Middlebury

September 12, 2004: Convocation Address

President Ronald D. Liebowitz delivered this address to the Class of 2009 on September 12, 2004.

Welcome! I trust your first week on campus has gone well. From everything I have heard, it has ... and tomorrow, you will officially begin a new phase of your lives.

Those of you who went on MOO trips, I hope all the mosquito bites have stopped itching. And for those of you who didn't go on the MOO trips, I hope those mosquito bites have stopped itching, too.

Just so you know, although many joke that the mosquito is Vermont's state bird, it really isn't. This year the mosquito situation was unusually bad, matched perhaps only in recent memory in 1989 ... the year the then-Governor of Vermont, Madeleine Kunin, went on CBS news, in an attempt to save the state's summer and fall tourist industry, to tell the country that the mosquitoes were really not that bad.

According to locale lore, confirmed, at least, in principle by the Governor herself during her three-year term here as Bicentennial Scholar in Residence, Governor Kunin chose to use one of the state's beautiful lakes as a backdrop, which made sense since this was, after all, a pitch to help the tourist industry. Unfortunately, someone in the Kunin administration forgot that water is a mosquito's favorite habitat, so when the cameras rolled, and she began to explain how all the reports of a mosquito epidemic were greatly exaggerated, she was attacked by a swarm of mosquitoes and had no choice but to begin swatting her face, her arms, and all other parts of her body.

Reporters being reporters, there was little sympathy shown and the cameras just kept rolling. Needless to say, the summer tourist season was not saved that year.

Killing frosts do decimate the mosquito population, so don't be concerned that this will continue for much longer. Soon we will be mosquito free and will turn our attention to snow, ice, and sub-zero temperatures ... craving the warmer weather and forgetting all that comes with that warmth!

Professor [Stephen] Donadio [who gave the faculty address at this year's convocation] has spoken a bit today about liberal education—its timelessness, the pureness and sometimes elusiveness of its substance, and the dedication of a former Middlebury faculty member, Professor Eve Adler, to share with students her love of her own pursuit of understanding what we, today, might learn from ancient texts, and how those texts explain some of today's most pressing issues. Also of great interest to Eve, and the subject of a course she taught, was the question. "What is the goal of education?"

That question, of course, is, and should be, on all of our minds, and certainly on the mind of one who is just beginning his tenure as president of this College. So as I thought about the topic for my very first address to a first-year class, wishing to draw parallels between your experience in starting your Middlebury careers and my experience in starting my time as president of the College, I thought it appropriate to share with you some thoughts on your education as you begin your studies here and I begin my presidency.

These views are not an attempt to answer in full Professor Adler's question of "What is the goal of education?"—that would be presumptuous. But the views I will share with you will help to frame the larger discussion we will initiate on campus this year as part of a planning process intended to help chart the College's course over the following years.

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 specific subjects that make up what a liberally educated individual should study today may be a matter for interesting debates, but beyond the specific subjects, for sure, 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 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—an obligation—to understand how that education fits in with the greater good.

So it's the mode of study—the how, and not so much the what—that I want to focus on. Education here, as you will find out, 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, or at least they have the opportunity for such engagement and interaction.

This mode of education is the exception and not the norm; fewer than 2 percent of all undergraduates enroll at residential liberal arts colleges with this method of teaching and learning, largely because of the cost of such an education. The true or real cost of educating each student is around $60,000 per year. Our comprehensive fee, at just about $40,000 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—its long-term insurance policy against potentially difficult financial times.

I mention the cost of this kind of the 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 our graduates can engage their complex world seriously and with great confidence when they graduate; and second, so you will be less likely to take for granted the incredible array of resources available to you here to prepare yourself for consequential engagement in the world.

I should note that the essence of what I am saying today is hardly original. Some institutions of higher education with which you are all familiar have come to the same conclusion in recent years: you might want to read Yale College's recent self-study on undergraduate education, or Harvard president Lawrence Summers' several speeches on undergraduate education, or a number of the elite state universities' rationale for the development of undergraduate honors liberal arts colleges within their larger structures. 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 exchanges.

The finest large universities, 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, and one 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 40 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 "real" world.

Confidence to engage the world seriously comes less from the subjects you will study, and more from theway 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 learn here in preparation for what you will face following graduation. I will expound briefly on each of these areas, and relate how this learning environment is the very best to prepare you, if you are willing to do the work.

First: seek classes and professors that force you to write, write, and write some more. 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.

Clichés become clichés because, quite often, they are true, and this one about liberal arts education is indeed true. However, it is true 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 have here. The combination of these two characteristics means you have your professor's attention and your work is given substantive critical commentary.

Middlebury requires two "intensive" writing courses, one is your first-year seminar, and the other is a course recommended to be in your major. In those courses, because they are designated as writing intensive courses, you will write a lot. You should also rewrite a lot, sometimes multiple drafts of one assignment. In addition to your professor's comments, you should take advantage of the significant array of resources provided here to help you with writing. Seek feedback routinely on your argument, or on the clarity of your writing, or both, from peer tutors or staff at the College's new 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. That confidence is crucial if you are going to be engaged in the world following Middlebury, and it requires the sustained and intense guidance we offer here.

Second: 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. If you keep in mind the question, "What is the goal of education," why you are here, and how part of being liberally educated involves a moral obligation to give back, you will feel more comfortable taking the initiative to get as much out of what this human-intensive learning environment offers you.

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 discussions in their course; 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.

And third: 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, alternative energy sources, food alteration, or new forms of warfare—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 who pursue science beyond a course or two 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 Ph.D.'s earned in the sciences are by students who went to small liberal arts colleges for their undergraduate degree and not 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 these comments. Or, specifically, a run on writing-intensive courses this semester. Or finding out we have run out of space in McCardell Bicentennial Hall—if that is possible.

I do, however, hope you will rethink 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 faculty colleagues and I inherited when we completed our undergraduate studies.

In fact, I can't help but observe how yesterday's third anniversary of September 11th fits into all of this: if nothing else, September 11th should represent to each of you and 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. As Professor Donadio said of Professor Adler, whose teaching and scholarship revolved around her love of ancient texts, her main intellectual pursuit was to 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.

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.

Community and Friendship

President Ronald D. Liebowitz delivered this address to the Class of 2012 on September 7, 2008.

Welcome! I trust your first week on campus has gone well. From everything I have heard, your move-in, registration, first-year seminar meetings, and all of the other beginning-of-the-year activities have gone smoothly. The mosquitoes, unfortunately, decided to come out in full force to welcome you to Vermont, though they were not part of the official orientation program.

Many people deserve a lot of credit for helping to make your orientation such a success. At the risk of offending those who I might overlook, I will only thank Katy Abbott, Associate Dean of the College, and ask her to thank all those who helped make your and your parents’ introduction to Middlebury enjoyable and relatively easy. Thank you, Katy.

I, along with my faculty colleagues, am thrilled you are here, and we look forward to getting to know you in class, during our office hours, and in multiple events and venues on campus.

Convocation addresses, such as this one, allow presidents to speak to incoming students directly and as a class—something not likely to occur again until Commencement. With such an opportunity, I have, during my first four years as president, felt compelled to impart what I would call “practical advice” to the incoming class, along with some general words of wisdom on this celebratory and very special occasion.

As such, I have encouraged, even exhorted, the past four incoming classes to heed the following advice:

  • take full advantage of this remarkable opportunity—the gift of a liberal arts education. About 2 percent of all undergraduate students in the United States study at a residential liberal arts college like Middlebury and are presented with all the opportunities such an education provides. Don’t take anything for granted; don’t sit back; jump in and be a part of all that is going on here.
  • take risks and explore disciplines you never had the opportunity to study before college. The “tried and true” is not likely to open new doors for you, nor is it likely to push you to grow in ways a liberal education will if you give it a chance.
  • 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 best kept secrets in higher education these days, so go check out our science departments: I don’t think you can miss McCardell Bicentennial Hall, so no directions required.
  • take as many courses known for writing assignments and oral presentations as you can. One cannot underestimate the value of learning to write and speak clearly when one graduates and engages the real world. This is the time and place to improve on your communications skills, to get constructive criticism and encouragement, not when you are asked to make your first presentation or deliver a cogent argument at your first job.
  • take the initiative to learn outside the classroom. You will find countless opportunities to volunteer in the local community, establish new organizations, or help to nurture and develop existing ones during your four years. 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.
  • and finally, 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. They were, or should have been, the major reason for coming to Middlebury.

Though none of us really puts all that much stock in the college ranking game, I think ... well, in fact I admit that I know the Middlebury faculty was recently ranked as the best in the country by the Princeton Review. (I believe the category in which they were ranked first was called “professors get high marks.”). Whether or not you put any stock in such rankings, 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.

And while I am at it, how about joining me in thanking those faculty members here today for receiving external affirmation of what we already know about them and their great commitment to our students? Thank you, faculty colleagues.

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 today on something different.

As natural as it would be for me to focus my comments on the remarkable academic opportunities in front of you, I believe the most important message I can convey to each of you today centers 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.

At residential liberal arts colleges, one often hears about the strength of the “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 some vague, 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 students explain, year in and year out, why their experiences here differ in some fundamental way from their friends’ experiences at peer institutions: the majority of Middlebury students, we often hear, view learning as collaborative rather 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,” which means “communion by intimate participation,” and the Latin concept of communitatem, or “fellowship.” Communitatem is related to the word communis, meaning “common, public, shared by all or many,” and itself is derived from the words com, meaning “with,” plus unis, meaning “one,” or from com plus munis meaning “exchange or obligation.” Both meanings, “with one” or “with exchange or obligation” signify 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, almost anything, in common. It has become overused, a cliché of sorts, and therefore 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 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, yet one still needs to learn the culture 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—a standard that approximates one’s own expectations—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 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.

The irresponsible use of alcohol, though committed by a relatively small minority of students, is by far the greatest cause of disrespectful behavior toward the community here at Middlebury. 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, in indirect ways, 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 oneself into a stupor and suffer the individual consequences such behavior generates: drunkenness; 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—on the community—becomes all too familiar to fellow students, presumably “friends,” staff, and administrators who must literally and figuratively clean up the mess. 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 or experiential “cost” of disrespectful behavior is the diminishing of what one will learn and experience at Middlebury. It prevents the integration of many groups of students, especially students who come from other cultures and who openly wonder why students so 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 translates into missed opportunities for students to hear different perspectives on politics, the arts, and life in general, and to learn more about the vastly different and rich cultures that coexist on our campus. In other words, it leads to behavior that interferes with the larger, loftier, goals of a liberal arts education.

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 destruction of property and the disrespect of individuals, one needs to ask how committed that person can be 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 today comes in—friendship. Friendships at Middlebury are special. For a host of 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.

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 those energies expended are shared largely within the confines of our 350-acre main campus.

The word friend comes from the Old English freond, 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 and others in danger.

A significant body of research supports the long-held view 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 the friendship, and is likely to weaken the sense of community one enjoys when members of the community look out for one another.

You will be glad to know that I am the first to understand that administrators cannot dictate good behavior. Nor can we alone set the standards of friendship within a community. That needs to come from the community itself, and the fact is that students 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.

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 remarkable community 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 become. Grab some potential true friends and hit the ground running.

Good luck, and thank you.

Convocation Address 2009

President Ronald D. Liebowitz delivered the following address to the Class of 2013 on September 6, 2009.

Welcome! It is my pleasure, on behalf of the faculty, staff, trustees, and your fellow Middlebury

students, to extend a warm welcome to you, the class of 2013. I trust you have enjoyed your week of orientation, which benefited from what has to be one of the finest weeks of weather any of us here can remember. I would love to report that this will continue until May of 2013, but alas, I would hate to lose credibility with your class so soon!

In fact, the hardy and variable weather is one of the things that makes this place what it is, and creates the kind of environment in which friendships and personal relationships are more important, more meaningful, and more long-lasting than in most other settings. There are few distractions in this beautiful, remote, part of New England, which means students here rely heavily on one another for their social, intellectual, creative, and academic sustenance and energy.

Though one of the great and sometimes unnoticed benefits of being at a place like Middlebury is the opportunity for students to get involved and make a difference in the town, in Addison County, and even in Montpelier, our state capital, living and learning at this institution revolves around being part of this intellectual community. It is a community filled with remarkably talented students, dedicated staff, and the very best faculty you can find if you are ready and willing to be challenged and to take advantage of their talents and high expectations.

But I will come back to this message in some greater detail after I provide some background to the cane that, I hope, is still circulating among you—Gamaliel Painter’s cane.

Gamaliel Painter was one of the visionaries who helped found Middlebury College more than 200 years ago. He could barely read and write, yet he was wise to the world, knew how to assess risk and take chances, and had a remarkable ability to master whatever kind of work he pursued or needed to get done: a self-starter in the true sense of the word. He was a successful businessman, skilled negotiator, bold entrepreneur, and a farmer, and was always looking to improve his and this town’s lot.

Germane to us here, and to our College, Painter purchased land on speculation just east of the Otter Creek during a chance trip to the region, and then, years later, when things got stale in his native Salisbury, Connecticut, he moved his family to Middlebury in the early 1770s to take his chances on a new life. When Painter moved to Middlebury, the population numbered fewer than 125, less than half the number of first-years living in Battell today, or slightly larger than the population in Allen Hall.

By the 1790s, Painter, largely uneducated, saw the need for his two sons to obtain a better education than what he had growing up in Connecticut, and what was available in and around Middlebury. Thus, he began negotiations to establish a grammar school, or what he called a central academy, to supplement the existing district school, which was located along the falls, on the site that today houses, of all things, American Flatbread Pizza. In 1797, with the help of several prominent Middlebury families, Painter secured land on the west side of the Otter Creek and then a charter to begin a grammar school.

A year later, in the fall of 1798, Timothy Dwight, then president of Yale and, at the time, New England’s most venerated educator, visited Middlebury. The Yale president was in Vermont to complete some research on the economic geography of the region, but also to enjoy Vermont’s wondrous natural environment while convalescing from a recent illness.

The trustees of the new grammar school, and Painter in particular, believed strongly that if the fledgling town was to become prosperous, and the Champlain Valley was to become a viable region, both would need a college or university. In fact, prior to getting the charter for the grammar school in Middlebury, Painter had decided that the grammar school he was founding needed eventually to be expanded into a college, and believed that gaining the approval and support of someone of Timothy Dwight’s stature would make that all the more possible.

In what College historian David Stameshkin and Painter biographer Storrs Lee describe as the closest thing to a Potemkin Village-like affair, Painter and the grammar school trustees wined and dined Dwight during his visit to Middlebury. They asked Samuel Miller, who was best known and most appreciated for having married an innkeeper’s daughter, to host what was described as the best prepared meal anyone had ever witnessed in town. They lubricated the meal, and the guests, with Miller’s finest liqueurs, and by the end of the dinner, the hosts had secured Dwight’s approval for the project.

In his own account of the evening, written in his personal papers, Dwight alluded to the unusually fine meal, the intensity and sincerity of the hosts’ cause to start a college, and to the way in which he conveyed his blessings to the project along with a pledge to continue to advise Painter and his colleagues through the tedious process of securing a state charter.

Soon after the Dwight dinner, Painter began his work with the Vermont legislature to gain permission to establish his college in Middlebury. His proposal failed to make the assembly’s agenda in two successive legislative sessions—the 1798 and 1799 gatherings—but though irritated and impatient, Painter persevered.

As a way to pressure the legislators to take up his cause in 1800, he offered Middlebury, with its spanking new court house, to play host to that year’s legislative session, and his offer was accepted. By the way, in those days, the state capital was not located in Montpelier, as it is today. In fact it was not located in any one place, but rather alternated each year between a town on the eastern side of the Green Mountains one year, and then one on the western side the next.

The 1798 and 1799 legislative sessions might have ignored Painter’s petition for a charter, but the third session was the charm. During the three-week session in 1800, Middlebury citizens, merchants, and, especially, tavern owners gave the visiting legislators the red carpet treatment, hoping to help Painter and his crew attain the much sought-after charter. Despite the significant and even hostile protests from the 20 representatives from Burlington and Chittenden County, where a university charter was awarded nine years earlier, the assembly approved Painter’s petition, and officially granted a charter for what would become Middlebury College on November 1, 1800.

Perhaps the representatives from Burlington were embarrassed: even though their town received the state’s first charter for a university in 1791, the university, despite having already completed the construction of a president’s house, had yet to hire a faculty member or teach a single student.

Painter and his colleagues—all New England Puritans, and most of them educated at Yale—donated $4,150 to construct the first college building. Classes began in the newly constructed building, which sat on the site of present-day Twilight Hall. For nineteen years after the College’s founding, as both the College and town thrived, Gamaliel Painter walked the streets of the town and carried with him the famous walking stick that is circulating among you now. At his death in 1819, Painter left a bequest of more than $13,000 to the College, a huge sum of money at the time, and it served to secure the college's future.

I provide this background so you can appreciate Painter’s remarkable vision and determination, and become acquainted with the College’s most important founder. The success of this College—indeed its very existence— is the result of Painter’s vision and the elaboration of his vision by generation upon generation of his successors. His cane, a replica of which each graduate of the College receives at Commencement, has become the College’s most important symbol, and has come to represent many of the things we aspire to inculcate in our students—in all of you.

The spirit of Gamaliel Painter lives on in the rich history of this College and through the notable contributions of its alumni. You, the newest members of the College’s extended family, are now a part of this long and great history, and your College welcomes you today with open arms, an open heart, and some very high aspirations for each and every one of you.

Those high aspirations are rooted in what we already know about you . . . what you accomplished before you arrived. You are a diverse collection of bright, inquisitive, energetic, and eager learners and doers. As you bring your talents and experiences to this community, I challenge you to take advantage of the committed and talented faculty you now have as mentors and teachers, our dedicated staff, and your fellow students—the other 1800 or so Middlebury undergraduates—with whom you will form bonds of friendship that will endure well beyond your time here.

Your fellow students, in particular, should be a remarkable source of inspiration for you. I encourage you to seek out as broad a swath of friends as you can. We strive as an institution to build a student body that is diverse in its background and life experiences for a reason, and that is to enrich your learning environment both inside and outside the classroom.

I know you will take advantage of the numerous academic opportunities before you, and may even feel frustrated when you can’t delve deeply enough into many areas of the curriculum. But not trying to “do it all” is sometimes a good thing. Doing things in balance is a challenge for all of us, especially for many of you who have been doing so many things for a good part of your lives. But in order to get the most out of your time here, I pass along the following advice:

No matter how much you wish to extend it, the day is 24 hours long.

The work load per course at Middlebury is demanding, and so when you think about how you will allocate your precious time, make sure to leave enough time to cover all you will be asked to do in four, not one, two, or three classes.

View your time here as a way to study both deeply and broadly. That is the advantage and indeed the purpose of coming to a liberal arts college. Unlike what you would do at a technical or pre-professional school, we require you to select a major, but also to take courses across the curriculum, selecting classes in disciplines you might have never taken before, or even knew existed.

Resist the myth that more is better—for example that two majors are better than one—and instead take advantage of the strength of our faculty and curriculum by taking multiple courses in the arts, humanities, languages, the social sciences, and natural sciences. You will graduate four years from now better educated and just as prepared to go on for a Ph.D. or to pursue any career you wish as you would have been had you completed a double major.

More importantly, by taking courses broadly across the curriculum, chances are you will happen upon a faculty member who will excite you with material you otherwise never would have encountered, and perhaps change your life. Science majors might find Classical Greek poetry, John Stewart Mill’s “On Liberty,” or landscape painting central to the rest of their lives, just as literature majors might discover a passion and life-long interest in ecology, marine life, or the study of the human genome.

As you think about the next four years, then, try to think about striking a balance in what you study, in what you do outside your academic work, and in what you do for a social life. Contrary to how it might seem from afar, the transition to college is never seamless for anybody. And don’t procrastinate; jump right in. Finding a significant connection to something here and finding it early—an athletic team, an a cappellagroup, a literary club, or any of the College’s 140-plus student organizations—will provide the kind of social entrée that will make the transition here easier and far richer.

This, too, takes initiative, but we make it relatively easy to take that initiative: I recommend that you attend the College’s activities fair, where you can meet members of many student organizations and learn about what each does and how to get involved. This year’s fair will take place this coming Friday, September 11, from 4:30 to 8 p.m. on Hepburn Road and Proctor Terrace, which is located right behind us.

In addition to the numerous student clubs you will learn about at the fair, I want to draw your attention to two new organizations that can offer a different kind of experience for you over the next four years. The first is something called the Solar Decathlon, a national competition sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy, which seeks to promote creative thinking in the areas of environmental sustainability, solar and alternative energies, architectural design, and science.

It is a competition that calls on colleges and universities to create teams, as large as 125 in number, which can work across academic disciplines to construct a house on the national mall in Washington DC. The house, limited to 1,200 square feet, must rely on solar energy, be environmentally aware, be engineered in a sound way, and serve as a successful demonstration project for others interested in energy conservation and sustainable development in the field of residential architecture.

This is a national competition, and a liberal arts college has never gotten beyond the initial stage of the competition, largely because the final product requires extensive architectural expertise, engineering expertise, environmental expertise, and seamless teamwork. Large universities with professional schools in each of these areas usually win the competition. However, a group of students at Middlebury, all rising juniors, expressed interest in the competition this past year, and over the summer, we brought together faculty and staff to brainstorm whether this was something the College should encourage our students to pursue

Unlike all the past participating schools with whom we spoke, we don’t have an engineering school or a graduate program in architecture. Yet, upon meeting last week with the students who were interested in developing a proposal and entering a team, it was clear that they were serious, determined, and motivated by how this competition draws on their varied academic interests as well as their passions about sustainability, the environment, and science.

Addison Godine is the student leader of the Solar Decathlon group, and I encourage all of you to contact Addison, or engage him and his student collaborators at the activities fair on Friday.

The other entity I would bring to your attention is the Old Stone Mill, the historic four-story building located along the Otter Creek in town. You might have visited the building if you dined at the Storm Café, which is located in part of the bottom level of the building.

The Old Stone Mill offers students a place in which to pursue their creative passions outside the classroom. Six students comprise a board that allocates a number of varied spaces in the building and helps its tenants’ achieve the goals of their projects. Last spring, 35 students occupied spaces in the Old Stone Mill at any one time, and have worked on projects ranging from establishing an on-line literary magazine to making public sculpture out of bicycles.

The Old Stone Mill assumes one needn’t major in any particular area in order to engage in creative endeavors, and offers those in that situation some space and limited support to carry out their creative work. The student board of the Old Stone Mill will be at the activities fair this Friday, and I encourage you to engage members of the board and find out how you can get involved, or at least reserve some nice space in which to do creative things.

Last Tuesday during my meeting with your parents here in the Chapel, one parent—a mom—asked me, and I paraphrase, What hopes do you hold for the incoming class? My answer, which was of course unrehearsed, would have been no different had I had time to think about the answer. What I said in answering that question aligns closely with what I have tried to say to you here, and could be summarized as follows.

I said that my hopes were that members of this class, and really all of our students, would take advantage of all that is here before them. I said that I feared too few of our students become familiar with all the resources and opportunities that are here for them. I explained that our faculty, in addition to offering an A-plus experience in the classroom, are poised to mentor our students and to help them connect with what is an extensive array of resources to help them delve more deeply into their interests, become better educated in the broad sense of the word, and develop the kind of character that is most likely to come with an outstanding liberal arts education.

My hopes, then, revolve not around measured outcomes, per se, but rather around how much of what we offer you, you will engage and let engage you. If you explore, connect meaningfully with as broad array of people and courses as possible, and pursue your passions with great vigor, I am confident you will become not only accomplished in your chosen field of study, but you will also develop into the engaged life-long learner that a liberal arts college strives to develop and proudly produces—graduates who are confident and fully prepared to meet the economic, social, and moral challenges of an increasingly complex world. But so much of this is up to you, and will depend on how willing you are to take the initiative.

From the little I told you today about Gamaliel Painter—the College’s most significant founder—you should be able to deduce how Painter would approach a Middlebury education if he had the chance to begin his studies with you today.

May the history and influence of Painter be felt by each and every one of you, and may you challenge yourself to make the most of the next four years at this remarkable College, just as you know Painter would have done.

Thank you, and best of luck, class of 2013.

 

MiddTags:

Convocation Address 2009

President Ronald D. Liebowitz delivered the following address to the Class of 2013 on September 6, 2009.

Welcome! It is my pleasure, on behalf of the faculty, staff, trustees, and your fellow Middlebury

students, to extend a warm welcome to you, the class of 2013. I trust you have enjoyed your week of orientation, which benefited from what has to be one of the finest weeks of weather any of us here can remember. I would love to report that this will continue until May of 2013, but alas, I would hate to lose credibility with your class so soon!

In fact, the hardy and variable weather is one of the things that makes this place what it is, and creates the kind of environment in which friendships and personal relationships are more important, more meaningful, and more long-lasting than in most other settings. There are few distractions in this beautiful, remote, part of New England, which means students here rely heavily on one another for their social, intellectual, creative, and academic sustenance and energy.

Though one of the great and sometimes unnoticed benefits of being at a place like Middlebury is the opportunity for students to get involved and make a difference in the town, in Addison County, and even in Montpelier, our state capital, living and learning at this institution revolves around being part of this intellectual community. It is a community filled with remarkably talented students, dedicated staff, and the very best faculty you can find if you are ready and willing to be challenged and to take advantage of their talents and high expectations.

But I will come back to this message in some greater detail after I provide some background to the cane that, I hope, is still circulating among you—Gamaliel Painter’s cane.

Gamaliel Painter was one of the visionaries who helped found Middlebury College more than 200 years ago. He could barely read and write, yet he was wise to the world, knew how to assess risk and take chances, and had a remarkable ability to master whatever kind of work he pursued or needed to get done: a self-starter in the true sense of the word. He was a successful businessman, skilled negotiator, bold entrepreneur, and a farmer, and was always looking to improve his and this town’s lot.

Germane to us here, and to our College, Painter purchased land on speculation just east of the Otter Creek during a chance trip to the region, and then, years later, when things got stale in his native Salisbury, Connecticut, he moved his family to Middlebury in the early 1770s to take his chances on a new life. When Painter moved to Middlebury, the population numbered fewer than 125, less than half the number of first-years living in Battell today, or slightly larger than the population in Allen Hall.

By the 1790s, Painter, largely uneducated, saw the need for his two sons to obtain a better education than what he had growing up in Connecticut, and what was available in and around Middlebury. Thus, he began negotiations to establish a grammar school, or what he called a central academy, to supplement the existing district school, which was located along the falls, on the site that today houses, of all things, American Flatbread Pizza. In 1797, with the help of several prominent Middlebury families, Painter secured land on the west side of the Otter Creek and then a charter to begin a grammar school.

A year later, in the fall of 1798, Timothy Dwight, then president of Yale and, at the time, New England’s most venerated educator, visited Middlebury. The Yale president was in Vermont to complete some research on the economic geography of the region, but also to enjoy Vermont’s wondrous natural environment while convalescing from a recent illness.

The trustees of the new grammar school, and Painter in particular, believed strongly that if the fledgling town was to become prosperous, and the Champlain Valley was to become a viable region, both would need a college or university. In fact, prior to getting the charter for the grammar school in Middlebury, Painter had decided that the grammar school he was founding needed eventually to be expanded into a college, and believed that gaining the approval and support of someone of Timothy Dwight’s stature would make that all the more possible.

In what College historian David Stameshkin and Painter biographer Storrs Lee describe as the closest thing to a Potemkin Village-like affair, Painter and the grammar school trustees wined and dined Dwight during his visit to Middlebury. They asked Samuel Miller, who was best known and most appreciated for having married an innkeeper’s daughter, to host what was described as the best prepared meal anyone had ever witnessed in town. They lubricated the meal, and the guests, with Miller’s finest liqueurs, and by the end of the dinner, the hosts had secured Dwight’s approval for the project.

In his own account of the evening, written in his personal papers, Dwight alluded to the unusually fine meal, the intensity and sincerity of the hosts’ cause to start a college, and to the way in which he conveyed his blessings to the project along with a pledge to continue to advise Painter and his colleagues through the tedious process of securing a state charter.

Soon after the Dwight dinner, Painter began his work with the Vermont legislature to gain permission to establish his college in Middlebury. His proposal failed to make the assembly’s agenda in two successive legislative sessions—the 1798 and 1799 gatherings—but though irritated and impatient, Painter persevered.

As a way to pressure the legislators to take up his cause in 1800, he offered Middlebury, with its spanking new court house, to play host to that year’s legislative session, and his offer was accepted. By the way, in those days, the state capital was not located in Montpelier, as it is today. In fact it was not located in any one place, but rather alternated each year between a town on the eastern side of the Green Mountains one year, and then one on the western side the next.

The 1798 and 1799 legislative sessions might have ignored Painter’s petition for a charter, but the third session was the charm. During the three-week session in 1800, Middlebury citizens, merchants, and, especially, tavern owners gave the visiting legislators the red carpet treatment, hoping to help Painter and his crew attain the much sought-after charter. Despite the significant and even hostile protests from the 20 representatives from Burlington and Chittenden County, where a university charter was awarded nine years earlier, the assembly approved Painter’s petition, and officially granted a charter for what would become Middlebury College on November 1, 1800.

Perhaps the representatives from Burlington were embarrassed: even though their town received the state’s first charter for a university in 1791, the university, despite having already completed the construction of a president’s house, had yet to hire a faculty member or teach a single student.

Painter and his colleagues—all New England Puritans, and most of them educated at Yale—donated $4,150 to construct the first college building. Classes began in the newly constructed building, which sat on the site of present-day Twilight Hall. For nineteen years after the College’s founding, as both the College and town thrived, Gamaliel Painter walked the streets of the town and carried with him the famous walking stick that is circulating among you now. At his death in 1819, Painter left a bequest of more than $13,000 to the College, a huge sum of money at the time, and it served to secure the college's future.

I provide this background so you can appreciate Painter’s remarkable vision and determination, and become acquainted with the College’s most important founder. The success of this College—indeed its very existence— is the result of Painter’s vision and the elaboration of his vision by generation upon generation of his successors. His cane, a replica of which each graduate of the College receives at Commencement, has become the College’s most important symbol, and has come to represent many of the things we aspire to inculcate in our students—in all of you.

The spirit of Gamaliel Painter lives on in the rich history of this College and through the notable contributions of its alumni. You, the newest members of the College’s extended family, are now a part of this long and great history, and your College welcomes you today with open arms, an open heart, and some very high aspirations for each and every one of you.

Those high aspirations are rooted in what we already know about you . . . what you accomplished before you arrived. You are a diverse collection of bright, inquisitive, energetic, and eager learners and doers. As you bring your talents and experiences to this community, I challenge you to take advantage of the committed and talented faculty you now have as mentors and teachers, our dedicated staff, and your fellow students—the other 1800 or so Middlebury undergraduates—with whom you will form bonds of friendship that will endure well beyond your time here.

Your fellow students, in particular, should be a remarkable source of inspiration for you. I encourage you to seek out as broad a swath of friends as you can. We strive as an institution to build a student body that is diverse in its background and life experiences for a reason, and that is to enrich your learning environment both inside and outside the classroom.

I know you will take advantage of the numerous academic opportunities before you, and may even feel frustrated when you can’t delve deeply enough into many areas of the curriculum. But not trying to “do it all” is sometimes a good thing. Doing things in balance is a challenge for all of us, especially for many of you who have been doing so many things for a good part of your lives. But in order to get the most out of your time here, I pass along the following advice:

No matter how much you wish to extend it, the day is 24 hours long.

The work load per course at Middlebury is demanding, and so when you think about how you will allocate your precious time, make sure to leave enough time to cover all you will be asked to do in four, not one, two, or three classes.

View your time here as a way to study both deeply and broadly. That is the advantage and indeed the purpose of coming to a liberal arts college. Unlike what you would do at a technical or pre-professional school, we require you to select a major, but also to take courses across the curriculum, selecting classes in disciplines you might have never taken before, or even knew existed.

Resist the myth that more is better—for example that two majors are better than one—and instead take advantage of the strength of our faculty and curriculum by taking multiple courses in the arts, humanities, languages, the social sciences, and natural sciences. You will graduate four years from now better educated and just as prepared to go on for a Ph.D. or to pursue any career you wish as you would have been had you completed a double major.

More importantly, by taking courses broadly across the curriculum, chances are you will happen upon a faculty member who will excite you with material you otherwise never would have encountered, and perhaps change your life. Science majors might find Classical Greek poetry, John Stewart Mill’s “On Liberty,” or landscape painting central to the rest of their lives, just as literature majors might discover a passion and life-long interest in ecology, marine life, or the study of the human genome.

As you think about the next four years, then, try to think about striking a balance in what you study, in what you do outside your academic work, and in what you do for a social life. Contrary to how it might seem from afar, the transition to college is never seamless for anybody. And don’t procrastinate; jump right in. Finding a significant connection to something here and finding it early—an athletic team, an a cappellagroup, a literary club, or any of the College’s 140-plus student organizations—will provide the kind of social entrée that will make the transition here easier and far richer.

This, too, takes initiative, but we make it relatively easy to take that initiative: I recommend that you attend the College’s activities fair, where you can meet members of many student organizations and learn about what each does and how to get involved. This year’s fair will take place this coming Friday, September 11, from 4:30 to 8 p.m. on Hepburn Road and Proctor Terrace, which is located right behind us.

In addition to the numerous student clubs you will learn about at the fair, I want to draw your attention to two new organizations that can offer a different kind of experience for you over the next four years. The first is something called the Solar Decathlon, a national competition sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy, which seeks to promote creative thinking in the areas of environmental sustainability, solar and alternative energies, architectural design, and science.

It is a competition that calls on colleges and universities to create teams, as large as 125 in number, which can work across academic disciplines to construct a house on the national mall in Washington DC. The house, limited to 1,200 square feet, must rely on solar energy, be environmentally aware, be engineered in a sound way, and serve as a successful demonstration project for others interested in energy conservation and sustainable development in the field of residential architecture.

This is a national competition, and a liberal arts college has never gotten beyond the initial stage of the competition, largely because the final product requires extensive architectural expertise, engineering expertise, environmental expertise, and seamless teamwork. Large universities with professional schools in each of these areas usually win the competition. However, a group of students at Middlebury, all rising juniors, expressed interest in the competition this past year, and over the summer, we brought together faculty and staff to brainstorm whether this was something the College should encourage our students to pursue

Unlike all the past participating schools with whom we spoke, we don’t have an engineering school or a graduate program in architecture. Yet, upon meeting last week with the students who were interested in developing a proposal and entering a team, it was clear that they were serious, determined, and motivated by how this competition draws on their varied academic interests as well as their passions about sustainability, the environment, and science.

Addison Godine is the student leader of the Solar Decathlon group, and I encourage all of you to contact Addison, or engage him and his student collaborators at the activities fair on Friday.

The other entity I would bring to your attention is the Old Stone Mill, the historic four-story building located along the Otter Creek in town. You might have visited the building if you dined at the Storm Café, which is located in part of the bottom level of the building.

The Old Stone Mill offers students a place in which to pursue their creative passions outside the classroom. Six students comprise a board that allocates a number of varied spaces in the building and helps its tenants’ achieve the goals of their projects. Last spring, 35 students occupied spaces in the Old Stone Mill at any one time, and have worked on projects ranging from establishing an on-line literary magazine to making public sculpture out of bicycles.

The Old Stone Mill assumes one needn’t major in any particular area in order to engage in creative endeavors, and offers those in that situation some space and limited support to carry out their creative work. The student board of the Old Stone Mill will be at the activities fair this Friday, and I encourage you to engage members of the board and find out how you can get involved, or at least reserve some nice space in which to do creative things.

Last Tuesday during my meeting with your parents here in the Chapel, one parent—a mom—asked me, and I paraphrase, What hopes do you hold for the incoming class? My answer, which was of course unrehearsed, would have been no different had I had time to think about the answer. What I said in answering that question aligns closely with what I have tried to say to you here, and could be summarized as follows.

I said that my hopes were that members of this class, and really all of our students, would take advantage of all that is here before them. I said that I feared too few of our students become familiar with all the resources and opportunities that are here for them. I explained that our faculty, in addition to offering an A-plus experience in the classroom, are poised to mentor our students and to help them connect with what is an extensive array of resources to help them delve more deeply into their interests, become better educated in the broad sense of the word, and develop the kind of character that is most likely to come with an outstanding liberal arts education.

My hopes, then, revolve not around measured outcomes, per se, but rather around how much of what we offer you, you will engage and let engage you. If you explore, connect meaningfully with as broad array of people and courses as possible, and pursue your passions with great vigor, I am confident you will become not only accomplished in your chosen field of study, but you will also develop into the engaged life-long learner that a liberal arts college strives to develop and proudly produces—graduates who are confident and fully prepared to meet the economic, social, and moral challenges of an increasingly complex world. But so much of this is up to you, and will depend on how willing you are to take the initiative.

From the little I told you today about Gamaliel Painter—the College’s most significant founder—you should be able to deduce how Painter would approach a Middlebury education if he had the chance to begin his studies with you today.

May the history and influence of Painter be felt by each and every one of you, and may you challenge yourself to make the most of the next four years at this remarkable College, just as you know Painter would have done.

Thank you, and best of luck, class of 2013.

 

MiddTags:

September 12, 2004: Convocation Address

President Ronald D. Liebowitz delivered this address to the Class of 2009 on September 12, 2004.

Welcome! I trust your first week on campus has gone well. From everything I have heard, it has ... and tomorrow, you will officially begin a new phase of your lives.

Those of you who went on MOO trips, I hope all the mosquito bites have stopped itching. And for those of you who didn't go on the MOO trips, I hope those mosquito bites have stopped itching, too.

Just so you know, although many joke that the mosquito is Vermont's state bird, it really isn't. This year the mosquito situation was unusually bad, matched perhaps only in recent memory in 1989 ... the year the then-Governor of Vermont, Madeleine Kunin, went on CBS news, in an attempt to save the state's summer and fall tourist industry, to tell the country that the mosquitoes were really not that bad.

According to locale lore, confirmed, at least, in principle by the Governor herself during her three-year term here as Bicentennial Scholar in Residence, Governor Kunin chose to use one of the state's beautiful lakes as a backdrop, which made sense since this was, after all, a pitch to help the tourist industry. Unfortunately, someone in the Kunin administration forgot that water is a mosquito's favorite habitat, so when the cameras rolled, and she began to explain how all the reports of a mosquito epidemic were greatly exaggerated, she was attacked by a swarm of mosquitoes and had no choice but to begin swatting her face, her arms, and all other parts of her body.

Reporters being reporters, there was little sympathy shown and the cameras just kept rolling. Needless to say, the summer tourist season was not saved that year.

Killing frosts do decimate the mosquito population, so don't be concerned that this will continue for much longer. Soon we will be mosquito free and will turn our attention to snow, ice, and sub-zero temperatures ... craving the warmer weather and forgetting all that comes with that warmth!

Professor [Stephen] Donadio [who gave the faculty address at this year's convocation] has spoken a bit today about liberal education—its timelessness, the pureness and sometimes elusiveness of its substance, and the dedication of a former Middlebury faculty member, Professor Eve Adler, to share with students her love of her own pursuit of understanding what we, today, might learn from ancient texts, and how those texts explain some of today's most pressing issues. Also of great interest to Eve, and the subject of a course she taught, was the question. "What is the goal of education?"

That question, of course, is, and should be, on all of our minds, and certainly on the mind of one who is just beginning his tenure as president of this College. So as I thought about the topic for my very first address to a first-year class, wishing to draw parallels between your experience in starting your Middlebury careers and my experience in starting my time as president of the College, I thought it appropriate to share with you some thoughts on your education as you begin your studies here and I begin my presidency.

These views are not an attempt to answer in full Professor Adler's question of "What is the goal of education?"—that would be presumptuous. But the views I will share with you will help to frame the larger discussion we will initiate on campus this year as part of a planning process intended to help chart the College's course over the following years.

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 specific subjects that make up what a liberally educated individual should study today may be a matter for interesting debates, but beyond the specific subjects, for sure, 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 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—an obligation—to understand how that education fits in with the greater good.

So it's the mode of study—the how, and not so much the what—that I want to focus on. Education here, as you will find out, 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, or at least they have the opportunity for such engagement and interaction.

This mode of education is the exception and not the norm; fewer than 2 percent of all undergraduates enroll at residential liberal arts colleges with this method of teaching and learning, largely because of the cost of such an education. The true or real cost of educating each student is around $60,000 per year. Our comprehensive fee, at just about $40,000 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—its long-term insurance policy against potentially difficult financial times.

I mention the cost of this kind of the 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 our graduates can engage their complex world seriously and with great confidence when they graduate; and second, so you will be less likely to take for granted the incredible array of resources available to you here to prepare yourself for consequential engagement in the world.

I should note that the essence of what I am saying today is hardly original. Some institutions of higher education with which you are all familiar have come to the same conclusion in recent years: you might want to read Yale College's recent self-study on undergraduate education, or Harvard president Lawrence Summers' several speeches on undergraduate education, or a number of the elite state universities' rationale for the development of undergraduate honors liberal arts colleges within their larger structures. 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 exchanges.

The finest large universities, 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, and one 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 40 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 "real" world.

Confidence to engage the world seriously comes less from the subjects you will study, and more from theway 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 learn here in preparation for what you will face following graduation. I will expound briefly on each of these areas, and relate how this learning environment is the very best to prepare you, if you are willing to do the work.

First: seek classes and professors that force you to write, write, and write some more. 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.

Clichés become clichés because, quite often, they are true, and this one about liberal arts education is indeed true. However, it is true 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 have here. The combination of these two characteristics means you have your professor's attention and your work is given substantive critical commentary.

Middlebury requires two "intensive" writing courses, one is your first-year seminar, and the other is a course recommended to be in your major. In those courses, because they are designated as writing intensive courses, you will write a lot. You should also rewrite a lot, sometimes multiple drafts of one assignment. In addition to your professor's comments, you should take advantage of the significant array of resources provided here to help you with writing. Seek feedback routinely on your argument, or on the clarity of your writing, or both, from peer tutors or staff at the College's new 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. That confidence is crucial if you are going to be engaged in the world following Middlebury, and it requires the sustained and intense guidance we offer here.

Second: 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. If you keep in mind the question, "What is the goal of education," why you are here, and how part of being liberally educated involves a moral obligation to give back, you will feel more comfortable taking the initiative to get as much out of what this human-intensive learning environment offers you.

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 discussions in their course; 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.

And third: 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, alternative energy sources, food alteration, or new forms of warfare—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 who pursue science beyond a course or two 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 Ph.D.'s earned in the sciences are by students who went to small liberal arts colleges for their undergraduate degree and not 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 these comments. Or, specifically, a run on writing-intensive courses this semester. Or finding out we have run out of space in McCardell Bicentennial Hall—if that is possible.

I do, however, hope you will rethink 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 faculty colleagues and I inherited when we completed our undergraduate studies.

In fact, I can't help but observe how yesterday's third anniversary of September 11th fits into all of this: if nothing else, September 11th should represent to each of you and 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. As Professor Donadio said of Professor Adler, whose teaching and scholarship revolved around her love of ancient texts, her main intellectual pursuit was to 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.

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.

Community and Friendship

President Ronald D. Liebowitz delivered this address to the Class of 2012 on September 7, 2008.

Welcome! I trust your first week on campus has gone well. From everything I have heard, your move-in, registration, first-year seminar meetings, and all of the other beginning-of-the-year activities have gone smoothly. The mosquitoes, unfortunately, decided to come out in full force to welcome you to Vermont, though they were not part of the official orientation program.

Many people deserve a lot of credit for helping to make your orientation such a success. At the risk of offending those who I might overlook, I will only thank Katy Abbott, Associate Dean of the College, and ask her to thank all those who helped make your and your parents’ introduction to Middlebury enjoyable and relatively easy. Thank you, Katy.

I, along with my faculty colleagues, am thrilled you are here, and we look forward to getting to know you in class, during our office hours, and in multiple events and venues on campus.

Convocation addresses, such as this one, allow presidents to speak to incoming students directly and as a class—something not likely to occur again until Commencement. With such an opportunity, I have, during my first four years as president, felt compelled to impart what I would call “practical advice” to the incoming class, along with some general words of wisdom on this celebratory and very special occasion.

As such, I have encouraged, even exhorted, the past four incoming classes to heed the following advice:

  • take full advantage of this remarkable opportunity—the gift of a liberal arts education. About 2 percent of all undergraduate students in the United States study at a residential liberal arts college like Middlebury and are presented with all the opportunities such an education provides. Don’t take anything for granted; don’t sit back; jump in and be a part of all that is going on here.
  • take risks and explore disciplines you never had the opportunity to study before college. The “tried and true” is not likely to open new doors for you, nor is it likely to push you to grow in ways a liberal education will if you give it a chance.
  • 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 best kept secrets in higher education these days, so go check out our science departments: I don’t think you can miss McCardell Bicentennial Hall, so no directions required.
  • take as many courses known for writing assignments and oral presentations as you can. One cannot underestimate the value of learning to write and speak clearly when one graduates and engages the real world. This is the time and place to improve on your communications skills, to get constructive criticism and encouragement, not when you are asked to make your first presentation or deliver a cogent argument at your first job.
  • take the initiative to learn outside the classroom. You will find countless opportunities to volunteer in the local community, establish new organizations, or help to nurture and develop existing ones during your four years. 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.
  • and finally, 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. They were, or should have been, the major reason for coming to Middlebury.

Though none of us really puts all that much stock in the college ranking game, I think ... well, in fact I admit that I know the Middlebury faculty was recently ranked as the best in the country by the Princeton Review. (I believe the category in which they were ranked first was called “professors get high marks.”). Whether or not you put any stock in such rankings, 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.

And while I am at it, how about joining me in thanking those faculty members here today for receiving external affirmation of what we already know about them and their great commitment to our students? Thank you, faculty colleagues.

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 today on something different.

As natural as it would be for me to focus my comments on the remarkable academic opportunities in front of you, I believe the most important message I can convey to each of you today centers 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.

At residential liberal arts colleges, one often hears about the strength of the “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 some vague, 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 students explain, year in and year out, why their experiences here differ in some fundamental way from their friends’ experiences at peer institutions: the majority of Middlebury students, we often hear, view learning as collaborative rather 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,” which means “communion by intimate participation,” and the Latin concept of communitatem, or “fellowship.” Communitatem is related to the word communis, meaning “common, public, shared by all or many,” and itself is derived from the words com, meaning “with,” plus unis, meaning “one,” or from com plus munis meaning “exchange or obligation.” Both meanings, “with one” or “with exchange or obligation” signify 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, almost anything, in common. It has become overused, a cliché of sorts, and therefore 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 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, yet one still needs to learn the culture 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—a standard that approximates one’s own expectations—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 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.

The irresponsible use of alcohol, though committed by a relatively small minority of students, is by far the greatest cause of disrespectful behavior toward the community here at Middlebury. 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, in indirect ways, 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 oneself into a stupor and suffer the individual consequences such behavior generates: drunkenness; 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—on the community—becomes all too familiar to fellow students, presumably “friends,” staff, and administrators who must literally and figuratively clean up the mess. 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 or experiential “cost” of disrespectful behavior is the diminishing of what one will learn and experience at Middlebury. It prevents the integration of many groups of students, especially students who come from other cultures and who openly wonder why students so 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 translates into missed opportunities for students to hear different perspectives on politics, the arts, and life in general, and to learn more about the vastly different and rich cultures that coexist on our campus. In other words, it leads to behavior that interferes with the larger, loftier, goals of a liberal arts education.

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 destruction of property and the disrespect of individuals, one needs to ask how committed that person can be 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 today comes in—friendship. Friendships at Middlebury are special. For a host of 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.

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 those energies expended are shared largely within the confines of our 350-acre main campus.

The word friend comes from the Old English freond, 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 and others in danger.

A significant body of research supports the long-held view 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 the friendship, and is likely to weaken the sense of community one enjoys when members of the community look out for one another.

You will be glad to know that I am the first to understand that administrators cannot dictate good behavior. Nor can we alone set the standards of friendship within a community. That needs to come from the community itself, and the fact is that students 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.

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 remarkable community 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 become. Grab some potential true friends and hit the ground running.

Good luck, and thank you.

Miscellaneous Policies

1. ENTERTAINMENT ALLOWANCE
Each FYSE has a course enrichment budget of $250.  In addition, the program provides $100 for social interactions with seminar students.  Requests for reimbursements should be submitted to the director of the first-year seminar program.

2. PROGRAM ENRICHMENT FUNDS
Funds are budgeted each year earmarked for lectures, co-curricular programs specific to your department, and student research expenses. The dean of curriculum administers the budget. All expenses (honoraria, travel, entertainment, etc.) must come from this assignment. Vouchers, signed by the department chair, may be submitted directly to the Accounts Payable Office.

3. STUDENT ASSISTANTS
Undergraduates assisting in such academic work as correcting and reading papers and assisting in laboratories must first be approved by the chair of the department, who may consult with the VPAA/DOF in these matters.

4. COMMENCEMENT AND CONVOCATION
On Convocation and Commencement days all members of the faculty are invited and encouraged to participate in the academic ceremonies. Those faculty members not owning caps and gowns for the academic procession may rent them through the College Store. The College will pay the rental fees for caps, gowns, and hoods for untenured faculty. Orders should be given at least six weeks in advance of Commencement weekend. Academic regalia may be purchased by the faculty through the College Store; a payroll deduction loan program is available to do so. The College will purchase academic regalia for newly tenured faculty if they do not yet own regalia.

5. ELECTRONIC DEVICES IN CLASSES
Except for students whose needs are recognized by the College ADA office, the use of electronic devices (laptops, iPhones, Blackberries and other smart phones, etc.) by students in classes is subject to the approval of the instructor.  At any point in the semester, the instructor may choose to prohibit or limit the use of such devices by students without needs recognized by the ADA. The instructor’s decision should be made clear to the entire class, in verbal or written form.

6.  RECOMMENDATIONS FOR MERIT
At an annual salary consultation, department chairs will advise the VPAA/DOF in interpreting annual faculty salary forms.  Faculty members may be recommended for salary increases based on continuing excellence in teaching effectiveness, scholarly and/or creative activity and contributions to the work of the College.  Department chairs will call the VPAA/DOF’s attention to faculty members who have distinguished themselves in at least one of these areas by notable or exceptional achievements within the previous year.

7. FACULTY PARTICIPATION IN A PRESIDENTIAL SEARCH
In the event of a presidential search, the faculty will elect three tenured representatives who will be available for service on a search committee. These elections will follow the same rules as those for the Promotions Committee, but with the inclusion on the ballot of associate professors, and will take place within six weeks from the date of announcement of a presidential search. Colleagues who do not wish to be elected can withdraw their names from the initial ballot. [Voted as advisory to the administration in April 2012]