Tags » Issue

 
 
 

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.”

Road Taken: My Close-Up

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

LengWebDespite nearly 50 years of experiences teaching in lecture halls and seminar rooms, I have found preparing and teaching an online course—Years of Upheaval: Diplomacy, War, and Social Change, 19191945—to be full of surprises. Here, my five stages of online teaching.

Stage 1: Excessive Exuberance

It begins with Susan Baldridge, Middlebury’s vice president for strategy and planning, giving a presentation about the interesting things one could do in an online course. Susan is recruiting faculty to teach. I’m an emeritus professor, enjoying retirement and with time on my hands and curiosity to burn. I like being the first to do something new. And how hard can it be? I’ll just add a few additional sessions and some extra PowerPoint slides to my Alumni College course on World War II. Next the documentary instruction company In the Telling (ITT) gives a presentation. Nice. They can jazz it up and handle the technology for me. A deadline of late August? Okay, so I miss a few golf dates.

Stage 2: Reality Bites

Technological benefits come with costs. I’m told that people have, at maximum, nine-minute attention spans when it comes to watching talking heads on computer screens, which means adding more images, videos, and music to the slides. All right, I can do that. All the visual items have to be broadcast quality. Uh-oh. I also need to add about 150 or so “transmedia links” to information “off canvas” to supplement the lecture materials. What? And we need copyright clearances for each of the roughly 300 items. Soon I am spending all my waking hours searching for new materials and their copyright holders. The files are to be shared with ITT through Dropbox. What the hell is Dropbox? I’m now conducting a full-time research project. My wife, who only recently joined me in retirement, is beginning to feel lonely. Meanwhile, the August deadline looms.

Stage 3: They’re Ready for My Close-Up

I anticipate the filming taking two weeks. With one session a day, I can catch my breath after each class and prepare for the next. In fact, the filming is squeezed into five days, with two sessions a day being the norm. There are more new challenges, such as makeup. That’s a first. The biggest challenge is attempting to communicate with an inanimate object—the camera—after decades of relying on cues from students’ reactions. It never laughs. It never groans. It just stares. But I find my stride after a couple of sessions, and the ITT crew gives me positive reinforcement. I do love compliments, sincere or not.

Stage 4: Editing and Cringing

If I thought I was uncomfortable during the filming, I’m even more so watching myself on film during the editing phase.My first reaction is relief. Hey, I don’t look all that old. Good, no verbal crutches or uptalk. Nice ITT enhancements. But with the benefit of hindsight via not-quite-instant replay, I find myself wanting to phrase things differently, to spend more time on a particular line of thought. Too late. The producers assure me this is both a natural reaction and unnecessary worrying. They think the material is great.

Stage 5: The Premiere

Still to come, and I’d rather not think too much about it. You be the judge.

Years of Upheaval: Diplomacy, War, and Social Change, 1919–1945 will be offered to interested alumni, parents, and friends in February.

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.

Pursuits: Dancing Queen

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

gina

In a dance studio in White River Junction, Vermont, 10 women lace up thin-soled sandals and tie brightly colored sashes around their waists, the silver coins embroidered on their skirts shimmering and chiming as they move. In purple leggings and a matching sash, Gina Capossela ’87 calls “one-two-three, one-two-three.” The women step in a circle about the studio, finger cymbals sounding and sashes swaying, their wrists flicking in fluid motions. Capossela, who is wiry and strong, with a nimbus of dark, curly hair pulled back from her face, shimmies her hips and turns lightly on the ball of her foot.

Meet the Pied Piper of Middle Eastern dance in a corner of the world seemingly as far from the Middle East as one can get: the Upper Valley of Vermont and New Hampshire. An itinerant dance teacher, Capossela holds classes in town halls and elementary school cafeterias and community centers. And where she goes, students follow.

“She’s a dynamo,” says Julie Grant, a longtime student. “She inspires all of us. She’s more than just a dance teacher.”

Capossela grew up in Vermont in the ’70s and ’80s, graduated from Woodstock High School, and then went to Middlebury, where she studied art history and Italian. It wasn’t until after she graduated that she began studying dance seriously. At first, it was purely a hobby, one secondary to her career in social work and human services.

But in the early 2000s, after holding jobs ranging from volunteer gigs on crisis hotlines to executive directorships, Capossela assessed her career. “I had done everything,” she says. Her realization? “I was bored to tears by it.”

So in 2003 she quit her job and moved to Washington, D.C., to earn her master’s degree in dance from American University. During that time, she performed with the Silk Road Dance Company, dancing at the Egyptian and Uzbek embassies, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, and before the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. She went on to travel to Egypt, Morocco, and Turkey to study under other teachers.

Right from the outset in 2005, when Capossela began offering lessons, the would-be belly dancers of the Upper Valley were enthusiastic. “It wasn’t just me,” Capossela says. Middle Eastern dance was catching on across the nation. Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—and the ensuing national fascination with the Middle East—may have played some part in the belly-dance craze, Capossela thinks.

Certainly Nicole Conte, whose husband had deployed to Iraq with the Vermont National Guard, was curious about anything having to do with the Middle East. She showed up at one of Capossela’s showcases in 2005. “I’ve never missed a term since,” Conte says.

Today, Capossela makes her living teaching full time: her classes range from American-style belly dance to classical, Bhangra, and Bollywood-style Indian dancing.  In the Bhangra class, dancers ditch their hip scarves for workout gear and sneakers since the Punjabi folk dance brims with bouncing, spinning, high-energy moves.

Capossela suspects it’s how these forms of dance make women feel—more than the dance’s geographical origins—that keeps them coming back.

“This is an art form where adult women, who are shaped as average adult women are, can flourish and sparkle and radiate,” she says. Belly dancing as practiced in the West isn’t “a form of dance where you have to be under 25 and weigh 100 pounds. This is the dance of real women and real shapes and real lives and real stories.”

Along those lines, she believes she’s teaching more than footwork and choreography. “I’m helping women to connect with the divinity that they already have,” says Capossela. “That’s my real mission and calling.”

Pop Cultured

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

EdNoteWarhol


If you walk into the Overbrook Gallery
in Middlebury’s Museum of Art this winter, you’ll come face to face with Chairman Mao Zedong—his face slathered in green, his lips a vibrant pink (matching the color of his blouse).  This puckish, playful visage: it’s not the image generally associated with the Communist leader.

Of Andy Warhol’s iconic images, Mao is one of the most widely reproduced—and this silkscreen print is now part of the Museum’s collection, one of ten Warhol prints the Warhol Foundation recently gifted to the College. Among the figures joining Mao in the gallery are Sitting Bull (Sitting Bull, 1986), a depiction of the Native American originally intended for Warhol’s Cowboys and Indians portfolio; Queen Ntombi of Swaziland, one of four ruling monarchs from 1985 depicted in the artist’s Reigning Queens portfolio, Warhol’s largest; and an adorable pig (Fiesta Pig, 1979), a work commissioned by the German newspaper Die Welt.

The Warhol Foundation’s recent gift doubles the number of Warhol prints in the Museum’s collection, which not only makes for popular exhibits but also for valuable teaching tools. Even the casual observer gleans insights into the artist and his inspirations—Fiesta Pig, for instance, while commissioned, is considered deeply personal, as the animal is said to be Warhol’s pet, a gift from “Baby Jane” Holzer.

The Warhol prints will be on view in the Overbrook Gallery until mid-April. If you’re in the area, it’s a show not to be missed.