A Summer Report to the Middlebury Faculty

This post is a bit unorthodox in its content and length—it is very long, yet I invite comment, as always. It is a report I sent recently to our faculty to set the context for some of the discussions we intend to have this year about our curriculum, pedagogy, governance, cost, and defining a liberal arts education for these dynamic times. As you will see, I have more questions than answers about how we should address the changes that are reshaping American higher education. But I firmly believe that we must engage them and I welcome your thoughts.

— Ron

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Dear Faculty Colleagues,

I hope you all have had good summers, finding the right combination of relaxation and productivity as we approach the coming academic year.

At about this time each year, I provide the Trustees with a summer report on significant campus issues. Often my report concerns the summer programs, but I also comment on matters that are likely to require their time, attention, and study during the coming year. Given the challenging times for higher education, the work we need to do on campus as follow-up to our NEASC ten-year reaccreditation review, and issues of general concern within the faculty, I thought it would be a good idea to share some thoughts with you as we look forward to a busy year come September.

Even if one tried, it would be difficult to ignore the increased scrutiny to which higher education has been subjected during the past five years. Such scrutiny is not aimed only at public institutions, where shrinking tax revenues have forced dramatic cuts in support for colleges and universities and generated tension over how best to deal with declining support and increasing costs of operations. Private education, including liberal arts colleges, is under similar scrutiny, largely over the cost of attendance and the perceived declining value of a four-year liberal arts degree. Critics are quick to point out that the annual average increase in the cost of private undergraduate education now outpaces the growth in health care costs, leading them to ask whether it is worth it to pay more than $200,000 for a degree that provides few guarantees of a job out of college.

These questions come from beyond a particular segment of society, and the federal government has entered the fray. Before the recession, Congress was pressing to force colleges and universities to spend more of their endowments in lieu of larger tuition increases. The push now, following the recession, is to tie federal funding and tax-exempt status to smaller tuition increases, or withhold federal support for institutions that exceed a particular tuition increase. Our own Congressman Peter Welch has been vocal on this issue, calling for tuition increases to track close to inflation.

It would be easy to believe, with nearly 9,000 applications to the College this past year, the demand for a Middlebury education is strong, highly inelastic, and insulates the College from all the negative banter. It would be foolish, however, to ignore these criticisms and the wide range of student choices within higher education; both suggest a far greater elasticity of demand than our application numbers would suggest.

One concern I’ve heard numerous times over the years is the perception that our administration adopts an excessively business or bottom line orientation to making decisions for the College, and to a large extent I understand this concern. At the same time, it is undeniable that calls for improved compensation, lower teaching loads, a more diversified faculty and student body, improved facilities, and additional support for the academic program—all essential priorities for many, if not all, of us—require us to employ a smarter business model in the future if we are going to continue progress on any of them. In some idealized world, we would have 4% (or higher) salary increases every year; richer financial aid packages to attract the brightest students; a larger faculty to ensure the excellent teaching and high level of attention we give to our students; feel no pressure to recruit students or fundraise to ensure financing this idealized existence; or be accountable to the many constituencies that will play significant, if differing, roles in the College’s future success and long-term sustainability (those being faculty, staff, students, alumni, trustees, parents, the federal government, townspeople, and prospective students).

I am not suggesting we stray from our core mission—educating students in the liberal arts tradition. However, the external environment in which we now operate is so dramatically changed, even from a decade ago, that we must adapt to those changes in some fundamental ways if we wish to sustain the quality of the education we offer our students, retain an excellent faculty, and continue to attract a diverse and talented student body. That environment has not only changed, but the speed at which it is changing requires us to ask some fundamental questions that we and our peers have, until very recently, chosen to avoid. In my view, and in the view of many, we no longer have that luxury.

Within this context, I would like to (1) provide an update on the College’s financial health; (2) address aspects of the reaccreditation report that will be a large focus of our work together if we are to improve on the areas of weakness identified by the visiting reaccreditation team; and (3) share some views on what I see as the two greatest challenges we, and private higher education, face in the coming years.

On College Finances

A little more than a year ago, a number of colleagues pointedly asked that I cease providing all-campus financial updates shortly after the world-wide recession had been declared over. A greater number now, however, seeing how the U.S. and global economies have not rebounded as expected, have asked for an update with some specific questions: (1) what the impact of the past four years of economic churn has been on the College’s financial foundation; (2) whether our goals to reach financial equilibrium were achieved and, if so, has there been slippage; and (3) what can we expect in terms of compensation, program enrichment, and new faculty positions in the coming years. (For those colleagues who are new to the College, or others who simply want a reminder of the steps taken and cuts made by the College as a result of the recession, see: http://www.middlebury.edu/about/president/finances.)

If I had to summarize in one sound bite where we are today in terms of finances since the economy went into recession (late 2008), I would say, “As good as we could have hoped.” We appear to have eliminated what would have been a $30 million deficit in fiscal years 2014 and 2015, we have recorded balanced budgets the past three years with modest surpluses (which have been added to our reserves or put into the endowment), and we project balanced budgets for the next three years, barring any significant financial event.

Through recommendations coming from the campus-wide Budget Oversight Committee (BOC), which based much of its work on surveys distributed to students, faculty, and staff, we eliminated our projected budget deficit by a combination of lowering expenditures and increasing revenue. During the year-long process, we were guided by two principles: (1) avoid layoffs of staff; and (2) protect the academic program. We managed to do both.

Our primary savings came from reducing staff from a pre-recession high of 1,036 FTEs (full-time equivalents), where an FTE equals a staff person working full time for the entire year, to around 890 FTE today. In eliminating nearly 150 staff FTE through voluntary means alone—voluntary separation and early retirement programs—we adhered to our first principle. This significant reduction in FTEs has had a great impact on our remaining staff, as a good proportion of the work that had been done by the positions that were eliminated was added to the remaining staff’s responsibilities. In some cases—though fewer than was first expected—services performed by those positions are no longer offered.

Our staff has shown enormous resilience, commitment, and loyalty as we have worked to find the best way to prioritize what the remaining staff needs to do, recognizing it cannot cover all that was done before. We have made some progress this past year, but we have a significant way to go in balancing our expectations for what work needs to be done, on the one hand, with the amount of work that can be done given budgetary constraints, on the other. Either expectations or staffing levels or both need to change, and we are committed to working with staff, especially managers and supervisors, to find that balance. Our management training program this past spring, taken by nearly 200 employees, represents a major step in addressing these issues by creating a common language around managing the institution and giving managers and supervisors new skills to allow them to set goals, prioritize their work, and communicate better with their supervisors.

Beyond the staff reductions, we froze salaries for one year for faculty and staff making more than $50,000/year; added students; reduced the number of dining halls serving the student meal plan; delayed renovations of facilities; reduced the amount of funds we set aside each year for renovations of our physical plant; and froze or reduced many operational budgets across the campus.

By making these and other changes, we were able to adhere to our second principle as well: protecting the academic program. Not only did we continue our national searches for faculty positions, including a number of tenure-track hires, but we were able to add faculty positions during the economic downturn. Our faculty FTE count, which includes the number of faculty in the classroom and excludes those on leave, increased from 224.5 in 2009 to 238 this coming year (2012-13). In fact, since 2005, when the College’s strategic planning committee introduced a number of curricular proposals including mandatory senior work, our faculty FTE count has increased from 210 to 238, an increase of 28 faculty FTEs. While many institutions froze or reduced the size of their faculties with the onset of the recession, we recruited and hired a remarkable group of faculty, whose teaching and scholarship have strengthened our academic program. Since 2005, then, our faculty FTE count increased more than 13% while our staff FTE count remained flat: staff FTE in 2005 was 886 and is 890 today. Enrollment increased by 52 students (2%) during the same time period.

Looking more specifically at this past year (fiscal year 2012), we managed our finances well despite the relatively poor performance of the stock market and its impact on our endowment. We rely on the endowment for just shy of 20% of our operating budget, and our financial model assumes a 5% growth rate for the endowment each year. This past year (the fiscal year ends June 30) our endowment returned +2.7%, which, despite falling below our target of 5%, will probably rank in the top quartile of college and university endowment returns. The below-expected return this year will not have as great an impact on our operating budget as one might imagine, because we use a three-year moving average to determine allocations from the endowment, and our two previous years were both well above the 5% growth assumption we use in our financial model (the endowment returned 17% and 18% in FY 2010 and FY2011).

Central to the current fiscal health of the College is that all of our academic entities registered operating surpluses this past year—the undergraduate program, the Language Schools, the Bread Loaf programs, the Schools Abroad, and the Monterey Institute of International Studies (MIIS). This is important for understanding how the College is able to balance the budget (or create a surplus), provide competitive raises and compensation, invest in our physical plant as we do (we set aside upwards of $10M to ensure that our campus avoids deferred maintenance), expand the faculty, and support some new initiatives despite having, quite literally, half the institutional wealth of many of our peer institutions. Amherst, Williams, Wellesley, and Pomona all have endowments that are at least $400 million larger than Middlebury’s, and some are more than $700 million larger. To put this in perspective, while Middlebury drew $49 million from its endowment to support its operations in fiscal year 2011 while spending above the 5% normal ceiling for college and university endowments, Amherst, Williams, Wellesley and Pomona drew from $10 million to $30 million more than Middlebury’s $49 million to support their operations, and all of them spent at or below that 5% ceiling.

Since all the colleges mentioned, including Middlebury, charge about the same comprehensive fee for their students, and gift revenue from the annual fund that goes straight to the operating budget is similar, one can see how important the College’s non-undergraduate programs have been to our overall resource base. The Language Schools, the Bread Loaf programs, the Schools Abroad, and Monterey diversify our sources of revenue beyond the undergraduate college’s traditional revenue generators (tuition, endowment earnings, and gifts), leaving us less dependent on any one source of income, and less vulnerable to economic volatility than would otherwise be the case.

All of this is good news. The financial planning model we use today is far more conservative than it was prior to the recession. Our assumptions regarding comprehensive fee increases have been lowered to a ceiling that equals the consumer price index plus 1 percentage point, or “CPI+1”; we assume our endowment will grow 5% rather than 9%/year; and our annual fund expectations now track with our best estimates of trends in the general economy. These assumptions will, and are intended to, constrain our planning and our spending by projecting fewer available resources each year than our former financial models. In addition, we have refinanced our variable debt, which reduced our annual debt payments and eliminated the negative impact of unpredictable spikes in those payments, and we have continued to bring our endowment spend rate closer to what is standard for colleges and universities (5%).

Despite all these positive developments, there remains a slim margin of error within our, and private higher education’s, financial structure. Another deep economic decline in the U.S. would place great stress on operations and our long-term financial stability. Not only would our endowment and overall institutional wealth suffer as it did between 2008 and 2010, reducing funding to our operating budget significantly, but the demand for private education in general would likely look very different than it has looked up until now. Family income, the median of which decreased by 5% on an inflation adjusted basis between 2001 and 2011, would decline further, leaving an appreciable number of those who have been willing to pay upwards of $55,000/year for college, to choose less expensive options for their sons and daughters. I will come back to this issue later.

Looking back four years, we should all take great pride in how the College came through what was the worst recession of our lifetime. It has not been an easy four years, especially for our staff. Yet I believe, from a short-term financial perspective, we are in as good a place as we could have hoped to be three years ago when we faced a projected $30M annual budget deficit and a great amount of uncertainty.

Reaccreditation and Faculty Governance

Our recent ten-year New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC) reaccreditation review highlighted, among other things, the need for improved faculty participation in the governance of the institution. I agree fully with this recommendation, and am committed, along with the entire administration, to work collaboratively to achieve an effective model of governance for the College. Faculty Council will be the primary vehicle through which I and my administrative colleagues will engage these recommendations from the NEASC report, but we are also interested in working with departments and programs to involve faculty more visibly and meaningfully in setting the direction for the College.

The visiting review team’s report called for faculty to “exercise a central and consistent role in agenda-setting for faculty meetings, in conversation with the president,” and that is already happening. In addition, I discussed with last year’s Faculty Council the formation of a budget committee whose role would be to help to develop the College’s annual budget before it goes to the Board of Trustees for final approval. I shared with Faculty Council detailed information about budget committees at eleven peer institutions—their charge, composition, frequency of meeting, etc.—and the Council recommended which committee among the eleven represented the best template for our budget committee. I will follow up with this year’s Faculty Council to finalize the creation of this committee, which we hope can begin meeting by October to begin work on the FY2014 budget. In addition, Patrick Norton, the College’s chief financial officer, will introduce a regular schedule of financial seminars, open to faculty, staff, and students, through which he will share financial data, take questions, and engage in discussion about College finances.

The reaccreditation visiting team’s report also noted that, while committees and structures are in place to allow for the proper faculty role in the governance of the College, there appears to be no committee to ensure faculty committees carry out their stated responsibilities. The visiting committee recommended a faculty committee to have such oversight, and this role might be best played by the Faculty Council, which is the body responsible for appointing faculty to all but our five elected committees. I will be asking Faculty Council to determine how best to accomplish this recommendation and to report on their conclusions to the administration and faculty.

The centrality and importance of institutional governance, especially during such a dynamic and challenging time for higher education, extends also to the Board of Trustees and to our staff and students. In fact, the Board of Trustees’ retreat this coming October will focus on the role of governing boards and individual board members, with the goal of engaging broader institutional governance issues with campus constituencies at the February and/or May board meeting. An effective and inclusive governing structure will require a clear understanding of roles and responsibilities for all parties, as well as a willingness to learn best practices in these dynamic and turbulent times. Over the next academic year, we will work with an experienced scholar and specialist on higher education governance to help us sort through these issues and to develop a stronger system of governance for the College.

Looking Ahead

Though we are in as good a financial position as we could have hoped for back in 2008-09—we project balanced budgets for the next three years using our new planning assumptions and financial model—some big challenges remain. Long term, we have yet to engage two major issues that threaten the success of Middlebury and higher education in general: cost and relevance. These two issues are interrelated, for if there were no question about the relevance or value of a college degree, the question of cost would be muted considerably. But that is not the case.

Cost

We are all familiar, to some extent, with the cost issue: since 1980, the average annual increase in the cost of a Middlebury education (6.2% per year) has outpaced the CPI or consumer price index (2.9%) by 330 basis points. The comprehensive fee in 1980-81 was $7,800; today it is $55,950. The reasons for the large annual increases are many: a pedagogy that depends on small classes and a small student-to-faculty ratio; the desire to diversify the faculty and student body to ensure a better education; a commitment to supporting faculty development, especially in their research; the development of varied co-curricular programs to match the diverse interests of our students; the demand for state-of-the art facilities (academic, residential, and social); the unplanned growth in mandatory federal regulations; and increased administrative costs, a major part of which is linked to today’s hyper regulatory and legal environment.

If compensation for faculty and staff represents today half the annual operating costs to an institution like Middlebury, and expectations for annual salary increases exceed inflation, one can begin to see why average comprehensive fee increases have exceeded inflation each year by more than two times. Starting salaries (excluding benefits) have increased more than fourfold between 1980 and 2012, annually by 4.7% since 1980, or a growth rate that is 60% greater than the annual growth in the CPI. Compensation (salary plus benefits) has grown by even more. Spending increases in other areas of the College—on the physical plant, scientific/artistic equipment, co-curricular programming, the faculty leave and development programs, and financial aid—push the cost structure even further beyond the CPI.

During the past thirty years, we have seen the introduction of all the above mentioned costs to higher ed. Desktop computers, and all their related infrastructural costs, arrived and became a significant recurring expense; diversity became a major goal for many elite institutions and, as a result, the financial aid budget increased a staggering twenty-four fold between 1980 and this year (from $1.6M to $42M); and competition for the best students and faculty spurred the modernization of residential and academic facilities, creating what critics have cynically labeled another “arms race.” Middlebury invested more than $375 million in its infrastructure between 1990 and 2005 alone (unadjusted for inflation), and increased its square footage on the main campus by a million square feet, or by 80%. With the cost of maintaining new facilities averaging $7/square foot, the incremental cost to the operating budget as a result of the new square footage, beyond the initial construction costs, exceeds $7 million, and that is a recurring cost. That new square footage has also increased by more than $4 million the amount we set aside from our operating budget each year and put into our reserve for renewal and replacement of our plant.

The funding of all these developments was made possible by greater access to low interest debt and unparalleled growth in the traditional three sources of revenue: the comprehensive fee, endowment earnings, and gifts. The comprehensive fee is the primary revenue source, accounting now for about 65% of the College’s revenue. The greater-than 6% annual increases in the comprehensive fee were critical to the funding of all those things listed above, but was also the result of doing all those things. Given the changed economic environment today, and the public’s reaction to the cost of a private college education, the days of such tuition/comprehensive fee increases are over.

A major question, then, is how to continue to do what we do so well when we know the traditional sources of revenue will not grow as they have over the past thirty years, especially revenue derived from the comprehensive fee. Though the modifications in our financial model (see: http://www.middlebury.edu/about/president/finances/20100212_president_finances) represent some material changes in how we have operated for nearly thirty years, they alone will not address the prohibitive cost structure of a human-intensive education; ultimately it will require a combination of reducing overall costs per student and increasing overall revenue. Without a change in our overall cost and revenue structure, we are likely to confront a number of choices, none of which are attractive. Admissions is likely to be the first place we would notice changes, as the cost of being need blind (for U.S. students) and meeting the full demonstrated need of all admitted students has grown faster than any other expenditure in our budget. Wesleyan University this past June announced it would no longer be need-blind in admissions, as the cost has become too great, and those costs are only likely to rise given the shape of the economy and the changing demographics of the higher education applicant pool.

But admissions would not be the only area under greater scrutiny. A good number of policies and practices that many view as critical to the College’s success would need to be amended, including our commitment to international students (matriculating >10% of each incoming class); the 9:1 student-faculty ratio; the rich co-curricular program for students; teaching loads for faculty; administrative support at all levels; the faculty leave program; and maintenance of the campus/infrastructure. Reducing funding to these programs would have a significant impact on the Middlebury experience as we know it today. It behooves us to think collectively and creatively about how best to preserve what it is we do and value most, while understanding, too, the need to think about the future and the consequences—both intended and unintended—of whatever choices we make in amending what has become an unsustainable cost structure. Faculty serving on the three task forces on curricular innovation began to wrestle with some of these issues, and will continue their work this coming year. At the same time, it is important that other faculty members also become familiar with the scope of the challenges that higher education in general, and Middlebury in particular, faces in the coming years.

Can hybrid education, a combination of our traditional classroom teaching and learning, coupled with an online component whose specifics we have yet to consider fully, help to address the cost structure issue? We have been experimenting with online course development for secondary school students, largely as a supplement to traditional classroom activities, through Middlebury Interactive Languages and we are learning a lot about hybrid pedagogies. One of the curricular task forces discussed how technology can enhance our teaching and learning by bringing together faculty and students at College sites around the world, and we must continue these discussions. Coursera, Udacity, 2tor, and edX are but four ventures that are offering on-line college courses through partnerships with (mostly) leading Research-1 universities. Some of these organizations have contacted us to see if we would join with the likes of Stanford, Princeton, Duke, Penn and others to offer such courses, but before we move in that direction, we need to have a broad faculty discussion about these possibilities, and the sooner the better. Not to understand this educational space and use it to our advantage—beyond how online content and courses have been conceived of to date—will be a missed opportunity and, in my view, a major strategic error in considering the long-term well-being of the institution.

Relevance

The second issue, and one I believe is more concrete, has to do with the growing perception that a liberal arts education might no longer be worth the cost. As our Dean of Admissions Greg Buckles wrote to me just last week in reviewing what it now takes to bring in a first-year class: “I’ve been hearing about overpriced liberal arts colleges my whole career, but we do seem to be on the edge of a tipping point for ‘return-on-investment’ in people’s minds.”

I am sure 98% of liberal arts colleges would love to have Middlebury’s admissions profile and success. Yet to believe that current strong student demand, shown by nearly 9,000 applications this past year, an increase of 76% over the past eight years, is immune to the public’s growing questioning of private education’s so-called “value proposition” would be irresponsible. Greg’s comment about a tipping point cannot be ignored, and we need to ask ourselves how we can stay ahead of the curve and address the question in people’s minds about the value of a Middlebury education.

For years, professional organizations, college presidents, and faculty have written hundreds if not thousands of papers and given countless speeches on the value of a liberal arts education. The point of the majority of those defenses, which remains 100% valid, doesn’t hold as much sway today outside the academy as it once did for a number of reasons. I already mentioned the cost issue: given the rise in the cost of a four-year liberal arts education, people are far more wary of believing that all the good one gains through the study of the liberal arts is worth the financial sacrifice. Parents (and prospective students) believe in the virtues one acquires through the study of the liberal arts, but they are seeking, or better put, demanding, more. In their view, colleges need to better prepare students to reflect the very different world our graduates—their sons and daughters—are entering.

By different, families point to how much more competitive graduate and professional school admissions, employment opportunities, and other post-graduate pursuits have become as the world has become smaller and flatter. Virtually all post-graduate opportunities today are open to young people from around world, not just those in the United States, which was not the case when I (and the majority of the faculty) completed college. This new, hyper-competitive world creates a very different set of anxieties and expectations for parents and students. Learning how to read and think critically, how to synthesize knowledge from across a wide range of disciplines, and how to communicate thoughts clearly and effectively, is of course recognized and valued. But many believe these attributes of a liberal arts education alone no longer adequately prepare students for the world they will face upon graduation.

If we were starting a four-year, undergraduate liberal arts college from scratch, what would we expect our students to know upon graduation in order to be successful in their post-college lives? Our current requirements for graduation have not changed much, if at all, since the mid-1990s, yet the world has changed quite dramatically. It has not only changed dramatically, but the speed at which it is changing has accelerated, and the impact of technology on those changes extends quite prominently to how our students learn, what they learn, and when. Scientific discovery has exploded since the 1990s, providing strikingly new knowledge about climate change, biological threats to humankind and food sources, ecological disasters in the making, and more. Do we really believe, as a faculty, that our students do not need to engage and learn science at some point during their Middlebury education, if, for no other reason, than to be able to make sense of all the scientific information now available that is germane to one’s everyday life? I doubt it, yet that is where we are, despite having exceptionally strong science programs.

Similarly, our well-respected international studies curriculum remains regionally or area-based, yet “regions” as foci of study are less relevant today, relatively speaking, than at any time in the past fifty years. Our 21st century world is defined more significantly through invisible networks of social, cultural, and economic activities than by political boundaries and the concept of sovereignty. Yet a great number of students continue to study “international studies” predominantly through the prism of what are largely dated, or at least significantly less important, regions. Global warming; human rights; ethics, religion, and morality; desertification and water issues; censorship and creativity; wealth inequality; issues of race and identity; risk; sustainability; bio-ethics; and many other vital aspects of the human condition we study in the liberal arts know no political boundaries. These issues transcend any particular region, many of which were established by colonial conquest. Their study and our students’ education, therefore, need a new or certainly additional structure and analytical lens that reflects the world today.

More broadly, since our strategic plan (“Knowledge Without Boundaries”) was adopted in 2006, I have been explaining to our external constituencies our goal to be the first and finest “global liberal arts College for the 21st century.” This tag line has been somewhat misunderstood, as most seem to equate it with the College’s physical presence—expanding our global footprint with more locations abroad. That is certainly part of what we have done in order to provide more educational opportunities for our students. But it also involves our curriculum and our commitment to matriculating a relatively large number of international students, who collectively bring such varied and valued perspectives to our campus. In stating that we seek to create the finest global liberal arts college for the 21st century I mean something far less specific and far more relevant to all of our students and faculty. To me, becoming the finest liberal arts college for the 21st century is about creating the educational environment that best prepares our students, regardless of their major, to understand the larger world around them; to enable them to enter with confidence an interconnected world that is rapidly changing; and to appreciate the great diversity in the world that will further and more significantly affect their lives than anything past generations have experienced.

Whether a student is a chemistry major, a philosophy major, a comparative literature major, an international politics and economics major, or whatever, he or she should, over the course of four years, develop a keen sense of the world and its complexity through our curriculum; through the diversity of our students, staff, and faculty and the discussions and engagement that such diversity allows; as a result of tapping into the rich and unique educational resources available to all of our students—the intensive Language Schools, our Schools Abroad, the Monterey Institute of International Studies, and the Rohatyn Center for International Affairs; and through projects and activities outside of class that build upon, complement, and enrich our academic program—volunteer work in town and Addison County, internships both in the U.S. and at our many sites abroad, and “hands-on” learning opportunities like the Solar Decathlon, the hydrogen tractor winter term course/project, and initiatives developed through our Center for Social Entrepreneurship, the MiddCORE program, and the Center for Education in Action. All these things combine to offer students the opportunity to build upon the traditional liberal arts curriculum and to develop valuable skills that they otherwise would only first develop after leaving Middlebury: these would, in effect, help to make a college education more relevant for the times.

But what should that 21st century curriculum look like? What should all students learn while at Middlebury to best prepare them for their post-college lives now and into the future, not for a world twenty years ago? What should those hands-on co-curricular opportunities be and how should they relate to the traditional classroom learning experience? How should future faculty be recruited, hired, and better supported throughout their careers to be successful and able to teach and guide students most effectively? How can we encourage, accept, and embrace new methods of pedagogy so faculty are more free to teach as they see most fitting for their subject matter and most conducive to our students’ evolving ways of learning? How can faculty better use the College’s educational resources now scattered in more than 35 sites and partner universities around the world both for their own professional and scholarly development and for expanding opportunities for our students? And how might the faculties at those partner universities enrich our curriculum and academic community?

I will not try to answer these questions, or any from the preceding sections of this report, in any kind of detail here, but the faculty at-large should and indeed needs to engage and answer them. And while the three curricular task forces made good progress last year on a number of issues related to these questions, I believe the faculty must engage this topic at a more fundamental level than we have in the past, and to chart an appropriate course for the curriculum, for faculty development, and other things that can address quite directly this second, large challenge: showing the so-called value proposition for a Middlebury residential liberal arts education today. It is no longer feasible to believe that each of us can focus only on our campus, only on our individual disciplines and departments, and only on our students’ four years here, yet remain relevant, vibrant, and appealing to the brightest and most diverse students seeking a college education. Fear of how changes in what we offer, how we offer it, and where we offer it might affect enrollments or the number of majors in our departments and programs cannot compromise these discussions. The stakes are too high.

The Year Ahead

There is much in this communication that requires consideration, discussion, and ultimately action. I, along with my administrative colleagues, look forward to working with Faculty Council, the Educational Affairs Committee, the successor curricular task forces, academic departments and programs, Staff Council, and any other member of the faculty or staff to engage these issues and create a collaborative plan of action. Now is the time to begin such discussions, when we are in a strong position both absolutely and in relation to our peers. We may not be as endowed/wealthy as most of the institutions with whom we compete for the best students and faculty, but we have other, more important and long-lasting advantages: unprecedented educational/academic resources among liberal arts colleges with which to collaborate, expand, and enrich opportunities for our students and faculty, and a history of innovation that has allowed us to, in many ways, overachieve and become one of the very best colleges in the country.

Therefore, I will be discussing with several committees and groups on campus how best to approach the major issues I have raised. Some standing committees have their agendas set for the coming year, or might not wish to take on what I have put forward in this document. Some colleagues, with or without committee assignments, might want to provide responses and pursue solutions to the challenges I have defined; please let Vice President Tim Spears know if you are interested.

This is a remarkable, resilient, creative, innovative, and special 212-year-old institution, and one that has evolved over time to survive and thrive. It is blessed with a loyal and dedicated staff, and a profoundly talented and committed faculty. Its biggest challenge right now comes from without, and we cannot afford to allow the changes we see occurring in higher education to render all that is so good at Middlebury less meaningful and less valuable to future generations of students. But the response to those challenges must come from within and needs to be based on a firm understanding of the forces that are rapidly changing the environment for higher education. I am confident the College will once again rise to the occasion and address these issues thoughtfully and with great success.

—Ron Liebowitz
August 2012

9 comments

Your comments about need-blind admissions really concern me. If that is really the next thing on the chopping block, then I am worried for the future of Middlebury College. You talk about attracting the best and the brightest students as a priority, yet Middlebury will fall behind in this category if such need-blind policies are eliminated. Rather than engaging in discussions of cutting these policies, I implore you to outline a plan in which true need-blind admissions could occur. How can you consider Middlebury (or desire that we become) “the first and finest ‘global liberal arts College for the 21st century’” without need-blind admissions for international students. That is hypocritical and damaging to our beloved institution and its reputation. If you think that Wesleyan is leading the way with its financial aid policies, and starting on a desirable path, then you are sorely mistaken. Students from all perspectives and backgrounds have a right to learn and grow from one another at Middlebury. President Liebowitz, we are better than this.

Ronald Liebowitz

Ronald Liebowitz’s avatar

Anon: there are no plans to do away with need-blind admissions. The section on financial aid, and many of the other things mentioned as current policy, illustrates how many of the things we do and perhaps take for granted are under pressure due to trends in the financing of higher education. Nor was Wesleyan used as a model for Middlebury, but rather as a sign of changes happening at LACs due to those financial challenges.

Nowhere in the report (and I encourage you to read it more carefully, perhaps) are there “discussions of cutting these policies.” Rather, the report is a call for us all to begin conversations about how to ensure the things we cherish most can be preserved.

Thank you for reading (and commenting).

Nice to hear a clear headed leader for this institution. I wish you all well on your journey.

Steven R Inglis, MD
(Father of a rising senior, visiting Middlebury 9/1/12)
Singlis@jhmc.org

Thank you for your very thoughtful post. I think the fact that you pose these questions and raise these issues in such a serious way speaks volumes about Middlebury as an institution.

To add to your comments: Undergraduates, who are if not the primary stakeholders at least represent the raison d’être for the College, should have a voice in this process as well. The desire of Middlebury student to influence the direction of their alma mater in both the short and long term shouldn’t be underestimated. You referenced a potential role for students in college governance: I hope we can realize your goal of involving students in the “effective and inclusive governing structure” you describe.

Student priorities (above all financial aid, the academic program, etc.) sometimes overlap with and sometimes are distinct from the priorities of other constituencies on campus. It is therefore vital for student voices to be involved, whatever the vehicle.

As you say in your letter to faculty, it’s important for faculty to have broad conversations about this. I agree, but would add that it’s just as important for students to have those conversations as well. The questions of cost and relevance that you raise, after all, are ultimately questions posed to potential students and their families.

In any case, thank you for the questions you raised. I look forward to a vibrant and healthy discussion around these institutional issues over the course of the next year.

Ronald Liebowitz

Ronald Liebowitz’s avatar

Charlie: thanks for your comments. And yes — the administration will be having discussions with students (and staff) on these issues, and I hope there is student interest in the questions before us. The College is here, after all, for its students, present and future.

Ron

Arabella Holzapfel

Arabella Holzapfel’s avatar

Dear Ron,
There is a lot to thank you for in this post, including, primarily, your openness in bringing out to the public these concerns that many of us have been reading about. (One example – a recent cover story in Newsweek.) I have been wondering about the impact of these trends on Middlebury and undoubtedly other staff members have as well.

I also thank you for your frequent acknowledgment of staff, their importance to the function of the college, and for expressing so clearly how the number of staff has returned to the staffing level of 2005, while the numbers of faculty and students have increased at the same time that technological and other service expectations have soared.

One thing troubles me and others that I represent on Staff Council. In the section on reaccreditation and faculty governance, you describe having asked Faculty Council to select a budget committee template, and you emphasize the need for faculty to participate in the budgeting process. In this particular section, the mention of staff is startling by its absence. I am hoping there is no mention of staff with regard to ‘helping develop the annual budget’ because a) the original intended audience of this report was the faculty, and b) there is already a role for staff in that process and there will continue to be. I would hope at a minimum that staff members who oversee significant budgets (such as LIS, Facilities Services, Dining Services, among others) will have an active role in budget development. It would be helpful if, at some point in the appropriate venue, you can describe the Faculty Council’s chosen budget committee template and how its composition does (or does not?) include staff.

Thanks, as always, Arabella, for raising good points. There are spots on the proposed budget committee for staff, and the omission was indeed because the report was intended for faculty. Thank you again for raising the question.

Last year’s faculty council suggested a particular template for the budget committee that needs to be discussed in more detail with this year’s faculty council, and that will happen very soon. I will report back on the blog when that discussion has taken place.

RL

Brian Foster '13

Brian Foster '13’s avatar

President Liebowitz,

Thank you so much for publicly posting this thoughtful letter– I think it’s wise to encourage the entire community to participate in such an important discussion. I’m sure many members of the student body are reassured by the knowledge that our administration is putting so much time into questioning the unsustainable status quos that challenge our industry, and we are excited to see this questioning translate into action. Here are some comments on what I feel are your most critical points.

You outlined a number of issues early on in your post concerning our relevance and cost:

“In some idealized world, we would have 4% (or higher) salary increases every year; richer financial aid packages to attract the brightest students;…”

“Admissions is likely to be the first place we would notice changes, as the cost of being need blind (for U.S. students) and meeting the full demonstrated need of all admitted students has grown faster than any other expenditure in our budget.”

“…$200,000 for a degree that provides few guarantees of a job out of college”
“It would be easy to believe … the demand for a Middlebury education is strong, highly inelastic … It would be foolish, however, to ignore these criticisms and the wide range of student choices within higher education; both suggest a far greater elasticity of demand than our application numbers would suggest.”

On cost: It seems that Middlebury should begin an aggressive effort to partner with entrepreneurial organizations tackling the student debt issue. Social Finance is one that comes to mind (https://www.sofi.com/), a group that gives students access to low-interest loans by pairing them with wealthy alumni who are willing to help finance their education. With our accomplished and highly involved alumni base, we are well-positioned to take advantage of such a program.

On priorities: I am glad to hear you and others agree that stabilizing the skyrocketing comprehensive fee and preserving need-blind admissions policy should absolutely be top priorities for the college. Failure to do either of these would inevitably broaden socioeconomic polarity among the student body, and in doing so, jeopardize our community’s culture.

“I am not suggesting we stray from our core mission—educating students in the liberal arts tradition.”

“…that we must adapt to those changes in some fundamental ways if we wish to sustain the quality of the education we offer our students, retain an excellent faculty, and continue to attract a diverse and talented student body.”

On the dialogue of change: I understand why your language here has to be somewhat diplomatic, but I think our community’s dialogue (and subsequent action) needs to be far more aggressive. As you have alluded to, the reality is that given the unprecedented pace of change in the private sector, and therefore the increasingly higher floor for what is a “marketable” employee in the workforce, we would be irresponsible to do anything less than rapidly accelerate institutional innovation at Middlebury–in the way we teach and in what we offer outside of the classroom.

Diversifying value: To be clear, you are absolutely right: we shouldn’t “stray” from what we do well in any sense. But we have a responsibility to diversify our value proposition, both as champions of a “liberal arts education for the 21st century,” and as an institution closing in on a $60k/year sticker price. I hope that faculty, administrators, staff, and students alike are prepared to acknowledge that diversifying of our value proposition AND continuing to excel at what we do very well are not mutually exclusive agendas. In fact, quite the opposite. I will try to support that case throughout the rest of this response.

Naturally, there is immense cultural inertia in our way. For better or for worse, (no… for worse) in higher education we build incrementally on tradition. But from the perspective of students and families investing large amounts of money in a top-shelf education, the idea of somehow “preserving tradition” (read: not innovating) at the expense of progressive industry leadership would seem reckless.

A number of students I’ve spoken with and I feel that an immediate investment in broader curricular programming for entrepreneurship would be a powerful first step. Middlebury would be wise to establish and host a summer school for entrepreneurship. There are a number of good reasons; here are just a few:

1) A strong proof of demand in the success of budding programs currently at Middlebury (Middlebury Entrepreneurs, MiddCore, CSE, Middstart)
2) The popularity of the Tuck bridge program as a benchmark. A competitive Middlebury program devoted exclusively to entrepreneurship could fill a niche in desperate need of being filled. (Q: what do people still in school do who are serious about entrepreneurship A: they leave)
3) This would be a new source of revenue for the college–a need that the people of Old Chapel discuss regularly. Entrepreneurial skills are always in high demand, and “demand” for entrepreneurship historically has been resistant to macroeconomic instability.
4) The race for leadership in entrepreneurship among the liberal arts is wide open. This is great news for Middlebury; we have a ripe opportunity and are in position to take the lead if we so choose. We have already have the infrastructure, the demand, and the people. The marriage between the liberal arts and entrepreneurship is natural, but liberal arts leaders either see brand-related disincentives in making the first move (unfortunately, and wrongly, I believe), or are blind to its enormous value. I suspect it is more of the former. Middlebury should not follow industry suit. Students and alumni want this; it’s highly compatible with our existing mission; it’s an untapped gold mine for the college; …it’s high time to act.
5) In fact, this would actually be an exceptional branding opportunity for the college. Look at how the summer language schools have been largely responsible for Middlebury’s current, highly justifiable perception as THE global leader in language learning. It is these nuances of institutional identity that often determine a prospective student’s entire college decision. I am sure that many of Middlebury’s tri-lingual students would be happy to attest to this. We could easily mirror the success of the dual HS and undergraduate language programs; we are hardly new to the world of creative program expansion. What HS parents wouldn’t see the value in paying for their child to be stimulated entrepreneurially at a young age? Such a program would easily turn a profit, and Middlebury could capture huge market share on the East Coast by being (one of, if not the) first mover(s). To boot, we’d lure prospective applicants who are big thinkers, creators, and builders.
6) Stanford recently completed the most successful fundraising campaign in the history of higher education. It is staggering. More than $6b, if I remember correctly. Who are the benefactors? Largely entrepreneurs, of course. Investments in entrepreneurship and constant innovation are the best long-term insurance policies against both institutional “[ir]relevance” and financial insecurity.

I’ve been lucky to have some excellent conversations with a number of faculty members about the obstacles of cultural inertia that keep such programs from happening. Surprisingly, I’ve found that they are very receptive to the idea of diversifying the value of a Middlebury education with entrepreneurship, as they are keenly aware of what it costs to sit in their classes. They understand that we can no longer justify “one dimensional” learning given the cost of the comprehensive fee. (I don’t mean for “one dimensional” to be pejorative, but just mean to emphasize that our existing pedagogy isn’t nearly as broad as it could be–and should be–for the price). So what will it take to get going? It’s time to turn from discussion to action. The liberal arts and entrepreneurship could make for a powerful symbiosis. Everybody wins. Rest assured, Stanford will have no trouble competing for the best theater, English, and history faculty in the world throughout the next few decades, and these professors will indeed enjoy “consistent annual pay increase.”

On E-Learning: The stakeholders in this effort have been quick to seduce cash-keepers of higher education with language like “the future” and “revolutionary.” I am skeptical. Wider distribution of course content is clearly valuable, but it isn’t the solution to higher education’s biggest problems. It is merely the “low-hanging fruit,” the output of inevitable market forces, the inputs of which are 1) plummeting costs to support web video and live streams, and 2) the general, cross-industry momentum of “open information” in the last 15 years.

(http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424053111903480904576512250915629460.html)

To be clear: e-learning websites, consortiums, and MOOC’s are branding gold for the universities that participate in them. Middlebury should certainly consider them for this reason. But they have a limited place in the curriculum at Middlebury, FOR NOW, until they evolve (and they will, which is why this discussion should continue). The challenge is that they are currently at the exact opposite end of the spectrum from what we’re doing in VT. Buying access to the best teachers in education is increasingly dichotomous as e-learning proliferates: if you want to get great professors, you can either have immense luxury and be spoon-fed your learning on a lush campus for $240k (a la Middlebury), or pay nothing (or close to it) to access similar caliber teachers on your computer, but forfeit literally every amenity.

(For what it’s worth, innovation will happen when somebody transforms the middle of this spectrum by figuring out how to make a Middlebury-caliber education cost $25k by eliminating the luxuries that account for the high comprehensive fee. This will take much longer. And it will require some serious cultural mountain-moving.)

“But many believe these attributes of a liberal arts education alone no longer adequately prepare students for the world they will face upon graduation.”

On relevance and curriculum: This is fair; we offer only a foundation. (And a great foundation, to be sure.) The good news is most students realize it’s a foundation and voluntarily seek out programs like MEMS and MiddCore, or least take the time to learn excel or watch finance videos on Khan Academy. It’s my opinion that the college has a responsibility to look at the outside world and realize it ought to make MiddCore/Mems, basic computer science, Excel competency, et al mandatory, or at the very least part of the distribution requirements. Our consequentialist student body already shows a clear willingness to put the nose to the grindstone with the expectation that it will pay come job applications. Shouldn’t we give some formal direction as well?

In our curriculum and in the way we teach, what do we stand for if we cling to “tradition?” The private sector lives and dies in an arena predicated upon constant disruption. Higher education, meanwhile, prefers to take it’s time. At what cost? A great one: zero chance of innovation, and therefore guaranteed inadequacy as a training ground for the private sector, always in one way or another. This is a generalization, of course, and Middlebury is well ahead of the curve. But we can and we absolutely should improve. Even excellent “adapt[ation]” (this is a regrettably common word in higher ed) is never enough. Adaptation is, in principle, antithetical to leadership. This is the great institutional challenge: what will it take to be more than reactionary? The solution is to start thinking much more progressively about the brand risk/reward and fiscal cost/benefit of constant experimentation in value-adding programs outside of what we currently see as our “core” or “traditional” identity. Think Amazon, Google, and Stanford, institutions built to last because they have internalized constant change. Think innovation…

…think prosperity.

Hope these comments are helpful, and thanks so much for publicizing your post. I look forward to more of them.

Brian

Dear President Liebowitz,

How did I miss this post? Terrific overview of both external and internal challenges and opportunities. Will you be posting updates on the ongoing conversations and committees? In particular, it would be interesting to hear more about Middlebury’s thinking around the topic of MOOCs and hybrid courses, as well as ongoing questions of affordability and the tipping point that Greg Buckles referenced.

Thank you for sharing,
Kristy

Sites DOT Middlebury: the Middlebury site network.