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Old Chapel: Advisory Shift

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

On the morning of May 26, the day before Middlebury’s 212th commencement, President Ronald D. Liebowitz delivered his 2012 Baccalaureate address to graduates, parents, and other assembled guests in a crowded Mead Chapel. As one who has not shied away from provocative or controversial topics when speaking to the senior class on the eve of graduation, President Liebowitz did not disappoint. He began: “Baccalaureate addresses usually involve presidents offering students some wisdom about how to succeed in life following graduation. My advice today is perhaps a bit unorthodox, because it boils down to this: Be wary of the advice you get from your elders, and find ways to gain their trust and provide advice to them.”

Middlebury Magazine recently spoke to President Liebowitz about this address and the thoughts behind it.

How did you settle on this provocative topic as the focus of your address?
It was a long time in coming, actually. For several years, I’ve been thinking about this generation of students and how different they are from other generations. Hearing what’s on their mind, what they are thinking about, how they work, how they get information, the environment they live in . . . just getting a feel for the magnitude of change that they are operating in as compared to previous generations.

It’s one thing to say that things have changed—they are always changing—but it’s another thing to consider the magnitude of the change and what has gone into the change that makes it different. As I noted in the speech, “The volume of information alone that is available to today’s youth, and the speed at which it is attained and shared, has altered quite dramatically what is possible for one to do, where it might be done, with whom, and at speeds that were simply inconceivable even 15 years ago.” All of these things came together.

You spoke of a problem of perspective and a problem of perception when attempting to bridge this generation gap. What did you mean?
This generation has been shaped by a vastly different set of circumstances than those that have shaped previous generations. That hit me over the head during a board meeting this spring when we were meeting with students to talk about a big concern: student stress.

To the adults, the solution was simple: reduce all of the things that students are doing and that means taking all of the stuff outside of their assigned work, take that out of the equation, and they will be fine. And the students at first didn’t quite understand us. And then finally one basically said, “No, that’s just a temporary solution. This is the world we inhabit, and it includes all of these other things.”

Yes, student stress is a very valid concern, but our solution was not their solution. Eliminating these options would not make the situation better; if anything it would make it worse. Students noted that all of these opportunities outside of the traditional classroom contribute to how they learn.

The world they inhabit is not the world we inhabited a generation ago as students. We don’t like the fact that students are completely wired, connected all of the time. To them, that’s not odd, it’s not something they can turn on and turn off. To today’s generation, this is the way they operate, it’s the way they get information, it’s the way they determine where they will go to lunch, it’s the way they communicate with their friends. All of these things are normal. “This is not the problem you think it is,” they told us. So, there are different problems we have to try and solve, and we will work with the students, learn from the students, how to best achieve this.

And the danger in not doing so . . .?
I referred to it as being like the movie Groundhog Day. These issues (student stress, student self-segregation, binge drinking) keep coming up, problems that need resolution, and we as an institution have tried diligently to deal with them, but the results have all been the same: an affirmation of the problems, but no agreement on how to address them.

Four or five years ago we established a task force on social life because we had heard how unsatisfying the social life was for our students. And one of the things we did was appoint a student-only committee, thinking that if we got the adults out of the equation, students would create their own solutions and their own recommendations. And they did! But we reacted to those recommendations in a way that was part of the problem. That is, we rejected some of these ideas because we did not understand how their life experiences were so different from our own. We framed the problem, but we didn’t comprehend the students’ responses. Now, we did some positive things, but there were other issues that we thought were kind of odd, so we didn’t deal with those. And those, in essence, are what we’re dealing with five years later. But I think that’s beginning to change. I mention in the speech two specific instances—the student stress meeting and a meeting involving the Socially Responsible Investment Club —where today’s students are effectively educating us and engaging us in a way that will allow us to make progress on a couple of important issues.

About midway through the speech, you make a hard pivot from a local perspective to a global one.
Right. This is not an issue of a group of students behaving one way—plugged in, redefining how one learns— because they live in relative isolation in Middlebury, Vermont. It’s a generational perspective, and that’s why I brought it from a very local campus example to the much larger picture.

You see it in debates within the academy in which there is a resistance to challenge convention, to reformulate assumptions. That’s why I wanted to call attention to the young scholar at Harvard, Professor Eric Nelson. In his book, The Hebrew Republic: Jewish Sources and the Transformation of European Political Thought, and in his scholarship, Nelson forces us to re-examine long-held views about political values and what they mean. And in doing so, he really turned things upside down in the academy, where scholarly achievement and scholarly respect are hard to come by, where seniority is so valued. Yet through his own way of hard work and expertise, he has challenged conventions of centuries, really, on this topic of political thought. And he was able to do so by demonstrating how generational issues can be bridged: with a younger generation effectively educating the older generation in a way that is both respected and legitimate, through hard work, gaining trust, and the introduction of new lines of thought.

That should be a template of how this younger generation can do the same.

That’s an empowering idea.
It is, but there’s another part to it. An important part of this speech that I think is crucial is the notion of not turning one’s back on the older generation, either. There’s vulnerability in the younger generation of falling prey to self-righteousness, of identifying all the wrongs committed by their elders and then doing one’s own thing. Just as we need to turn to learn from them, it is incumbent upon them to communicate with us, to stay in touch, and to be being agents of change in the right way. I wrote in the first paragraph, “Be wary about the advice you get from elders.” It doesn’t mean ignore elders. It means this generation needs to learn their elders’ blindspots; it needs to learn how to enlighten the older generations by virtue of what they, this current generation, see that the older generations do not know how to see. It is not enough for this current generation of students to see a productive new path to innovative solutions. It is their special challenge to learn how to bring the rest of us along.


The Mayfly

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

Consider the mayfly (order Ephemeroptera). This winged aquatic insect is considered to be one of the ancients, a member of a primitive group that includes a dopplegänger of sorts, the dragonfly (order Odonata).

During the fall and spring, the mayfly can be found in abundance along the rivers and streams of Vermont, but that wasn’t the case last October. While surveying the Middlebury and New Haven Rivers last autumn, Vickie Backus and her Bio 140 class made a surprising discovery: the Mayfly population had plummeted.

Normally the dominant insect counted in biannual surveys of the two local rivers, mayfly numbers had dropped precipitously during the fall 2011 count. According to Backus, past semesters have shown fall counts anywhere between 9.4 and 17 mayflies per sample; last October the mayfly count was 2.3 per sample. In November it had dropped further, to 1.5.

Backus believes that the number of mayflies found in streams is dependent on the stream flow rate, and while mayflies are not resistant to change they are affected by major events. Events like Hurricane Irene, which slogged through Vermont six weeks before the biology class’s first sample.

This spring, counts have begun to rebound, though not yet to normal levels. (Counts in March and April revealed 8.2 and 5.5 mayflies per sample, respectively. Past spring counts have ranged between 10.9 and 14.8.) Come October, Backus and Bio 140 will be back in the Middlebury and New Haven Rivers collecting mayflies. Time will tell, if they once again become the dominant insect in our streams


Come Hell or High Water

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

We could never have foreseen the surreal quality of our trip from the North Woods of Maine to Brattleboro, Vermont, on August 29, 2011. The car radio told us of the impending Hurricane Irene, and, thinking that we were hardy New Englanders, we had only to consider our route home to avoid the less savvy drivers. So, we took the long way through the back roads of Vermont. Bad choice. We were turned back and rerouted multiple times, and we ended up stranded in Bethel, Maine. We jumped out of our hotel bed at dawn the next day to rush home as the news, YouTube, and frantic texts and e-mails offered a hint as to the carnage that would await us. Our home in Deerfield, Massachusetts, narrowly avoided the floodwaters, but our business in Brattleboro, Vermont, did not. The Flat Street Pub took in six feet of water and was essentially destroyed by Irene’s wrath. The business did not hold flood insurance; losses eventually exceeded $300,000. Sweat equity was not included in the tally.

Arriving in Brattleboro the day after the hurricane, we sloshed through the mud and tried our best to comprehend the devastation. The water had mostly receded, but about a foot of mud remained. Everything had been upended—even stand-up refrigerators and freezers. We couldn’t face the start of the cleanup process. The task at hand was overwhelming.

But, the next day we returned and had a dumpster delivered to the front door. The building had no power, and we realized that all perishables would quickly go rancid. So with a headlamp and flashlight, I started in the kitchen. Soon, I was joined by many volunteer employees (we’d made it clear that payroll would have to be suspended) and some of our regular customers. It was a sign of things to come.

Over the Labor Day weekend, we were inundated with volunteers from the community. We got more dumpsters. We hauled out tables, chairs, kitchen equipment, pots, pans, and dishes. Neighbors and friends volunteered box trucks and storage space. Absolutely everything that was not attached to the building came out to the street and was either tossed into a dumpster or washed and loaded onto box trucks. My wife Linda Cushing McInerney ’80 organized the volunteers and washed every object to remove the gooey, inexorable glaze of mud. (Among our many volunteer friends were locals Stephen Carmichael ’80 and his wife, Dede Cummings ’79.)

After a week of hard labor, we had the entire space cleaned out. Our landlord brought in an industrial cleaning crew to remove the mud, wet sheetrock, and wood floors. After two weeks, the cleanup was competed. (The power would return a month later.) Then came the decision point—should we try to reopen, or should we throw in the towel?

Our decision was not based on numbers. Shuttering the business was probably the smarter financial move. But as owners, we felt an obligation to the community. We were endlessly reminded that the Flat Street Pub was an important gathering place and a community and cultural institution that formed a critical component of the town’s social fabric. Many recalled the time that we opened early (and unannounced) for the Obama inauguration and had an elbow-to elbow, standing-room-only crowd, a symbol of the way people felt about the place.

With a rewritten, lower priced lease (one of the many helping hands from our landlord) and a $100,000 low-interest loan from the Vermont Economic Development Authority, we set about starting the rebuild in October. Sweat equity cut our reconstruction expense in half. We opened the bar on December 15. We reopened the kitchen on February 23, 2012.

The Flat Street Pub is back in business.


Water Matters

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

As I write this in early summer, Tropical Storm Debby is in the process of dropping as much as 25 inches of rain on Florida; last week Duluth, Minnesota, broke its old rainfall record by 25 percent, and the resulting flood swept the seal from the zoo down the main street.

Meanwhile, the most destructive fires in Colorado history are raging, as record temperatures drive humidity down almost to zero. This cycle of record drought and flood has whipsawed the planet for the last few years, making all of us think about water in ways both new and scary. We’ve built our civilization around water these last ten thousand years—our cities along the sea and rivers, our farms in places that could count on reasonable rain. But all those assumptions are now being tested, being broken.

Global warming is the prime mover here. We’ve raised the temperature of the planet about a degree, and since warm air holds more water vapor than cold, we’ve made the atmosphere about 4 percent wetter in the last 40 years—an astonishing change in a basic physical parameter, and a change that loads the dice for both drought and flood. Those dice loaded, one place after another is throwing snake-eyes: Pakistan in 2010, with flooding so bad 20 million were forced from their homes; Texas in 2011, with drought so bad half a billion trees may have died.

Or, of course, sweet Vermont, this time last year, when Hurricane Irene dumped more water than this state had ever seen—when its gentle rivers swelled to the point that covered bridges washed downstream and roads crumbled into the torrents.

But the kind of change we’ve kicked off has other results as well: the oceans are not only rising steadily as ice melts, they’re also turning steadily more acidic. Reefs—which feed hundreds of millions of people and shelter fantastic quantities of the planet’s DNA—are dying quickly. River systems are drying up in places like the Middle East where water has always been a political sore point.

As Alex Prud’homme ’84 chillingly details in his book The Ripple Effect, this means that we’ve lost the luxury of ignoring water, of taking it for granted. Every one of us faces the prospect of not only too much or too little, but also too dirty. And that means that some of the best minds of our time must be deployed to try and figure out how to keep us wet enough and dry enough and with access to clean water.

It’s a critical task, one that students and scholars around the world are taking up with gusto. (Look no further than the Middlebury environmental studies class that helped build state legislative policy to address arsenic contamination in Vermont well water.) But all of us need to pay attention. And maybe not just to the trouble and the trauma.

Maybe to the glory, too. One problem with taking water for granted is that we’ve spent too little time appreciating its power, its beauty, its meaning. We’re water-based creatures on a planet that’s mostly covered with water. Knowing that—knowing it deep down, and celebrating it—is going to be key to our survival.


Download: Why I Love Lady Gaga

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

Well, actually, I don’t love as much as have very mixed feelings about Lady Gaga, who is, at best, a Madonna knockoff. But I don’t want to be accused of bullying her or anyone else since bullying is the new moral panic. Everyone is claiming that they’re a victim of bullying: from the incredibly powerful American Legislative Exchange Council to the snot-nosed kid pushed out of the way at the playground.

But Gaga at least understands that it isn’t bullying every time someone is mean to you; rather bullying is a very specific set of actions that most often target the most marginalized among us, especially LGBT youth.

Queer kids are about three times as likely to be bullied as their straight peers. That’s why Gaga and her mother, Cynthia Germanotta, helped to start the Born This Way Foundation at Harvard. The foundation is dedicated to helping bullied and bullies alike by fostering a more accepting society, where differences are embraced and individuality is celebrated, or, in Gaga-ese, “all our little monsters” can come out and play.

I’ll admit that my first reaction to Lady Gaga saving the world from bullying was a poker face, but the more I thought about it, the more I decided the effort should be celebrated, and we should just dance.


The Black Hole Outburst

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

Boom. Did you hear that? Probably not. Didn’t see it, either. Not unless you were tapped into NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory. So that’s why we’ve provided this lovely picture. What you are looking at is an extraordinary outburst by a black hole in the spiral galaxy M83, which is located, oh, about 15 million light years from Earth.

Using Chandra, a team of astronomers, including Frank Winkler, the Gamaliel Painter Bicentennial Professor of Physics at Middlebury, discovered what they call “a new ultraluminous X-ray source (ULX)—objects that give off more X-rays than most ‘normal’ binary star systems in which a companion star is in orbit around a neutron star or black hole.”

The astronomers report that in Chandra observations that spanned several years, “the ULX in M83 increased in X-ray brightness by at least 3,000 times. This sudden brightening is one of the largest changes in X-rays ever seen for this type of object.”

According to the astronomers, the jump in X-ray brightness “likely occurred because of a sudden increase in the amount of material falling into the black hole,” which they believe is a “sure sign that [they] have discovered something new about the way black holes grow.”

Winkler is one of the authors of a paper that describes these results, which was recently published in the Astrophysical Journal.


Editor’s Note

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

I don’t drink enough water. My doctor, wife, friends, and colleagues have all told me this. I protest that I drink gallons of coffee, and you need water for coffee, right? This doesn’t, well, hold water, they say. Just the other day, my colleague Pam Fogg walked into my office and picked up the sleek Klean Kanteen water bottle on my desk. She shook her head and said, “There’s dust on the top.” We could hear a little bit of water sloshing around inside, and I sheepishly admitted that that water was probably two years old. Vintage?

So, OK, I need to drink more water. But now that I’m on board with this whole water thing, I’m worried that there won’t always be fresh water to drink. That’s because I have just read The Ripple Effect: The Fate of Fresh Water in the Twenty-First Century, an exhaustively reported and meticulously researched book by Alex Prud’homme ’84. In his characteristically vivid prose, Alex sounds an alarm about something many of us have taken for granted: access to clean, plentiful water. But Alex doesn’t just scare you, he also illuminates ideas about and solutions to many of the troublesome issues we face about the global water supply. It’s a critically important issue and an equally important book.

We excerpt a few passages from The Ripple Effect in our feature package on water, and, like Alex, we also bring you success stories—stories that involve Middlebury faculty, students, and alumni who have their own water tales, tales of discovery, redemption, mystery, and hope involving an element that defines all of us.