Baccalaureate Address 2008: Reflections on ‘Work Hard, Play Hard’

I gave the following baccalaureate address on May 24. The reactions have been mixed: Many thought the topic was inappropriate for the occasion and said they were offended; others thought it was about time the issue of alcohol use was raised and they believed the core message—that graduating seniors should think about the standards of behavior of the communities they will be joining as they leave college, and the importance of taking an active role in building those communities—was an important one to convey at any college gathering. I certainly did not intend to offend anyone, and I apologize to those I did.

— RDL

18 comments

Deirdre Henderson, Parent

Deirdre Henderson, Parent’s avatar

Thank you for discussing this important issue honestly and publicly. Would that more U.S. college presidents had the courage to do so. This is a problem for residential colleges everywhere, and few college presidents accept the responsibility to take it on openly, Good for you. I hope this is the beginning of a broader conversation.

While this discussion is one that should be taking place, I have no idea why you would choose to discuss this during a baccalaureate address. I personally was offended when my 80 year old grandparents, discussed how dissapointed they were in my college based on the address. What I find more toubling however, is a complete unwillingness by President Liebowitz to defend his remarks. If as you say this was such a controversial speech, (which in reality, it wasn’t since nearly every single parent, student, or relative at the service was in agreement that it was tasteless and somewhat offensive), I believe it is your duty as President of Middlebury to explain to the graduating class of 2008 why you chose the topic, which left many of us with a sour taste in our mouth towards Middlebury. I would hope that at some point you would be willing to either accept responsibility for a speech that was tasteless or at least you will give us insights into why you chose the topic.
Bil Davison
2008

Dear Bil,

First, I am truly sorry I offended you and others with my choice to address an issue on campus that I had hoped might provide some insight into life after graduation.

I of course accept responsibility for the speech, and in terms of explaining why I chose the topic, I will offer what I have written to the 4 of 5 others who have asked me the same question.

The intent of the speech was twofold. First, I sought to highlight the great accomplishments of the graduating class. Indeed, a third of the address recognized and applauded the incredible accomplishments of your classmates.

Second, I wanted to encourage your classmates to reflect on their experiences here, both good and less good, as they make their way to the next stage in their lives. The advice I was trying to relay to the class, steeped in the more than 2000 year-old writings of Aristotle, is that the personal quest for an enriching and fulfilling life itself requires an individual’s commitment to building and sustaining one’s community. To draw your class’ attention to the familiar, practical, and powerful importance of Aristotle’s insight, I pointed to a major weakness of life at contemporary residential liberal arts colleges. In recognizing the difficulties we as an institution and a community have experienced in dealing with alcohol use, I intended to encourage the graduates to think about the standards of behavior of the communities they will be joining as they leave college, and the importance of taking an active role in building those communities.

I agree with those who have written to say that Commencement is a time to celebrate. But the baccalaureate address is also an opportunity for the president to convey an important message to the class, which, at times, requires some uncomfortable honesty. In fact, I have received many letters and e-mail messages sayinig it is never the wrong time to raise an issue like this. I realize I should have contextualized the message I was trying to convey better than I did, and for that I apologize.

RL

Because I was in the College Choir, I heard this speech twice. Its delivery and content (the part about alcohol and responsibility–not the mundane, though obligatory, ’08 class accolades) were both excellent, but it definitely felt like a wonderful Convocation speech, not one suited for Commencement.

I wonder if the President, or another Orientation speaker, would re-use such a speech on the incoming first-years? It contains a message they need to hear at the start of their four years here, not at the finish.

Sincerely,
Michael Luby ’10

President Liebowitz,
Thank you for your response. While I still disagree with you on the timing of your message, hearing your reasoning behind it helps to put it in a much better context. It is also nice to see a willingness to respond to student concerns, something that I have always loved about Middlebury and hope will continue to be one of the strong suits of the school. Thank you again for your response

Bil Davison

Truly a tale of two speeches.

The first half, highlighting the accomplishments of the class of 2008, was excellent. However, the tone of the second half, discussing excessive drinking was inappropriate for the occasion. Furthermore, the statement that, “[Binge drinking] prevents the integration of many of our international students, who openly wonder why students who are so smart in class, appear to be so dumb out of class when it comes to how they socialize and use alcohol” was borderline offensive.

Some of the heaviest drinkers I know at Middlebury are internationals, while many of the teetotal are Americans. This statement was a gross generalization and served no point other than to place blame on a certain population of Middlebury students.

Baccalaureate was the first time I’ve actually been embarrassed of my college — in front of friends and family no less. It’s a shame that my grandparents do not read blogs so they can understand the “context” of this speech. All they will remember is that their grandson must have been drunk all through Middlebury, destroyed college property and alienated his more mature international friends.
While the topic may have been appropriate, the tone of the speech sounded like a scolding.

Ron,

Your commencemt speech “Work Hard Play Hard” was brilliant.

To quote Warren Buffett, “It takes a lifetime to build a reputation and 5 minutes to destroy it”. Though I am not opposed to drinking in moderation, the pervasiveness of drunkeness on our college campuses is a sobering reminder that an otherwise exemplary student can ruin his/her reputation in one evening of partying hard. Reputation is one thing, but the threat to one’s health and safety is even more concerning.

As the Father of two teenage boys, I am aware of the challenges that my wife and I have ahead of us. An open dialogue of the downside of “partying hard” will be heard loud and clear in our home. I plan on strongly suggesting that our sons read the text of your speech.

Youth is a wonderful time, however the lack of perspective coupled with the immortality associated with it are its downsides. Your message should be spread nationally to our young people. I encourage you to consider heading up a task force to educate our youth on the negative and often irreversible consequences of the dangerous aspects associated with “partying hard”.

Sincerely,

Bruce Cort

PS: I am not a Midd alum, but my wife, Lisa Broner Cort ‘76 is and I enjoy reading the Midd Magazine! Though you may not remember, we met about 3 years ago at a reception at my in laws (Herb Broner ‘49) home in Potomac, MD.

Play hard to get. Why? What are the benefits to that? Will that not make him feel discouraged and think that you are not available?

Hey, sometimes you have to offend people to get the message across & in the case of alcohol and it’s effect on the community I think you were quite just in your approach and delivery.

Working hard and playing hard are fine, as long as the playing hard is not self-destructive. Alcohol is addictive and can ruin ones life, so a strong message must be sent, especially when graduates are going out into the world.

I amaze by your courage to discuss that issue during your Baccalaureate Address. We’re all unique individuals which have different view in life and i don’t opposed your commented speech. As a citizen your just being concern for the people that surrounds you. I don’t opposed alcohol cause I’m also a drinker but to much is dangerous let just put in our mind that we have only a 1 life in this world. I know its a big challenge for your to discuss those issues during Baccalaureate Address and I salute you for that your doing what is right.

Most frightening is the long-term impact binge drinking has on one’s brain and its development. Researchers have found that alcohol can do serious and irreparable harm to a teen’s and young adult’s brain. In a study completed by a team of neuroscientists, individuals aged 21-24, who drank enough to attain blood alcohol levels just below the legal limit (just below .08), recorded greater incidences of brain impairment—that is, a decrease in the ability to learn new information, form memories, and perform cognitive functions—than individuals who drank the same amount and were only four years older. This research supports the long-held view that alcohol has a significant destructive impact on the development of the brain before one reaches one’s mid-20s.

Let me add to this – the consequences of not speaking out and dealing with alcohol in the community can be grave. We run a surf school in Cali & we suffered a huge problem with it on the beach. Unbelievable. I actually don’t drink any longer so something good came out of our bad experience.

There is nothing wrong with speaking your mind – don’t appologize for it.

We are all entitled to our own opinion and as long as we have a point to say we should voice out what we have in our minds.
I think students who are engage to alcohol during these times are just being brought about by their own curiosity and peers.
I think we all have something to say about this, one way or another we have experienced this also.

Hi,

I agree with you that graduating seniors should think about the standards of behavior of the communities.

Thanks,

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