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Convocation Address 2009

President Ronald D. Liebowitz delivered the following address to the Class of 2013 on September 6, 2009.

Welcome! It is my pleasure, on behalf of the faculty, staff, trustees, and your fellow Middlebury

students, to extend a warm welcome to you, the class of 2013. I trust you have enjoyed your week of orientation, which benefited from what has to be one of the finest weeks of weather any of us here can remember. I would love to report that this will continue until May of 2013, but alas, I would hate to lose credibility with your class so soon!

In fact, the hardy and variable weather is one of the things that makes this place what it is, and creates the kind of environment in which friendships and personal relationships are more important, more meaningful, and more long-lasting than in most other settings. There are few distractions in this beautiful, remote, part of New England, which means students here rely heavily on one another for their social, intellectual, creative, and academic sustenance and energy.

Though one of the great and sometimes unnoticed benefits of being at a place like Middlebury is the opportunity for students to get involved and make a difference in the town, in Addison County, and even in Montpelier, our state capital, living and learning at this institution revolves around being part of this intellectual community. It is a community filled with remarkably talented students, dedicated staff, and the very best faculty you can find if you are ready and willing to be challenged and to take advantage of their talents and high expectations.

But I will come back to this message in some greater detail after I provide some background to the cane that, I hope, is still circulating among you—Gamaliel Painter’s cane.

Gamaliel Painter was one of the visionaries who helped found Middlebury College more than 200 years ago. He could barely read and write, yet he was wise to the world, knew how to assess risk and take chances, 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 purchased land on speculation just east of the Otter Creek during a chance trip to the region, and then, years later, when things got stale in his native Salisbury, Connecticut, he moved his family to Middlebury in the early 1770s to take his chances on a new life. When Painter moved to Middlebury, the population numbered fewer than 125, less than half the number of first-years living in Battell today, or slightly larger than the population in Allen Hall.

By the 1790s, Painter, largely uneducated, saw the need for his two sons to obtain a better education than what he had growing up in Connecticut, and what was available in and around Middlebury. Thus, he began negotiations to establish a grammar school, or what he called a central academy, to supplement the existing district school, which was located along the falls, on the site that today houses, of all things, American Flatbread Pizza. In 1797, with the help of several prominent Middlebury families, Painter secured land on the west side of the Otter Creek and then a charter to begin a grammar school.

A year later, in the fall of 1798, Timothy Dwight, then president of Yale and, at the time, New England’s most venerated educator, visited Middlebury. The Yale president was in Vermont to complete some research on the economic geography of the region, but also to enjoy Vermont’s wondrous natural environment while convalescing from a recent illness.

The trustees of the new grammar school, and Painter in particular, believed strongly that if the fledgling town was to become prosperous, and the Champlain Valley was to become a viable region, both would need a college or university. In fact, prior to getting the charter for the grammar school in Middlebury, Painter had decided that the grammar school he was founding needed eventually to be expanded into a college, and believed that gaining the approval and support of someone of Timothy Dwight’s stature would make that all the more possible.

In what College historian David Stameshkin and Painter biographer Storrs Lee describe as the closest thing to a Potemkin Village-like affair, Painter and the grammar school trustees wined and dined Dwight during his visit to Middlebury. They asked Samuel Miller, who was best known and most appreciated for having married an innkeeper’s daughter, to host what was described as the best 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 for the project.

In his own account of the evening, written in his personal papers, Dwight alluded to the unusually fine meal, the intensity and sincerity of the hosts’ cause to start a college, and to the way in which he 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. 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.

As a way to pressure the legislators to take up his cause in 1800, he offered Middlebury, with its spanking new court house, to play host to that year’s legislative session, and his offer was accepted. By the way, in those days, the state capital was not located in Montpelier, as it is today. In fact it was not located in any one place, but rather alternated each year between a town on the eastern side of the Green Mountains one year, and then one on the western side the next.

The 1798 and 1799 legislative sessions might have ignored Painter’s petition for a charter, but the third session was the charm. During the three-week session in 1800, Middlebury citizens, merchants, and, especially, tavern owners gave the visiting legislators the red carpet treatment, hoping to help Painter and his crew attain 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 was 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 embarrassed: even though their town received the state’s first charter for a university in 1791, the university, despite having already completed the construction of a president’s house, had yet to hire a faculty member or teach a single student.

Painter and his colleagues—all New England Puritans, and most of them educated at Yale—donated $4,150 to construct the first college building. Classes began in the newly constructed building, which sat on the site of present-day Twilight Hall. For nineteen years after the College’s founding, as both the College and town thrived, Gamaliel Painter walked the streets of the town and carried with him the famous walking stick that is circulating among you now. At his death in 1819, Painter left a bequest of more than $13,000 to the College, a huge sum of money at the time, and it served to secure the college's future.

I provide this background so you can appreciate Painter’s remarkable vision and determination, and become acquainted with the College’s most important founder. The success of this College—indeed its very existence— is the result of Painter’s vision and the elaboration of his vision by generation upon generation of his successors. His cane, a replica of which each graduate of the College receives at Commencement, has become the College’s most important symbol, and has come to represent many of the things we aspire to inculcate in our students—in all of you.

The spirit of Gamaliel Painter lives on in the rich history of this College and through the notable contributions of its alumni. You, the newest members of the College’s extended family, are now a part of this long and great history, and your College welcomes you today with open arms, an open heart, and some very high aspirations for each and every one of you.

Those high aspirations are rooted in what we already know about you . . . what you accomplished before you arrived. You are a diverse collection of bright, inquisitive, energetic, and eager learners and doers. As you bring your talents and experiences to this community, I challenge you to take advantage of the committed and talented faculty you now have as mentors and teachers, our dedicated staff, and your fellow students—the other 1800 or so Middlebury undergraduates—with whom you will form bonds of friendship that will endure well beyond your time here.

Your fellow students, in particular, should be a remarkable source of inspiration for you. I encourage you to seek out as broad a swath of friends as you can. We strive as an institution to build a student body that is diverse in its background and life experiences for a reason, and that is to enrich your learning environment both inside and outside the classroom.

I know you will take advantage of the numerous academic opportunities before you, and may even feel frustrated when you can’t delve deeply enough into many areas of the curriculum. But not trying to “do it all” is sometimes a good thing. Doing things in balance is a challenge for all of us, especially for many of you who have been doing so many things for a good part of your lives. But in order to get the most out of your time here, I pass along the following advice:

No matter how much you wish to extend it, the day is 24 hours long.

The work load per course at Middlebury is demanding, and so when you think about how you will allocate your precious time, make sure to leave enough time to cover all you will be asked to do in four, not one, two, or three classes.

View your time here as a way to study both deeply and broadly. That is the advantage and indeed the purpose of coming to a liberal arts college. Unlike what you would do at a technical or pre-professional school, we require you to select a major, but also to take courses across the curriculum, selecting classes in disciplines you might have never taken before, or even knew existed.

Resist the myth that more is better—for example that two majors are better than one—and instead take advantage of the strength of our faculty and curriculum by taking multiple courses in the arts, humanities, languages, the social sciences, and natural sciences. You will graduate four years from now better educated and just as prepared to go on for a Ph.D. or to pursue any career you wish as you would have been had you completed a double major.

More importantly, by taking courses broadly across the curriculum, chances are you will happen upon a faculty member who will excite you with material you otherwise never would have encountered, and perhaps change your life. Science majors might find Classical Greek poetry, John Stewart Mill’s “On Liberty,” or landscape painting central to the rest of their lives, just as literature majors might discover a passion and life-long interest in ecology, marine life, or the study of the human genome.

As you think about the next four years, then, try to think about striking a balance in what you study, in what you do outside your academic work, and in what you do for a social life. Contrary to how it might seem from afar, the transition to college is never seamless for anybody. And don’t procrastinate; jump right in. Finding a significant connection to something here and finding it early—an athletic team, an a cappellagroup, a literary club, or any of the College’s 140-plus student organizations—will provide the kind of social entrée that will make the transition here easier and far richer.

This, too, takes initiative, but we make it relatively easy to take that initiative: I recommend that you attend the College’s activities fair, where you can meet members of many student organizations and learn about what each does and how to get involved. This year’s fair will take place this coming Friday, September 11, from 4:30 to 8 p.m. on Hepburn Road and Proctor Terrace, which is located right behind us.

In addition to the numerous student clubs you will learn about at the fair, I want to draw your attention to two new organizations that can offer a different kind of experience for you over the next four years. The first is something called the Solar Decathlon, a national competition sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy, which seeks to promote creative thinking in the areas of environmental sustainability, solar and alternative energies, architectural design, and science.

It is a competition that calls on colleges and universities to create teams, as large as 125 in number, which can work across academic disciplines to construct a house on the national mall in Washington DC. The house, limited to 1,200 square feet, must rely on solar energy, be environmentally aware, be engineered in a sound way, and serve as a successful demonstration project for others interested in energy conservation and sustainable development in the field of residential architecture.

This is a national competition, and a liberal arts college has never gotten beyond the initial stage of the competition, largely because the final product requires extensive architectural expertise, engineering expertise, environmental expertise, and seamless teamwork. Large universities with professional schools in each of these areas usually win the competition. However, a group of students at Middlebury, all rising juniors, expressed interest in the competition this past year, and over the summer, we brought together faculty and staff to brainstorm whether this was something the College should encourage our students to pursue

Unlike all the past participating schools with whom we spoke, we don’t have an engineering school or a graduate program in architecture. Yet, upon meeting last week with the students who were interested in developing a proposal and entering a team, it was clear that they were serious, determined, and motivated by how this competition draws on their varied academic interests as well as their passions about sustainability, the environment, and science.

Addison Godine is the student leader of the Solar Decathlon group, and I encourage all of you to contact Addison, or engage him and his student collaborators at the activities fair on Friday.

The other entity I would bring to your attention is the Old Stone Mill, the historic four-story building located along the Otter Creek in town. You might have visited the building if you dined at the Storm Café, which is located in part of the bottom level of the building.

The Old Stone Mill offers students a place in which to pursue their creative passions outside the classroom. Six students comprise a board that allocates a number of varied spaces in the building and helps its tenants’ achieve the goals of their projects. Last spring, 35 students occupied spaces in the Old Stone Mill at any one time, and have worked on projects ranging from establishing an on-line literary magazine to making public sculpture out of bicycles.

The Old Stone Mill assumes one needn’t major in any particular area in order to engage in creative endeavors, and offers those in that situation some space and limited support to carry out their creative work. The student board of the Old Stone Mill will be at the activities fair this Friday, and I encourage you to engage members of the board and find out how you can get involved, or at least reserve some nice space in which to do creative things.

Last Tuesday during my meeting with your parents here in the Chapel, one parent—a mom—asked me, and I paraphrase, What hopes do you hold for the incoming class? My answer, which was of course unrehearsed, would have been no different had I had time to think about the answer. What I said in answering that question aligns closely with what I have tried to say to you here, and could be summarized as follows.

I said that my hopes were that members of this class, and really all of our students, would take advantage of all that is here before them. I said that I feared too few of our students become familiar with all the resources and opportunities that are here for them. I explained that our faculty, in addition to offering an A-plus experience in the classroom, are poised to mentor our students and to help them connect with what is an extensive array of resources to help them delve more deeply into their interests, become better educated in the broad sense of the word, and develop the kind of character that is most likely to come with an outstanding liberal arts education.

My hopes, then, revolve not around measured outcomes, per se, but rather around how much of what we offer you, you will engage and let engage you. If you explore, connect meaningfully with as broad array of people and courses as possible, and pursue your passions with great vigor, I am confident you will become not only accomplished in your chosen field of study, but you will also develop into the engaged life-long learner that a liberal arts college strives to develop and proudly produces—graduates who are confident and fully prepared to meet the economic, social, and moral challenges of an increasingly complex world. But so much of this is up to you, and will depend on how willing you are to take the initiative.

From the little I told you today about Gamaliel Painter—the College’s most significant founder—you should be able to deduce how Painter would approach a Middlebury education if he had the chance to begin his studies with you today.

May the history and influence of Painter be felt by each and every one of you, and may you challenge yourself to make the most of the next four years at this remarkable College, just as you know Painter would have done.

Thank you, and best of luck, class of 2013.


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