October 2010

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Fall Family Weekend just passed and from all accounts was a huge success: the weather was terrific, foliage spectacular, many excellent events for families to enjoy together, and success on the playing fields (even the lone defeat, a 38-31 loss in football to undefeated Amherst, was exciting and allowed the huge crowd to enjoy all that the Vermont fall has to offer).  Above all, there was great spirit palpable on campus.

In my several meetings with parents, including my address and discussion with them on Saturday morning, the issue of “getting the word out” about Middlebury came up, if not during the session, then afterwards when parents sought me out throughout the day.  Many seem concerned about how “too many around the country do not know all of the great things that Middlebury is doing, what wonderful programs we have, and why it is important we do much better on this front.”  “Middlebury,” I was told, has a distinctive “brand” among its liberal arts college peers, “and needs to get the message out.”

I listened and strongly agreed with much of what I heard, but also chuckled, because the perspectives of parents and alumni (including recent graduates) on the one hand, and current students on the other, are quite different.  I often hear from current students that the College in general, and I in particular, are forever “selling/promoting” Middlebury—trying to “brand” it, as if their education and institution were a “product.”  Many students are uncomfortable with the promotion of Middlebury, and believe it is unnecessary to spend all this time “pushing the brand.”

I am sensitive to this observation, yet those who are sensitive to this idea of “selling” the College will come to appreciate the benefits of their alma mater being better known soon after they graduate.  I recognized this during one of my first trips as the College’s president in 2005, at a reception in the Presidio in San Francisco.  There was a great turnout for the gathering and after my presentation I was surrounded by many recent alums—alums who had graduated within the previous five years.  All told of how “unknown” Middlebury was out west, at least in the Bay Area, and they wanted to let me know how these reputational factors hampered their job searches and other forms of important networking.  I heard later that year the same message in Seattle, Los Angeles, and Chicago (and then London, Atlanta, and Denver).  In short, young alums were frustrated that Middlebury was not better known.

Being better known is not only about networking and jobs, although having a strong alumni, parent, and friends network helps a lot in that important area.  It also helps to feed the pipeline of the very best students to ensure Middlebury’s excellence into the future.  Excellent students attract excellent faculty which, in turn, leads to new and exciting educational opportunities in the classroom, laboratories, on the playing fields, and outside the classroom in general.  This kind of success leads to financial support from foundations and donors, plus non-monetary support (help in admissions, career services, etc.), which increases opportunities for current and future students.

I am curious to hear more about the pros and cons of promoting or marketing the College, especially when the result is to enhance educational opportunities for students and career possibilities for alumni.  Is there a better way to make the public more aware of all the good the College is doing, whether in the classroom, on the athletics fields, or through our environmental, international, and other initiatives?  I am interested in hearing more about the tensions surrounding this issue.

Sites DOT Middlebury: the Middlebury site network.