send each other things on Facebook when something reminds us of a clue, or we think it would make a great clue for a subsequent year.”

Surrette and Horton had already awarded the most enthusiastic male and most enthusiastic female (which went to Erika Sloan). Then they announced the third place team and followed by the second place.

Finally the time had come to announce the winner.

“And the winner is…Trial by Combat!”

Santee and her teammates were yelling before the Hunt masters had finished the end of the sentence.

“It’s not really about winning for me at this point,” Wood said after she and her team didn’t come out on top. “Middlebury says ‘we want you to go do this silly thing that will challenge you and make you cry and have the time of your life and make friends and be a better leader and do all of these ridiculous things.’ I think that’s pretty cool.”

Following three days of competition and months of planning, the 2015 Hunt was over. After congratulating everyone, Horton and Surrette packed up their equipment and walked out of Wilson Hall. Already they have next year’s Hunt masters in mind, and when the two members of Trial by Combat take over in a week or two, it will be time to prepare for Hunt 2016. After all, only 360 days remain until clue release.


The Liebowitz Years: A Vision Realized

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

BLWeb

The special partnership that preserved Bread Loaf for the ages.

In 1915, when Joseph Battell died and willed his expanse of lands along the spine of the Green Mountains to Middlebury College, he included a proviso that the College “preserve as far as reasonably may be the forests of said park, and neither to cut nor permit to be cut thereon any trees whatsoever except such as are dead or down and such as it may be necessary to cut in making and repairing needful roads; it being a principal object of this [will] to preserve intact such wild lands as a specimen of the original Vermont forest.”

Which seems fairly conclusive. Except that in the 1930s, with the College facing a financial crisis, its trustees sold off 90 percent of the land that Battell had left it.

***

For more than 50 years, Bread Loaf and its 2,100 acres of forest and mountain meadow—the remaining 10 percent of Battell’s original bequest—had remained a changeless place, echoing with Robert Frost’s Yankee accent. Down in the valley, Middlebury’s main campus had spent the better part of the half-century undergoing a massive building boom, yet the Ripton domain was a bit of an afterthought for trustees and administrators until, in 1997, an Environmental Studies class devoted much of a semester to studying Battell’s will.

The buyer of the land in the 1930s sale was the U.S. Forest Service, and the real estate had become the core of the northern portion of the Green Mountain National Forest—one of whose chief goals is growing trees so that they may be cut. Over time the Forest Service, at least in Vermont, has developed a more sustainable outlook, yet the students looking at the will felt real pause: What might the College do with Bread Loaf if it hit financial trouble again? Condos?

These students met with the Board of Trustees, who, while respectful of their research and recommendation that the College never sell the remaining land, took the position that they couldn’t “tie the hands” of future trustees. “They said nice things about the student presentation, but they also said: ‘Look at what happened in the Depression,’” recalls a participant in the discussion. “‘How can we take out of our successors’ hands the ability to monetize those lands?’”

That participant was the provost at the time, and while he, too, was impressed with the students’ presentation, he was preoccupied with other matters. But, he says, “I kept that in my back pocket,” and when Ron Liebowitz was named president in 2004, he scheduled his first meeting of the trustee’s Prudential Committee up at Bread Loaf. “They asked me, ‘What would be your dream for the next 10 years?’ And I think I shocked them when I said, ‘Preserving Bread Loaf.’ The wealthiest person in the room said, ‘What would it cost?’ And I said, ‘I have no idea.’”

***

If the prototypical Vermonter is Calvin Coolidge—so taciturn they called him Silent Cal—then outgoing Middlebury President Ron Liebowitz is pretty much the polar opposite. The first thing one notices about him, even before his relentless intelligence, is the relentless speed with which he converses. Faster than anyone I’ve ever met, a subway-train rush of words. His Brooklyn birthplace and his Jersey upbringing shine through even after 31 years in the Green Mountains. You think: city boy.

And yet those three decades in Vermont have worked their particular magic. His parting gift to the College, spurred by a deep love for the landscape, is remarkable: finding the funds to preserve forever the thousands of acres in the Bread Loaf landscape. Liebowitz will rightly be remembered as the man who brought the College through financial crisis and broadened its reach to the shores of the Pacific, but his legacy is perhaps most secure in the tens of thousands of birch and beech and maple, the red pine and green grass, the unbroken vistas that will stay unbroken. In thousands of Ripton acres where, most of the time, no one ever says a word, and certainly not fast.

On a chill March day, towards the tail end of the finest winter in years, I walked with Liebowitz through the woods east of the Bread Loaf Inn. There was still two feet of snow on the ground, so we were on snowshoes, and he reminisced about his first glimpse of this land. After his undergraduate years at Bucknell, Liebowitz went to graduate school at Columbia, a budding Sovietologist. But his Russian was weak, so his professors dispatched him to Middlebury for a summer of language school. He was three weeks in, which he said was going “gruesomely,” when a friend called and, speaking forbidden English, convinced him to take a weekend trip. “He whisked me away to Bread Loaf—that was the first time. This was 1982, and there was a real heat wave down in the valley. I was suffocating from language school, and from the weather. But then we were suddenly on Rte. 125, climbing up this tiny road. Halfway up the temperature dropped 12 degrees; suddenly it was almost chilly. By the time we got up to Bread Loaf—well, I never forgot it. Immediately it was an important part of my own conception of Middlebury.”

So, while the trustees may have been surprised by Liebowitz’s 10-year dream, it was in keeping with his longer view of the place. Work to evaluate the property began but like everything else, this took a back seat to surviving the financial crisis that soon broke out. “I mean, the endowment went from $962 million to $649 million,” says Liebowitz (figures that seem etched in his mind). But as the ship slowly righted itself, he began to pursue the project more actively, engaging a trustee, a hedge fund magnate who had already won plaudits from conservationists for preserving large tracts of land on Long Island Sound, Colorado, and the Outer Banks.

***

couple of years ago, Louis Bacon ’79 received one of the highest honors in conservation, recognition from the Audubon Society for all that he has done to “preserve and protect key natural ecosystems.” Accepting the Audubon Medal, he gave a speech at a gala in New York in which he talked about how important his Middlebury education—and the sense of place that came with it—had been to his development. He spoke of taking courses in environmental studies; of spending a lot of time outdoors, hunting, fishing, and skiing; of majoring in American literature and channeling Ernest Hemingway. It was an idyllic time, he said.

“That was a fat, juicy pitch right there,” says Liebowitz, who was in attendance that night. “And so from then on I got to be really direct, quoting his words at him. I kept telling him this was logical and he was the guy.”

“Ron is persuasive, and I think he knows a donor’s soft spot,” says Bacon, who fondly recalls a deer hunt at Bread Loaf one Thanksgiving when he couldn’t make the trip home to North Carolina. (He’d shot, gutted, and hid his prize in the snow, till the next day when Ripton resident and beloved professor Horace Beck helped him drag it out.) “Otherwise, I remember cross-country skiing on the trails in the afternoons after swishing down the Snow Bowl, trying to keep up with my much more practiced Finnish girlfriend. I had learned to ski cross country on the flats of the Middlebury campus, and I was not prepared for the downhill parts of the hills behind the Bread Loaf campus; I remember the terror of speeding along towards the creek bed on two skinny, unstable reeds to which the toe of my shoe was fixed, my ankle in the balance. Swearing if I survived I would never do this again, I was nonetheless at it again and again.”

Bacon—who says he initially reacted in “disbelief” at the thought that the trustees could ever contemplate selling off the lands—funded four or five researchers to scour the property. The College’s forest ecologist, Marc Lapin ’83, coordinated student research on the flora and fauna; Middlebury’s chief philanthropic adviser, Mike Schoenfeld ’73, helped pull the efforts into a package that eventually spurred “an eight-figure gift” from Bacon. In effect, he’d bought the development rights from the trustees and placed them off-limits; they’d monetized the land, and he’d paid the money, extinguishing those rights. And with that the Bread Loaf lands were secure. In a sense Bacon had made good on Battell’s intention, with Liebowitz as the proud midwife.

“I think it’s crucial to Middlebury, absolutely crucial,” says Liebowitz. “This is a microcosm of Middlebury, but in some ways it’s the place where you feel the connection to our past most deeply.” What makes the sentiment remarkable is that, viewed from a distance, the Liebowitz years have been about expanding Middlebury ever further out: the acquisition of Monterey, the spread of the Schools Abroad, the expansion of the Language Schools.

“But with all that expansion one thing remains constant,” he says. “From September to May we’re always and only about undergraduate education, and that’s centered here in Vermont.

“And undergraduate education, in a lot of ways, is about contemplation. You can have a graduate education anywhere. But we needed to retain the core of who we are, and that’s why this Vermont piece is so important,” Liebowitz says.

Bacon speaks in much the same terms: the landscape provides a “combination and closeness of nature and scholastics” especially valuable “in this day of the rush of modernity and electronic devices, because it allows one to ponder larger questions undistracted.”

Bread Loaf is contemplation defined—Ripton’s population today is about 500, or the same as the town of Middlebury when the College was founded. “To lose this would take away a large, symbolic piece of Middlebury’s identity,” says Liebowitz. “I’m not an outdoors person, but I am a geographer; that’s why it’s so easy for me to see that our location has been so central to our success.”

Has been, and will be. For perpetuity, as they say in wills.

Code Breaker

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

RehmWeb

Geneticist Heidi Rehm ’93 is at the forefront of a genetic revolution in medicine, which may eventually lead to personalized care based on individual DNA.

In 1998, Mark Dunning’s daughter was born deaf. “There were no lullabies, no cooing her to sleep, no baby talk,” he says. “If I wanted to ask, ‘Do you want milk?’ I had to figure out what the sign was for it, then teach it to her again and again.”  As Bella began to grow, Dunning and his wife, Julia, realized that Bella’s problems went beyond deafness. Bella took nearly 18 months to walk, and even then she had problems with her balance. She also seemed to have issues seeing in the dark. “I would go into her room at night and hand her something to drink and she would grab at the air,” Dunning says.

When Bella was eight years old, a specialist at Boston Children’s Hospital asked Dunning and his wife if Bella suffered from a series of symptoms, including those of night blindness and difficulty balancing. “Is this something I want to remain blissfully unaware of?” asked
Dunning halfway through.

“Have you ever heard of Usher syndrome?” the specialist asked.

Dunning hadn’t. But that night he looked it up on the Internet to learn it was a rare genetic disease first identified by Scottish ophthalmologist Charles Usher in 1914. Usher syndrome causes hearing loss and balance problems due to inner ear malfunctions. As the disease progresses, it results in deteriorating retinas, as well, which leads first to night blindness and loss of peripheral vision and ultimately to a complete lack of sight. “It described Bella perfectly, but in this horrible clinical way, with these definitive outcomes, including that she would go blind,” says Dunning.

There was no cure. However, they could determine if Bella had the syndrome: a simple genetic test had just been developed that could identify the mutation causing it. Her parents faced a terrible choice: continue to remain unaware of the causes of their daughter’s symptoms or risk learning their worst fears were true.

Since the completion of the Human Genome Project—the massive, international undertaking that sequenced all three billion base pairs of human DNA—these kinds of choices have become more common. In 2012, actress Angelina Jolie revealed she’d had a double mastectomy after testing positive for a mutation of the BRCA1 gene, which can cause the breast cancer that killed her mother and aunt. Following the announcement, referrals for genetic breast cancer testing nearly doubled. And pregnant mothers can now test to see if they’re carriers for the gene causing cystic fibrosis. The test is becoming the norm in prenatal care and leads to an 85 percent abortion rate for those testing positive.

Meanwhile, private companies like 23andMe (named after the 23 pairs of chromosomes that carry human DNA) have for years offered personalized genetic analysis to identify human ancestry. Until recently, the company also returned detailed health information on the risk of genetic disorders, but stopped in February 2015 after running afoul of the FDA. Companies such as Illumina Genome Network still offer genome sequencing through clinics, but the sequencing costs $5,000 to $8,000 and insurance doesn’t cover it.

This rush of genetic information promises to revolutionize medical care, and yet it also raises thorny questions: How much information is too much? How accurately can we know our genetic risks?  What actions should we take if we test positive for a genetic mutation?  And will these expensive tests create a two-tiered medical system—those who have access to their genetic codes and those who don’t?

For the past two decades, Heidi Rehm ’93 has been on the front lines of these questions. Having created the test for Usher syndrome, among many other genetic tests, Rehm currently directs the Laboratory for Molecular Medicine at Partners Healthcare Personalized Medicine in Cambridge, Massachusetts. There she helps identify genetic disorders for those at risk for disease. She’s also increasingly on the forefront of determining how genetic information is gathered and revealed—whether we have familial histories of genetic disorders.

“If we sequence your genome and find something scary in it that puts you at grave risk, why wouldn’t we tell you what we find?” asks Rehm, sitting in the café at Harvard Medical School, where she is an associate professor of pathology. Petite and dressed in a comfy wool sweater, she wears her wavy brown hair pulled back into a hair clip. Two years ago, in the journal Nature, she was involved in a controversial recommendation that advocated fully disclosing genetic information to patients. “If you go to a dermatologist with an itchy patch on your arm and they find a melanoma, they are not going to keep that information from you. I think in general our society does a pretty good job of evaluating risk and putting information in context.”

At the same time, she says, releasing information the right way is important. That way, patients can best decide what to do with it. After agonizing over whether to have their child undergo genetic testing, Bella Dunning’s parents did decide to do the test. Rehm sequenced the results, finding Bella positive for the mutation. “I couldn’t get off the floor,” says Dunning. “I could carry myself during the day, but as soon as the kids were in bed, I would lay on the floor with the lights off and start to cry. All I could think about was how I was going to watch my daughter go blind.”

However, as he processed the diagnosis his attitude began to shift. A cochlear implant Bella had gotten as an infant had helped her hearing, so now the family got a second implant as a backup in case her vision worsened, and she could no longer communicate through sign language. They also began to protect Bella’s eyes from direct sunlight and changed her diet to include more fatty fish, which had shown to help protect against disease symptoms.

“Whether those things helped or not, they gave us something to do, which made us feel like we were helping our daughter,” says Dunning, who reached out to specialists, including Rehm, to find out more about the disease. “I learned genetics from Heidi,” says Dunning. “She always found time in her busy schedule to meet with me.” During an early conversation, Rehm suggested Dunning start a website to share information with other parents and patients suffering from Usher syndrome. Dunning turned that into the Usher Syndrome Coalition, which shares information on treatment, lobbies Congress for funding, and provides emotional support to those suffering from the disorder.

Now 16 years old, Bella is a straight-A student who is winning blue ribbons in horse-riding competitions, studying for her driver’s license test, and preparing potentially to take part in a clinical trial for a new genetic therapy. “A lot of people when they hear they might have Usher syndrome don’t want to get the genetic test, because they don’t want to know for sure,” says Dunning. But getting Bella’s test results proved very important. “It helped put a name to the problems that Bella had that I had been suspicious of for a long time. Knowing definitively what it was gave me the ability to do something about it.”

***

Rehm leaves for her office at 6:00 each morning, driving a black Lexus with the vanity plate GENES. (“My first choice was GENOME, but that was already taken,” she quips.) She always knew she’d be a scientist. “For my high school reunion, they showed us what we had written down for graduation for what our career would be, and I said genetic engineer,” she says. “So I was pretty close.” “I” comes out at “ah”—a slight twang in her voice left over, perhaps, from living her first 18 months in Mississippi, where her father attended graduate school for biology. But she spent most of her childhood in Lake George, New York, on “forty acres of land on the side of a mountain,” and an hour and a half drive from Middlebury.

Her ease communicating with patients, however, took time to develop. A math whiz, she was valedictorian of her class, but she was also shy and couldn’t imagine teaching, as her father did. Arriving in Middlebury in 1989, she majored in molecular biology and biochemistry, a new major announced her sophomore year. She spent her senior year working in Bob Cluss’s lab, researching the bacteria that causes Lyme disease. Cluss remembers her as exceptionally devoted to her experiments.

“One day after she had been working the night before, she came into the lab in the morning and went immediately to the bench to start looking at what her results were without even taking her coat off,” he recalls. “You can’t engender that kind of excitement in a student.”

Cluss speculates that going to Middlebury also provided good training for her current career, which involves dividing her time between patients and the lab.

“There’s something about a liberal arts experience that gives you an appreciation for the enormity of the knowledge we have accumulated as a race and allows you to embrace that and take risks but also to be respectful and know your limitations,” says Cluss. “She’s in a unique intersection between basic research, clinical work, teaching, and interacting with patients. There aren’t that many people who are doing all of those things at that level.”

At Middlebury, Rehm also overcame her shyness. While in Sunhee Choi’s chemistry class, she began tutoring a fellow student who was having trouble with the material. Eventually that student invited a friend, who invited another friend, until Rehm was giving repeat lectures to a large chunk of the class.

“It was just an incredible experience where I learned that I loved to teach and communicate my ideas,” she says. “Now I probably give 100 seminars, lectures, and plenaries a year, and I love it.”

Rehm went on to study at Harvard Medical School, where she dove into genetics. “I am a type A personality; I like order,” she says. “There was something about the genetic code that seemed so clear and concrete to me.”

For her PhD, Rehm studied the genetic variants that caused hearing loss, focusing specifically on a genetic malady called Norrie disease that causes babies to be born blind and often, over time, to lose their hearing. Trying to identify a way to treat this hearing loss, Rehm was able to isolate the gene on the X chromosome and to examine its effects on proteins it produced.

In 2000, after receiving her degree, Rehm started a laboratory at Harvard that investigated hereditary hearing loss. Two years later, Partners Healthcare collaborated with the medical school to expand Rehm’s lab to include genetic testing for a wide range of disorders. Rehm helmed the newly created Laboratory for Molecular Medicine, working with other leaders at the Harvard Partners Center for Genetics and Genomics to acquire equipment and hire team members involved in the Human Genome Project. Doing so greatly increased the lab’s capacity to sequence complex genes.

Rehm first developed a genetic test for hearing loss, but others soon followed: for lung cancer; for a heart disorder called cardiomyopathy; and for more targeted disorders like Usher syndrome. In many cases, the tests aimed to give definitive evidence of a malady doctors already suspected. “There is this notion of ending the diagnostic odyssey,” says Rehm. “When patients have syndromes they keep getting more and more tests to find the answer; when you have a diagnosis, you have a much better idea of what the future will hold.”

Since genetic disorders necessarily run in families, tests can also help identify those at risk for disorders before they display symptoms—in some cases saving lives. Consider a heart disorder called hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, which causes defective heart tissue that fails to expand and contract properly. The heart then makes more and more tissue, causing the organ to swell dangerously large and block off blood-vessel flow, leading in many cases to a sudden heart attack. HCM is carried on the dominant gene, meaning that patients only need one gene in a pair to have it and that a patient’s close relatives each have a 50 percent chance of having the disease. Rehm developed a test for it. One of her patients, Lisa Salberg, worried about her daughter, Becca. Salberg’s grandfather, aunt, and sister all died from the disease, and she herself had been diagnosed at 12 and fitted with an implantable cardioverter-defibrillator to prevent heart attack. So Salberg had her daughter annually undergo electrocardiogram tests.

“It was an emotional roller coaster, every time we walked in,” says Salberg. Though her tests routinely came back negative, Salberg’s daughter, from as early as four years old, would wake up complaining about chest pains. When Rehm developed a test for HCM in 2004, Salberg made sure her daughter was among the first to receive it. After the test came back positive, Salberg pushed for a new EKG that confirmed her daughter had the disease and then had an ICD implanted into Becca’s heart when she was 10.

It may have saved her life. One day when Becca was riding a horse that bolted, her heart raced dangerously fast. “It stopped her at 225 bpm and helped get her back to 80,” says Salberg. “Maybe she would have done that on her own, but no one can tell.” Salberg founded the Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy Association in 1996 to raise awareness for the disease. As director she’s referred many sufferers and potential sufferers of HCM to Rehm. “Heidi has done an extraordinary job of balancing the amazing power of science with the amazing compassion of dealing with people. Heidi, I daresay, is brilliant, and I think she has a very clear and concise picture of what the future of genetics can be.”

***

Rehm2WebThat future isn’t clear to the average medical patient who is without obvious history of family genetic disease. The rise in private companies offering genetic information has created confusion about how that information should be used. What does it mean, for example, if you’re told you’re 20 percent more at risk for heart disease? Should you stop eating red meat? Start taking beta blockers? Or just try not to worry?

Four years ago, to help clarify such issues, Rehm joined a Harvard-based study called MedSeq as a coprincipal investigator. Foreseeing that in the near future genome sequencing will be the norm, the study asks how doctors can use that information to help patients rather than to alarm or confuse them.

The head of the study, Robert Green, was a student in Rehm’s genetics class at Harvard and admired her clear thinking. (A highly regarded neurologist several years Rehm’s senior, Green studied under Rehm as a fellow in Harvard’s Genetics Training Program.)

“Heidi is very much a leader in terms of genetic sequencing in this country, and someone everyone is drawn to for her intelligence and good sense,” he says.

The study has three parts: to develop a protocol for testing, to determine which genes to test, and to monitor how physicians transmit information to patients. Green hired Rehm to oversee the study’s second part: wading through the genome’s complexity to decide which gene mutations the report should include. There are no easy answers as to what makes the cut. Of the three billion base pairs in the human genome, a full three to five million vary person to person. Some determine physical differences such as hair and eye color; some seem to do nothing at all; and some play major roles in producing organs and enzymes. A mutation in one can lead to a genetic disorder.

The challenge is to determine which of those three to five million variants matter, and by how much. A breast-cancer-causing mutation like the one that affected Angelina Jolie should of course be included, but what about a mild variant for dry skin? Or a late-onset neurological disorder that may not even affect a patient in his lifetime? Even trickier are genes definitely associated with disease but unlikely ever to manifest.

Rehm and her team sifted through journals and genetic databases to offer their best judgments on which variants matter, eventually narrowing the field down to about 4,000. With those genes in hand, the researchers sequenced the genome for 100 patients, returning results for variants. In the end, 95 out of 100 had some genetic mutation that carried risk for disease. Most were carriers for recessive disorders they would never have. However, 20 percent did have the genetic disorders.

Several subjects, for example, had Factor V Leiden thrombophilia, a problem with blood clotting that can be particularly dangerous for women pregnant or on birth control. One had a variant called Long QT syndrome, a heart disorder that can lead to sudden cardiac death, but is treatable with beta blockers. They promptly referred that woman to a cardiologist. With these patients, the team also needed to see what the doctors would do with the information. There are very few geneticists compared to the general population, so it often falls to general practitioners to convey test results. Twenty practitioners participated in the study, and Rehm’s team gave them six hours of training in delivering information accurately.

One patient who had a familial history of breast cancer, for example, was relieved when her test didn’t display mutations for breast cancer genes—but the physician had to explain that even though she may be free of those particular mutations, she may not be free from contracting genetically based breast cancer. Over time, the MedSeq study will trace the decisions doctors and patients make with genetic information—whether they get more or better treatment and if the information affects the outcome of their illnesses.

The same research team has also started a study at Boston’s Brigham & Women’s and Children’s Hospital to sequence the genomes of newborn babies—developing a rapid turnaround of only a few weeks. For this study, Rehm’s team has only considered child-onset diseases, narrowing the number down to about 800 variants that have significant enough probability of disease in childhood. As with MedSeq, the BabySeq study will monitor how treatment of babies diagnosed with genetic disorders differs from those who aren’t diagnosed.

Depending on what these findings reveal, the study could set new standards for patient care and provide new impetus to adopt genetic sequencing, starting at birth, as standard practice. Even so, large-scale genetic sequencing is unlikely to really catch on until costs come down—or until insurance carriers start covering it, which is doubtful in the current environment. “In terms of predictive medicine, I don’t know any circumstance in which genetic testing has been covered,” says Rehm. Even though genetic testing could help catch a problem early, leading to decreased costs, it could just as easily surface a problem the patient didn’t know about—adding costs for care that may not be strictly necessary.

“In some cases you can make those arguments by costs, and in some cases you can’t,” says Rehm. Of course, those arguments are separate from the medical arguments of what will provide the best care and save lives in the long run. As costs inevitably come down and more people take advantage of genetic testing, the question of how it improves medical care will likely become about how people handle information when they receive it. The studies Rehm and her colleagues are conducting will go a long way to determining that—one  gene variant at a time.

Michael Blanding is an award-winning writer in Boston, where he is currently a senior fellow at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University. His most recent story for this magazine was “On the Road,” which appeared in our fall 2014 issue.

The Liebowitz Years: Leading with Conviction

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

RDLWeb

How Middlebury’s 16th president shaped the institution.

Few things reveal a college president’s values and priorities more visibly than financial hardship. When a global economic recession began in 2008, colleges and universities across the country cut programs, laid off staff, and eliminated majors. Middlebury was not immune to this economic reality, as the endowment plunged more than $300 million, contributing to a projected operating deficit of $30 million.

But Ron Liebowitz did not resort to draconian measures. Instead, he began a process of aggressive communication with faculty and staff, equal parts explaining the College’s financial position and listening to suggestions in return. Soon he outlined three principles that would guide his actions: no layoffs, sustained benefits, and protecting the College’s academic program. Middlebury would not solve its problems by dropping courses, majors, or faculty and staff.

The challenges were a long way from his ambitions upon taking office four years earlier. He had to put the brakes on an institution-wide strategic plan, while also introducing a hiring freeze, halting building projects, and installing a moratorium on wage increases for all salaries above $50,000. But by 2012, in a report to faculty and staff, Liebowitz was able to detail the results of the College’s efforts: Middlebury was back on sound financial footing.

But there was more.

The number of faculty actually rose during and following the financial recovery—from 223 faculty positions to 249 today—while voluntary early retirements reduced staffing by nearly 150 positions.

By contrast, federal Department of Education data shows that at America’s colleges and universities, faculty growth has lagged far behind administrative and staff positions: between 1993 and 2009, non-faculty hires increased at 10 times the growth in teaching positions. In effect, Liebowitz balanced the books by accomplishing precisely the opposite of a national trend. He also revealed what he most believed in: preserving the College’s core academic mission and, just as importantly, still finding room to grow and innovate.

“The recession was an incredibly uncertain and painful time,” Liebowitz says. “It was a true test of our institutional values. And not only did we maintain those values, we reasserted them.”

***

The first thing a visitor sees when entering the president’s office in Old Chapel is a pair of globes. They, along with framed maps on the walls, reflect Liebowitz’s academic field of geography. But the cartography also represents the vast enterprise that Middlebury has become.

The institution’s growing complexity, and the imperative to demonstrate its merits in times of rising costs and competition, have occupied much of Liebowitz’s presidency. As he prepares to leave office, Middlebury is in sound financial and academic condition. The endowment has rebounded from its recession depths to surpass $1 billion, and the strategic plan’s core goals are again being met.

For decades, Middlebury has been multifaceted. When Liebowitz took office, the College consisted of the undergraduate school, nine Language Schools, 16 sites abroad, and the Bread Loaf programs—the School of English and the Writers’ Conference. Today Middlebury operates all these entities, plus the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, two additional Language Schools, multiple campuses for the Bread Loaf School of English and Writers’ Conference, an entrepreneurial summer program at Lake Tahoe, an intensive summer School of the Environment, a Center for Medieval Studies at Oxford University, and 20 additional sites within Middlebury’s Schools Abroad. Total count: 54.

The student body is more diverse too. Nearly 40 percent of the students in this past year’s incoming class are either students of color or of international origin—more than a four-fold increase since Liebowitz joined the faculty in 1984. Further, almost half the class entering in 2014 received financial aid, more than double the percentage in 1984.

Providing a high-quality liberal arts education remains paramount, but there are many challenges:

* New instructional modes. Now that online classes and low-residency programs are proliferating, do small classes and seminars reflect an outdated approach?

* Cost. U.S. median family income fell five percent between 2001 and 2011. Are the numbers willing to pay nearly $60,000 a year in tuition dwindling?

Technical education. Students of engineering and other practical disciplines command high salaries upon graduating. Is a generalist education still professionally meaningful?

This spring, Sweet Briar College, a 114-year-old all-women’s college in rural Virginia, drove these issues home. Citing “insurmountable financial challenges,” the administration announced the spring semester would be the school’s last.

“The world our students graduate into,” Liebowitz says, “is vastly more competitive than what it was just 20 years ago. College graduates used to compete for jobs against smart young men and women from around the country. Now it is a competition with candidates from all over the world—that’s a field of six-plus billion rather than 250 million. So one’s education must deliver more.”

The answers to these pressures, which Liebowitz has detailed  in speeches, blog posts, and a 6,000-word letter to faculty and staff in 2012, is not to wait for a liberal arts education to reveal its powers later in life, when the seeds of broad and deep learning, critical thinking, and persuasive expression bear fruit. It must show its value today as well, while students are still enrolled.

“In many ways, students are ahead of us,” explains Liebowitz. “They are looking down the road. And to provide student innovation, we need campus innovation.”

As a prime example of campus innovation, Liebowitz points to a recent program, funded by the Hearst Foundation and anonymous donors, in support of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) interdisciplinary learning. Three veteran faculty mentors—Noah Graham (physics), Frank Swenton (mathematics), and Jeremy Ward (biology)—have staffed the STEM program, but the students are responsible for conceiving the problem they will attempt to solve. The annual course begins in winter term, proceeds with group work during the spring, and then concludes after a summer of building and testing a product. Graham says he sees the STEM innovation approach as one that complements—rather than replaces—the “traditional disciplinary approach.” It’s work that gives students a broad perspective on how their skills apply to today’s technological challenges.

“With ‘regular’ classes we generally follow a linear sequence, with one subject leading directly into the next. This is a necessary efficiency to fit hundreds of years of knowledge into a four-year education,” Graham says. “But scientific and technological progress tends to unfold in a much more haphazard way—often the biggest challenge is knowing what equation or experimental technique to draw on.”

What the STEM program does, he says, is provide students with “meaningful exposure to that creative process, giving students an opportunity to apply the in-depth knowledge they’ve gained through their majors in an interdisciplinary way, while allowing them to return to courses in (and outside of) their majors with a new perspective on learning.”   

And while STEM work has a lot of buzz throughout higher education, Liebowitz points out that classroom innovation isn’t confined to the STEM fields. He mentions a history class in which the instructor, Rebecca Bennette, working with the Blavatnik Archive—a private collection of documents, personal letters, diaries, photographs, postcards, periodicals, and oral testimonies pertaining to 19th- and 20th-century Jewish history—allowed students to complete an archival project in lieu of their final exam.

“When you do history, it’s bigger than you finding something out, writing your term paper, and getting a grade,” Bennette says. “In this project, you take on a fair amount of responsibility, especially with sources that are not published and are personal. You are truly recovering a piece of history.”

***

few years ago, Liebowitz led the Olin College of Engineering 10-year reaccreditation review. The tuition-free school in Needham, Massachusetts—founded with the mission to revolutionize how engineering was taught—had a young, still-developing curriculum. The review process galvanized Liebowitz.

“I was having the time of my life on that review,” he says. “Olin had inverted how classes were taught at the introductory level. There were no introductory courses. They threw these kids into a design/build challenge right away, in their first year.”

Provost Susan Baldridge was also on the review team. “It was extraordinary, watching the light bulbs go on. In a classroom nothing like Middlebury, students were given problems to solve, teams in which to solve them, and the energy in the room was palpable.”

For Liebowitz, the experience confirmed his ideas about giving students opportunities to apply their learning. “Olin had me rethinking so many things about how students learn,” he says.  He began to think about how to effectively apply what he saw at Olin to the liberal arts. What if you take the liberal arts as a foundation, he wondered, and go one step further.

The breakthrough was less than a semester away. “The watershed, for me, was the Solar Decathlon,” Liebowitz says. “This was where academics and design-based thinking could meet.”

Screen Shot 2015-05-15 at 3.25.14 PM

Key data points illustrating the growth and evolution of Middlebury under the leadership of Ron Liebowitz.

(Click image to enlarge)

The decathlon is a U.S. Energy Department 10-event contest among colleges and universities to design and build affordable solar-powered homes, which are displayed and judged at a central site—the Mall in Washington, D.C., in 2011; Orange County, California, in 2013. Typically engineering and architectural schools from around the U.S., Europe, and Asia compete.

“We had long odds in that experiment,” Liebowitz says, “including writing a compelling and competitive proposal as a liberal arts college rather than a specialized and graduate institution. Yet it showed the Middlebury students what was possible. It inspired them to see that their ceiling was way, way up there.”

“Or,” he adds, “maybe there is no ceiling.”

“That project was two-and-half years of my life,” says Abe Bendheim ’10, who served as architecture co-lead on the solar-powered farmhouse. “This idea came at me from a unique perspective. The sustainability movement could be more than a luxury-goods pitch. Because of Ron’s pledge to use the resulting building for campus housing later, we knew the house had to be functional and make economic sense.

“While we had very much appreciated what we were learning in the classroom, we also felt like we were putting something valuable in the world,” Bendheim says. “A final paper or presentation is not as fulfilling.”

The house placed fourth out of 20 finalists, with Liebowitz on hand to celebrate the achievement. “There’s something pretty incredible about capping a four-year education by producing something visible,” says Bendheim. “And it is definitely a huge part of why I am in architecture school now.”

“It showed the resourcefulness of our students,” Liebowitz says. “It demonstrated
decisively the power of a liberal arts education. It was outrageous.”

***

The idea behind Liebowitz’s liberal-arts-plus model is not replacement of the traditional curriculum, but enrichment outside it. “It’s not either/or,” Liebowitz says. “We need all of the brilliance that goes on in the classroom, of course. But a 21st-century liberal arts education requires a melding of the foundational, theoretical, and applied where possible and where it makes sense.”

Among the programs to launch during Liebowitz’s presidency:

* The Center for Social Entrepreneurship (CSE). “I was teaching a winter term course, 21st Century Global Challenges,” says CSE Director and Economics Professor Jon Isham. “Instead of a traditional class, the students designed a white paper on what a center like this would do, and we brought it to Ron that February. He absorbed our ideas immediately, speaking at a hundred miles an hour, making larger strategic sense of what we had put in front of him.”

Now the center offers fellowships so students can develop ideas for fostering a more just world. It also conducts research and hosts annual events featuring leaders in the field. One student—an ROTC cadet, now an intelligence officer in the Army—started a company that works with veterans to turn surplus military material into handbags. Another expanded a nonprofit that works on gender equity for Muslim women.

* MiddCORE. Evolving from Digital Bridges, a winter term course started by Economics Professor Michael Claudon in 2000, this program “relies on experiential learning, taught by mentors, in leadership, strategic thinking, ethical decision making, crisis management, empathy, negotiation, and design thinking,” says Jessica Holmes, economics professor and current director of MiddCORE.

In a winter term course, a five-week summer program at Sierra Nevada College on Lake Tahoe, and in workshops throughout the school year, MiddCORE brings alumni, business leaders, nonprofit innovators, former governors, and more to guide students through exercises that cultivate real-world leadership skills.

“Students become incredibly engaged,” Holmes says. “They’ll be working at 11:00 on a Saturday night, not for credit but for their personal growth. And these skills are applicable to anything they might one day want to do. I get calls from other campuses—they want to know how we did this, and I tell them: Ron was willing to take risks.”

* Old Stone Mill. This historic facility, beside Otter Creek in Middlebury, offers studios for writers, artists and musicians, plus gallery and performance space. There are no assignments, no grades, only opportunities to pursue one’s passions and create.

These offerings operate under the administrative umbrella of the Programs on Creativity and Innovation (PCI), which is directed by Elizabeth Robinson ’84, associate dean for creativity, engagement, and careers. Among PCI’s other offerings: MiddStart, which gives students a micro-philanthropy platform to fund their ideas; TEDx Middlebury, a local, student-led TED conference; MiddChallenge, a competition for College-funded summer programs in business, social entrepreneurialism, and the arts; the New Millennium Fund, which enables student internships at Vermont nonprofit organizations; and more.

Students who have experiences outside the curriculum are different in the classroom, says Peter Hamlin, the Christian A. Johnson Professor of Music. “Students at Middlebury are so good at responding to challenges we set up for them. But in terms of creativity, it’s good to get out of that mode and explore. It’s liberating. And they don’t know they’re getting new knowledge and benefiting from it.”

Hamlin remembers teaching a course on songwriting and production, and the final recital was held at 51 Main at the Bridge, the College’s restaurant, bar, and performance space. “We had people from town as well as students. A real audience. It seems pretty natural to deploy these offerings.”

Not everyone agrees. Some faculty and students maintain the liberal arts are a last bastion of open intellectual inquiry, where learning is revered for its own sake. To them, MiddCORE and its ilk are unduly vocational, constraining students’ academic experiences at precisely the time when their minds ought to be the most unfettered.

“I have two kinds of critics,” Liebowitz says. Those who are exceedingly skeptical, he explains, people “who oppose change without giving new approaches serious consideration. And thoughtful people, who have good points to make. Stephen Donadio, for example.”

***

Fulton Professor of Humanities Stephen Donadio has an office in Hesselgrave House packed with books—on chairs, all over his desk, stacked atop other books. One shelf holds a 25-volume Encyclopedia Brittanica, circa 1889.

“Ninth edition,” Donadio notes with a smile. “The same one James Joyce used.”

His defense of the liberal arts is spirited. “Countless alumni have come back and made it clear that they took subjects they didn’t think would have any bearing on their lives, and it turned out to be extremely important.”

Donadio says the real friction arises from issues around whether internships should receive academic credit or when mentors may be business leaders, nonprofit managers, or politicians. “I’m all in favor of internships, but you have ceded authority to those outside the institution. The fact that something has value doesn’t mean it should take the place of a course at Middlebury College.”

By contrast, he says, the career of Juan Machado ’11 exemplifies the merits of the liberal arts.

“I was passionate about economics, but double-majored in literary studies because it allowed me to take courses in lots of departments,” says Machado. “I read great stuff, including Lu Xun, the first modern writer in Chinese literature. It was amazing, and connected to what China is going through today. His books were held up by protesters in 1989 in Tiananmen Square.”

Machado took a job with the Asia Society, a New York-based global organization where he’s now the senior media officer. “Having read a little bit helps in relating to my colleagues and gives me a deeper understanding of Chinese and Japanese culture.”

Donadio says Machado’s experiences confirm his argument: “The point of wide reading is that you prepare for jobs you would never have imagined, and you discover yourself at least somewhat qualified.”

Perhaps it would be instructive to hold a debate between Machado and Ryan Kim ’14.

“I did MiddCORE, and took advantage of a lot of those opportunities,” says Kim, a recent graduate. He worked on a TEDx event and hung a photography show in the Old Stone Mill, along with other things.

“Before my last semester I realized I had not fulfilled Middlebury’s writing requirement. I had done independent studies, published in Middlebury Magazine, written a column for the campus newspaper . . . but I had not enrolled in a class under that requirement.”

He protested, without success. “I didn’t see why I had to force myself to endure a class I believe I had earned an exception for. But the system proved itself inflexible.”

When there is division, change is difficult. And in higher education dissent is business as usual. Liebowitz can quickly name the nine constituencies whose interests must be considered in everything the College does: “Students, faculty, parents, staff, trustees, alumni, prospective students, the town, and government regulators. Any step I take is going to upset someone who wishes I’d gone in another direction.”

This was evident shortly after Liebowitz took office in 2004 when Middlebury was presented with the opportunity to acquire a graduate school in California: the Monterey Institute of International Studies. There were supporters, to be sure, but also strong resistance. Some said acquiring Monterey would dilute Middlebury’s mission, others that it presented a financial risk. When the faculty voted on the Monterey proposal, they rejected it by an overwhelming margin. But in what would become a defining moment of his presidency, Liebowitz pushed forward.

“Going ahead with that deal didn’t win him many friends, right?” says Rory Riggs, ’75, a fervent supporter of the College’s innovations under Liebowitz. “But Ron is a master of calculated risk.”

Eleven years later, not only is Monterey a key satellite to Middlebury, strategically positioned on the West Coast, but the two institutions complement one another. Exchanges between Middlebury and Monterey faculty afford each an opportunity to teach in new environments, while Middlebury undergraduates have access to courses and fieldwork at a professional graduate school that would not be possible at a liberal arts college.

It has been Liebowitz’s ability to balance competing interests, while soliciting ideas from all directions, that has won the support of people like Riggs. A New York-based biotechnology investor, Riggs not only supported the Monterey acquisition but also PCI and its programs, and was one of the first to donate to the new Fund for Innovation. “I hire 50 interns a summer, and I don’t hire economics majors. I want smart kids who can do multiple things. That’s the nature of the world now.”

Liebowitz, he says, has not let pushback from some corners keep Middlebury from meeting this demand. Says Riggs: He’s developed a culture of innovation in students—and in Middlebury itself.

***

Study of the Classics is, in some respects, the pinnacle of the liberal arts—a field as far removed as possible from a design-build pedagogy. But in the past decade, the public square has been rough on the subject. Mary Beard wrote a 2012 New York Review of Books essay titled “Do the Classics Have a Future?” And this sentiment is indicative of the hundreds of books, articles, reviews, and op-ed pieces that have similar themes: “Classics in Crisis” or “Who Killed Homer?”

So when President Liebowitz announced this spring that classics would be the first department at the College to be endowed in perpetuity, it was as if he were saying, I mean it when I say the liberal arts are the foundation of what we do.

The endowment supports a second endowed professorship (to go along with one established four years ago) as well as the department’s annual operating budget, while also providing funding for students to pursue and enhance their classics education. Funding may support intensive Latin and Greek language study in the summer, participation on archaeological digs on site in Greece, the hosting of classics scholars for lectures, symposia, and short-term residencies, as well as other activities the classics faculty deems valuable. (The endowment will also support professional development needs of the classics faculty.)

Says Liebowitz: “It makes the important statement that, while new opportunities and approaches for students are necessary, the foundation of the liberal arts is vital and needs to be supported and ensured.”

That move earned Donadio’s admiration. “It preserves the study of the classics under economic circumstances in which they might be first to go. That act went against the sense that this is all about occupational training.”

***

The globes in Liebowitz’s officebecause of changing boundaries and political upheaval—are no longer accurate. And thus they offer a metaphor for higher education today: they manifest the need for colleges to evolve.

“One of my favorite examples is what Steve Trombulak did with environmental studies in the mid-1980s,” Liebowitz says.

Established in 1965, Middlebury’s environmental studies program is the nation’s oldest, but upon Trombulak’s arrival, its founders had passed on and the program was struggling; at one point it only had three students as majors.

“Steve single-handedly pulled it out of the doldrums,” Liebowitz says. “He underscored its value as an interdisciplinary program, involving people like John Elder from the English department, political scientist Chris Klyza, chemists, historians, economists, and others. And he accomplished this as an untenured faculty colleague. Twenty-five years later, environmental studies is thriving and is the second-largest major on campus.”

Liebowitz says the tools for 21st-century survival in higher education are innovation, collaboration across disciplines, and building programs that serve students’ yearning for purpose. The “content” remains anchored in the liberal arts, but the pedagogy and many assumptions about learning are evolving.

“Ron is actually an entrepreneur,” says Charles MacCormack ’63, longtime leader of Save the Children and now executive-in-residence at the College. “It’s unusual, especially in a college president.”

***

Liebowitz, in his final year as president, has still been pushing for big achievements—some that for decades have been just out of reach. Last year saw the long-awaited (or derided, depending on your point of view) deal with the town to swap land holdings. The College will help build new town offices on former College land while acquiring town property that will become a park—and a new, attractive entrance to campus.

This effort is the latest in a series of investments the College has made with the town. The largest was College support for the construction of the second bridge in town following 50 years of failed planning. But perhaps the richest partnership has been with the Town Hall Theater, a restored facility in Middlebury that hosts 165 events a year.

“John McCardell helped us strongly in the beginning,” says theater Executive Director Doug Anderson. “But we thought restoring this place would take two years and $1 million, and it took 10 years and $5 million.

“At one point we were at a critical crossroads, and I asked to see Ron. Turns out he had been developing his own ideas. I had a speech all prepared that I didn’t have to give. Now we have students through there by the hundreds.”

The Town Hall Theater also provides much-needed performance space for summer Language Schools, and Middlebury students put on a musical there every winter.

Listening to Liebowitz speak at length about this partnership, one momentarily forgets he won’t be around to see future performances or plays.

He also becomes very animated discussing the coming centennial of the Language Schools. The Russian School, after all, was his introduction to Middlebury, when he was a graduate student at Columbia. In fact, when he delivered his inaugural address in 2004, he mentioned the Language Schools’ founding and how an ambitious German instructor from Vassar, Lilian Stroebe, and Middlebury’s President John Thomas made an intellectual leap of faith to create the first Language School 100 years ago this summer—an early example of Middlebury ingenuity and creativity.

Yet when talk turns to his legacy, Liebowitz won’t have it.

“That’s a bad word,” he says. “The better question is why do you do this work? Nobody goes to grad school in geography and Soviet studies to become a provost and president. I’m doing this job because I’ve been part of this place, and I believe strongly in its mission. It was so for 20 years before I became president. I love this place and care about its future.”

He adds, “If that’s what guides you, I don’t think there’s time to talk about accomplishments or legacies. There’s always more work to be done.”

So, while his days in Old Chapel are waning, his calendar remains full. That work ethic commands respect.

“Although we disagree on some matters,” says Donadio, “it must be said: Ron has taken the crisis in higher education seriously. He has looked to the future here.”

“When I was younger, I was a pain to deal with,” Trombulak says. “Angry all the time; every issue was a battle. But Ron hung in there. He has been a great colleague through the years, and look where we are now.

“I am really going to miss him.”

Under Pressure

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

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One year ago, in November 2013, following Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych’s sudden reversal on a pro-European treaty, thousands of Ukrainians took to the streets to protest his decision and, more generally, to demand greater democratic reforms for their country.

During the first few weeks of demonstrations—organized in great part by young people—inhabitants of Kiev brought sandwiches and other provisions to protesters. For four months, they braved extreme winter weather and, though they were unable to foresee the tragic challenges that lay ahead, they remained true to their vision of a renewed, democratic Ukraine.

In August, China’s Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress announced electoral reforms for Hong Kong. Fearing the proposed changes might ultimately result in an imposed, preselected leader, students began to demonstrate in the city’s center.

In both these cases, not just students but people of all ages courageously put aside the demands of their daily lives to fight for something that, no matter how cynically it’s sometimes portrayed, remains remarkable in the human spirit: the desire to live without fear.

When we reflect on such courageous acts, sometimes it’s difficult to discern what comprises their extraordinary nature. Are we moved by stories of endurance, of people withstanding subzero temperatures? Or do we respond to the ability to persevere despite uncertainty?  Or the drive to “speak truth to power”?  The great Silver Age Russian poet Anna Akhmatova reflected on this matter for many years and suggested there were several elements that make up the complex faces of courage, daring, and fortitude.

In this edition of Middlebury Magazine, we find a wealth of these different elements, whether it be World War II veteran Frederick Kelly’s story of flying behind enemy lines to drop supplies to the French Resistance, or journalist Zaheena Rasheed’s return to the Maldives immediately following its 2012 political crisis, along with her resolve to uncover the circumstances surrounding a fellow reporter’s disappearance—this despite threats on her life.

Sometimes, though, courage can be less public and more intimate—but no less moving. Consider Daphne Perry’s unflinching battle with breast cancer, or Hannah Quinn’s hope to create a community that can address depression’s challenges. We also find here miraculous stories, including Chime Dolma’s account of leaving Tibet as a young girl. The Chinese authorities had accused her father of dissent, and she had to be transported out of the country in a box.

Based on her experience of dictatorship, Akhmatova came to believe that fortitude is one of courage’s most critical components. Many people can be daring, but to have fortitude requires an inner form of strength that sets it apart from daily life. The stories recounted here are all testimonies to this fortitude, and to the human capacity to endow with meaning those old but potent words that, despite their threadbare use, still move mountains: freedom and truth.

Run to the Roar

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

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Around 300 or so years after the word courage first gained foothold in the lexicon (it was spelled corage in Middle English and curage in Old French), Milton wrote, in Paradise Lost, the words “courage never to submit or yield,” essentially establishing a definition that we are all familiar with: “that quality of mind which shows itself in facing danger without fear or shrinking; bravery, boldness, valour.”*

In our cover essay, the decorated international correspondent Ellen Hinsey beautifully writes about where courage comes from, explaining what makes a person courageous while asking all of us: what would you do if faced with similar circumstances?

On the following pages is a collection of essays, oral histories, and narratives—eight Middlebury voices, each serving as an example of unshrinking bravery, boldness, or valor in the face of danger or fear. For some, their stories relate courageous moments, stands, or a way of life. For others, courage is found in the very act of writing these essays, of expressing these feelings.

Within the pages of the Oxford English Dictionary, the first definition of courage, from around 1300, describes “the heart as the seat of feeling, thought, etc.” Chaucer wrote of courage this way. Later, Shakespeare did, too. As far as these eight Middlebury essays are concerned, courage defined this way works just as well.

*This, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Antoinette Rangel Is Having the Time of Her Life

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

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She knows it sounds excessively earnest, but Antoinette Rangel ’09 tells her colleagues, “It’s been a pleasure to serve the American people with you today!” every evening before leaving the White House. (And it does sound so like Aaron Sorkin that one can almost hear patriotic music swelling in the background as she walks and talks. But after talking to Rangel and her friends and colleagues it becomes clear that the enthusiasm is utterly genuine.)

As deputy director of Hispanic Media Outreach for the Obama administration, Rangel has served as a major point of contact during a year in which Hispanic media outlets have been especially keen to hear the president’s position on certain issues. The days before President Obama announced his executive action on immigration—which aims to protect more than four million undocumented immigrants—were the “kind of days you’re so busy you can hardly see straight; you forget to eat lunch; you’re moving a million miles an hour, fervently ticking items off a never-ending to-do list.” Rangel insists, however, she was smiling the entire time.

While tweeting from the White House’s bilingual Twitter account during the president’s speech on the executive action, she couldn’t help but think of all the work preceding that moment. In particular, one of the president’s lines stood out to her: “We were strangers once, too.”

“It was very powerful,” she writes in an email, “for the president to remind us all of what binds us together as a nation: a tradition of welcoming immigrants is the very fabric of who we are.”

Since creating jobs like Rangel’s, the administration says it’s seen broader coverage from Hispanic outlets, which not only report on the White House’s work on immigration, but also on health care, student loans, the minimum wage, and other topics. During previous administrations, Hispanic media was addressed under the larger banner of specialized media.  (Though this would’ve been a difficult tradition to keep, since Hispanic media outlets are proliferating, with more than 20 having been formed since 2000.)

Rangel says that within the White House, people have viewed the Hispanic media coverage of the executive actions as largely positive, although she acknowledges that this year immigration advocates have become impatient for the federal government to act. “It’s tough to be patient,” Rangel writes. “I know, as a Latina myself, how it impacts millions of lives daily.” Later she adds, “In my family, I’ve seen the impact of lack of education, opportunity, and access to health care—for me it isn’t just statistics on a page but people in my life whom I love.”

When Rangel first got her job in the Obama administration, one of her cousins asked something to the effect of “Oh, are you going to be the help?  And take care of the girls?”

That fueled her, she writes, saying it “reminds me how important being part of this administration is; because I think about my family and all the other young Latinas who might not think it’s possible to work in a place like the White House. And to them I say what the president says so often: dream big dreams.”

**

Rangel’s days rarely end when she leaves her White House desk. Most evenings after work she heads straight to class at Georgetown Law School, where she also serves as a transfer peer mentor. Rangel had been a law student at Northeastern, in Boston, when she took the job in the Obama administration’s communications office in 2010; now she’s catching up in night classes. She’s also in a gospel choir and twice a month works the night shift at a women’s homeless shelter in Northwest D.C. In what free time she had, she’d been training for the Marine Corps Marathon, which she completed in November while wearing a liberal amount of American flag apparel.

But Rangel revels in the frenetic pace of her days. In fact, when Univision profiled her as one of the 15 most influential Latinos or Latinas in the executive branch, she told them the one thing she’d change is the number of hours she has to work—that is, she’d like to be in the White House more. Apparently, the long days and the vow to be attached to her Blackberry and iPhone aren’t enough. “Even on the most tiring days,” she says, “the place still takes my breath away.”

**

When Rangel was a kid, she had a very typical list of dream jobs. She was intrigued by the elephant trainers she saw every year at the circus near her home in the Bronx. She considered becoming an actress or a singer. Once she got older, however, her ambitions grew.

She attended La Guardia High School, best known as the setting for the 1980 film Fame, hoping both for a good education and time to sing. Her English teacher Ed McCarthy says she didn’t voice any specific ambitions, but that she was “driven to do good.” Before graduating, she considered becoming a lawyer or running for political office, testing out the latter by serving as copresident of her senior class. Then, in 2005, she went to Middlebury as a Posse Scholar. At Middlebury, Posse students arrive early their first year, and Rangel was the first person to introduce herself to everyone. And she just kept going from there.

Rangel served all four years on the Community Council; she lived at the social house KDR.  She played rugby, sang jazz, attended weekly Posse meetings, and led a spring-break service trip to the Dominican Republic. She volunteered at a nursing home nearby, as well as with the Migrant Farmworkers Coalition. She was president of the College Democrats. She also worked on several political campaigns—the summer after she completed high school, she campaigned for Gifford Miller when he ran against Mayor Michael Bloomberg in NYC. As well, she did a summer stint for Hillary Clinton before the 2008 presidential primaries, telling the Middlebury Campus that fall, “I believe that Hillary has the experience to lead starting on day one.”

Ross Commons Dean Ann Hanson served with Rangel on Middlebury’s Community Council and recalls a time when Rangel was nearly speechless after running into Chief Justice John Roberts, who was on campus to give a lecture. Earlier, Rangel had sat at his table for lunch and later that day he said hello while passing her on the sidewalk.

“You’ll never believe it, Ann,” Hanson remembers Rangel saying, “but he knows my name!”

Murray Dry, the Charles A. Dana Professor of Political Science, recollects that Rangel wanted to be a U.S. senator. He was skeptical about how feasible this career path was, but admired Rangel’s work ethic enough to entertain the idea. “She wasn’t the type of student who only takes courses she would easily succeed in,” Dry says. “She was not the top student, but worked incredibly hard. I admired that. Sticking with something, it’s not something you see in every student.”

Dry believes Rangel would make an excellent representative—a job she’s considered. In fact, she told at least one White House reporter that she hopes to one day join New York’s congressional delegation. And she’s spoken of similar ambitions to those close to her.

Julia Stevens, a childhood friend, remembers when they were in ninth grade Rangel saying she was going to be governor of New York someday. “I was in awe of her,” Stevens says. “I don’t know how she does it. I don’t think I’ll ever know.”

And Sheyenne Brown ’09, who was in Rangel’s Posse class, predicts that after Rangel graduates law school and is a “badass civil rights attorney” for awhile, she’ll “be the first woman or Hispanic president.” Brown continues, “I’d say she had been very clear about her political aspirations from the very beginning. If not explicitly, then in her demeanor.”

Rangel impresses those around her with her drive, her ambition, and her ability to accomplish a lot. Which means that her busy D.C. life must feel comforting: it’s the way she’s always led her life. If anything, her chief strategy seems to be amassing experiences until all obstacles are scared away in the face of brute busyness.

After ending her collegiate career as president of the Student Government Association, Rangel went to Northeastern, planning to apply for summer internships at the White House every summer until she was offered a job. She didn’t have long to wait. After her first year of law school, she landed an internship in the White House Office of Political Affairs. There she ran into an old friend, Josh Earnest, a deputy press secretary in the White House. (The two had worked together on a gubernatorial campaign in Florida in 2006.) That summer, they often had lunch together, and as Rangel was preparing to return to Boston to begin her second year of law school, Earnest suggested she apply for a full-time job as press wrangler. She said she couldn’t, that the timing was bad. But after spending the night thinking it over, she changed her mind.

“When I returned to planet Earth,” she says, “and realized I’d just been offered the opportunity to interview for a dream job, I emailed Josh at the crack of dawn on Saturday morning and said I was 150 percent in and that I’d do whatever it took to get the position.”

**

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Official White House Photograph by Pete Souza

Most of her personal peanut gallery, the ones who have been placing odds on how far she’ll go, have been on White House tours. Rangel estimates she’s given hundreds—tours for her mom’s best friend’s third-grade class, for friends from home, for Middlebury professors. They comment on how balanced and healthy she looks, but don’t quite understand how that’s possible, given how much she’s doing.

“People call me turbo, or very type-A,” Rangel says. “It is very hard for me to sit still.” She adds, “I thrive off being busy and am definitely a workaholic.” It’s these qualities that make her an effective advocate for the causes that are important to her, says Josh Earnest, now the White House press secretary. “Her success stems from her tenacity and determination to fight for what she believes in.”

Perhaps, say some, Rangel’s ability to stay balanced comes from perspective, perspective that allows her to be serious about her work while never taking herself so seriously (a quality rarely seen in Washington).

When Sheyenne Brown met Rangel that first week at Middlebury, she remembers that the LaGuardia High graduate had been on a “mismatching kick where she wore these crazy clothes. I just knew it was because she was trying to be different.” Different from Middlebury, maybe, but perfectly in synch with who Rangel was—a new place wasn’t going to change that.  (Her freshman year, Rangel and her father made a cardboard Ben & Jerry’s pint for her Halloween costume—extending a family tradition of designing and constructing outlandish costumes—and several people at Middlebury remember it even today.)

It’s momentarily stunning to hear Brown describe Rangel as “one of the most obnoxious people I’d ever met,” though, to be honest, Brown’s sentiment is both understandable and endearing, especially when you hear her talk about it. (At the beginning of their freshman year, the two had driven to Vermont together, with Rangel playing “Chariot” by Gavin DeGraw on the car stereo repeatedly. “Sheyenne will never forgive me for playing that song,” she says.)

“I guess Ant kind of grew on me like a fungus, and I honestly say that with such love and gratefulness,” Brown says. “She pretty much forced her way into my heart, and I can’t even pinpoint when I started to adore her the way I do now.”

**

One White House tour in particular stands out for Rangel. When her sister Elia first saw the Oval Office, “the gravity of it hit her, and her face lit up with excitement and turned bright red.”

“It’s very exciting to share this place with others,” Rangel says. “Every day it feels surreal, like at some point someone will wake me from this incredible dream.”

Out of anyone else’s mouth, such sentiment would sound excessively earnest. But for Rangel, it just sounds . . . right.

Jaime Fuller ’11 writes for New York magazine. She previously covered politics at the Washington Post. As an editor with the Middlebury Campus, she covered the “Rangel Administration” of the College’s Student Government Association.