Author Archives: Ronald Liebowitz

“Saving Schools”

Earlier this week, Professor Paul Peterson, the Henry Lee Shattuck Professor of Government and Director of the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard University, spoke on campus.  He spoke about his new book, Saving Schools: From Horace Mann to Virtual Learning, published by Harvard University Press.

The book reframes the history of public education (k-12) in America and explains the rise of issues including bilingual education, vouchers, charter schools, and more. It also explores virtual education as the possible next major educational transformation in this country.

In his talk, Professor Peterson opined that public education could not right itself through slow and incremental change.  He enumerated the many obstacles in the way of the kind of reform necessary to bring public schools in the United States to the level of say, Finland, Japan, Canada, and Korea.  He showed statistics for students’ performances in math and science and, though it wasn’t news to many, it was still startling to see how American students in high school now rank against their peers: 12th in science and 17th in math.  Hard to envision the future prosperity of the country when our high school students have fallen so far behind so many other countries.

Instead of proposing limited reforms to our public education system, Peterson called for a paradigm shift, with virtual, on-line resources supplementing the traditional “bricks and mortar” mode of education.  Many public school districts are in crisis, unable to teach their basic curriculum at the expected grade levels.  Professor Peterson didn’t argue that on-line learning equals or surpasses the kind of education a student could receive, face-to-face, with good teachers.  Rather, he said, good on-line content can fill some gaping holes in public education quite effectively.

Foreign language instruction is no exception, and in fact, many argue foreign language programs have been disproportionately affected by the recent recession, with local public school districts eliminating teaching positions and foreign language programs.  The state of crisis in language teaching and learning in the public schools is what led the College to partner with a company that has vast experience in providing on-line courses and curricula to grades k-12 to form Middlebury Interactive Languages (or MIL).  Through MIL, we seek to expand access to foreign language study and fill a recognized gap in the American public education system.

But our foray into k-12 education did not begin with on-line course development.  It began during the summer of 2008, with the establishment of the Middlebury-Monterey Language Academy (MMLA), a four-week, bricks and mortar intensive summer language academy for students in grades 7-12.  The academy’s pedagogy is based on the College’s well-established summer immersion Language Schools, which began operating in 1915 on the Middlebury campus.

The impetus for establishing the MMLA program came as a result of a presidents’ conference sponsored by then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and then-Secretary of Education Martha Spellings at the State Department in January of 2006.  I was one of 100 college and university presidents invited to participate and hear from the Departments of State and Education how we, the academy, needed to help solve the nation’s “strategic language gap.”

Since 9/11, there has been far greater attention given to our country’s long time poor record in foreign language education.  Yet, it was odd to me, at least, how these two major departments of the federal government seemed to think the solution to the country’s gap in our language proficiency in strategic languages (e.g., Arabic, Mandarin, Russian, Farsi, etc.) was to pump funds into colleges and universities.  That would be great, of course, but a ton of research shows one is able to learn languages far easier and effectively at younger ages, and the ability to learn them declines rather dramatically as one gets older.  College age is, for the large majority, too late for one to begin learning foreign languages and attain high levels of proficiency.

Leaving the State Department conference that January day I couldn’t help but think that, if we wanted to increase language proficiency in the country, and create a true pipeline of competent speakers of languages, we should do for younger kids what we have been doing in our Language Schools since 1915: provide an immersion environment with excellent, committed teachers for learning languages and their cultures.  And thus was the start of the four-week MMLA summer immersion program for 7th to 12th graders.

Though so many applauded our efforts to expand access to language learning through MMLA, many asked how these students could retain what they learned if so many of their schools did not offer language study at their new, advanced levels when they returned to class in September.  Most of the students advanced one, and sometimes two, years in their high school language sequence following their four weeks of immersive living and learning.

Providing quality on-line materials, then, was the logical answer, and led to our relationship with K12 and our decision to form MIL.  This initiative also brings us full circle in Professor Peterson’s talk, for in his talk and in his book, he spoke of the need for colleges to partner with businesses that have robust technology delivery systems and the necessary capital to provide the quality content necessary to supplement what is now available through public education.

Our first MIL courses will be in beta testing this coming January.  The first courses will offer introductory Spanish and French, and can be used to supplement language lessons in traditional bricks and mortar classrooms, for home schooling, and as stand alone courses in virtual charter schools, which have gained popularity in a number of states due to curricular deficiencies in many local school districts.  And although I agree with Professor Peterson that online courses are valuable if they simply fill gaps in public school curricula, our courses, as seen and judged to date by high school teachers and language professionals, will do far more than that.  We believe that the MIL courses will both set the standard for online language learning, and improve language teaching at the high school level significantly, addressing local and national needs.

Professor Ana Martinez-Lage, a member of the College’s Spanish Department, and leader of the content development team for the Spanish I course, will give a presentation on her and MIL’s work on Thursday, December 2 at 4:30 in the Robert A. Jones House (RAJ), as part of the College’s Language Division lecture series, “Language Works.”   It will be interesting to hear the reaction to our initiative to expand access to language education at the high school level for beginning Spanish and French learners through MIL’s on-line materials/courses.

(Over)Promoting Middlebury?

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.

Curricular Musings: Inviting in the Students


With the new academic year underway, it is both a pleasure and relief to be able to spend less time on the implications of the recent recession on higher education and more time on what we do best and love most: education and the curriculum.  This feeling of relief was most noticeable at the opening faculty meeting of the year, which took place, as it does every year, on the inspiring Bread Loaf mountain campus, 12 miles from Middlebury.

After the introduction of new faculty colleagues and the mandated business portion of the meeting, we shifted into our discussion segment of the meeting.  This year’s topic focused on changes in individual fields of study and how faculty, departments, and the College adapt, or need to adapt, to such changes to ensure that our faculty remain current and the College offers a course of study that best prepares our students to meet the challenges of a rapidly changing world.

Three faculty colleagues, Jane Chaplin of Classics, Noah Graham of Physics, and Steve Snyder gave terrific presentations on how their fields have evolved over time and how they themselves have evolved in their thinking of their respective fields.  Their talks provoked excellent discussions in small break-out groups about how each level—-the individual, department, and College at-large—-must be able to evolve if even the most traditional of disciplines is to remain relevant to future generations of students.  We will continue these discussions throughout the current academic year.

Following the meeting at Bread Loaf, I couldn’t help but sense that something was missing from the otherwise excellent discussion.  What was missing were our students…or more accurately the views of our students.  What did students think?  How do they see their education fitting into the complex and dynamic times in which we live and into which they will go post-Middlebury?

Of course faculty determine the curriculum and vote on changes to the curriculum, but student opinion and perspective couldn’t hurt, and in fact, could only help our collective consideration of the College’s curriculum.  A number of the College’s most meaningful innovations and initiatives have come from student proposals.  For example, in the academic realm, two new minors—in linguistics and global health—were driven by student interest and lobbying of faculty and administration, and an “unofficial minor” in food studies has garnered significant interest even though it is not in the College’s course catalog and it will not appear on a student’s transcript.  The students removed the term “minor” from the cluster of courses they recommended for those interested in the study of food—its production, distribution, regulation, consumption, nutrition, etc.—so as to avoid confusion over its “official” versus “informal” status, but the interest remains.  That interest reflects a kind of thoughtfulness that we should include in our faculty deliberations; none of the recent curricular initiatives coming from students (linguistics, global health, or food studies) undermines our commitment to a liberal arts education, and in fact, each underscores how what our students learn in the classroom can be applied to help transform or combine traditional disciplines into something relevant to their post-college plans.

There is a student education affairs committee (the SEAC), which meets with our faculty’s educational affairs committee (EAC).  I encourage the SEAC to continue to engage our faculty committee on curricular issues that relate to the many social, environmental, and humanistic issues we teach and study as part of our liberal arts curriculum.  But I also encourage students at-large or in groups that are not part of our committee structure to do the same—to invite discussion of curricular issues that interest them and that they believe will ensure course offerings that reflect the dynamism of our times while remaining true to our liberal arts tradition.  Such input can only strengthen our curriculum and the overall educational experience for our students.

Commencement 2010

Commencement this past weekend for the Class of 2010 could not have been better.  The weather cooperated, but more than that, the Commencement address by Nick Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn was poignant and inspirational, as was the address by graduating senior Peter Baumann.

In addition, the honorary degree candidates were among the most impressive I have seen in my 26 years at Middlebury, and represent collectively an extraordinary example of hard work, dedication, and human achievement.  I, along with so many here on campus, wish members of the Class of 2010 the best in their next endeavors.

I had the honor and pleasure of addressing the graduating seniors on Saturday at the Baccalaureate service, which you can read here.

Middlebury wins entry into the 2011 Solar Decathlon

Talk about institutional pride!  In what might be an even greater long shot than the Butler Bulldogs making it to the championship game of this year’s fabulous NCAA D-I basketball tournament, a team of more than 55 Middlebury undergraduates won entry into the Department of Energy’s 2011 Solar Decathlon Competition.

The Department of Energy Web site describes the Solar Decathlon in the following way:

The U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon challenges 20 collegiate teams to design, build, and operate solar-powered houses that are affordable, energy-efficient, and attractive. The winner of the competition is the team that best blends cost-effectiveness, consumer appeal, and design excellence with optimal energy production and maximum efficiency.

The first Solar Decathlon was held in 2002; the competition has since occurred biennially in 2005, 2007, and 2009. The next event will take place in fall 2011. Open to the public free of charge, the event takes place on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Visitors can tour the houses and learn how energy-saving features can help them save money today.

It states that the Solar Decathlon:

  • educates student participants and the public about the many cost-saving opportunities presented by clean-energy products
  • demonstrates to the public the opportunities presented by affordable homes that combine energy-efficient construction and appliances with renewable energy systems that are available today; and
  • provides student participants with unique training to help fill jobs in our nation’s clean-energy economy.

…and notes that since 2002, the Solar Decathlon has:

  • involved 72 university-led teams, which pursued multidisciplinary course curricula to study the requirements for designing and building energy-efficient, solar-powered houses
  • established a worldwide reputation as a successful educational program and workforce development opportunity for thousands of students
  • affected the lives of 12,000 university participants
  • expanded its outreach to K–12 students by inviting Washington, DC-area schools to visit on class tours.

In what began with a question from my wife Jessica in June 2009:—“Can we assemble a team from Middlebury to compete in the Department of Energy’s 2011 Solar Decathlon? It would be perfect for Middlebury students.”—has now become an institutional point of pride for all of us.  I couldn’t even answer Jessica’s question when asked, because I had never heard of the Solar Decathlon.

But it didn’t take long for both of us to realize that, with a bit of spirited support from the President’s office, this was a great opportunity for our students to combine best practices in leadership, innovation, science, and environmental sustainability in pursuit of an ambitious, but not insurmountable, goal., We were convinced that our students would undoubtedly rise to the challenge of defying the odds—defying the odds to compete successfully with institutions that have undergraduate programs and professional schools in architecture, engineering, and landscape design, and that are 10 and even 20 times our size.  It was a challenge that would test our profoundly held conviction that a liberal arts education prepares students to be distinctly well suited to tackle complex problems by teaching them the art of asking questions and the skill of finding answers through critical analysis, clear communications, and breadth of study.

Perhaps most remarkable about the selection of Middlebury as one of the 20 finalists is the degree to which the College’s team of students had to create and assemble the requisite talent to complete its proposal to the Department of Energy. The two-step proposal that won a spot in the competition required a depth of knowledge in disciplines and professions not readily available, or available in any structured way, on our campus.  As a result, the team, led by Addison Godine ’11, Astrid Schanz-Garbassi ’12, Alex Jopek ’11.5, and Joseph Baisch ’11, needed to identify and then gain the participation of experts from outside the College to help guide the team through the rigorous application process.

Faculty from our physics department and pre-architecture program, along with practicing architects, engineers, and energy specialists from throughout Vermont—all of whom were experts in solar power, green architecture, or efficient energy systems— worked closely with our students for eight months, helping them conceive of a design for their house, mapping out all the interrelated pieces, and working through the architectural, mathematical, and modeling functions necessary to complete their proposal.  Special courses were mounted in J-term and during the (current) spring semester, team-taught by visiting faculty, which were crucial to the students’ successful scaling of a steep learning curve across several disciplines.  The visiting faculty who taught these special courses went toe-to-toe with the students in terms of their excitement over, and dedication to, the project.  The solar house design entered by the Middlebury team combined 21st century technology, replete with environmentally sensitive heating, cooling, water, and waste systems, with the vernacular of the traditional Vermont farmhouse.

The creativity, persistence, leadership, and organizational talent exhibited by the students was remarkable, and the positive, can-do optimism that one couldn’t help but notice throughout the eight month pre-competition phase reflected an idealism and confidence that is rarely so evident in college students.

One more aspect of the Solar Decathlon competition that is worth mentioning is the way in which the students on the team ensured the success of such a large group working toward a common goal.  Addison and his fellow student leaders figured out: (1) how to create a student organization that was fluid enough to enable new students to move into support positions throughout the long proposal phase of the project; (2) how to enable students to cycle in and out as their schedules allowed (including studying abroad); (3) how to integrate learning outside the classroom with classroom work done by students formally enrolled in the courses that were offered specifically for this initiative; and (4) how to make this everyone’s project, with no individual ego overshadowing the efforts of the entire group.  Many of us in positions of leadership here and elsewhere could learn a lot from how these students went about their work.

Now that the Middlebury Solar Decathlon team has won a place in the international competition, the actual design and building of its house begins.  See the Middlebury team’s website at:   And for more information about the Solar Decathlon in general, see the Department of Energy’s website at:

Middlebury Interactive Languages

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

The New York Times covered the initiative today (

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:

How Should We Eat?

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.