Middlebury

 

Community and Friendship

President Ronald D. Liebowitz delivered this address to the Class of 2012 on September 7, 2008.

Welcome! I trust your first week on campus has gone well. From everything I have heard, your move-in, registration, first-year seminar meetings, and all of the other beginning-of-the-year activities have gone smoothly. The mosquitoes, unfortunately, decided to come out in full force to welcome you to Vermont, though they were not part of the official orientation program.

Many people deserve a lot of credit for helping to make your orientation such a success. At the risk of offending those who I might overlook, I will only thank Katy Abbott, Associate Dean of the College, and ask her to thank all those who helped make your and your parents’ introduction to Middlebury enjoyable and relatively easy. Thank you, Katy.

I, along with my faculty colleagues, am thrilled you are here, and we look forward to getting to know you in class, during our office hours, and in multiple events and venues on campus.

Convocation addresses, such as this one, allow presidents to speak to incoming students directly and as a class—something not likely to occur again until Commencement. With such an opportunity, I have, during my first four years as president, felt compelled to impart what I would call “practical advice” to the incoming class, along with some general words of wisdom on this celebratory and very special occasion.

As such, I have encouraged, even exhorted, the past four incoming classes to heed the following advice:

  • take full advantage of this remarkable opportunity—the gift of a liberal arts education. About 2 percent of all undergraduate students in the United States study at a residential liberal arts college like Middlebury and are presented with all the opportunities such an education provides. Don’t take anything for granted; don’t sit back; jump in and be a part of all that is going on here.
  • take risks and explore disciplines you never had the opportunity to study before college. The “tried and true” is not likely to open new doors for you, nor is it likely to push you to grow in ways a liberal education will if you give it a chance.
  • take some laboratory science courses even if you have no intention to major in the sciences. Given the environmental and health-related challenges humankind now faces, it is almost irresponsible not to be scientifically literate; besides, the excellence of our science programs seems to be one of the best kept secrets in higher education these days, so go check out our science departments: I don’t think you can miss McCardell Bicentennial Hall, so no directions required.
  • take as many courses known for writing assignments and oral presentations as you can. One cannot underestimate the value of learning to write and speak clearly when one graduates and engages the real world. This is the time and place to improve on your communications skills, to get constructive criticism and encouragement, not when you are asked to make your first presentation or deliver a cogent argument at your first job.
  • take the initiative to learn outside the classroom. You will find countless opportunities to volunteer in the local community, establish new organizations, or help to nurture and develop existing ones during your four years. You will also meet some very smart people here in addition to the faculty: your classmates, staff members, and folks from town. All can serve as teachers and mentors in significant ways, and will complement the excellent education you will receive in the classroom.
  • and finally, and perhaps most importantly, take advantage of the outstanding Middlebury faculty, who are ready and willing to teach and mentor you over the course of the next four years. They were, or should have been, the major reason for coming to Middlebury.

Though none of us really puts all that much stock in the college ranking game, I think ... well, in fact I admit that I know the Middlebury faculty was recently ranked as the best in the country by the Princeton Review. (I believe the category in which they were ranked first was called “professors get high marks.”). Whether or not you put any stock in such rankings, our faculty, and their commitment to undergraduate education, is second to none, and they are eager to engage you, challenge you, mentor you, and help you pursue your goals while here, so take advantage of such a resource.

And while I am at it, how about joining me in thanking those faculty members here today for receiving external affirmation of what we already know about them and their great commitment to our students? Thank you, faculty colleagues.

Though I have shared with you some things I typically advise entering students to consider as they begin their Middlebury education, and usually elaborate on those themes in much greater detail, I would like to focus the remainder of my comments today on something different.

As natural as it would be for me to focus my comments on the remarkable academic opportunities in front of you, I believe the most important message I can convey to each of you today centers on two related concepts: community and friendship. Though these concepts may appear to have little to do with the academic experience you envision over the course of the next four years, they represent, especially at a residential liberal arts college like Middlebury, the foundation of your education. The quality of the community in which you live and study, and the depth and sincerity of the friendships you develop, will play a large role in how much you will grow and take with you from Middlebury.

At residential liberal arts colleges, one often hears about the strength of the “community.” It is one of the major reasons faculty and staff choose to locate and work at places like Middlebury: though isolated, one feels connected … feeling part of something with an important mission … knowing that individuals are cared for in some vague, way—not too intrusive, but just enough for those in the community to know that if something is wrong, one is never alone and is cared for.

It is a major reason students explain, year in and year out, why their experiences here differ in some fundamental way from their friends’ experiences at peer institutions: the majority of Middlebury students, we often hear, view learning as collaborative rather than competitive; we hear that most students are motivated to learn rather than simply to get high grades; and we hear that students routinely look out for, and care for, one another.

Such feelings of “community” are consistent with the Greek concept of “koinonia,” which means “communion by intimate participation,” and the Latin concept of communitatem, or “fellowship.” Communitatem is related to the word communis, meaning “common, public, shared by all or many,” and itself is derived from the words com, meaning “with,” plus unis, meaning “one,” or from com plus munis meaning “exchange or obligation.” Both meanings, “with one” or “with exchange or obligation” signify a greater commitment on the part of the individual than simply to him or herself.

Today, the word “community” is more broadly used in the English language, usually to connote people living together or sharing something, almost anything, in common. It has become overused, a cliché of sorts, and therefore has lost much of its oomph or meaning as a descriptor of the quality of a place for both the individual and collective. And it has also been politicized by the ideological battles over how one protects an individual’s rights while also remaining conscious of the needs of the greater community.

There is neither an easy nor definitive answer to where one’s individual rights and freedoms begin and end, and where one’s actions need to be circumscribed because one is a member of a larger group. When one voluntarily joins a community, as each of you has done in choosing to attend Middlebury College, one forfeits some degree of individual freedom, yet one still needs to learn the culture and values of that community; to understand the accepted limits of one another’s behavior as it relates to the larger community; and how active a role one could play in ensuring that a certain standard of behavior—a standard that approximates one’s own expectations—is understood, accepted, and adhered to by all the members of that community.

These issues represent an important part of your education, and the degree to which you and others take an active role building a strong sense of community according to the ancient ideal, will determine how rich your learning experience will be.

As I often say to assembled groups of College constituents, I believe our college gets most things right when it comes to supporting each student as an independent and creative thinker, yet we come up short too often when it comes to engaging students on how certain behavior infringes on the rights of the larger community.

The irresponsible use of alcohol, though committed by a relatively small minority of students, is by far the greatest cause of disrespectful behavior toward the community here at Middlebury. I should point out that I am not suggesting, or even advocating, that students should not drink. I know better, and I also know the majority of students who drink, drink responsibly and do so largely in social gatherings.

I am, however, saying that those who do drink irresponsibly need to understand how their behavior often results in disrespect toward their fellow students, staff, and, in indirect ways, their faculty, and that they are diminishing the quality of life and education not only for themselves, but for many others.

Of course one has the right to drink oneself into a stupor and suffer the individual consequences such behavior generates: drunkenness; arrest by the Middlebury Police Department; the not-too-pleasant feel of a hangover or two; missing class; earning lower grades; underperforming on the athletic fields; and so on. But the impact beyond the individual—on the community—becomes all too familiar to fellow students, presumably “friends,” staff, and administrators who must literally and figuratively clean up the mess. Dorm and property damage, verbal abuse, fighting, and sexual assaults are just some of the incidents that come with irresponsible alcohol use on campus.

The educational or experiential “cost” of disrespectful behavior is the diminishing of what one will learn and experience at Middlebury. It prevents the integration of many groups of students, especially students who come from other cultures and who openly wonder why students so accomplished in class, appear to be so awkward and, shall we say, “less distinguished” when it comes to socializing with alcohol.

Less interaction and engagement within the study body translates into missed opportunities for students to hear different perspectives on politics, the arts, and life in general, and to learn more about the vastly different and rich cultures that coexist on our campus. In other words, it leads to behavior that interferes with the larger, loftier, goals of a liberal arts education.

If one truly believes in community, and wishes to be part of something that, by its very nature, supports and nurtures its members and provides great opportunities for personal growth, one must help to establish the limits of unacceptable behavior and play a constructive role in curbing those who exceed those limits. If one chooses to stand by and allow the destruction of property and the disrespect of individuals, one needs to ask how committed that person can be to the idea of community, and to all that a residential liberal arts education has to offer.

Which is where the second concept I wanted to address today comes in—friendship. Friendships at Middlebury are special. For a host of reasons, students develop deep and meaningful friendships during their four years here…deeper, I would argue, than at any other college or university with which I am familiar.

We of course live in a relatively remote location, which means so much of what goes on during one’s years here is about interacting with people. There are no major metropolitan areas nearby to absorb a student’s intellectual and social energies. For good or bad, and I believe it is for the good, much of those energies expended are shared largely within the confines of our 350-acre main campus.

The word friend comes from the Old English freond, meaning “to love, to favor.” Froend comes from the Old Teutonic frijojanan, and is closely related to the Old English freo or “free.” The connection with the word free is that a friend, unlike a family member, is someone you like or love by choice. Similar to the word community, however, the use of the word “friend” has become so commonplace that the power of its original meaning has been eroded. As Jean de La Fontaine, a French poet, wrote, “Everyone calls himself a friend; foolish he is who believes it: nothing is more common than the name friend, and nothing is more rare than the real thing.”

The link between living in a vital, supportive community, and reaping all its benefits, may very well lie in establishing true friendships. But developing true friendships means more than calling oneself a friend. The “real thing,” using La Fontaine’s words, requires effort: one needs to go well beyond the casual acquaintance ... one needs to care about those you consider your friends…to look after them when they are in trouble ... to help them avoid it when they are not ... and to be able to, indeed feel compelled to, intervene when you believe they are acting in ways that put themselves and others in danger.

A significant body of research supports the long-held view that excessive abuse of alcohol has a significant destructive impact on the development of the brain before one reaches one’s mid-20s. A number of neurological studies have shown that the long-term impact on individuals aged 21-24, who regularly drink enough to attain blood alcohol levels just below the legal limit, recorded greater incidences of brain impairment than individuals who drink the same amount and were only four years older. Brain impairment, in these studies, includes a decrease in the ability to learn new information, form memories, and perform a number of cognitive functions—things that seem vital to your academic work, let alone your everyday life.

With this knowledge in hand, friends should not let friends drink to excess. A failure to intervene calls into question the depth and value of the friendship, and is likely to weaken the sense of community one enjoys when members of the community look out for one another.

You will be glad to know that I am the first to understand that administrators cannot dictate good behavior. Nor can we alone set the standards of friendship within a community. That needs to come from the community itself, and the fact is that students represent the largest group in this particular college community.

Thus, as you settle in and begin the exciting process of taking new classes, meeting new people, joining or starting new organizations, or playing your sport, think about the kind of community you wish to be part of during the next four years. Think about how you and your actions will contribute to that community, help to make that community as strong as it will be, and how your involvement needs to be active, not passive, if you truly aspire to getting the most out of your Middlebury experience. This is a remarkable place, and the degree to which it meets your expectations and provides what you will need to meet the challenges you will face upon graduation is, to a very large extent, up to you.

Two thousand years ago Aristotle helped us to begin thinking about how one’s desire and attempt to live a fulfilling, dynamic, and enriching life is related to, and dependent on, an individual’s deep, strong commitment to the values of one’s community. It is up to you to help define those values and to take part in shaping this remarkable community you officially join today. We are here to guide you on your four-year journey, and we look forward to watching you grow and to seeing you take an active role in defining what we as an academic community become. Grab some potential true friends and hit the ground running.

Good luck, and thank you.