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2015 Baccalaureate Address

Teach Your Children (and Learn from Them)
By President Ronald Liebowitz
May 23, 2015
Mead Chapel

Good afternoon. On behalf of the faculty, staff, and trustees of the College, I extend a warm welcome to you, the Class of 2015, and to your parents, families, and friends who have joined you on campus this weekend.
Today and tomorrow we celebrate the successful completion of your Middlebury degree.  I am honored to have the chance to share some thoughts with you today, and I look forward to celebrating with you tomorrow as you receive your diplomas and begin the next chapter of your life.

As I thought about what I would say today, what stands out first and foremost is that we are graduating together!  Now, I am a bit slower than all of you, as it has taken me 31 years to graduate, while for most of you it has taken a mere four.  So, before I continue, let me say congratulations!

But back to the address.  Your class and I shared this academic community, both of us helped shape it in our own way, and each took from it things that are unique to you as students, and to me as a faculty member and administrator.  But we also shared many things, and learned many things together, which I hope will be meaningful to you in your post-Middlebury lives.  I know they will be meaningful to me and instructive as well. 

Before I sat down to identify what I would highlight within the rubric of what we learned together, I went back and read the baccalaureate addresses I have given while serving as president.  I noticed that sometimes I offered advice in subtle and playful ways, such as through parables and humorous lessons from the Talmud, while other times I was rather blunt, as in my “right-message/wrong venue” 2008 baccalaureate speech, some called it a screed, titled “Work Hard/Play Hard.”  This speech, offensive to a good number of those on hand to hear it, highlighted the disturbing incongruence between our students’ intelligence and academic accomplishments on the one hand, and the destructive behavior of some students from their irresponsible use of alcohol, on the other.  Think tail-gating reaction this past fall and multiple that by about 50.  Or 1000.  So let’s move on.

I noticed, too, that my addresses, whether playful or deemed admonishing, were all unidirectional—highlighting the skills, knowledge, and attributes our graduating students learned here and would take with them, to help face any and all challenges thrown their way upon entering the big-bad “real world.”  There was an appropriate dose of hope and encouragement included in my messages to our graduates, and even a burden, because with the privilege of a Middlebury education, should come the responsibility to give back to others in some meaningful way.

I also read the convocation address I gave to your class upon entering Middlebury in September of 2011.  We were right here in Mead Chapel as you began your Middlebury career.  It was on the tenth anniversary of the September 11th attacks, and here is what I said toward the end of the address:

To the older generations, the pre-9/11 Americans, the U.S. has, more than anything else, lost its way. What had been unprecedented solidarity among Americans immediately following the September 11, 2001, attacks has descended into divisiveness of a sort few can recall. From the deeply contested wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, to the financial mess caused largely by a massive failure of political institutions to govern our markets, to the present debilitating and increasingly destructive political culture in Washington, whatever confidence Americans felt about government’s ability to improve the lives of its citizens has been shattered.

Yet because your generation has come of age in what has been a difficult and dysfunctional period of American political history, your expectations are different than previous generations: you lack the kind of deep-seated disappointment over the current state of affairs that characterizes older generations of Americans. As a result, your generation has the best chance to identify where and how to find hope and optimism in the coming years: your generation will see the challenges before us for what they are and not become distracted by thinking about how it used to be. You will be less constrained in finding ways to tackle the tough issues.

But knowing how to find the best ways to tackle tough issues ties directly into our jobs as educators—which is to encourage, indeed force, you to engage your studies in a serious and thorough way, to engage in critical analysis, to master how to ask and answer the most relevant questions, to weigh options, to figure out for yourselves the skills you need to acquire in order to achieve objectives that are meaningful to you, and to be able to place what you learn in a broader context than the one most familiar to you.

The critical analytical skills and content that form the core of a liberal arts education will enable you to stand apart from, reconsider, and adjust your own world view—your assumptions and convictions about how the world works and how you will fit yourself into making it a better place.

What stands out to me now after reading the old baccalaureate addresses and your convocation address is not that I have unfairly challenged students as they were graduating from or entering Middlebury.  I stand by the exhortations I made to your class four years ago.  I notice now, however, four years later and after 31 years on the faculty, that learning here and at places like it needs to go both ways, from faculty to students, but also from students to faculty, staff, and administration.  From the in loco parentis parents (faculty, administrators, and staff) to the in loco liberis children (our students), and from the in loco liberis children to the in loco parentis parents.

This youth-to-elder unrealized half of a successful learning environment is crucial to the future success of institutions like Middlebury.  And, despite there being many examples from our own institutional history of what we have learned from students, our approach to education remains largely a one-way street.  It was students who developed, proposed, and implemented our recycling and composting programs in the early 1990s; it was students who researched and charted our path to become carbon neutral by 2016 without the use of purchasing carbon offsets; it was students who researched, proposed, and advocated for the building of our biomass gasification plant in 2009; and it was students in an environmental studies seminar who dissected a 1915 bequest that inspired, nearly twenty years later, the conservation of our Bread Loaf campus and its pristine and bucolic 2100 surrounding acres. 

Yet, there are signs that the one-way street of teaching and learning appears to be coming to an end, or at least they are being seriously called into question.  Students have begun to identify and question what they see as a static model of education.  Some of their criticisms are straightforward, others less so.  Here are three examples, all of which provide an important opening for Middlebury to rethink and redefine the education of its students—to make them a major part of their education, and, in doing so, providing an education to our faculty, staff, and administrators, which I see as crucial to the long-term dynamism and well-being of our college. 

First: the increased desire for students to have a voice in curricular and co-curricular matters on campus.  More than ever before, students are pushing to be part of College governance processes that for decades have been the sole domain of faculty and administrators.  They ask appropriately why there are no students on the Educational Affairs Committee, our major educational policy committee known as the “EAC,” or the space committee, which determines which campus facilities projects will be funded each year and how space is allocated on campus. 

There have been a small number of successful student movements in the past 30 years to bring change to our curriculum, but they have been few and far between.  And they rely on random student initiative rather than on predictable and reliable institutions to ensure consistent and fair participation.  The inclusion of Portuguese in our curriculum in the late 1990s was the result of students petitioning the faculty and administration with great determination.  A committed and informed group of students was persistent in rightly asking how we could justify offering a Latin American Studies major without recognizing Brazil and Portuguese, its major language.  Brazil was clearly an up-and-coming economic power, having already surpassed Argentina in economic and political influence, and it was clear to our students that they needed to learn its language as part of anything called Latin American Studies.  It should not have been that difficult to make this happen, but it was, and it required strong support from outside official channels to make it a reality a mere three years later. 

Similarly, students began advocating for a food studies program more than six years ago when a small group attended an interdisciplinary symposium on food, food policy, and food science.  They came to recognize the centrality of food to so many challenges facing humanity, and the importance played by so many disciplines within the liberal arts in articulating and understanding its complexities: biology, chemistry, economics, demography, anthropology, geography, philosophy, ethics, religion, political science, and more.

The students recognized there were no easy answers to so many important questions surrounding food: how can we feed the world’s growing population? Or what are our moral obligations to increase yields in order to reduce hunger if the methods required threaten safe water and denude the environment? Or how do we solve the many political conflicts that prevent the distribution of food? Or what are the long-term consequences of increasing food production through the application of science and bioengineering?  What are the economic and social consequences of paying farmers not to grow crops, of allowing mega-farms to replace small family farms, and using food for political leverage?

Students petitioned several times to create a formal place in the curriculum for the interdisciplinary study of food, and after failing to gain much traction through official channels, they moved ahead on their own.  They identified existing courses in the curriculum from five departments, set up their own unofficial minor, and posted it to a website they had created to share with those interested in food studies.

The response was swift and instructive.  Some faculty members protested to the provost, noting that students could not simply establish a minor on their own.  It required a faculty sponsor with a well-thought out proposal, support from the Educational Affairs Committee, and then approval by a vote of the full faculty.  Yet, students didn’t care, at least at that time, to make their minor official.  They realized they could set up a minor that looked much like an official minor, except that it would lack institutional approval.  So they did, and it didn’t bother them that this minor would not be recognized on their transcripts.  What was important to the students was to establish a curriculum in food studies for those who understood the importance to our curriculum and wished to learn more.  And to make a point. 

Though I have no idea how many students have pursued the unofficial minor in the intervening years…we don’t keep official data on unofficial programs(!)…the students’ persistence paid off.  Just this past year, the College hired its first faculty member dedicated to food studies—a tenured, full professor with twenty-five years of experience in the academy and in international NGOs working on issues related to food production, distribution, and policy.  This kind of success, along with the major changes in governance the board of trustees introduced for itself last year and the faculty’s current discussion of reforming its committee and governance structures, has empowered students to ask for a seat at the table to discuss the strategic direction of the College’s curriculum.  We would be wise to oblige them.

But beyond these two examples, the larger issue is our students’ desire for greater flexibility within the curriculum so the traditional liberal arts education we offer and have offered for decades can be complemented with what students understand to be their greatest needs as they leave college and enter the work force.  Students wish to find ways to apply what they learn in the classroom to real problems and to be challenged to find solutions.  And they don’t want to sacrifice their foundational liberal arts curriculum in the process: they want a voice to express what they see as important curricular gaps and new approaches to pedagogy that will strengthen their Middlebury education.

Second, the student push for what they call more “student owned” space on campus.   Students want to manage more spaces like the Gamut Room a place described as, and I quote, “a student-run coffee house that serves up light refreshments, coffee, and tea as well as art and music.  Open from 9 p.m. until 1 a.m., seven days a week, this space is used for small social gatherings and is commonly used for musical performances and other club-related activities.”  Students seek more of these spaces because they note, quite accurately, that many of the spaces that were once open on campus for their late night use are now locked by 6:00 p.m. due to security concerns and the introduction of costly high tech equipment in many campus buildings.  There are, ironically, fewer spaces in which to meet, to brainstorm creative projects, and engage in small or medium-sized discussions today than there were twenty years ago, despite the great increase in total square footage on campus.

The Old Stone Mill, off campus and in town along the Otter Creek, was introduced specifically for student use for this very reason, and has been an exceptional resource for our students.  But there is still pent-up demand for space, and students need a representative voice in determining how campus space is allocated, renovated, and used.  Venues for musical performances, theatrical productions, studio art work, and other activities, separate from their academic pursuits, are in short supply, and students understand they need to be a part of the priority setting process that is presently the purview of the administration.  After all, they argue, this is their campus, their four years, their education, and those making decisions on the allocation and use of space are not around after 6:00 p.m. when most of the buildings that could once be used are locked and inaccessible. 

And my third and final example of what has become, in our students’ eyes a static or dated model of education has to do with our and the greater academy’s pursuit of diversity.  This is a most complicated issue and though I can only scratch its surface here, you will surely understand why it begs for greater two-way communications and education. 

The desire to increase the diversity is rooted in the strong desire to create the richest learning environment for our students.  This would be accomplished by having students with different viewpoints and life experiences engage freely in the classroom, residence halls, dining halls, playing fields, and throughout campus.  In theory, students would be free and encouraged to state their opinions and world views in class or outside it, hear their fellow students’ responses and reactions, engage in reflection, and learn from their differences.  Minds might not be changed on all issues, but what would emerge would be a greater understanding of difference as well as a greater awareness and understanding of oneself.

In reality, this happens far less often than expected and hoped for, at least so far, and it begs the questions of why, and what approach might work better.  How do we create a dynamic learning environment that both respects diversity and allows students to learn from it?  Fair questions, but the environment today is such that even asking why respectful engagement and the exchange of ideas hasn’t materialized on campuses like Middlebury touches many nerves and exposes what I see as generational differences in the goals and objectives of the diversity. 

Through some difficult campus-wide and especially one-on-one and one-on-two small discussions this past year, I learned that my and my generation’s operating definition of what it takes to build a true learning community, one that is both vibrant and rich, appears hopelessly dated.  What has guided our thinking in building a more diverse community is the assumption that everyone in the community will, wants to, and feels safe to contribute to the educational mission of the College—students, faculty, and staff.  

For faculty this means excellent, even inspirational, teaching in the classroom and devoting copious time for advising and mentoring students.  For most of our students, we do very well in this regard.  For staff it means providing unwavering support for a co-curricular program that complements our academics and provides a diverse range of opportunities for our students, such as participating in 170+ student organizations, volunteering in town, engaging in varsity, club, and intramural sports, or pursuing a passion at the Old Stone Mill.  We do well in this regard, too.

But the role that students play in helping to create that idealized learning community, where all can and do express opinions freely, has become more difficult.  Underrepresented students feel strongly that it should not be their responsibility to educate others about their life’s experiences or world view.  This, they argue, places an unfair burden on them, and to express such views in class often feels more like they are defending, or need to defend, who they are.  They want majority students to make the effort, to extend themselves, to get out of their majority comfort zones.  And while I have become far more sensitive to this reality through countless discussions with students from a range of underrepresented groups, I now wonder what a more reasonable and successful approach might be.  Absent a student’s willingness to share one’s opinions and life’s experiences with others, no matter who they are and how different a background they bring to Middlebury, we are left in an even more challenging position than ever: having diversity in numbers but missing the opportunity to learn from those different from us in a setting that is more conducive for taking risks than any that our students are likely to experience once they graduate.

Students have come forward this past year and proposed that all students be engaged in a program called JusTalks, described as:

“…a forum dedicated to communication, thoughtful personal discourse, self-analysis, and leaning into discomfort. The name “JusTalks” comes from our commitment to engage in conversation—to talk—in a way that we believe is socially “just,” while also alluding to the fact that the requirement to engage such important ideas is “just” talking about them.

Our goal is to foster dialogue about issues that are important to us that are not currently represented in the Middlebury curriculum, mainly identity and diversity issues, which we believe should be an integral part of Middlebury’s liberal arts education.”

The Campus newspaper supported the student proposal to incorporate the JusTalks proposal into the curriculum through our First Year Seminar program, but the reception by our faculty has been tepid.  Most faculty support the goals of JusTalks, but do not want to lose class time for such discussions.  Most students see this issue as central to their education while faculty tend to see it as relatively marginal, and therein lies a large part of the challenge.

While this is the most complicated of the three examples, it serves to underscore the need for us to see our mission and all we do here as a two-way street.  JusTalks, or a program like it, might not be the ultimate formula for creating that open academic community we aspire to, but it would provide the venue needed to allow students to engage issues of difference and it would include a most necessary participant: our faculty.  We will not succeed in creating our hoped-for open learning environment simply through an administrative pronouncement or repeated commitments to admit a more diverse student body.

But even if a JusTalks program moves forward, achieving success in building an open and diverse learning community will not be easy.  This generation of students has been unfairly described by a number of social critics, most of whom are my age or older, as “hypersensitive” and “narcissistic.”  They criticize the increasingly frequent cries of injustice and the introduction of trigger warnings and claims of micro-aggressions.  They argue that many of these offences would have been seen a few decades ago as little more than discourtesies.  Missing in their critical commentary, however, are at least two reasons for these developments, conveniently ignored by these social commentators.  Yet, they represent among the most important things I have learned in my eleven years as president.

First, the demographics of our students have changed more rapidly than the professoriate who is teaching them and the administration that is leading them.  While access for students to places like Middlebury has increased dramatically over the past decade, the same has not been true for faculty for a host of reinforcing and complicated reasons.  As a result, the climate in the classroom has not changed much while the student body in it has changed noticeably.  And while faculty are neither consciously nor intentionally subjecting our students to a less welcoming learning environment, for some underrepresented students in class, the language they hear and the pedagogy they experience can be alienating and uncomfortable. 

And second, and this affects all students here, not only our underrepresented students: the world has changed dramatically over the past fifteen years with the combined impact of globalization, the recent great recession, and recognition that American supremacy and prosperity are no longer a guarantee.  Competition for jobs today is fiercer than it was for previous generations, as our graduates now compete for post-graduate opportunities with individuals from all over the world.  It should be no surprise that student anxiety and the appearance of “narcissism” and “hypersensitivity” abound.  

My advice, then, is to build into our vision of undergraduate education that second lane of learning to complement the single-lane model we have today.  The “adults” involved in our educational mission, and that includes faculty, staff, administrators, and even trustees, need to understand the related and downstream effects of pursuing an open, diverse learning community.  We need to listen more to our students, to hear what they are saying, and to include them in discussions of issues that to date have been off limits.  No, this doesn’t mean we would reinstate alcohol during tailgating at football games with a few round table discussions—there are limits.  But we need to become better listeners.

The enormous changes we have seen in the world in the past twenty years, coupled with the unprecedented pace of change, makes the world we know today this generation’s.  And while I hope all of you in the Class of 2015 will approach your own successor generation on that two-way highway rather than on a one-way street, I am confident your Middlebury education has prepared you to recognize, far more easily and earlier than I have, the kinds of adjustments you will need to make to best prepare that next generation for its world. 

Best of luck, Class of 2015.  I wish you the best in all your endeavors.

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