Town & Gown
The town and the college of Middlebury share more than a name. They share a history and a living arrangement that is, in the words of President Liebowitz, inextricably linked. We spoke to him about the current state of this town-gown relationship.
I’ve heard you say several times that “a strong town makes for a strong College, and a strong College makes for a strong town…”
It’s absolutely true. In a small, rural community such as ours, the connection between town and gown is far more intertwined than it would be in a metropolitan center or a suburban environment. When you factor in our history, the attachment becomes deeper. Middlebury College was founded not by an individual, but by a group of people—Gamaliel Painter, Seth Storrs, Samuel Miller, Daniel Chipman—leaders in the community who had a vision of the town of Middlebury as a cultural center in western Vermont. The establishment of the College was a huge part of this vision. Just look at the first line of David Stameshkin’s two-volume history of Middlebury: “In the beginning, it was the town’s college.” We’re not named for Painter or Storrs. We’re named for the town itself.
OK, let’s jump forward a century or two. How has this relationship evolved?
First, it’s important to establish the fact that students have been engaged with the community for the entirety of those two centuries that we just jumped over. When students choose a college like Middlebury, they are making a conscious decision about the environment they’ll be living in for the next four years. When you come to rural Vermont, when you come to Middlebury, you are joining a local community as well as a college. Since the College’s founding, students have been actively engaged in the community, in the life of the town, in the lives of its people. They volunteer in the community. They tutor in the schools. They coach and mentor sports teams. They devise programs that fill community needs. They even run for public office.
What has evolved dramatically is the College itself, and its relationship to the town, and this has had both positive and challenging consequences. As the College has grown in size and in stature, we’ve been able to offer more to Middlebury and Addison County. Technologically adroit students are taking projects that they have started in classrooms and in learning environments like our Programs on Creativity and Innovation in the Liberal Arts and are applying them in the community. Just last month came the story of two recent graduates, Nate Beatty ’13.5 and Shane Scranton ’13, who founded a company here in Middlebury that uses three-dimensional architectural modeling and virtual-reality hardware and software to help architects—and their clients—better envision space during the design phase of building projects.
A company like this isn’t happening by accident. These young alums—and others like them—are working out of a local technology incubator, the Vermont Center for Emerging Technologies (VCET), of which the College is a partner. VCET has two locations, one in Burlington and one here in Middlebury. The opportunity for students or recent graduates to incubate their projects locally is just one part of what I believe is an increasingly fertile environment for an entrepreneurial ecosystem that benefits both the town and the College.
Think of it this way: a student comes to Middlebury and studies in our liberal arts curriculum intensely; she engages in an experiential-learning opportunity like the Solar Decathlon; she takes a MiddCORE course in which she is mentored by alumni, Middlebury parents, or local townspeople, and acquires valuable skills; she enrolls in the student-taught Middlebury Entrepreneurs course and develops a proposal for a nonprofit or writes a business plan, which she then pitches to investors; and then, finally, she incubates her project at VCET. All of these parts of a Middlebury experience are conspiring to create an entrepreneurial ecosystem that enriches both the town and the College.
Taking this notion a step further, two years ago the College partnered with the town to create the Middlebury Office of Business Development and Innovation, staffed by a director whose job is to develop new enterprises and grow existing businesses, leveraging the assets of the town and the community. It’s exciting to imagine alumni bringing their ideas and businesses back to Middlebury, which would help the local economy and provide more opportunities for students—it would also make the town an even more appealing place to live and work and innovate.
This sounds great, but you also mentioned there are challenges to the town-gown relationship as the College has grown…
It’s complicated. Middlebury is a quintessential Vermont village and the shire town of Addison County, an area rich in natural beauty and agricultural resources. Yet nearly 10 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, and the median household income is well below what it costs to attend the College for one year.
Two hundred and fourteen years after the College’s founding, we don’t look as much like the community as we did two centuries ago. With our $1 billion endowment and students from all over the country and the world—we have twice as many international students as students from Vermont—we have greatly diverged from the town in many ways, which obviously sets the stage for potential conflicts.
For me, it’s important to contextualize any criticisms aimed at the College from the town and to understand that despite our differences, we are as entwined as ever, and that it’s incumbent upon us to work together.
I know that there are some who would wish that the College would just retreat to its position on the hill and stay out of the town’s affairs, but there are far more who appreciate what we bring to the community—financially, culturally, and intellectually. We are and should be partners.
These criticisms that you speak of were evident during the recent debate over a town-college real-estate deal…
Right. For those who don’t know, Middlebury residents recently voted to approve a plan in which the town and the College will swap land holdings, and the College will help the town build a new municipal building and recreation facility. The College will acquire the land where the town buildings currently sit, raze the structures, and create a public park in this space. In turn, the town will acquire College land adjacent to the Ilsley Public Library, the College building (Osborne House) currently located there will be moved, and new town offices will be constructed in its place. Further, a new recreation facility will be built on Creek Road off Route 7 south, adjacent to town playing fields. The total cost of the project is estimated at $7.5 million, $5.5 million of which will be contributed by the College.
Some residents opposed this plan, and the vote was close—915 for and 798 against. People have very strong opinions. They are passionate about the town, and honestly, I see this as a sign of a strong, confident community, whether these sentiments are in line with the College’s position or not.
When members of the Middlebury Select Board came to the College with this proposal, I wanted to ensure that we were thinking about ongoing initiatives that would benefit the entire town and not just this one particular proposal (for the new municipal building). That’s why we reached an independent agreement in which the College would acquire (from a private entity) and transfer to the town the vacant property on Main Street located along Printer’s Alley next to the National Bank of Middlebury; this property will subsequently be razed, creating a beautiful open space on Main Street leading to the Marble Works complex. And that’s why we gifted to the town 1.4 acres of riverfront land behind the Ilsley Library. Again, a strong town makes for a strong College, and I believe all these moves will strengthen the town,
These ideas and plans have not occurred in a vacuum. I see these as examples of the College and the town collaborating in a wonderful, innovative way to reimagine what this town can be. In 2007, we formed a partnership with a cultural icon, the Town Hall Theater, pledging $1 million to complete its renovation, while establishing programmatic ties that serve both the community and our students. In 2010, we partnered with the town to fund the new bridge spanning Otter Creek. And soon, one may be able to walk from a new park serving as the gateway to the College, up Main Street past the new bridge and a new, energy-efficient town office building, toward the opening to the Marble Works, with the Town Hall Theater just down the street.
We’re very fortunate to be in a position to expand and strengthen a relationship that has already spanned more than two centuries. Our futures—the College’s and the town’s—are inextricably linked. And I wouldn’t want it to be any other way.