Tags » Spring 2013

 
 
 

Bringing Sounds of Africa to Middlebury

Categories: Midd Blogosphere, video
CircleDanceAbove

Sounds of Africa
Professor Damascus Kafumbe—ethnomusicologist, performer, composer—teaches students what music means to world cultures and how to perform the music of his own.

Back in Uganda, Damascus Kafumbe’s mother would wonder why he took so long to bring water back from the village well. It seems the well was too convenient to two Buganda royal enclosures where a young boy peeking through reed walls to watch court musicians could lose track of time. By age 11 Kafumbe was performing with a noted Ugandan troupe. He continued his studies with Buganda royal musicians and other masters throughout Africa, learning the subtleties of diverse cultures’ songs and dances; he also perfected the skills to craft traditional instruments. Another lesson, which he immediately makes clear to his Middlebury students today: “In all the African languages I’m familiar with, there is no word for ‘music.’ It’s such an integral part of life that we don’t have a word for it.” Even “African music” is a misnomer in such a culturally varied continent, says the affable, soft-spoken Kafumbe. As an ethnomusicology scholar, he settles for “African musics”; as an artist, he counts on his teaching and playing to evoke what English can’t translate.

“Damascus is the stunningly right person in the right place at the right time,” says Greg Vitercik, chair of the department of music. Middlebury wanted to give due attention to non-Western traditions, and ideally wanted a performing ethnomusicologist to bring some of them to life on campus. Kafumbe, also a composer, arranger, and ensemble director, was a hand-in-glove fit.

His arrival in 2011 as an assistant professor opened a path for students to explore  musics they might only know through a Putumayo collection or YouTube video. They learn how Balinese gamelan, Nuyorican rumba, Irish fiddling, and Hindustani raga reflect and relate to the cultures, politics, economics, and religions of their societies. Student musicians with scholarly leanings can learn ethnomusicological research methods and techniques. Those wanting to pursue African musics in greater depth have a teacher who knows them in his bones.

“OK, so what do chimurenga and bikutsi have in common metrically?” he asks his African Soundscapes students after playing recordings of the two genres.

“Three-quarter time,” answers a student, correctly.

This survey course routinely shatters preconceptions that “African music” means drums and hand-clapping. Students examine traditions from the northern Maghreb to the southern Bantu cultures: songs that exalt kinship, encourage trance, or inspire dancing. “I had no idea!” is a common student reaction to this cultural kaleidoscope. Throughout, Kafumbe reminds them, “The ‘why’ is more important than the ‘how.’” Yes, they learn to distinguish different genres, but they also learn to hear the mix of ancient traditions and more modern responses to Africa’s tribal migrations, colonial rule, missionization, and surges for freedom.

“I’m proud that Middlebury can be one of the few institutions to promote the idea that African musics are not just drumming,” Kafumbe says. Students who want to feel Africa’s layered rhythms and distinct timbres in their fingers can take his African Music and Dance Performance course (there are dozens on the waiting list, notwithstanding an 8:00 a.m. start time and mandatory attendance.) With no audition, students learn to play an ensemble of traditional, mostly Ugandan instruments, some of which Kafumbe has crafted himself from natural materials such as animal hide and hair, Ugandan woods, fibers, reeds, and seed shells. For most of the students, mornings spent with the ndingidi (tube-fiddle), madinda (xylophone), or other instruments is their first experience playing music. (see slideshow to hear concert selections.)

In a dress rehearsal before the ensemble’s spring concert, Kafumbe gets the students’ attention by clapping a rhythm that they repeat. “When I am talking, no one is talking, no one is playing, please,” he says softly. He shakes a pair of nsaasi (gourd shakers) to start them in a piece he composed by blending modern and traditional elements. The students strike, bow, and pluck their instruments; the sound is lively but slightly ragged. “Oh, you’re slowing down,” he warns, and stops them.

He leans forward. “Music is a sweet thing. We have to feel it. We have to enjoy it, and we have to express it.” When they begin again, the loose ends have knit together. “I have never heard any of my American students play the madinda with such a sweet tone,” he compliments.

For graduating physics major Joe Putko ’13, this introduction to playing music has been unforgettable. “We miss out on these sounds in America—but I’m so grateful we can have this experience now,” he says during a break. “This class was a history class, a gym class, a performance class, but more than anything I’ve taken here it’s taught us to work and struggle together. It’s been a life class.”

Kafumbe closes the rehearsal on a musical high note that will carry into the next night’s packed performance. “When you are struggling—that’s when you make magic,” he reassures them. “I’ll love you guys till I die.”

 

Felix Against the Barbarians

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felixI. K&R Man
This story is not about—not just about—the kidnapping and probable murder of our classmate, Felix Batista ’77. But to know his full story, we must start here.

On December 10, 2008, Felix was having an early dinner in Saltillo, capital of the Mexican state of Coahuila, about three hours south of the Texas border. Americans know Saltillo best for the traditional clay tiles it exports to high-end kitchen designers and interior decorators; but the biggest employers, General Motors and Chrysler, operate a pair of automobile assembly plants. They have made the region relatively prosperous, fostering the growth of an upper-middle class, stirring patronage in the better eating establishments, and creating a boom in another industry: hostage taking.

One of the town’s best restaurants, El Mesón Principal del Norte, specializes in spit-roasted meat. Felix had ordered the goat. An American citizen born in Cuba and based in Miami, he was a consultant whose work took him to Mexico at least 20 times a year. He was dining with three associates, speaking fluent Spanish—the sort of scene our world-friendly college likes to imagine—when one of his two cell phones rang. The call came from a friend named Pilar Valdez, head of security for the Saltillo Industrial Group. He was being held by Los Zetas, the most vicious drug cartel in a nation dominated by cartels.

While the Zetas and other Mexican gangs have grown rich from smuggling narcotics and marijuana into the United States, in the past decade or so, kidnapping has provided a growing alternative revenue stream. Almost half of all Mexicans say they have been affected by kidnapping—having been taken themselves, having had a relative or friend abducted, or having received scam calls saying a loved one is being held. Relatives of victims often receive a finger or an ear to hurry negotiations along. The kidnappers go where the money is, focusing on the nation’s business class.

Which is why Felix was in Mexico. A security expert, he had given a pair of lectures to local businessmen, telling them how to respond in the event of a kidnapping. Keep calm, he told them. Don’t offer too much money. Felix knew what he was talking about; he had been instrumental in the release of some 100 hostages, according to the Houston-based firm he worked with, ASI Global. A “response consultant” with more than two decades’ experience, Felix was at the top of a growing profession called K&R, kidnapping and ransom.

Soon after Pilar Valdez called him, the man’s son came into the restaurant and sat at another table. Felix talked to the young man, then left the restaurant briefly and returned looking shaken. After a visit to the bathroom to splash cold water on his face, Felix rejoined his dinner companions. He handed over his laptop, shoulder bag, and a cell phone—the one he used to call his family. “If I’m not back soon,” he said, “call these numbers.” He left a card with the contact information for ASI and for his wife, Lourdes. Then he stood out on the curb for half an hour.

Shortly after seven o’clock, two vehicles drove up. Pilar Valdez sat in one of them, a white Jeep Cherokee. He had been badly beaten. One of the men inside the SUV came out and put his arm around Felix. They talked briefly, and Felix got into the car. An hour later, Valdez was dropped off with a few pesos for transportation. Felix has not been seen since.

There is more to Felix’s story, entailing the usual corrupt officials, American diplomats, the FBI, the toxic outward flow of drugs to the States and the reverse flow of guns; Felix’s wife; their five grown children; his music and friendship and the scholarship in his name that reflects the best of the College.

But as you shall see, Felix himself provided the moral of the story. He once wrote to friends that his work in kidnapping and ransom was to fight “barbarism.” At a time when the purpose of the liberal arts is under challenge, Felix gives us an answer: a liberal education should nurture civilized souls like Felix Batista who can cross boundaries and carry a light into a barbarous world.

Archive: Come Blow Your Horn

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

Horn01Horns and the practice of “horning” underclassmen held special significance for Middlebury students in the late 1800s. “Horns were traditionally blown at class rallies and, since sports were on the rise at the end of the century, they were probably used for athletic events too,” said Andrew Wentink ’70, the curator of Special Collections in the Davis Family Library.

The surnames of all 23 members of the Class of 1890 are etched into the side of this 14-inch-long noisemaker along with this comment: “This horn was blown September 3, 1889, for the amusement of the freshmen.” But that was not the first time this particular horn was pressed into service. According to the details meticulously incised into it, the horn was also blown in October 1887 “for the amusement of the citizens of Cornwall,” and again in November 1888 at a parade honoring U.S. president Benjamin Harrison and his vice president, Levi Morton, a favorite son from Shoreham. It was sounded at a party thrown by the class orator, Burton Willard Norton, in 1889, and it was blown for President Ezra Brainerd, Class of 1864, later that same year. Was “Old Metaphysics” amused? We may never know, but if you blow into the Class of 1890’s horn today, it emits an odious sound.

The metal instrument was donated to the College Archive by the family of Lucretius Henry Ross, Class of  1890, or perhaps by “L. H. Ross χΨ” himself. Vice president of his class, Ross went on to Harvard Medical School, became a physician, served as a trustee of the College, and passed away at the age of 91. And judging from his keepsake, he obviously enjoyed a good “horning” every now and then.

Serene Velocity

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TedPerry__BMA1564When Ted Perry first stepped foot on the Middlebury campus in 1978, having been lured away from the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, where he held the lofty title of director of film, he discovered a college that had no film courses in its curriculum; it had no film equipment; it did not have a professional screening facility.

Now, look at that photograph on this page, an image captured by one of Ted’s former students. Look at that impish half grin; look at how Ted smiles as much with his eyes as with his mouth. It’s not hard to imagine him looking that way when he arrived at Middlebury 35 years ago, seeing a blank canvas stretched out before him. He surely delighted in imagining what could be, just as we can express a measure of delight in recognizing what has been.

Ted has worn many titles—too many to mention here, at least in any way that gives them proper weight—and has taught an array of bright students at Middlebury and elsewhere (Iowa, Texas, NYU), yet what has remained constant is a state of what colleague and friend Stephen Donadio has described as “serene velocity,” (which is also the title of a film that Ted has long admired).

This is what set Ted apart in the classroom—and as a scholar, as a teacher, and in the world of film, where he is held in such high regard. No doubt this state of serene velocity will accompany Ted into retirement, as he turns his attention and that impish smile to further avenues of exploration that await his attention.

A recent Sunday tested that theory. An overcast afternoon found Ted in Otter Creek Bakery with one of his grandsons, 10-year-old Sutton. As the young boy quietly enjoyed a giant chocolate cookie, Ted softly greeted other customers (a neighbor, a former chair of the Middlebury Board of Trustees). How serene (!).

“What a nice way to spend the afternoon,” a friend remarked.

“We’re about to go clean the third floor of the house, then we’re going to unpack and shelve my books. After that, we’re going swimming,” Ted replied, as casually as one would ask for a pack of sugar. “Now, when are we going canoeing in the Adirondacks…?”

Vignette: Onward and Upward

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Mahaney Center for the Arts finalIt is the day of the spring equinox. Maple sap is rising, and big fat flakes are falling on the copper roof of the Kevin P. Mahaney ’84 Center for the Arts. Inside, in one gallery of the art museum, there is an abundance of children—whether on the walls, as mostly winged cupids rendered in 19th-century France, or on the floor, as exceptionally attentive fourth- graders visiting from the Weybridge School and sitting before an 1851 seascape. The artist is Louis Gabriel Eugène Isabey, Parisian artist in the court of King Louis-Philippe.

Guided by the museum’s curator of education, Sandi Olivo, the children study and inventory the painting’s elements: numerous casks on a sandy beach; a pennant in a breeze; a blue jacket draped on a boat’s gunwale; clouds driving over land; and out at sea, a tiny sail tacking off a distant shore. Above the seascape, a Bourguereau oil with its Olympic bosoms and bottoms elicits a sideways glance or two.

Upstairs, another Weybridge School group studies a John Sloan crayon drawing, Dreaming, 1906. This gallery affords a balcony’s overhead view of the museum’s front entryway, an Assyrian panel, and, directly below one’s feet, the admissions desk, where an attendant greets newcomers and another scans a bank of security monitors.

“First,” says the fourth-grade teacher to the assembled children, “your job is to just look at the image.” The children regard John Sloan’s crayon lines, while an outsider squints down at the security monitors, stifling the urge to wave at oneself, an Observer observing an Observer, all the while being observed by another observer there at the admissions desk. Meanwhile, the teacher Socratically asks questions; hands shoot up, and she leads the children into discerning the difference between a painting and the Sloan crayon drawing.

Below, standing near the Assyrian alabaster relief, Winged Genie Pollinating the Date Palm, is security monitor Jonathan Blake; the stone relief is from the palace of Ashurnasirpal II at Kalhu, in present-day northern Iraq, and monitor Blake is from the Granite State of New Hampshire and an estimable photographer of art and news events.

The chatter of fourth-graders echoes around Blake, and he recalls his favorite children’s discussion of the art at Middlebury as a class studied the Assyrian genie’s graven image. “One kid announced with great authority that ‘It’s the Easter Fairy,’ whose job was to follow the Easter Bunny around and make sure the candy eggs are okay,” Jonathan Blake remarks. “Another kid noticed the genie’s ear ornament. To him, a fifth-grader who loved to play chess, it resembled an inverted bishop’s piece—‘He’s the inventor of chess!’ the kid explained. I love the way kids think!” Before its placement in the museum, the Assyrian relief hung for a half century in a cramped Munroe Hall entryway, where occasionally students would stub out their cigarettes on it as they hurried to their history or literature classes.

Fifteen lithe audience members, faculty and students, assemble in the Dance Theatre on a late Monday afternoon, all dressed either in big sweaters and scarves or in big, sagging tee-shirts, to hear a lecture by Katie Martin, improvisatory dancer, choreographer, and teacher at Hampshire College, who studied at Bennington, where she came under the influence of the renowned, innovative choreographer Trisha Brown.

Martin shares a series of slides from Bennington—candids of some of the greatest modern dancers when they were at the southern Vermont college. One sees the socializing Martha Graham and Ted Shawn and Doris Humphrey, and there is a selection from Trisha Brown’s earlier work in Water Motor. This elicits a delighted exclamation from Middlebury’s senior lecturer in dance, Penny Campbell, herself no stranger to the Bennington campus with the summer dance program she cofounded.

Water Motor!” Campbell exclaims. “That was my first composition piece!” As is often the case in this theater, the delight is infectious and everyone laughs. Martin, with her cascade of long, dark hair, will demonstrate her own work out on the floor, but before that, her talk touches on the teachings of choreographer William Forsythe and then segues into “improvisation metaphors” drawn from the natural world’s awe-inspiring “collective individualism”—a swarm of fireflies, a legion of army ants, and (the Observer’s favorite) flocking birds, such as starlings or pigeons or the hundreds of darting, wheeling, banking Arctic snow buntings observed aloft in the Lemon Fair river valley that very bright, cold morning.

On this day (possibly on all days), every person in the theater-tech class is attired entirely in navy blue in the noisy, high-ceilinged workshop overseen by the associate technical director, Jim Dougherty.

Pulleys and cables. Ductwork. Circular saws, band saws, radial arm saws, drill presses, pipe clamps, wire spools, the high whine of a transformer. A student runs a hacksaw across a small metal bar clamped in a vise, set up on the end of a cloth-draped worktable, upon which lies, face-down, a fully articulated human skeleton.

The class is preparing scenery and props for a production of Howard Barker’s The Castle, a bawdy drama of crusaders returning home after a seven-year campaign. Other artifacts, whether from this or past dramas, appear as one takes in the vast workspace; there’s a regulation-height basketball hoop, and 15 feet above the laboring students’ heads, one can see a plywood swan, a life-size statue of the Virgin Mary, and a surfboard-sized Hostess Twinkie.

Next door, in the Seeler Studio Theatre, a student machine-stitches white muslin at a workstation on risers, where audience seating for The Castle is to be, while another uses a small portable steamer to smooth finished fabric hanging from a clothesline. It bobs gently as the student irons, causing sympathetic vibrations in a bright roll of razor wire—future stage scenery—looped above her head. Scores of dark stage lights hang overhead, poised to light some future drama.

Three pm on a Wednesday, in the 20th year of the Mahaney Center’s existence, the Observer is perching on a bench outside the Dance Theatre. The students, faculty, and staff striding past take on an ensemble quality: all the corridor’s a stage. A music senior bustles down a hall, making thoughtful conducting motions with one arm. Down the hall, piano ruminations trickle out of Classroom 125 and laughter from Seminar 126. On a wall, a framed poster commemorates the building’s opening celebration, held in 1992 from September 28–October 10, which featured the collaborative work of choreographers and composers, the Fred Haas Jazz Ensemble, and an alumni dance concert. It all culminated in a gala benefit for the Center for the Arts with Misha Dichter, the Emerson String Quartet, Claire Bloom, and the David Dorfman Dance Company.

At the opening, crowds in finery not often seen in Vermont strolled past the new music library, peered into but did not mark the floor of the Dance Theatre, noted the courtyard tables and chairs and the whimsical space of the café just outside the museum portals, and admired the soaring atrium heights overhead; two years ahead, in 1994, the Committee on Art in Public Places would install its first work of art way up in the very space above—Jonathan Borofsky’s acrylic and urethane installation, I dreamed I could fly at 3,876,225—the figure of an ecstatic young man, floating and transfixed.

Notes on Some Changes in Two Decades: (1) The music library has been reintegrated into the general stacks at the Davis Library, gaining instructional and assembling rooms and offices for the art history and architecture department; (2) the Borofsky flying man sculpture has been shifted from the atrium to a much smaller space above the east corridor exit; (3) the café closed, ending a lunchtime meeting tradition and gatherings: “Only in America,” mourns a drama faculty member, “do they replace a vibrant café where people meet and the ferment is guaranteed, with vending machines.” At the empty half-circle of the former serving counter sits a solitary brew-ready Keurig coffee machine, filter cups for which may be purchased in nearby offices.

In the museum study gallery, Kirsten Hoving’s environmental photography students deliver their presentations to the class, discussing works from the permanent collection; in Room 209 (MCA 209), Peter Hamlin’s digital-music students have created pieces performed entirely on tablets and phones.

Dana Yeaton conducts a playwriting workshop in MCA 209, and Eliza Garrison lectures on the evolution of Western art in MCA 125. In MCA 110, Penny Campbell and Michael Chorney, saxophonist and acoustic guitarist, lead a performance improvisation for musicians and dancers.

Later in MCA 110, Christal Brown introduces dance techniques, accompanied by multi-keyboardist Ron Rost; the Dance Theatre recently hosted the dance company INSPIRIT, with work based on the life of Muhammad Ali, under the direction of Brown in a suite of dances incorporating “elements of boxing, hip-hop, martial arts, and modern dance,” with music scored by Farai Malianga, late of Brooklyn but originally from Mutare, Zimbabwe.

In MCA 210, a multimedia arts lab, a student sounds a gong while his project is translated into digital sound on a laptop, as the door-muffled reverberations echo down a stairwell.

MCA 125 is in standing-room-only condition for a 4:30 lecture by Ilaria Brancoli Busdraghi of the Italian department, on Italian stoneworkers in Vermont in the years 1880–1915. The talk is themed to coincide with the museum’s show of photographs taken by Edward Burtynsky in the marble quarries of Proctor and granite quarries of Barre, Vermont.

Brancoli traces the development of the quarries from the 1850s, when rail transportation made industrial distribution possible, into the 1880s and beyond, when Italians migrated in droves. Arriving in Vermont with skills handed down to them for a millennia in the pre-Alpine valleys of Piedmont and Lombardy, they worked in the cutting and shaping sheds rather than in the much more dangerous pits. Still, with rock dust endemic, the average lifespan of a stonecutter was 42 years, thanks to silio-tuberculosis.

The audience views slides of the cutting sheds and extraordinarily carved marble and granite, some of which decorated the graves of the workers, and of recreational picnics, parties, Italian instrumental bands, and the vigorous unionization efforts; when viewers see side-by-side comparisons of Piedmont and Lombardy mountains and valleys with those in Proctor and Barre, there is a murmur at how alike is the terrain.

“They must have felt so at home here!” someone whispers, to which another responds, “At least until the immigration curbs, the anti-union efforts, and the Red Scare of the 1920s.”

Although the talk extends past the closing time of the museum, Brancoli announces that in honor of Edward Burtynsky receiving an honorary degree at Middlebury’s Commencement, the show has been extended through June 2013.

Old Chapel: Game Time

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athletics meets academia fianlBy winning the school’s first Directors’ Cup last year, Middlebury laid claim to the most successful Division III athletic program in the country. We recently spoke to President Liebowitz about the place of athletics at Middlebury, examining both the benefits and the challenges.

Let’s start by talking about the value of athletics.
Sure. I can speak both theoretically and personally. Theoretically, I do believe the cliché that a liberal arts education is about educating the whole self. Broadly speaking, athletics is part of one’s education for life. The lessons one learns, the mentoring that takes place, the leadership opportunities, the commitment one must make. All clichés, but true.

Personally, I had the experience of being a varsity athlete in college, and I learned a lot from it: the commitment, the dedication, the teamwork, the focus necessary to compete successfully. And then you learn how to cope with defeat. So there’s no doubt in my mind that there’s a value. The question is how much emphasis should athletics have within the larger framework of the institution?

How has the athletics landscape changed since you arrived on campus in the early 1980s?
The biggest positive change has been the huge increase in opportunities for women. Title IX has insured that women’s athletics get equal funding, which has had a very positive impact on opportunities for women. Women’s athletics were strong when I arrived here in 1984—there were some amazing athletes and amazing teams—but the overall excellence of the program has really grown.

During this same time frame, I would say that the place of athletics at Middlebury has changed. Our conference, the New England Small College Athletic Conference, has evolved from something akin to a loose confederation of schools to a highly competitive playing conference whose members compete at the national level; national postseason play for teams did not exist until the mid-1990s. So, along with the increased level of competition for our teams has come, at least in some people’s minds, an exaggeration of the role of athletics in the overall scheme of a Middlebury education.

The NESCAC presidents have been discussing these changes, trying to find the best ways to monitor and manage this intensification. But it’s a difficult task. We are attracting great student-athletes, who are  competing at higher and higher levels and wish to continue to compete at that level in college. The competition within the conference has been ratcheted up, and the expectations of support by students and their families follow suit. So it’s no surprise that people are questioning how far this could and should go.

So what is being done within the conference?
Well, on one level, the presidents have been very effective in holding firm to NESCAC’s core operating principles designed to support intercollegiate competition in a manner consistent with our commitment to academic excellence. We’d like to call it “balance”—a balance between academics and athletics. For example, unlike in other D-III conferences, clear limits are placed on the number of games teams can play; the length of playing seasons; what coaches and athletes can do in an organized fashion out of season; how recruitment is done, when, and where; plus, other things.

But that’s not to say that I’m entirely in concert with the NESCAC approach to how we address these issues of oversight. I do believe the NESCAC is the most outstanding D-III conference in the country—academically and athletically. Yet it does worry me that the way we are trying to define the role of athletics among the 11 member institutions is limiting to each institution’s identity and autonomy. How far do we go as a conference before there is an undeniable—and what I would call unfortunate—homogenization of member schools in the conference?

I believe that each school has its own character. Each school has developed its athletic and academic culture over a long period of time; for us, it’s been over 213 years, and it reflects our location, our emphasis on the outdoors, on balance, and on the notion that education is of the whole individual. What I fear most is a conference impinging on the College’s autonomy when it comes to determining who is admitted or is discounted based on criteria that might not be as inclusive as what we like to use.

In the past, we have taken “so-called” chances on scholar-athletes whose test scores might not have been on par with the bulk of our applicants, but our admissions staff and coaches saw in such candidates personal qualities, such as leadership, initiative, perseverance, and a strong will to learn, and we have been very happy that we did so.

Yet the processes we are putting in place to address concerns of the “representativeness” of our student-athletes, which may be too arcane to describe here, are likely to exclude those types of students we, in the past, have accepted—students who have thrived on the playing fields and in the classroom and have added positively to the educational atmosphere on campus.

While what NESCAC has done has raised the level of academic standing of our accepted student-athletes (which is good, of course), we want to be sure institutions can maintain autonomy where it matters—that is, address at the local level those issues that affect a small number of institutions. If the academic and social gaps are seen to be too great on a campus, that campus, not the conference, should make adjustments to address the issue; conference solutions might be unnecessary on a number of our campuses. Collective action is effective, but, in my view, we need to be more selective in applying conference-wide solutions.

You said this system was created 10 years ago…
Right. This was largely the response to a pair of books (The Game of Life and Reclaiming the Game) coauthored by William Bowen, the former president of Princeton, when he was the president of the Mellon Foundation. Bowen raised two important points: a concern that the Ivies and selective liberal arts colleges were offering admissions slots to too many unqualified or lesser qualified student-athletes at the expense of other students, and, far more important in my view, there was developing a bifurcation of the student body at these schools, a divided culture, between athletes and non-athletes.

I’ll address this second issue first. Middlebury has always prided itself as not having a culture in which athletes self-segregated from the rest of the student body. This is largely true, based on my experiences teaching, and my close following of athletics for nearly 30 years. Ironically, and perhaps a result of the increased competitiveness within the conference and nationally, I do see a greater distance between athletes and non-athletes than in the early 1980s. It’s something for us to watch, as it relates to what goes on in the classroom and to the overall experience of our students. Some of this may be due to the intensified nature of practice, of out-of-season conditioning (which is done largely within teams), and other aspects of increased competitiveness of our programs. We need to ensure that our student-athletes continue to contribute to the overall educational mission of the institution and enrich the overall class and the classes around them while they are here.

However, I’m also concerned about how we choose to address any of the issues we believe need to be addressed. I would rather “fix” such issues locally than ask our conference for a solution, as offers of admission go beyond test scores and class ranks. When our admissions office brings in a class, they’re not looking for the students with the highest test scores or the most extracurricular activities or the most of anything. They are looking for a cohort that will have multiple strengths, that, when combined, will create the best learning environment on campus. Part of the residential liberal arts experience is learning from one another. Athletes represent a broad spectrum of strengths, and we want to be sure some of those positive characteristics are not lost.

We need some system in place to keep our academics and athletics in balance, but we need to retain our autonomy, too. It’s been 10 years since we instituted what has become an elaborate scheme for admissions for our conference, and it is time to  step back and ask ourselves: Has it served us well, has it gone too far, how might we improve things to the benefit of all our students.

I recall some discussion about whether another NCAA division was necessary to accommodate conferences with stricter guidelines.
A few years ago, I was convinced that we should be looking into a possibility of Division IV. Division III was doubling to 430 schools, and it seemed clear that we’d be at a competitive disadvantage with our shorter seasons, fewer practices, and other important values that set us aside from other conferences. But our student-athletes disagreed and were of one mind. In various discussions, student-athletes, through their captains, claimed they did not feel disadvantaged and, in fact, said “President Liebowitz: Yes, those other conferences have those advantages . . . but we still win. In addition, we have the opportunity to play more than one sport and time to do other things—to attend lectures, lead student organizations, and take advantage of exploring Vermont.”

Also, it would be hypocritical for me to sit here and say we’re at a disadvantage after we just captured our first Directors’ Cup; Williams, another NESCAC school, had won it the prior 14 years. So no, I don’t think we’re at a disadvantage.

What have we not talked about…?
Well, I think the recruitment game is a big negative in my view. The way recruiting is done is a conundrum to me. I think recruiting has become hard to understand, and, all too often, results in disappointment for student-athletes. Ironically, with more rules in place, there seems to be more suspicion and accusations of violations in recruiting than we used to see. We have very strict rules in the conference about coaches not “making admissions offers” to students—only the Admissions Office can offer admission; and we regulate rather strictly when coaches can send folders to the Admissions Office for consideration. And what we hear is that coaches around the conference somehow misinterpret some of these rules and therefore promise some prospective students that they will be admitted well before any decisions have been made. This creates problems, as you can imagine.

Yet, despite all that we have covered, and all my concerns about institutional autonomy versus a conference approach to regulating athletics, I still see our conference as the best in the country. There is something extremely valuable about being among like-minded institutions that value scholar-athletes, while ensuring that athletics fits within our academic mission.

Editor’s Note: “Tell me a story.”

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

Those of us who are parents, who are aunts or uncles, who have been around young children, we’ve all heard those words: Tell me a story. I mean, have you ever had a child look up at you, eyes wide, and ask, “Will you please tell me about a topic?”

As humans, we are hard-wired to yearn for, to respond to, stories. I have been working with a student who is interested in the field of science writing, and recently she came into my office raving about a book that seeks to explain just this assertion. In The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, the writer Jonathan Gottschall describes stories as a force field that surrounds us and influences our behaviors, our movements. We as humans, Gottschall asserts, have placed stories at the very center of our existence. (In another book, On the Origin of Stories, an English professor in New Zealand asserts that storytelling is a result of human evolution and, as a consequence, is a key to our survival.)

All of this is to say that stories matter. Stories of love, of conflict, of exploration (of the land or of the human condition) have the power to change lives. It is, it has been, and it always will be.

Earlier this spring, I had the pleasure of hearing Jacqui Banaszynski speak. In 1988, Jacqui won a Pulitzer Prize in feature writing for her series AIDS in the Heartland, an unsparingly painful, yet exquisitely beautiful account of the life and death of a gay farm couple in Minnesota. (And yes, untold lives were changed after the publication of the series.) Jacqui was talking about storytelling, and at one point she addressed its permanence. “We have been writing stories since we first took up ochre to rock, and we will be writing stories when people figure out how to do it on the stars.”

In this issue, we introduce the next generation of storytellers. How and where they tell stories are evolving—by the day, even—but stories are what they give us. We couldn’t do without them.