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In Memoriam: Olin Robison, 13th President of Middlebury College

October 23, 2018

MIDDLEBURY, Vt. – Olin C. Robison, the Middlebury College president who increased access to the College with need-blind admissions, grew the international focus of the curriculum, expanded campus facilities, and strengthened Middlebury’s standing around the world, died on October 22, 2018, in Baltimore, Md., with family members by his side. He was 82 years of age.

Robison, who served from 1975 to 1990 as Middlebury’s 13th president, was already an accomplished State Department diplomat and experienced university administrator when at the age of 39 he ascended to the presidency. During his 15 years in Old Chapel, Robison propelled Middlebury to the forefront of America’s liberal arts colleges with his leadership, vision, public speaking, and fundraising.

Following the tenure of James I. Armstrong, the Middlebury president who served during the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights movement, and Watergate, the Robison era was a more stable time for colleges and the country. As president he increased the size of the faculty, directed a successful $80-million capital campaign, established the School in Russia and the summer Arabic School, built Coffrin Residence Hall, converted the College Street School into Twilight Hall, started the first-year seminar program, and broke ground for the Mahaney Arts Center.

The official portrait of Olin Robison, by American artist Jack Beal, hangs in the Middlebury College Museum of Art.

Time after time he demonstrated two qualities that made him a transformational president. First, he was remarkably decisive. He refused to allow his presidency to “be a period of drift” for the College. As Robison remarked, “Academic institutions are notoriously indecisive, but I think we made decisions. . . . If [my tenure of office] has been a period of unparalleled progress and growth for the College, it’s in large part because we’ve made [the difficult] decisions.”

And second, as a nationally recognized expert in foreign affairs, particularly on U.S.-Soviet relations, Robison advanced the College’s reputation via the abundant news coverage he received. Whether in print or on radio or television, the commentator Robison always insisted that he be identified as the president of Middlebury College. “In the past 15 years I think we’ve raised the public image of the College dramatically nationwide. What has my role been?” Robison asked. “I can get us air time. And that gets more recognition for Middlebury College.”

Middlebury College accrued more than just recognition during his presidency. As College historian David Stameshkin writes in The Strength of the Hills, “Robison succeeded in making Middlebury a more exciting place and improving its self-confidence. . . . During much of the 1980s, the College was able to make important gains in faculty compensation and size, and in improving the physical plant. The malaise of the 1970s was briefly transformed into an exciting era of construction, renovation, growth, and raised expectations.”

John M. McCardell Jr., Middlebury’s 15th president, was a member of the faculty and a senior administrator during Robison’s tenure of office. He said, “Olin brought an international perspective to an institution ready to broaden its reach and raise its profile. He brought also a distinctive eloquence in articulating the story of Middlebury, which he once described, with perspicacity, as ‘an international university masquerading as a liberal arts college.’

“Olin saw things in Middlebury, and in many of us, that we did not at first see in ourselves. He nurtured those things, sought support for those things, and, when he stepped down, left to his successors an institution stronger and more confident because of his efforts. The measure of his influence is yet to be fully determined. It is that way with venerable institutions and also with their leaders. The long view will undoubtedly give him the credit he is due and for which generations to come will be indebted to him.”

Olin Clyde Robison was born in Anacoco, La., on May 12, 1936, grew up in Port Arthur, Texas, and graduated from Baylor University in 1958 with a bachelor’s degree in history, religion, and philosophy. While doing graduate work in theology and ethics at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary from 1958 to 1960, he also served as pastor of a rural Baptist church in central Texas. In 1959 he married the former Sylvia M. Potter.

Robison studied church history at Oxford University in the early 1960s, joined the Oxford Preaching Society, and served in the U.S. Air Force as a civilian auxiliary chaplain in England. He earned his Doctor of Philosophy degree in 1963, returned to Texas, and served one year as dean of students at San Marcos Academy before accepting an administrative post with the Peace Corps in Washington.

In 1966 Robison was named special assistant to the deputy undersecretary of state. He was the State Department’s representative on the Rusk Commission (concerned with domestic intelligence matters), coordinated special projects, traveled abroad on assignment, served as a department spokesperson, and acted as liaison between the State Department and other branches of federal government.

The appeal of college life drew Olin and Sylvia Robison and their growing family to Connecticut where, in 1968, Robison accepted the post of associate provost for social sciences at Wesleyan University. While at Wesleyan he remained a consultant to the State Department and assisted in a comprehensive analysis of U.S. foreign policy. He also began a seven-year relationship with the Atlantic Information Centre for Teachers, based in London.

In 1970 the Robisons moved up the Atlantic coast to Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Me., where he was named provost, dean of faculty, and senior lecturer in public affairs—three positions that he held until ascending to the Middlebury presidency in 1975. The decade also saw him expand his foreign-affairs portfolio with election to the Council on Foreign Relations, the Board of Directors of the Atlantic Council, and two London-based organizations: the International Institute for Strategic Studies and the Royal Institute of International Affairs. His travels took him to the Soviet Union, the U.K., Germany, Belgium, France, and Canada.

At his Middlebury inauguration in November 1975, he identified three major priorities: redefining the curriculum, expanding library facilities, and increasing the College’s capacity to extend financial aid to students from middle-class families. Two months later he told the trustees that he also wanted to increase salaries to combat inflation and remain competitive; provide more funds for faculty travel and research; and renovate classrooms and living spaces on campus.

Historian Stameshkin said, “Robison succeeded remarkably well in accomplishing all these tasks and achieved other advances as well: curricular and program development, a larger faculty, redesign of the administrative structure, improvement and modernization of the physical plant, and changes in the admissions and student services areas. [He] helped raise substantial funds in pursuit of these goals and spurred unprecedented media coverage of Middlebury’s progress.”

He considered one of his most significant achievements to be the establishment in 1987 of the American Collegiate Consortium for East-West Cultural and Academic Exchange. This brought Soviet undergraduates to study in the United States, which was almost unheard of, even in the waning days of the Soviet Union.

When Robison announced on October 6, 1989, his intention to step down from the presidency the next year, he said, “I look forward to teaching. I look forward to being a member of the community. And I look forward to having weekends off.”

He took a one-year sabbatical in 1990–91 and returned to Middlebury as College professor, teaching seminars for first-year students and seniors. Later in 1991 he was named president of the Salzburg Global Seminar, and shortly thereafter he moved the American headquarters of that nonprofit organization from Cambridge, Mass., to Middlebury.

In 2000, the year of the College’s bicentennial, Middlebury conferred an Honorary Doctor of Laws on Robison, who shared the stage at Commencement with Nobel Prize winner Lech Walesa and PBS journalist Gwen Ifill. “During your 15 years as president,” the honorary degree citation read, “Middlebury reached new heights of national and international prominence.”

Robison devoted his full energies to the seminar until he stepped down in 2005, but even in retirement he was never far from the public eye. Up until a few years ago, his voice was still heard delivering insightful commentaries on Vermont Public Radio on topics ranging from prehistoric art to bipartisanship in Washington to the politics of climate change.

He is survived by three sons: Gordon, a journalist with Al Jazeera English based in Doha, Qatar; Blake, the artistic director of Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, and his wife, Connan Morrissey; and Mark, professor of clinical education and history as well as chair of the Global Executive Doctor of Education Program in the Rossier School of Education at the University of Southern California, and his wife, Elizabeth Power Robison. He is also survived by grandchildren Halle, Mallory, Declan, Callum and Leah; great-grandchild Logan; and sister Sandra Nabours (Bob).

Olin Robison’s marriage to the former Sylvia Potter ended in divorce in 1996. He enjoyed a loving relationship with his partner of a decade, Marlie Rieder, and spent the past seven years of his life with his companion and caregiver, Connie Sophocles.

A celebration of life will be held in Middlebury at a date to be announced. In lieu of flowers, memorial gifts can be made to the Project on Religion and Public Policy at the Centre for Christianity and Culture at Regent’s Park College, Oxford University.

 

 

4 Comments

A beautifully written piece. As the story suggests, I hope Middlebury gives this one some airtime. The Robisons were neighbors with me in ‘75 - they in the president’s house, me in the Deanery, then a freshman dorm. I looked after the boys a few times when Olin & Sylvia were out for the evening (They were easy to manage if my memory serves.) I did not know his gifts, then, though this is certainly inspiring, now.

by John Berg 79 (not verified)

When I was graduating on the Oxford program at Lincoln, Dr. Robison was the speaker, and I introduced him at our Commencement. I was always impressed with his international acumen. Monica McGoldrick Bread Loaf School of English 1981

by Monica McGoldrick (not verified)

Olin began the transition of Middlebury leaving behind forever what Mother, a Vermont native, (Middlebury, '25) called "that little country college up the road" to the internationally prominent institution we are all proud of today. He dared reduce U.S.-Soviet tensions; he was a visionary that put Middlebury on the world map.

by Julie H. Parker (not verified)

In the fall of 1976 Middlebury started its Chinese language program. The Language Schools had offered Chinese during the summer, but there was no instruction during the regular academic year. Middlebury recruited John Berninghausen and the late Gregory Chiang from UVM to establish Chinese language instruction as part of the regular curriculum. I had graduated from UVM several years earlier and had later studied Chinese at UVM with John and Greg. Owing to their excellent teaching methodology, as well as uncertainty about their replacements at UVM, I followed them down to Middlebury with the understanding that I would be able
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to continue my study of Chinese there. John sent me over to the administration building to inquire about registering for class as a non-matriculated student, paying tuition, etc. Whoever I ran into there was puzzled by my questions and directed me to talk to Olin Robison. Being new on campus, I had no idea he was Middlebury's president. I remember explaining my situation to him and his response: "Why do you want to pay for something that you already have? You already have B.A. Just sit in on the class. John's letter of recommendation will substitute for a transcript." During the year our paths would cross from time to time on campus and he always remembered me and would ask me how things were going. I guess things went more than okay as the Chinese program that John and Greg established went on to become one of the finest in the nation. I went on to earn my PhD in Chinese Language and Literature at the University of Washington. And Olin Robison’s understanding, kindness and helpfulness saved me more than a few bucks that would have otherwise been needlessly spent on tuition. Rest In Peace, President Robison.
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by Stuart V Aque (not verified)

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