Your College and You
Like most of its peers in New England, the College struggled financially in the early part of the century. In 1819, however, Painter died and left to the College a bequest of $13,000, which, at that time, was a huge sum of money, and which secured the College’s future. And that future—the past 190 years—saw this improbable institution of higher education, founded in a remote town with a population of fewer than 400, evolve into a liberal arts college of distinction.
I provide this history so you can appreciate the remarkable path the College has taken over its 210-year history to become one of the leading liberal arts colleges in the country, and so you can better understand Jessica’s point about the institution being larger than any one, two, or even 50 generations of students. The College was able to thrive as it did because it forged an ethic of using to maximum advantage whatever physical and human resources it had at is disposal, which were quite limited compared to so many other colleges and universities located in regions that were already economically developed by the time their institutions of higher education were founded. In addition, the unusually strong culture of collaboration and cooperation that characterized the College’s founding also enabled the College to overcome multiple threats to its existence over the past two centuries. It is in this sense—the sense of founding principles retaining their power over time—that we can confidently point to the essence of this institution as being identifiable and continually relevant in spite of the changing characteristics of the students who pass through it.
Examples abound of how this ethic has endured over two centuries. I often hear from students how, even in the most competitive of academic programs, Middlebury is the antithesis of the competitive, cutthroat environment they hear about from friends at other highly selective colleges. This aspect of the Middlebury culture is a function of students realizing, owing to the College’s remote location, their need to engage and get as much from the 2,400 students on campus as possible, and the best way for that to happen is through creating and sustaining a supportive and closely knit intellectual community.
And parents seem to see the results most clearly. I hear more often than anything else from parents, while I am on the road fund-raising or attending College events, that the friends of their sons or daughters who attend Middlebury, compared with the friends of their sons and daughters who attend any and all other schools, are the most friendly, engaging, and well-rounded young adults they have ever met. This is no accident, and it is not wholly, or even largely, a function of self-selection—that students of a particular personality choose to attend Middlebury. Rather, it is a powerful influence that the institution exerts on its students over the four years they spend here, and it explains, in part, why graduating seniors, year after year, seem to think the incoming first-years are smarter, more serious, study too much, and are more narrowly focused than they were. Odds are, when most first-years enter Middlebury, much of this is true. But it is also true that by the time these first-years, who supposedly represent a rapidly changing Middlebury to the outgoing seniors, become seniors themselves, they will be, as Jessica pointed out, shaped and changed significantly by this College . . . so much so that they will sound very much like today’s seniors, and will lament the changes they see in first-years as they prepare to graduate.
Why, then, hasn’t Jessica’s observation been a greater part of our collective self-understanding? Why hadn’t I noticed, amid all the great things Middlebury has accomplished over the past 30 years, the unchanging characteristic of this College that makes it a truly exceptional place for learning and growth? I, and many of us who are so focused on continuing the College’s pursuit of academic excellence, can, quite obviously, miss some of the institution’s more subtle, yet enduring and defining qualities.
It behooves us—trustees, administrators, faculty, and students—to slow the treadmill to success every now and then and take stock of who we are and ensure that what it is that makes this place special is more widely recognized, better understood, and appreciated. Of course we will not—cannot—retreat from our pursuit of academic, athletic, artistic, scientific, and general excellence. In so doing, we also need to recognize who we are and aren’t, and take great pride in even the subtle things that are central to the quality of our students’ education.
I suppose all this was far more evident to Jessica, who sits outside the day-to-day complexities of College operations and therefore is able to see the bigger picture with more clarity than those of us who are more like the proverbial frog, acclimating so naturally to water that gradually increases in temperature.
And so as you leave here tomorrow, think about what you will take with you. For sure you are far more knowledgeable and accomplished than when you arrived, thanks to the exceptional faculty with whom you have studied and to the general excellence of our academic program. You will no doubt take with you the subject matter you have mastered by studying deeply within your major, the critical skills you honed by engaging different modes of inquiry across the curriculum, and a passion for lifelong learning that a liberal arts education ignites in so many.
In addition, I encourage you, urge you, to be conscious of the less evident, yet consequential, gift this College has given you: the spirit, knowledge, and talent to bring the best out of the people around you . . . the ability to collaborate and work well in teams . . . to create a special kind of community that has nurtured you for four years, and done the same for Middlebury alumni for more than 200 years.
And you shouldn’t take this aspect of your Middlebury education for granted. Even though many of you are likely to leave the remoteness—or let’s call it the serenity—of this campus and begin your careers in large urban centers, you will make the world a better place if you take with you what you learned here about building as comprehensive a community as possible that aims to make the most of the people and resources in it.
Know that the essence of Middlebury—that which comes from the core of its history and the nature of its place—cannot but remain unchanged and will continue to exert the same positive influences on future generations of students as it exerted on you. Middlebury’s soil will continue to be its intelligence.
Good luck, members of the Class of 2010. Your College wishes you the best, confident that you are eminently prepared to make your mark on the greater world. You have left a great imprint on this College, and, perhaps unknowingly but unmistakably, on this past year’s first-year class.