Middlebury is a liberal arts college of the first rank, an achievement that is the result of a process of growth and change that began in 1800, when a few men of the town of Middlebury took upon themselves the challenge of building a college in a small New England town, on what was then the American frontier.
Over the more than two centuries since it was established, Middlebury has developed from “the town’s college” into an institution of international renown.
Middlebury’s original purpose was to train young men from Vermont and neighboring states for the ministry and other learned professions of the early 19th century. The College began modestly, with seven students enrolling in November 1800. These first students were expected “to read, translate, and parse Tully, Virgil, and the Greek Testament, and to write true Latin in prose, and shall have also learned the rules of Vulgar Arithmetic.” The entire course of study was taught by the College’s founding president, Jeremiah Atwater, who had come to Middlebury from Yale.
Gamaliel Painter’s Gift
Gamaliel Painter, one of the citizens of Middlebury to whom the College charter had been granted, left most of his estate to the College. Mr. Painter’s gift was an early example of the philanthropic support for Middlebury College that has enabled the institution to prosper. In recognition of his gift, West College, a new building completed a few years prior to Painter’s death in 1819, was renamed Painter Hall. Painter Hall is the oldest college building extant in Vermont.
Vermont was the first state in the United States to abolish slavery in its constitution. In 1823, Alexander Twilight graduated from Middlebury College, the first African American citizen to earn a baccalaureate degree at an American college.
Middlebury College continued to grow during the 19th century. The growth was not steady, however, as the College was not immune to the social and political movements that were affecting northern New England generally. Rocked by evangelical upheaval and religious revival in the 1830s and the Civil War in the 1860s, Middlebury managed to keep its doors open during a period when many small colleges in America were forced to close. In large part, the College was sustained by the support of its many friends, both in the town of Middlebury and in the neighboring region.
An Early Adopter of Coeducation
In 1883, the trustees voted to accept women as students in the College, making Middlebury one of the first formerly all-male liberal arts colleges in New England to become a coeducational institution. In the following years, Middlebury College began to change from an institution primarily oriented toward its community and its state to a college with larger regional aspirations. President Ezra Brainerd (who held that office from 1885 to 1908) prepared the College for this transformation, and spectacular change occurred under the administration of President John Thomas (1908 to 1921). The Language Schools and the Bread Loaf School of English were established during the Thomas presidency. During the second decade of the 20th century, the College’s enrollment more than doubled, and the number of buildings, the size of the faculty, and the value of the endowment tripled. At the same time, the College’s curriculum was adapted to the needs of the new century.
During the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, Middlebury continued its development toward a position of prominence among liberal arts colleges in the United States. Continued growth in the faculty meant the addition of new subjects to the curriculum and an increased academic reputation for the College. New residence halls, academic buildings, and library facilities were added to the physical plant. Middlebury’s expansion was coupled with increases in financial resources and the establishment of a tradition of prudent financial administration, including the cultivation of resources for the long term.
A New Level of Excellence
During the next three decades, under the leadership of presidents James Armstrong (1963 to 1975) and Olin Robison (1975 to 1990), Middlebury attained a new level of excellence. The student body grew, not only in numbers but in diversity and in breadth of academic and extracurricular interests. Teacher-scholars of the highest quality joined the ranks of the Middlebury faculty and brought to their classrooms and other contacts with students a sense of intellectual excitement coupled with a concern for the personal development of their students. The introduction of new subjects into the curriculum and the creation of additional Language Schools strengthened the international dimension of Middlebury.
In 1992, John M. McCardell Jr. was elected by the Board of Trustees as the 15th president of Middlebury College. President McCardell, a professor of history, was the first member of the College’s faculty to serve as president since Ezra Brainerd more than a century before. During McCardell’s term as president (1992 to 2004), the size of the student body and the faculty was expanded, many new buildings were added to the campus—including a new science center, new library, new Commons residential complexes, and new athletic facilities—and special emphasis was placed on developing curricular and cocurricular programs in the areas of international affairs, environmental affairs, literature, language study, and real-world experience beyond the classroom, all resting on a strong base of general excellence in the liberal arts.
Knowledge Without Boundaries
Ronald D. Liebowitz became the 16th president of Middlebury College in 2004. Under his leadership, the College pursued and finalized an affiliation with the Monterey Institute for International Studies in California that reinforced its position as a leader in global education. He also launched a strategic planning process that involved all members of the Middlebury community—students, faculty, staff, and thousands of alumni—in an effort to chart a course for the College over the next decade. The theme of the process, “Knowledge Without Boundaries,” expressed Middlebury’s innovative, interdisciplinary, and international approach to educating students, emphasizing the close interaction between students and faculty as the core of a Middlebury education.
A New Chapter
In 2015, Middlebury celebrated the inauguration of its 17th and first female president, Laurie L. Patton. With a focus on the institutional optimism that attracted her to Middlebury, Patton has expressed her deep commitment to creating a diverse, welcoming community with full and equal participation for all individuals and groups. In 2016, under her leadership, Middlebury embarked upon a strategic planning initiative called Envisioning Middlebury, which brought together faculty, staff, students, and alumni across all Middlebury’s schools, programs, and campuses to engage in conversations that will ultimately lead to the creation of a new set of strategic directions for the institution.