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February Convocation 2013

President Ronald D. Liebowitz
February 6, 2013
Mead Chapel

Welcome!  It is my pleasure, on behalf of the faculty, staff, trustees, and your fellow Middlebury students whom you will soon meet, to extend a warm welcome to you, the class of 2016.5.

To begin, I would like to continue a custom by putting into circulation this most recognizable of College symbols—Gamaliel Painter’s cane. Gamaliel Painter was one of the visionaries who helped to found Middlebury College over two hundred years ago.  He was a familiar sight to the College's first students as he frequently roamed through the town's streets and strolled by the College, which then was entirely located on the site that is now Twilight Hall at the bottom of the hill on the way into town. 

As he strolled about the town and College, Gamaliel Painter carried with him a walking stick.  When he died, Painter bequeathed to the College a significant sum of money ($13,000), enough to secure the future of this fledgling institution.  He also left us his walking stick.  It has become a tradition for newly arrived students, at opening convocation, to pass among them Gamaliel Painter's cane. I ask you to pass it among yourselves, but please remember to give it to Feb. Orientation senior co-chair Sam Peisch when done, so future first-years can share in the tradition!


So welcome!  As you go about settling in the coming weeks, I am sure you will learn what it means to be a “Feb” from other Febs who came last year…or the year before…or the year before that.  Or judging by the kind of exuberant welcome you received as you arrived on campus this morning, you may already have a pretty good sense of what being a Feb is all about.

I have learned, over the course of my 29 years on the Middlebury faculty, that though the group is really not overly organized between the time it enters until it is time to leave, it doesn’t matter.  Few groups seem to hold on to an identity as strong as a Feb class, or remain united in spirit even after graduation.

I, and many others, saw this first hand just this past weekend.  We had a glorious celebration for the Feb class of 2012.5, both here in Mead Chapel and later in the morning at the Snow Bowl, where the class continued the tradition of skiing down the mountain to celebrate its successful scaling of other mountains during the past four years.  The esprit d’corps among the class was clearly evident in the Chapel and on the slopes, despite the cold temperature.  There is no doubt it means something to be a Feb, and every year the student selected to speak at the Feb Celebration offers up his or her own explanation of what it means.  Interestingly, and the student speaker each year does not know this because they are not here every year like I am, but the adjectives used are uncannily similar, though delivered in different speeches to a new group of 90-100 Febs.

Now some of you will undoubtedly accelerate your education and graduate in 7 semesters; others of you will enter as Febs and leave as Febs; while others, still, will convince your parents that you need desperately to stay on for an extra semester…or two…for any number of good reasons—to take a senior seminar that is only offered the spring after you are supposed to complete your studies; to complete a senior thesis you thought would take only one semester but will require another; to get your teaching certificate and teach for a semester in the local schools; or for a host of other reasons to stay and continue one’s education and experience here.  And that’s OK.  At least by me it is OK!  But I suggest you begin negotiations with your parents as soon as possible to prepare them for the likelihood, or at least the possibility, that you will want to extend your stay here beyond the traditional 4 years.


It may seem premature for you to be hearing about leaving Middlebury, or extending your stay here, when you have not even taken your first class!  But it really isn’t, because it would be most valuable for you to ask yourselves now, or perhaps once Feb orientation ends, what it is you want to accomplish while here?  Those 7, 8, or 9 semesters go by incredibly fast, especially when you factor in a possible semester or year abroad, which about 55 percent of Middlebury students do these days, and so while I embrace…and indeed encourage you to keep an open mind about your majors, to experiment across our rich curriculum, and not to commit to a particular path too early, I also urge you to think, in broad terms, how you will approach this remarkable opportunity before you.

To help you begin thinking in these terms, here are six pieces of advice I have given entering students for the past several years, followed by some other thoughts I wish to share that I hope will have a significant bearing on how you think about your Middlebury experience.

FIRST: take full advantage of this remarkable gift: the gift of a liberal arts education.  Less than THREE percent of all undergraduate students in the United States study at a residential liberal arts college like Middlebury and have open to them the opportunities this kind of an education provides.  Don’t take anything for granted; don’t sit back!  Jump in and be a part of the exciting things that are going on here.

SECOND: take risks and explore disciplines you never had the opportunity to study before college.  The “tried and true” is not likely to open new horizons for you, nor is it likely to push you to grow in ways a liberal arts education will provide if you give it the chance.  So take some intellectual risks!  Challenge yourselves.

THIRD: 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 great secrets in higher education these days, so go check out our science departments and their offerings.

FOURTH: take as many courses known for their writing assignments and oral presentations as you can. One cannot over-estimate the value of learning to write and speak clearly when one graduates and engages our complex world. This is the time and place to improve your communications skills, to get constructive criticism and encouragement, not when you are asked to make a presentation or deliver a cogent argument at your first job interview.

FIFTH: take the initiative to pursue your passions outside the classroom.  During your four years here, you will find countless opportunities to volunteer in the local community; work on personal projects that may have nothing to do with required coursework alongside fellow artists and entrepreneurs at the Old Stone Mill and the Center for Social Entrepreneurship; establish new organizations or help to nurture and develop existing ones.  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.  Make an effort to find out what opportunities are here so you get the most of your Middlebury experience.  Visit our Education in Action Office, also known as EiA, in Adirondack House (the old white house across College Street with the traffic circle).  You will find information on careers, the Alliance for Civic Engagement, and the office of fellowships.  Don’t wait until your senior year!  Drop by this semester and get to know Lisa and Tiffany and Don and Amy and Peggy. 

And SIXTH, 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.  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.

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 this evening on something different—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.  After all, if, after four years on this campus with all its in-class and out-of-class remarkable opportunities, you are not a greatly changed individual, then we have failed you.  If your view on life and the wider world has not been altered significantly, enriched in ways you right now cannot appreciate, then we have failed you.  But you, yourself, have a major role to play in converting the opportunities before you into the life-changing experience the next four years should be.

At residential liberal arts colleges, one often hears about the strength of “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 other institutions: the majority of Middlebury students, we often hear, view learning as more collaborative 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, and unis, meaning “one,” or from com plus munis meaning “exchange or obligation.” Both meanings, either “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 in common.  For some, it has become overused, a cliché, and therefore it has lost much of its 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 and needs to adapt to the standards 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 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 in 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 often struggle when it comes to engaging students on how certain behavior infringes on the rights of the larger community.

For example, and this one should not be news to most of you, the irresponsible use of alcohol, though committed by a relatively small number of students, is by far the greatest cause of disrespectful behavior toward the community here at Middlebury and at most other colleges.  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 irresponsibly and suffer the individual consequences such behavior generates: drunkenness; the potential arrest by the Middlebury Police Department; the not-too-pleasant feel of a hangover; missing class; earning lower grades; underperforming on the athletic fields; and so on.  But the impact beyond the individual—that is, on the community—becomes all too familiar to fellow students—presumably “friends”—to staff, and to administrators who must literally and figuratively clean up the mess.

The educational “cost” of disrespectful behavior is the likely diminishing of what one can learn and experience at Middlebury. It makes more difficult the integration of many of the College’s diverse groups of students, especially students who come from other cultures and who openly wonder why students so bright and accomplished in class, appear to be so awkward and, shall we say, less distinguished, when it comes to socializing with alcohol.  Lesser interaction and engagement within the study body translates into missed opportunities for students to hear different perspectives on politics, the arts, sports, 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, presumably the reason many of you selected a place like Middlebury to study.

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 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 want to address this evening comes in—friendship.  Friendships at Middlebury are special.  For many 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, and deeper still, among Febs for a host of reasons.

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 campus.

The word friend comes from the Old English word freond, meaning “to love, to favor.”  Froend comes from Old Teutonic, and is closely related to the Old English word 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 or others in danger.

A failure to intervene when friends act irresponsibly calls into question the depth and value of one’s friendship, and is likely to weaken the sense of community one enjoys when its members 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 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 particular community you officially join today.  We are here to guide you over the next four years, and we look forward to watching you flourish and grow.

Good luck and please feel free to drop by Old Chapel to say hello, either during my office hours, or whenever you are in the building. 

Welcome to Middlebury and thank you.


I would like to now ask Dean of Students Katy Smith-Abbott to come forward to provide a few brief announcements about post-Convocation logistics.

Office of the President

Old Chapel
9 Old Chapel Road
Middlebury College
Middlebury, VT 05753