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The Liebowitz Years: Leading with Conviction

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

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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

courage_treeWeb

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

courageWeb

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

RangelWeb

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.”

**

RANGELBRIEFING (1)

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.

Laurie L. Patton Named Next President of Middlebury

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wild Moose Chase

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In search of Vermont’s most mysterious creature

I tumbled headlong down the hillside once, twice, three times before landing in a heap of snow beside Ky Koitzsch, a wildlife biologist from in Waitsfield, Vermont and also my guide as we trekked along a remote ridgeline in the Green Mountains, east of Granville, Vermont, in search of moose.

“The avalanche method,” I explained, as I struggled to extract my splayed cross-country skis from nearly three feet of powder. “It works almost as well as skiing when the hill is this steep.”

After untangling my limbs, I reattached my skis. Ky waited all of five seconds before setting out again along the moose tracks, not noticing the difficulty with which I was clambering after him. He had eyes only for the hoof prints that curved out before us, disappearing into a dense thicket of decapitated firs.

“Tracks!” called Ky from twenty yards ahead. “Here are our first moose tracks.” He pointed into the snow with his pole. “They’re not fresh—probably two days old or so, judging by the amount of snow that’s blown into them.” The tracks were widely spaced and diagonally staggered.

He then skied a few yards and, leaning over, put his head a few inches from an indentation in the snow.

“Here’s a good one!” He drew me to his side with an animated hand gesture. “You see how this side is deeper?” He didn’t give me a chance to respond. “You can tell the direction the moose is traveling based on the uneven depth of the print. When the moose walks, it puts most of its weight on the front of its hoof, just like we do. So the deeper side of the print with point in the direction the animal is moving.”

He rolled his balled fist through the snow, mimicking the movement of a moose on the hoof. “We’ll follow these for now. They should lead us to some fresher tracks.”

Our trek took us still higher into the Green Mountains and further from the national park access road that had deposited us into these snowy woods. Ky was confident that we’d find fresher tracks before the day was out—if not an actual moose.

“Come look at this, Conor,” Ky said without looking up from the trunk he was scrutinizing. “This is a great example of bark stripping. You can see marks from the moose’s teeth. Moose only have bottom incisors, so the scraping will always be angled upwards.”

I ran my hand along the grooved surface, thankful for the momentary respite from our energetic jaunt.

Other than tracks, trees display the most prominent signs of moose. During the winter months, moose in the Vermont woods rely on woody twigs for food, and evidence of moose munching on trees could be seen almost everywhere Ky and I turned. The tree Ky pointed to was a striped maple, one of the many varieties that moose will eat during the winter.

“The food moose eat in the summer is buried now,” Ky said. “Now, instead of greens like leaves and aquatic vegetation, the moose will browse on mostly woody twigs and bark. Around here, I find that during the winter, they eat mostly striped maple, balsam fir, hobblebush, and occasionally cherry and birch.”

Moose derives from the Algonquin word “moz”—meaning “twig eater.” And moose certainly live up to their name. The animals consume staggering amounts of vegetation. A typical moose will eat sixty pounds of vegetation in a day. All of which is digested in a moose’s massive, four-chambered stomach.

We stopped in a meadow about thirty yards away from a striped maple tree that a hungry moose had stripped of its bark.

“These,” he said, gesturing to the meadow of firs surrounding us, “have been chowed! Notice that none of these firs are more than five feet tall—moose stunt their growth by coming back and eating here for multiple years.”

“Do you think they’re fresh?” I asked.

He ripped a branch off the closest fir tree. “Look at this,” he said, handing me the branch.

I glanced at it, then back at him. I could tell the end had been chewed off, but didn’t know what else I was looking for.

“Notice the color of the bark,” he told me. “You can tell from the brown color of the inner wood that this moose passed through at least two days ago. If this bite had been taken any more recently, the inner wood would still be yellow or even green.”

We moved through several meadows that had been trampled by browsing moose. Ky followed one pair of tracks for a little bit before picking up a new one—and then a newer one.

“Ah, here we go. Check this out. You can tell this is a moose rub based on the height.”

I studied the patch of trunk he was discussing. Starting at about three feet off the ground (and then spanning another four or so feet) the tree’s bark had been rubbed away, leaving stringy bits of wood hanging at the top and bottom edges.

“This bark wasn’t eaten, it was rubbed off by the moose’s antlers. You could tell that the bark on that striped maple we saw before had been eaten because of the incisor grooves and the clean edges,” Ky said. “But you can tell this fir was rubbed because there are no incisor grooves.”

He removed a glove, running his bare hand along the trunk. “See?” he said. “Totally smooth. Also, the edges of the bark are stringy and frayed when antlers rub them.”

“Keep your eye out,” he said.

As fast as we were moving, Ky reminded me that we couldn’t hope to match the speed of a moose travelling through the woods. I found it hard to imagine animals as large as moose moving swiftly through the labyrinth of brambles and fallen trees that were clawing us from all angles.

“Look at this!” Ky said, “This is great! A fresh moose bed—it can’t be much more than a few hours old!”

We stood before a rounded depression in the snow—a bowl a moose’s body had created. At its center was a heap of what looked like tiny chocolate eggs. A few inches beyond, it appeared someone had spilled a dozen highlighter markers. I couldn’t take my eyes off the fluorescent urine and the pile of droppings.

“Pick one up,” Ky said. “We’ll see how long ago the moose was here.”

I picked up a small piece of scat. It was an egg-shaped pellet, not much bigger than a marble.

“Is it warm?”

“No,” I said, squeezing the pellet. “It’s not frozen though.”

Ky picked up another pellet from the heap, rolling it between his fingers. It broke open like an Easter egg.

“Sawdust.” Ky showed me the digested bits of wood. “That’s really all it is. Now if we were looking at coyote scat—or any other carnivore, for that matter—it might have been uglier. This is basically just cellulose.”

We started following these new tracks, which Ky estimated were made about an hour earlier.

“I’ll bet she heard us,” he whispered. “We can’t be far behind her now. As we ski, try to be as quiet as you can.”

We spent ten minutes in vigorous pursuit. The tracks reached an open meadow and pivoted sharply, turning uphill. Then they turned back downhill. Or were they a different set of tracks? I slowed down, unsure.

“It looks like she went higher up into the mountains,” Ky said, pausing. “I’m thinking we should probably head back. We’ve had this cow moving pretty fast for awhile now, and she’ll already be pretty warm in weather like this. We really ought to let her be. She’s probably struggling as it is.”

“Of course,” I said, trying not to sound disappointed.

 This essay is an abridged version of a longer story and video produced for the winter term course Writing the Adventure.

The Foreign Student

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A journalist embarks on a voyage into the unknown.

I started studying French two years ago. I was 36, and it had dawned on me that there was something embarrassing about the fact that I was monolingual. Perhaps this was about class, as I had gone from my working-class Baltimore roots to the literary world of New York. Perhaps it was about New York itself, where in a 30-minute subway ride you can easily hear five different people speaking five different languages. Perhaps it was my wife, who’d fallen in love with Paris and demanded that I visit, sure that I would fall in love, too. Or perhaps it was just me, feeling a little too settled and looking for something radical to shake up the routine. I had no idea how radical the experience would actually be.

The thing about studying a foreign language is that it really is a foreign language, which is to say that it’s a dizzying array of words to be memorized, rules for how those words should be assembled, and customs for when those assembled words should be deployed. And those customs sometimes bend back on themselves—the polite form of a personal pronoun can be both self-deprecating and threatening. You have to recognize the context. This is the reason why I speak of the process of “studying” French and not the impossibility of “learning” it. I am a native English speaker and a writer. A large part of the joy of my vocation comes from understanding that it’s impossible to “learn” the English language, if only because the language refuses to sit still. I acknowledge that the French tend to be more conservative in this regard, but the point still stands due to the sheer size of the language.

What I quickly learned was that saying I am going to “study” French was like saying I am going to sail to China. The language is so vast that one can, all at once, feel both great progress being made and a great distance still to go. Sailing from California to Hawaii is far and difficult to achieve; getting to China is farther—and harder—still.

I faced this dynamic several times this summer while studying French at Middlebury. The College’s 11 Language Schools are the gold standard for those seeking to go beyond their mother tongues.
Middlebury insists that you not speak your native language for the entirety of your stay, communicating solely in the language that you are studying. For me this meant seven weeks of all French; no English.

The effect of this was to turn every single encounter, large or small, into a mental Pilates class. This is true, not simply because of the difficulty of the language, but because of what that difficulty does to the ego. The kind of students attracted to the language tended to be people who were educated and smart. And yet to learn French, most of us were reduced to the mental equivalent of three-year-olds. The result was a constant mental exercise, not simply in recalling the language, but embracing the fact that whatever we might say would almost certainly be wrong. The onslaught was forceful and unremitting—the most basic requests became an exercise in one’s capacity to endure humiliation.

And I think this was Middlebury’s greatest reward, and also the greatest reward in studying another language. Many of us were from worlds where we were constantly complimented on our intelligence. But acquiring a foreign language—at least as an adult—requires you to part with all of those compliments and the assumptions you make about yourself. That is the place where true learning can occur, in that uncomfortable spot where your “smartness” cannot save you. I came to Middlebury to continue to study French. But what quickly became clear was that I was, in fact, studying how to study.