Old Chapel: A Sense of Belonging

You are reading this column shortly after the 45th president of the United States was inaugurated on January 20. Inauguration Day, where the transfer of power happens peacefully, is a cornerstone of our democracy. It’s a time when, as Americans, we face forward together and start anew.

The contentiousness and divisiveness of this past election cycle won’t be old news by Inauguration Day. Indeed, one candidate winning the Electoral College and another winning the popular vote, and the evidence of how urban areas versus rural areas voted, reveals how we are in some ways a deeply divided country.

Like most communities, we feel the divisions at Middlebury, too. Many voted for Clinton. Many others voted for Trump. The aftermath of the election revealed that the deep divisions in our country are also evident on our campus. We would expect nothing less in a diverse community of vibrantly shared educational ideas. That is the Middlebury that I know, and the Middlebury that you know.

But now more than ever, we must affirm that the Middlebury we know is a place where everyone belongs. While we may have philosophical and political differences among us, we are also committed to engaging courageously and curiously in the public sphere to explore these differences.

We encourage conversation about disagreement. That’s the robust public sphere that we all should be working toward, and what the idea of “rhetorical resilience” that I have been promoting this academic year is all about.

Every single one of us belongs here—our students, our faculty, our staff, our alumni. We belong here whether we graduated in 1946 or 1976 or 2016, because despite radical changes to the size and scope of Middlebury, we are essentially the same institution: one that lives up to its motto of Knowledge and Virtue. We belong whether we earned our bachelor’s degree in English or economics, whether we played lacrosse or played violin. We belong whether we studied abroad or never left Vermont. We belong whether we studied at the Language Schools, or Bread Loaf, or are part of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies—the newest part of our newly complex Middlebury—because we all have high standards, we all believe in excellence, we all believe that education is a powerful tool of transformation.

Middlebury is an evolving community, just as our nation is changing, evolving, becoming more diverse, and more integrated. We hope to avoid the stratifications that we have seen evolve in our country, but where we do see them, we must address them. We must build bridges among our student bodies in Vermont, and California, and abroad, among our alumni communities, so that we all are welcome and able to cross them.

How do we build those bridges? By having conversations. By connecting and listening, respectfully, to those with whom we believe we may have little in common and discovering our commonalities. By understanding that we don’t have to agree to be in community together.

We build our bridges and celebrate our belonging, by focusing on what brings us together. We understand how Monterey, a campus with a 10-year relationship with Middlebury, belongs because of the shared values that unite us. We understand how a talented and ambitious student who is the first in his or her family to attend college, and a talented and ambitious student who is the fourth generation in his or her family to attend Middlebury, both belong because they both possess the gifts of intellect and curiosity that we value most here. We understand how conservative alumni, liberal alumni, and apolitical alumni all belong because regardless of political outlook, they all have looked at the same mountains that surround our campus, and walked the same pathways, and learned in the same halls.

When Middlebury College was founded in 1800, it was after a divisive episode involving the allocation of government funds. There were then further arguments about whether the campus was to be built on the east or west side of Otter Creek. And yet, there was a clear sense that no matter on which side of the creek the campus was to be built, a strong bridge over the river always needed to be part of the design. And the citizens of Middlebury remained genuinely and openly committed to building a college together, and a campus was built, and an educational community formed that has been working to build bridges, both literal and figurative, ever since.

We all belong because we are all Middlebury, and we are a community that builds bridges, and then crosses those bridges, together.

Patton can be reached at president@middlebury.edu.

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