Articles by Ronald Liebowitz

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News about the College’s just-announced initiative to provide on-line language courses for pre-college students has generated great interest.  Much of the information I provided to the campus community in an email this morning can be found at http://www.middlebury.edu/mil

The New York Times covered the initiative today (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/14/education/14middlebury.html).

Needless to say, this is a big, yet logical step, for the College.  It will not only expand access to language learning to so many pre-College students whose schools provide limited opportunities, but it will also allow the College to retain its hard-earned leadership position in foreign languages and culture by offering the best courses available online.

We could not have done this alone.  With broad and deep talent in our Language Schools, our academic departments, and at Monterey, we can develop great content, but we haven’t the capacity to develop the required technological platform, marketing, and virtually all of the business aspects of such an undertaking.  And that is why we have partnered with K12, the country’s leading provider of pre-college courses.

Michael Geisler, Patrick Norton, and I will be holding open meetings to discuss the project in greater detail and answer any questions.  We will announce the schedule of those meetings soon.

UPDATE: two more articles with a range of opinions:

http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2010/04/15/languages

http://educationnext.org/hurrah-for-middleburys-venture-into-virtual-language-instruction/

During the past 18 months of budget discussions on campus, the most common request I heard from students, aside from preserving the academic excellence of the College, centered on dining.

We converted the use of one of the three large dining halls from meal plan use to daily language table use and special event use, which means students all now dine in Ross and Proctor, both enlarged in the past year.  Though some bemoan the loss of convenience of having fewer options for where to eat (mostly students living in the Atwater suites since first-years in Allen never knew of the convenience), and wonder whether the servery area is larger enough to accommodate the 15-minute rushes at lunchtime, a surprising number like fewer dining halls as they can see more of their friends more frequently.  In fact, a major criticism of the original commons plan (1998), which proposed having five (yes 5) separate dining halls, was that we would be carving up the campus and students would see less of their friends than before during a crucial (for Middlebury) social event—lunches and dinner.  Moving from 3 to 2 dining halls, then, at least addressed this issue.

But the BIG issue students raise with me is the unique meal plan we have and have had for more than a decade.  We have no 21-meal, 16-meal, 12-meal options, or weekday versus 7-day options either.  We have one plan: all meals all the time.  That is, students can eat all they want, and do it at both Proctor and Ross, even during the same meal period.  They can meet with friends at Ross, have an early dinner, and then meet other friends 90 minutes later and have dinner again.  In addition, there are no “checkers” at Middlebury, which means students come and go without having to swipe an ID or be checked by anyone and so friends visiting their Middlebury students can eat as guests of the College (at no charge).

From a strictly business perspective this seems ludicrous…and some have said as much.  There is an extra cost to this kind of meal plan.  Yet students, and I mean a lot of students, and a good number of parents, have stated over and over how important an element of the Middlebury experience our unique (and more expensive) meal plan is: through it, students argue, meals remain a central part of their experience here.  Students tend to linger far longer over meals than would be the case if we had the typical kinds of restrictions one finds elsewhere and therefore our students engage their peers and quite often faculty and staff who join them for meals in ways that are very valuable and important to the overall educational experience.  Having taken many lunches in Proctor this year (and some in Ross), I can affirm this observation.  I have been to enough dining halls elsewhere to see the difference and believe the students (and parents) who make this argument make a lot of sense.

On the other hand, the question is whether all that this meal plan brings is worth the premium.   More directly, I would love to know, in specific ways, what about our meal plan do our students love most, and what about it should be preserved, and preserved above other aspects of Middlebury that are going through budgetary review.

  • Is it the freedom to come and go without having checkers so the dining experience feels more like home and not a college dining hall?
  • Is it the freedom to eat multiple times and eat all one wishes to eat at every meal?
  • Is it the freedom to bring friends along and not have to worry about paying for them?
  • Is it is something else?

I would love to hear from as many students as possible on this issue to get a better feel for what we need to consider preserving; budgets continue to be scrutinized in our efforts to retain our balanced budget and to help us allocate resources to those things that are truly institutional priorities, so please send your thoughts.  I get the “official” or administrative view on this, just as I get the official/administrative perspective on other issues, during administrative meetings.  I need the “unofficial” view, too.

It would be most helpful if you at least identified your class (’10, ’11, ’12, or ’13, with Febs adding the appropriate “.5” as desired), or how you are associated with the College if you are not a current student.

I look forward to hearing your views.

It has been a while since I posted, but my silence was not because there was little about which to communicate; just the opposite.  Much has gone on since my last post, including another great Winter Term (highlights to come), the start of the “spring” semester, the trustees’ annual February meeting, Winter Carnival, which coincided with the Vancouver Olympics, where Middlebury alumni excelled and garnered silver, and great athletics performances by our winter sports teams.

Though I hope to write on a number of these happenings over the next few weeks, the one issue that has generated more e-mail and telephone traffic to my desk was my proposal to limit comprehensive fee increases at the College to “CPI + 1,” which means increases of up to 1 percentage point above the consumer price index as reported each December prior to the next academic year (so that next year’s comprehensive fee would be based on the December 2009 CPI).  The proposal was part of an address I gave on campus on February 12.

Quite frankly, I am surprised this proposal has generated such publicity; I have received many, many e-mails and interview requests, and both Inside Higher Education and the New York Times’ “The Choice education blog have covered the proposal.  For those not familiar with the issue, or the trend in comprehensive fee increases during the past few decades, here is the context: last year our comprehensive fee increase was 3.2 percent above the previous year.  That increase represented the lowest increase in 37 years.  The increase came following a year (as measured in December of 2008) in which the consumer price index increased +0.1%, or was almost flat.  Thus, our comprehensive fee increase was 3.1 percentage points, or 310 “basis points” above the CPI.  What I am proposing is that we set our comprehensive fee increase to be within 100 basis points of the most recent CPI, which, given the CPI of 2.7% measured this past December, would mean our comprehensive fee for next year would have a ceiling of 3.7%.  Or, had we decided to do “CPI + 1” last year, the comprehensive fee would have increased up to 1.1% and not the 3.2% it did.

How much of a change would CPI + 1 be for us going forward?  During the past 18 years, Middlebury raised its comprehensive by more than 100 basis points (or greater than 1 percentage point above the CPI) 14 times, and the mean annual increase over the 18-year period was 2.36 percentage points, or 236 basis points, above the CPI.

The purpose of restricting our fee increases relative to the CPI beginning this year is in recognition that the price to attend Middlebury has grown far faster than inflation, and such increases cannot continue without a negative impact on the institution.  Although the demand for a Middlebury education is stronger than ever (we received a record number of applications this past year—just shy of 8,000), one has to wonder how much families will be willing to pay for a four-year education, and how many excellent would-be applicants have already decided, or will soon decide, not to apply due to the escalating price.

Critics of this “CPI + 1” approach argue that the demand for an elite, private liberal arts education is less elastic, or more inelastic, than I may think.  They also note that all students already receive a $30,000 scholarship to attend colleges like Middlebury (since the true “cost” of educating each student is closer to $80,000/year with the endowment and annual gifts funding the difference), and that many families are willing to accept the high annual increases that have been the norm for a better part of 35 years.  Finally, some also argue that we will put ourselves (unnecessarily) in a disadvantageous position vis-à-vis peer institutions because they will charge more and therefore have greater annual resources with which to enrich their students’ experiences.  I believe it is time to limit our fee increases and force ourselves to make more thoughtful and consequential decisions regarding the resources available to us.  I am curious to hear your thoughts.

Thanks for the many thoughtful replies to my call for input on 51 Main.  I have continued to think about these comments and 51 Main’s evolving role in our community. It is clear that 51 Main provides an important social outlet for students and gathering place for faculty, staff, and townspeople. More than a bar or restaurant, the venue has become a catalyst for a variety of cultural and artistic activities, which I think is good for both the College and our town.  It’s worth noting that during the past year 51 Main has reduced its monthly deficits by more than 75%—a significant achievement for a new enterprise in such a short period of time.  These financial gains come close to meeting the expectations of the BOC recommendation that I accepted just over a year ago.

Given these developments, plus the fact that 51 Main’s operating deficits have been covered and will continue to be funded if needed by a generous donor for up to three years, I have decided that 51 Main should remain open.  We will continue to push for more financial accountability so the business can pay for itself without the support of a donor, and we will review the venue’s status on a regular basis, as we do with the Grille, the Snow Bowl, and our other auxiliary operations.  Meanwhile, I hope many of you will take advantage of what such a large number of blog posters (plus many who sent e-mails to me) have cited as such a valuable addition to the town and College.

My most recent Middlebury Magazine column addresses the issue of student use of space to pursue creative endeavors outside the aegis of the academic program.   It speaks to how central it is to a liberal arts education for students to have the opportunity to pursue such creative endeavors, yet how difficult it sometimes is for some to find the space to do so.

I received this response to the column:

Dear President Liebowitz,

I applaud your recent article in the Middlebury magazine regarding space, the arts at Middlebury, and creativity in general.

I was at Middlebury in the 1970s. I came as a French major, and graduated a music major in 1977. This was in no small part to the many and wonderful opportunities I took part in at Middlebury. I have been a professional musician now for 33 years and my expertise is due in no small part to what Peter Hamlin mentions about space use after hours: I managed to sign up a few hours in the (then) Johnson Music Building during 9-5 hours. but, for the most part, I practiced virtually every single evening from 10 pm in Mead Chapel. The night watchman knew me, and I was able to promise to make sure the lights were off & the door locked after myself when I left. Many (most) nights I stayed til 1 or 2 am, practicing on a splendid church organ and a 9 foot concert grand. When I went on to conservatory for graduate degrees, I realized that had I gone to one of those schools as an undergraduate, I would have been stuck in a tiny, claustrophobic practice room on a mediocre instrument – and likely kicked out at 11 pm. How to compare playing a top-notch instrument in an acoustically grand space to…feeling like a chicken on an egg-laying farm, in my cubicle…I have to say that without this experience that I had at Middlebury, I am quite sure I would not be doing what I do today; nor, would I be as good at it as I am, had I not trained my ears and brain for the realities of real concerts on real spaces. (That’s not to diminish the copious amounts of love & attention I had from my music professors…but still, the unfettered use of the chapel was very important.)

So how wonderful to read your analysis of the effect of unscheduled space on creativity at Middlebury. I must admit, every issue I read of the magazine highlights the “Middlebury is green” theme and the marvelous advances in science, sports and other achievements. And to be sure, you mention many wonderful arts achievements by students and student groups. However, as now the parent of two daughters (17 and 19) and a son (younger), I had the experience of taking both daughters on tours of the college and seeing it fresh from their eyes.

My eldest visited 2 years ago just after spring break. Eagerly I showed her all my old haunts. She is a visual artist, interested also in drama, cognitive science, languages, literature…I thought, what a great fit for Middlebury. But after a tour around campus & wandering around Johnson, she said, “Mom, I can’t apply here.” I asked why not. She said, “I wouldn’t feel creative. I can’t do art here.” You see, we had seen many schools and art departments already. The others (Bennington/Sarah Lawrence/ Skidmore/Bard/ Connecticut/Vassar) had vibrant art departments; students wandered in and out of studios. In most, she was able to wander in, too, and talk to the students about their art. There was a “buzz” that was palpable to me. Middlebury, by contrast, I realized, felt dead & lifeless as we visited. The studios were mostly locked; way too clean & uncluttered; there weren’t any students hanging out, playing raucous music as they worked. Why was that? I began thinking about it & reading the magazine more carefully. In music, it seemed like many professional level & department-organized activities were mentioned. I talked a bit to faculty who mentioned various frustrations. And I noticed especially that the new Arts Center was so far “in left field” that one had to make a real commitment to being there & using it, rather than dropping in with any frequency.

Two years ago I attended a large presentation at Chelsea Piers in New York City. Perhaps you recall: I was the woman who stood up & said “we’ve heard all about a lot of great things, but what about the arts?” – to a certain significant amount of applause from my alumni compatriots. I have to say, your letter is the first sense I have that perhaps you really are committed to regaining that “buzz” of creativity that was palpable, exciting, and ever-present when I was a student at Middlebury. Please, continue to grow the school in this direction!

Sincerely,

XXXXX XXXXX ‘’77

I found this perspective on things very interesting, and I would love to hear from other alumni on this topic: what was it like when you were at Middlebury in terms of your access to space in order to carry out creative pursuits?  Please note when you studied at Middlebury.

51 Main is on my mind, as it will soon be time to decide whether or not the College should continue to run the in-town venue or close it down.

Last year, the Budget Oversight Committee (BOC) recommended that the College close 51 Main. The primary reasons given were that, in light of the ongoing budget cuts, it was wrong for the College to fund an establishment that was not “core” to our academic mission, and it was losing money.  I accepted the BOC’s recommendation, but gave 51 Main until December of this year to show whether it could break even financially for two successive months.  If it could not, it would close.  I should mention that, as of November 1, it looks like 51 Main is very close to meeting its two month break-even requirement, and so feedback from community members on the existence and possible continuance of the establishment will be helpful as we assess our options.

Reactions to the BOC recommendation and what drove it have been the topic of many e-mails sent to me, conversations initiated by students, faculty, and staff during my office hours, and questions raised during lunches I have had with students in Proctor and Ross Dining Halls.  Whenever I discuss 51 Main I explain the history behind its founding, which is critical to understanding whatever success it has to date, and to considering whether its goals are as compelling now as they were three years ago.

The idea to open a place in town came from a student-only task force on social life, which I appointed three years ago to combat the collective student sentiment that campus social life had become sub-par: limited, predictable, “the same old same old,” dominated by social house or smaller suite parties that had at or very near their center of fun beer and alcohol.  The task force report included several recommendations, some of which we have implemented during the past two years.    More to the point, the report stated that, because of the size of our campus, federal and Vermont liquor laws, the growing difficulty of hosting parties spontaneously on campus (related to the state’s liquor laws), and the accelerating demand for more diverse social options as a result of our increasingly diverse student body, providing a place with rich and varied programming would make a huge difference to many students.  In follow-up meetings, students identified the desire and need for a place off campus that brought students and town folks together in a social setting, offered musical and other social events (poetry slams; stand-up comedians; exhibitions of students’ art work; etc.), and did not have the feel of a “College venue,” nor center predominantly on alcohol.

The idea for 51 Main sprang from these task force discussions, and when the space became available a donor made a gift to cover the start-up and operating costs for the venue for multiple years. He also funded several other proposals in the student task force report, because he was well aware of the harsh criticism by students about the limited social life on campus (he had children who had attended Middlebury).  Thus, none of the funding for 51 Main comes from the College’s operating budget, but rather is paid for from a gift that would cover 51 Main’s operating budget for four years, and is restricted to that use.

Since 51 Main opened, many have criticized its existence.  Several in the town community felt it was wrong to add competition to a downtown that was having a hard enough time attracting business.  Some countered this by noting that healthy competition would be good for townspeople and for our students alike; it would provide something new and perhaps nudge existing enterprises to introduce new and exciting programming.  Some merchants agreed and welcomed the new venue; others did not.

Based thus far on anecdotal evidence alone, opinion on campus has been divided.  Staff in general, and a good number of faculty, have been highly critical, arguing that running what they see as a nightclub is problematic, even unethical, in the face of budget cuts and reductions in staff positions through voluntary departures and attrition.  Many share the concern about the College “competing” with businesses in town. 

A number of faculty, however, some of whom have performed at 51 Main several times, view it as a unique venue and describe it as a “beacon of social life” for the town and for college students.  They point to the fact that in no other place in Middlebury do college folk and townspeople socialize as they do at 51 Main.  They also say that the kind of programming at 51 Main is special, diverse, and provides the closest thing to an urban feel one finds in Addison County.

Students seem more positive about 51 Main, but again, my information is only anecdotal and thus my desire in posting these remarks is to collect more feedback.  From what I hear, when the venue first opened, it was mostly the underrepresented groups at Middlebury—students of color, inner city, and international students—who visited 51 Main, and found it very much to their liking, just as the student task force on social life had envisioned.  But towards the end of last year, and throughout this semester, a greater portion of the student body began to frequent 51 Main.  Indeed, I have heard this fall from many parents across a broad spectrum of backgrounds that 51 Main has caught on.  Their sons and daughters claim it is an important social option for students who want more than a social house or suite party—for those who want to see, be with, and engage people from town who are not from the College, and listen to interesting bands, including student bands whose members include their college friends.  Many townspeople, too, have commented very positively on 51 Main, noting how it adds to social options in town, and how enjoyable it is to be among College students in a relaxed and new kind of social setting.

The negative voices I have heard, though I don’t know their number, are the loudest.  They convey their thoughts and say they speak for “many” in their opposition to this venture, again on ethical grounds.  Interestingly, I know many of those who criticize 51 Main are also the strongest supporters for greater diversity on our campus, and one has to wonder whether they see any connection between the presence of a 51 Main on the one hand, and the College’s need not only to matriculate diverse students, but also to provide the kind of support, including a social life, that helps a more diverse student body to thrive when they come to a place like Middlebury.

I am interested in your views of 51 Main and whether it should continue if it can break even financially.   Please identify whether you are a student, staff member, faculty member, community member, parent, or other.  Thank you.

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