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President welcomes Class of 2015 on 10th anniversary of 9/11

September 12, 2011

MIDDLEBURY, Vt.—President Ronald D. Liebowitz welcomed Middlebury College’s 580 first-year students on the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and asserted that their generation is prepared for the challenges of globalization brought on by the events of September 11, 2001.

In his convocation address delivered in Mead Chapel, the president said pre-9/11 generations in the United States grew up in a world influenced by American supremacy, a world shaped first by geography with two great oceans on our shores, and next by unequaled military capacity and missile-defense systems that protected our nation from attack. But that sense of invincibility rendered the U.S. unprepared to deal with a world that had changed dramatically since the 1970s, he said.

“It is no surprise that basic geographic literacy and foreign-language competency were national weaknesses for decades. There were no tangible or practical reasons for Americans to engage in the world,” he said. But economic reforms in China, European unification and the fall of Soviet communism “created a new world order that provided new liberties and unparalleled prosperity to hundreds of millions of people. But it also unleashed pent-up ethnic and religious hatred that contributed to the rise of radical Islamic fundamentalism.”

Watch a video of convocation

Since most of the members of the Class of 2015 were 7, 8 or 9 years old on September 11, 2001, President Liebowitz observed, “For you the changes in the American psyche brought on by 9/11 are second nature. They are the norm, what you know. As a result you will elect to study languages … you will engage in outreach projects anywhere in the world … and you will probably work harder and with more focus than most of us ever did to prepare yourselves to compete in labor markets that have become profoundly global.”

“You are in some important ways the antithesis of the pre-9/11 generation,” the president said. For students entering college today, he said there is no more “Pax Americana,” no more world in which the United States can guarantee peace for its citizens.

“You lack the deep-seated disappointment over current affairs [in Washington] that characterize older generations … 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 be distracted by how [this country] used to be … and you will be less constrained in finding ways to tackle the tough issues.”

Aside from learning to thrive in a highly globalized society, Middlebury’s 16th president offered this advice: “the day is just 24 hours long” so be sure to leave time for the college’s demanding academic workload; “view your time here as a way to study both broadly and deeply” for that is both “the purpose and advantage” of attending a liberal arts college; resist the notion “that two majors are better than one”; and “find a significant connection here and find it early,” whether to a performing arts group, an athletic team, or any other organization, for it can “provide the kind of social entree that will make your transition here easier and richer.”

Convocation 2011

Marshals Hang Du (left) and Stefano Mula

In the Middlebury tradition, convocation began outside Mead Chapel with summer still clinging to the Vermont hills. The “first years” (as they are known at Middlebury) lined the walkway from Old Stone Row to the chapel as the faculty, led this year by marshals Hang Du of the Chinese department and Stefano Mula of the Italian department, processed through the gauntlet of new students and into the chapel in their academic robes.

The students, dressed less formally in floral sundresses and sandals or Oxford shirts and khakis, followed the faculty through the Georgian doors and stood at their pews as Professor Emeritus Emory Fanning played the organ and Chaplain Laurel Macaulay Jordan ’79 delivered the invocation.

Provost Alison Byerly, a professor of English and American literatures, discussed the etymology of the word “convocation,” from the Latin convocāre, meaning “to call together,” as a way to welcome the Class of 2015 into their “shared membership” with the faculty in the Middlebury academic community.

The five heads of Middlebury Commons introduced their students to President Liebowitz and offered a few words about of each of the five commons’ namesakes: Jeremiah Atwater, Middlebury’s first president; Ezra Brainerd, Class of 1864 and a former professor and president; Reginald L. Cook, Class of 1924 and longtime faculty member; Eleanor Ross, Class of 1895 and a former professor and dean of women; and Erica Wonnacott, former dean of students.

Convocation 2011
First years sing their alma mater for the first time

The president introduced the members of the senior class who were elected to the Middlebury chapter of Phi Beta Kappa after their junior years. And Twilight Artist-in-Residence François Clemmons sang a stirring rendition of “This Little Light of Mine” accompanied by Fanning on the piano. The musical arrangement, which is a Clemmons-Fanning collaboration, concluded with the first years clapping and singing along, and earned a standing ovation.

The president’s 15-minute address followed, and the significance of his remarks were reflected on the students’ faces as they stood for the benediction given by Associate Chaplain Ira J. Schiffer. Finally, with the singing of the alma mater, Middlebury’s newest crop of students filed out of Mead Chapel and hurried over to Hepburn Hall for their class picture on the hillside.

Photos by Robert Keren