Convocation 2007

President Ronald D. Liebowitz delivered this address to the Class of 2011 on September 9, 2007.

Welcome! I trust your first week on campus has gone well. From everything I have heard, our move-in, registration, First Year Seminar meetings, commons meetings, placement exams, and all of the other beginning-of-the-year activities that we somehow manage to fold into your orientation went smoothly, and many people deserve a lot of credit for helping to make our orientation such a success.

At the risk of appearing to overlook the many who played key roles during the past week, I want especially to thank Associate Dean of the College Karen Guttentag, whose energy, intelligence, and judgment, along with her significant organizational and diplomatic skills, were essential to your successful entrée to Middlebury.

A number of faculty and staff who have been involved in orientation for many years, claim this was the best orientation they can recall. Please join me in thanking Karen, and the many other faculty and staff who helped, in Karen’s own words, to bring all the “connective tissue” of the institution together to make orientation a singular and unified success.

Convocation addresses, such as these, allow presidents to address incoming students directly and as a group ... something not likely to occur again during your time here, until Commencement. With such an opportunity, I feel it is important for me to speak to you about a most fundamental and some would call “practical” topic: your time at Middlebury.

Though it is tempting to initiate your college education with a lecture on the timelessness of liberal education, and how its substance is frequently described as pure yet elusive, I want, instead, to focus, and have you focus as you begin your studies, on how you will use your time at Middlebury and take advantage of the remarkable array of resources we have here for you to leave here a very different person than you are today.

Though many argue that liberal education is education in the purest form, separate and divorced from the influences of specialization, professionalism, and the pressures of the here and now, I believe this need not be the case, nor can we afford to let it be the case. The pursuit of understanding what we might learn from ancient texts, and how those texts explain some of today’s most pressing issues, need not be divorced from how one applies what one has learned to his or her individual life, or to the world one will inhabit after these relatively protected four years.

The specific subjects that make up what a liberally educated individual should study today makes for interesting debates, but beyond the specific subjects, a liberal education has a moral dimension to it. That dimension defines an obligation on the part of the individual to give to society, to share the fruits of what one has learned with society-at-large. Our society, in turn, needs so very badly what a successful liberal arts education provides its students, regardless of one’s major field of study. And those who benefit from such an education should feel compelled ... indeed an obligation . . . to understand how that education fits in with the greater good.

Education here is human intensive. Very intensive. Our relatively small scale of operations, and our emphasis on undergraduate education, means that students interact quite regularly and intensively with an engaged and talented faculty in ways that are atypical of higher education in this country and around the world.

That is, our mode of education is the exception and not the norm; fewer than 3 percent of all undergraduates in the United States enroll at residential liberal arts colleges with our model of teaching and learning, largely because of the cost of such an education. The true or real cost of educating each student is more than $65,000 per year. Our comprehensive fee, at just about $46,000 a year, means that every student, whether he or she receives grants and loans from the College or not, receives a subsidy or scholarship of at least $20,000.

The $20,000 difference between what it costs to attend Middlebury and what it costs to provide the education is made up by annual gifts to the College by alumni and friends, plus the annual earnings on the College’s endowment – largely a corpus of investment that serve as a long-term insurance policy against potentially difficult financial times. Combined, these three sources of revenue – the comprehensive fee paid by students, the gifts we receive from generous supporters of the College, and earnings from our endowment – determine our annual operating budget and allow us to provide the most expensive, but also potentially the most effective, model of education available.

I mention the cost of this kind of education and the subsidy or scholarship that everyone receives for two reasons: a liberal arts education is not first and foremost about efficiency or cost-containment – it is about providing the teaching and infrastructural resources necessary to ensure that our graduates can engage their complex world seriously and with great confidence when they leave here; and second, so our students will be less likely to take for granted the incredible resources available at Middlebury to prepare them for consequential engagement in the new world.

I should note that the essence of what I am saying today is hardly original. Some institutions of higher education with which we are all familiar have come to the same conclusion in recent years: Yale College has redefined its commitment to undergraduate education recently, completing a plan whose focus and emphases look, sound, and feel very much like our own long-standing approach to undergraduate education. This includes, by the way, the recognition, endorsed strongly by its president Rick Levin, that all Yale students would benefit from a significant period of study abroad.

This is new territory for most Ivy League schools, where the average share of juniors who study abroad is fewer than 15 percent, and at Harvard and Yale, that figure has historically been less than 10 percent. On average, between 55 percent and 65 percent of Middlebury juniors study abroad.

Harvard, too, in the past five years, has focused much energy on discussions of undergraduate education, and recently released its new curricular proposals. Former Harvard president Lawrence Summers irritated many in the Harvard community with his sometimes scathing critique of the quality of the undergraduate experience at our county’s most prestigious institution, and many of the issues he raised had to do with the kind of engagement we, at Middlebury, have been committed to for years.

And finally, a number of the elite public universities have recently created undergraduate honors liberal arts colleges within their larger structures in recognition of the importance of the kind of education we offer here. In each case, these larger institutions of higher education have been forced to discover … or rediscover ... the centrality to their mission of a liberal arts education, with the emphasis on intensive human engagement, interaction, and exchange.

The finest large universities, then, both private and public, have made a commitment to reestablish their focus on undergraduate education. Will they succeed? Only time will tell. Success at those institutions may well influence our own future path, but for now, the ethos of devoting remarkable time to each student is alive and well here, and we must be sure to do whatever we can to preserve that ethos and commitment.

So what do I mean when I say that a liberal arts education needs to prepare its students for a highly complex world … a world whose complexity seems to increase more rapidly than ever before? What do I mean, in terms of the way we should educate and you should learn, when I say we need to ensure that all of you leave here ready for serious engagement with the greater world, confident in your skills to make a difference?

Confidence to engage the world following graduation comes, in part, from mastery of knowledge, which all of you should eventually achieve to some success by completing work in one of the College’s 44 majors. But if you only have confidence in the areas in which you major—that which you studied for four years—you are likely to be limited in the kinds of serious engagement you will have once you hit the so-called “real” world.

The significance of your education will come less from the subjects you will study, and more from the way you learn while you are here. The ability to write clearly, to speak and argue persuasively, and to think in a disciplined manner represents the most crucial set of skills you will attain here.

Seek classes and professors that force you to write, and I mean write. And I mean a lot. One of the clichés one hears all the time is that graduates of liberal arts colleges do well after graduation and are sought highly by a wide array of professions because they are taught to think critically, communicate clearly, to ask the right questions, and then find their answers.

This cliché speaks the truth, but not because one simply enrolls at a residential liberal arts college or takes a required number of courses in the liberal arts curriculum. Rather, it is true because of the relatively small classes we offer and the relatively small student-faculty ratio we maintain here. The combination of these two characteristics means you have your professor’s attention and your work is given substantive critical commentary. But you still need to apply yourself, take advantage of the opportunities, and become active participants in your education.

Middlebury requires two “intensive” writing courses, one is your first-year seminar, and the other is a second course, often times take in your major. In those courses, because they are designated as writing intensive courses, you will write a lot. You should learn to re-write a lot, too, sometimes multiple drafts of each assignment. In addition to your professor’s comments, you should take advantage of the significant resources provided here to help you with writing.

Seek feedback routinely on your argument, and on the clarity of your writing, from peer tutors or staff at the College’s Center for Teaching, Learning, and Research. Never feel satisfied by doing the minimum when it comes to having the opportunity to have a faculty member read your writing. The final result is that you become a better writer, a skilled writer, able to make an argument forcefully, and with confidence.

Seek out courses and professors who require you to speak and present your views in class, both in seminars and discussion sections. Along with writing effectively, the ability to speak clearly is an important part of developing the confidence you will need as you set forth from college. There are ample opportunities to take courses in which oral presentations are required. Don’t sidestep these courses because you are shy, or you think others know more than you do, or you think oral communication skills might not be relevant to a career you hope to pursue. They are.

Most faculty will cherish the opportunity to help you hone your oral skills in class. At the least, they have a vested interest in the quality of classroom interaction in their courses; but for many more, the opportunity to help you develop your oral skills is part of what they view as their role at a place like Middlebury.

Finally, give great thought to scientific study ... labs and all. In and of itself, the need for a more scientifically literate population is self-evident. The scientific dimension of so many of society’s current issues – be it the environment, the ways in which human beings communicate with each other across the globe, genetic manipulation and cloning, sustainability and alternative energy sources, food alteration, or new forms of welfare – the scientific dimension is central to understanding the world around us and to our ability to participate and make a difference in it.

Middlebury offers students how pursue science beyond the introductory level a huge comparative advantage: the ability to work side-by-side with a faculty member, to do research, and to use state-of-the-art instrumentation that one would think is found more frequently, and made available to undergraduates more readily, at larger research universities. In fact, at most larger universities, it is the graduate students who have access to the scientific equipment, not the undergraduates.

There is a reason why a disproportionate percentage of PhDs earned in the sciences are by students who went to small liberal arts colleges for their undergraduate degree rather than to large research universities. The kind of science education that is available at the very best liberal arts colleges is unique and is something to consider now that you are here.

Even if you do not major in science, the pursuit of scientific education will expose you to the scientific method, to the importance of replicability to the development of sound theories and new knowledge, and will instill a discipline that is likely to become part of how you think and address multi-faceted issues well after you complete your studies here.

Now, I don’t expect a significant change in the “drop-add” activities over the coming weeks as a result of my urging you to consider pursuing science here at Middlebury. Nor do I expect a sudden surge in enrollments in writing-intensive courses beyond your first-year seminar this semester, or courses in which you are required to give many oral presentations.

I do, however, hope you will think what it means to attend a College whose mode of education – intense human interaction – and dedication to that mode of education, offers you an opportunity to prepare yourself for a world far different from the one my colleagues and I inherited when we completed our undergraduate studies.

In fact, I can’t help but observe how Tuesday’s sixth anniversary of the September 11th attacks on the United States fits into all of this: if nothing else, September 11th should represent to each of you and sound for your generation a clarion call for action ... for serious engagement in the world and a commitment to prepare yourselves for that engagement as best as you can.

I can think of no better place for that preparation than here, or a better time in your lives to begin that preparation than now, just as you begin your studies at Middlebury. The foundation of liberal education, built upon ancient and varied texts, helps us understand how the problems we are witnessing today, and how they will play themselves out in the future, are rooted in what we know of the past.

You have an important role to play in how those things we are witnessing today play out in the future. I encourage you as strongly as I can to take advantage of the resources you have before you, and will have over the next four years, to develop the knowledge and skills necessary to engage the world and those complex issues with confidence and conviction. We are here to help you; that is the nature of a Middlebury education. Please don’t pass up the opportunity that is before you.

Thank you.

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