Middlebury

 

Baccalaureate 2010

Your College and You

President Ronald D. Liebowitz
May 22, 2010
Mead Memorial Chapel

Good afternoon. On behalf of the faculty, staff, and trustees of the College, I extend a warm welcome to you, the Class of 2010, and to your parents, families, and friends who have joined you on campus this weekend to celebrate your accomplishments.

Today we reflect on your experiences over the past four years and on your contributions to our community and the world beyond the College. And, of course, since this is Commencement weekend, we look ahead, as well, to the opportunities that await you as you begin the next chapter of your lives.

Let me begin by telling you a few things about the graduating class:

  • There are 641 graduates in this class (including February and May graduates), 301 men and 340 women.
  • The six most popular majors were economics, international studies, English and American literatures, political science, psychology, and environmental studies.
  • Nearly 70 percent of you studied at least one language other than English.
  • And 339 of you studied abroad for at least one semester, in a total of 40 countries.

Members of your class have won:

  • A Thomas J. Watson Fellowship
  • A Keasbey Scholarship
  • A Gates Cambridge Scholarship
  • A Fulbright Beginning Professional Journalism Award
  • A St. Andrews Scholarship for graduate study in Scotland
  • A Compton Mentor Fellowship
  • And a Weidenfeld Scholarship for study at Oxford

In addition, eight of you were elected to Phi Beta Kappa as juniors, and you have been joined by 58 others whose election we celebrated this morning.

In keeping with longstanding Middlebury tradition, many of you have published papers in scholarly journals and presented your work at national conferences. And one of you found a great outlet for telling the stories of other students in the Middlebury Fellows in Narrative Journalism Project.

The scholarship and imagination of your class were vividly demonstrated on April 16 at the fourth annual College-wide symposium recognizing student research and creativity. One hundred and ten members of your class participated in that symposium, reporting on an amazing array of research projects.

Arts events associated with the symposium and performed that evening at the Mahaney Center for the Arts and the Hepburn Zoo included a presentation of a classmate's play, Jekyll, an adaptation of the novel Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which was recorded for presentation a couple of weeks later as a film; a performance of After Miss Julie featuring two of your classmates in the leading roles; and the work Walking the Curb, an independent project involving three seniors.

And there were other impressive achievements in the arts: Eight of you will be part of the New York City based Potomac Theatre Project's 2010 summer season; a member of your class won the American College Theatre Festival's Irene Ryan Acting Scholarship; and another classmate received a scholarship for a year-long apprenticeship at the Actors Theatre of Louisville, Kentucky.

And I would be remiss if I did not mention another arts project that would not have happened without contributions from members of the Class of 2010: The MiddKid video, which as of today has been viewed nearly half a million times on YouTube. Not that the College administration has anything official to say about the video . . .

Outside the classroom, more than 20 of you worked on various projects in the Old Stone Mill, home of Middlebury's Project on Creativity and Innovation.

In addition to scholarship and artistic endeavors, a Middlebury education also involves civic engagement and this senior class has demonstrated a remarkable commitment to volunteerism and community service. More than half of the class volunteered in town or in Addison County, helping an extraordinary number of Vermonters along the way. One of your classmates, who volunteered for four years at the John Graham Emergency Shelter in Vergennes, recently received Vermont's highest honor for a college student engaged in public service, the Madeline M. Kunin Public Service Award. And personifying the Class of 2010's broad and deep commitment to making a difference in the climate change movement, a member of your class was among just six students to be honored nationally with the 2009 Brower Youth Award, presented by the Earth Island Institute to young environmental leaders.

In athletics, too, you have excelled:

  • Thirteen members of your class earned All-American honors in intercollegiate sports.
  • You garnered 101 all-NESCAC academic honors and 52 all-NESCAC playing honors.
  • You played on teams that won 17 NESCAC championships, as well as three NCAA national titles: one in men's soccer and two in women's cross country, plus a national club championship in men's rugby.

These are just a sample of the accomplishments of the Class of 2010. We are enormously proud of all of you, and thank you for all that you contributed to this vibrant and talented community.

I provide this summary at Commencement each year, recognizing that I couldn't possibly include all that your class accomplished during the past four years. I do it to highlight the kinds of things the class leaves behind as an important legacy to this institution—an institution that has been around for 210 years—and to highlight, as well, the ways in which this institution has left its stamp on you as you begin the next chapter of your lives.

As I think about your graduating class, what it accomplished while here, and what it adds to the College's rich history, I can't help but think about something I have now heard from seniors in just about every one of my 26 years here at the College . . . and that is how Middlebury has "changed so much" since one's first year. And the laments have been so similar, year after year: "First-years are smarter than we were; they are more serious academically; they are too focused; they actually try to do all the over-the-top amount of work we are assigned;" and, finally, "we would never get into Middlebury today."

I have given considerable thought to these rather confounding observations by seniors, especially since I became president six years ago, admittedly perplexed by their predictable consistency, yet likely impossibility. Could this be true? Could so many successive groups of seniors have really experienced such noticeable change in three short years?

It took an observation by my wife Jessica during a lunch with students at 3 South Street before I could put all this apparent angst about how much Middlebury had changed, or might be changing, into a greater context. Jessica's fresher perspective on the College didn't hurt: I have, in many ways, become part of the so-called wallpaper, having been at the College since 1984, while Jessica is a relative newcomer, having only arrived here in 2003.

Upon hearing seniors express their traditional lament about Middlebury changing—"The first-years are smarter than we are; they are too serious; they study too much; we would never get in today"—Jessica's response was the following:

So what if the average SATs of the entering class might have increased significantly over the years; the world is getting more competitive. And, of course, broad changes in society, both nationally and globally, have made institutions like Middlebury more diverse. But none of that is powerful enough to change the essence of this place. This is a liberal arts college forged in remote, beautiful, hard-scrabble, non-sectarian Vermont. These things cannot help but define the imprint that this institution has on all those who pass through it, no matter how much the student body changes over time.

Jessica's comments resonated deeply with me, perhaps because I knew this all along, but hadn't stopped to think about it. I know they resonated with the students, too, that day at lunch.

And why might this be the case, anyway? As a geographer, I would, of course concur with Jessica, that the place itself—the physical environment—is responsible for exerting the greatest and most durable influence on each of you. I agree with the poet Wallace Stevens, who wrote: "His soil is man's intelligence," and it is hard to argue with Stevens. We learn from our environment, our environment shapes our experiences, and there is no doubt that the physical beauty of the Champlain Valley plays some role in what we learn and take from our time here.

But there is more to it than the sheer beauty of the place. The hardy and variable Vermont climate, part of Stevens' metaphorical "soil," along with the College's remote location, creates the kind of environment in which friendships and personal relationships form more naturally and become more meaningful, more long-lasting, than in most other settings. There are few distractions in this beautiful, sparsely populated part of New England, which means students who come to study at Middlebury must rely heavily on one another for their social, intellectual, creative, and academic sustenance and energy. Though one of the great benefits of being at a place like this is the opportunity for students to get involved and make a difference in town, in Addison County, and even in our state capital, living and learning at Middlebury revolves around being part of a strong and tightly knit intellectual community.

And this intellectual community isn't recreated from scratch each year, or every four years, as it may seem to be while one is about to graduate and, quite understandably, holds but a four-year perspective. It is the product of 210 years of history, shaped most prominently by an ethic that dates back to its founding, rooted in making the best use of resources available and a necessary spirit of collaboration and teamwork.

As all of you should recall from your first-year convocation, Gamaliel Painter, whose cane you passed among yourselves right here in the Chapel, was the leading force behind the establishment of this College. He could barely read and write, yet he was wise to the world, knew how to assess risk, and had a remarkable ability to master whatever kind of work he pursued or needed to get done: a self-starter in the true sense of the word. He was a successful businessman, skilled negotiator, bold entrepreneur, and a farmer, and was always looking to improve his and this town's lot. Germane to us here, and to our College, Painter and his brother purchased land on speculation just east of the Otter Creek during a chance trip to the region in 1763. A decade later, newly married, he and his wife left their native Connecticut and moved to Middlebury to take their chances on a new life. When Painter moved to Middlebury, the population numbered fewer than 125.

Painter, again largely uneducated, saw the need for his children and other children in the growing town to obtain a better education than what was then available in and around Middlebury. He began negotiations with representatives of the state to establish a grammar school, or what he called a central academy, to supplement the local district school, which sat along the falls on the site that today houses, of all things, American Flatbread Pizza. In 1797, with the help and cooperation of several prominent Middlebury families, Painter purchased land on the west side of the Otter Creek where Twilight Hall stands today, and acquired a state charter to begin a grammar school.

A year later, in the fall of 1798, Timothy Dwight, then president of Yale and New England's most venerated educator, visited Middlebury. The Yale president was in Vermont to complete research on the economic geography of the region, but also to enjoy Vermont's wondrous natural environment. The trustees of the new grammar school, and Painter in particular, believed strongly that if Middlebury was to become a prosperous town, and the greater Champlain Valley was to become a viable economic region, both would need a college or university. Gaining the support of someone of Timothy Dwight's stature would make this goal far more attainable.

In what College historian David Stameshkin and Painter biographer Storrs Lee describe as Vermont's version of a Potemkin Village-like affair, Painter and the grammar school trustees wined and dined President Dwight during his visit to Middlebury. They asked Samuel Miller, who, by virtue of his recent marriage, ran Middlebury's finest inn, to host what was described as the fanciest prepared meal anyone had ever witnessed in town. They lubricated the meal, and the guests, with Miller's finest liqueurs, and by the end of the dinner, the hosts had secured Dwight's approval of the project. In his own account of the evening, written in his personal papers, President Dwight alluded to the unusually fine meal, the intensity and conviction of the hosts' cause to start a college, and confirmed that he had conveyed his blessings to the project along with a pledge to continue to advise Painter and his colleagues through the tedious process of securing a state charter.

Soon after the Dwight dinner, Painter began his work with the Vermont legislature to gain permission to establish his college in Middlebury. He called upon many in the local community to join the cause, highlighting how all would benefit with the addition of an institution of higher learning in Middlebury. His proposal failed to make the assembly's agenda in two successive legislative sessions—the 1798 and 1799 gatherings—but though irritated and impatient, Painter persevered. He had succeeded in gaining support for his cause from a significant portion of the town population, and as a way to pressure the legislators to take up his cause in 1800, he offered Middlebury, with its spanking new courthouse, to play host to that year's legislative session. Much to Painter's delight, his offer was accepted. By the way, in those days, Vermont's state capital was not located in Montpelier, as it is today. In fact, adding to the list of interesting and unusual things to know about Vermont, it was not located in any one place. Rather, until 1805, the state capital moved each year, alternating between towns on the eastern side of the Green Mountains one year, and the western side the next.

The 1798 and 1799 legislative sessions may have ignored Painter's petition for a charter, but the third session was the charm. During the three-week 1800 legislative session, Middlebury citizens, merchants, and especially tavern owners gave the visiting legislators the red carpet treatment, hoping to win the much sought-after charter. Despite the significant and even hostile protests from the 20 representatives from Burlington and Chittenden County, where a university charter had been awarded nine years earlier, the assembly approved Painter's petition, and officially granted a charter for what would become Middlebury College on November 1, 1800. Perhaps the representatives from Burlington were somewhat embarrassed: for even though their town received the state's first charter for an institution of higher education in 1791, nine years later, despite having already built a president's house, the university had yet to hire a faculty member or teach a single student.

It was a true team effort that won the College's charter, with a good portion of the town's population joining Painter and other prominent citizens, which is why the College, from its founding, took on the moniker "the Town's College," and why it was named Middlebury College, after the town, rather than for a single visionary or major benefactor.

Painter and his colleagues—all New England Puritans, and most of them educated at Yale—donated $4,150 to construct the first college building on the site of present-day Twilight Hall, where earlier Painter had started his grammar school. One might say things got off to an inauspicious start. The first Commencement ceremony took place with great pomp and circumstance, but, unfortunately, without any graduates. The lone student who was to have received the College's first and only diploma during that first year tragically died just days before the graduation ceremony.

Like most of its peers in New England, the College struggled financially in the early part of the century. In 1819, however, Painter died and left to the College a bequest of $13,000, which, at that time, was a huge sum of money, and which secured the College's future. And that future—the past 190 years—saw this improbable institution of higher education, founded in a remote town with a population of fewer than 400, evolve into a liberal arts college of distinction.

I provide this history so you can appreciate the remarkable path the College has taken over its 210 year history to become one of the leading liberal arts colleges in the country, and so you can better understand Jessica's point about the institution being larger than any one, two, or even 50 generations of students. The College was able to thrive as it did because it forged an ethic of using to maximum advantage whatever physical and human resources it had at is disposal, which were quite limited compared to so many other colleges and universities located in regions that were already economically developed by the time their institutions of higher education were founded. In addition, the unusually strong culture of collaboration and cooperation that characterized the College's founding also enabled the College to overcome multiple threats to its existence over the past two centuries. It is in this sense—the sense of founding principles retaining their power over time—that we can confidently point to the essence of this institution as being identifiable and continually relevant in spite of the changing characteristics of the students who pass through it.

Examples abound of how this ethic has endured over two centuries. I often hear from students how, even in the most competitive of academic programs, Middlebury is the antithesis of the competitive, cut-throat environment they hear about from friends at other highly selective colleges. This aspect of the Middlebury culture is a function of students realizing, owing to the College's remote location, their need to engage and get as much from the 2,400 students on campus as possible, and the best way for that to happen is through creating and sustaining a supportive and closely knit intellectual community.

And parents seem to see the results most clearly. I hear more often than anything else from parents, while I am on the road fundraising or attending College events, that the friends of their sons or daughters who attend Middlebury, compared with the friends of their sons and daughters who attend any and all other schools, are the most friendly, engaging, and well-rounded young adults they have ever met. This is no accident, and it is not wholly, or even largely, a function of self-selection—that students of a particular personality choose to attend Middlebury. Rather, it is a powerful influence that the institution exerts on its students over the four years they spend here, and it explains, in part, why graduating seniors, year after year, seem to think the incoming first-years are smarter, more serious, study too much, and are more narrowly focused than they were. Odds are, when most first-years enter Middlebury, much of this is true. But it is also true that by the time these first-years, who supposedly represent a rapidly changing Middlebury to the outgoing seniors, become seniors themselves, they will be, as Jessica pointed out, shaped and changed significantly by this College . . . so much so that they will sound very much like today's seniors, and will lament the changes they see in first-years as they prepare to graduate.

Why, then, hasn't Jessica's observation been a greater part of our collective self-understanding? Why hadn't I noticed, amid all the great things Middlebury has accomplished over the past 30 years, the unchanging characteristic of this College that makes it a truly exceptional place for learning and growth? I, and many of us who are so focused on continuing the College's pursuit of academic excellence, can, quite obviously, miss some of the institution's more subtle, yet enduring and defining qualities.

It behooves us—trustees, administrators, faculty, and students—to slow the treadmill to success every now and then and take stock of who we are, and ensure that what it is that makes this place special is more widely recognized, better understood, and appreciated. Of course we will not—cannot—retreat from our pursuit of academic, athletic, artistic, scientific, and general excellence. In so doing, we also need to recognize who we are and aren't, and take great pride in even the subtle things that are central to the quality of our students' education.

I suppose all this was far more evident to Jessica, who sits outside the day-to-day complexities of College operations, and therefore is able to see the bigger picture with more clarity than those of us who are more like the proverbial frog, acclimating so naturally to water that gradually increases in temperature.

And so as you leave here tomorrow, think about what you will take with you. For sure you are far more knowledgeable and accomplished than when you arrived, thanks to the exceptional faculty with whom you have studied and to the general excellence of our academic program. You will no doubt take with you the subject matter you have mastered by studying deeply within your major, the critical skills you honed by engaging different modes of inquiry across the curriculum, and a passion for lifelong learning that a liberal arts education ignites in so many.

In addition, I encourage you, urge you, to be conscious of the less evident, yet consequential, gift this College has given you: the spirit, knowledge, and talent to bring the best out of the people around you . . . the ability to collaborate and work well in teams . . . to create a special kind of community that has nurtured you for four years, and done the same for Middlebury alumni for more than 200 years.

And you shouldn't take this aspect of your Middlebury education for granted. Even though many of you are likely to leave the remoteness—or let's call it the serenity—of this campus and begin your careers in large urban centers, you will make the world a better place if you take with you what you learned here about building as comprehensive a community as possible that aims to make the most of the people and resources in it.

Know that the essence of Middlebury . . . that which comes from the core of its history and the nature of its place . . . cannot but remain unchanged, and will continue to exert the same positive influences on future generations of students as it exerted on you. Middlebury's soil will continue to be its intelligence.

Good luck, members of the Class of 2010. Your College wishes you the best, confident that you are eminently prepared to make your mark on the greater world. You have left a great imprint on this College, and, perhaps unknowingly but unmistakably, on this past year's first-year class.

Thank you.