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February Convocation 2011

President Ronald D. Liebowitz
February 2, 2011
Mead Chapel

Welcome! It is my pleasure, on behalf of the faculty, staff, trustees, and your fellow Middlebury students who you will soon meet, to extend a warm welcome to you, the class of 2014.5.

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 Brad Becker-Parton when done, so future first-years can share in the tradition!

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As you go about settling into your second home, I am sure you will learn what it means to be a “Feb” from other Febs who came before you.

I have learned, over the course of my 27 years on the Middlebury faculty, that Febs as a group are really not overly organized between the time it enters until it is time to leave, yet it doesn’t matter. Few groups seem to hold on to an identity as strong as a Feb class, or remain as 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 2010.5, 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 and falling snow.

Now some of you will undoubtedly accelerate your education and graduate in seven 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 in the local schools; or for a host of other reasons to stay and continue one’s education and experience here. And that’s okay. At least by me it is okay! 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 four years.

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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, what it is you want to accomplish while here? Those seven, eight, or nine semesters go incredibly fast, especially when you factor in a semester or year abroad, which almost 60 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 nuggets of advice I have given entering students for the past seven 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.

NUGGET #1: Take full advantage of this remarkable gift: the gift of a liberal arts education. Fewer than 4 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.

NUGGET #2: 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 a chance. So take some risks!

NUGGET #3: 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.

NUGGET #4: 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 or first job.

NUGGET #5: 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 have nothing to do with your course work with fellow students at the Old Stone Mill in town; 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. Don’t sit back: take the initiative to engage people and opportunities outside the classroom.

And finally, NUGGET 6, 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 of 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.

At residential liberal arts colleges, including Middlebury, 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 a finely balanced 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 why 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 (ko-ee-NO-niya),” which means “communion by intimate participation,” and the Latin concept of communitas (com-MYU-ni-tas), or “fellowship.” Communitas is related to the word communis (com-MU-nis), meaning “common, public, shared by all or many,” and itself is derived from the words con, meaning “with,” plus munus, meaning “exchange, obligation, or service performed of the community.” The etymology of community signifies 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. In too many instances, it has become overused, a cliché, and therefore it 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 considered and 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 come up short too often when it comes to engaging students on how certain behavior infringes on the rights of the larger community.

For example, the irresponsible use of alcohol, though committed by a relatively small number of students, is by far the greatest source 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 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 or two; 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,” staff, and administrators: 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 “cost” of disrespectful behavior is the 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. Less interaction and engagement within the study body and to larger community 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, disrespectful behavior 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 is 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 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 the energies expended are shared largely within the confines of our 350-acre main campus.

The word friend comes from the Old English freond (FROYND), 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 or others in danger.

A significant body of research reveals 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 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. Perhaps I learned this the hard way! Nor can we—the so-called administration—alone set the standards of friendship within a community. That needs to come from the community itself, and students—including you—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…perhaps more than you think.

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 that 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, will become.

Good luck, thank you, and please feel free drop by Old Chapel, 3rd floor, to say hello. Welcome to Middlebury!!

— Ronald D. Liebowitz

Office of the President

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