September 4, 2015: Address to Middlebury College Faculty

September 4, 2015


Welcome back. I can't say how delighted I am to be here and meeting you all at last. Over the course of the summer, your books, articles, CDs, catalogues, and works of art have all trickled their way into my office and with them also carrots, tomatoes, zinnias, baked goods, and one green porcelain chicken, courtesy of the math department.  A true cornucopia for all forms of appetite. But my shelves are not filled yet, and I know you have been traveling. So come on in and make sure your work is in the president’s office!

Given this auspicious occasion, I want to speak today in a slightly more formal way, although I will be speaking with you and updating you much more informally in later meetings. Truth be told I have been greatly eager to meet you all, as I have already experienced your virtues and temperaments as a Middlebury faculty: on the search committee, by happenstance on the quad, in faculty council in the spring, and in the Language Schools and at Bread Loaf, where a few of you did double duty and worked on behalf of creating summer enlightenment for others. Today in light of those virtues I wanted to state some principles that I hope will guide our working together, and put a few minds at ease as well as challenge us collectively to make Middlebury more Middlebury.

The first principle I want to articulate is a deep commitment to the strength of faculty governance. I understand and have learned greatly from the processes that you have put in place in the last year to make your committee structure more vibrant and your governance more in line and more interactive with the Board of Trustees structure. I have been greatly impressed by this. And now I want to encourage you to live it intensely. I deeply believe that I cannot be your best president if you do not have a vibrant tradition and practice of faculty governance. That means having ownership and control over the curriculum, even as you interact with your leadership's priorities around that curriculum. That means meeting without me and making curricular initiatives that are in the best interest of the College. That means having a voice at the table when it comes to finding the street to the strategic priorities of Middlebury as a whole. That means having input and collaborative engagement around our financial health. I know that this is a lot of work, but in every academic community where I have led, I have encouraged such strong faculty governance. We simply cannot be an effective administration without it. I know you will live into this new structure this year, but I will be asking you to make sure committees meet. I will be asking you to make sure committees report and deliberate in an effective and timely manner. I will ask about making sure information flows and we communicate vibrantly.  If those in academic leadership know that the faculty members have deliberated and are behind something, that is pure gold for us and helps to make change in this new complex institution we call Middlebury.

Second, and a corollary to this, is the principle of collaborative decision making wherever possible. What do I mean by collaborative decision making? I want to begin by saying that I don't mean the kind of false consultation and performative listening that can sometimes be even more disheartening than no consultation at all. Rather I mean that when there is a decision that we need to make together, even if I as president have the final word or jurisdiction over the policy, I am not going to want to make a decision without knowing what the faculty think. There will inevitably be times when we disagree. I want our common life to be such that when we do disagree, it is a moment where we both recognize that reasonable people could take the other position. We may not always reach this goal, but we can strive toward it and constantly commit to doing better if we fail. In addition, collaborative decision making means a regular flow of communication. I will commit to updating you on all the key things I am thinking about and administrative challenges that lie ahead. And because I am interested in the life that you lead in teaching, research, and administration of the many vibrant programs at Middlebury, I am going to assume that we have a common ground from which to build.

Third, and relatedly, I think we might move to a collective ownership of innovation. There are times in the life of an organization when some people have innovation fatigue. I just came from such an institution and know that there are many reasons for this dynamic. One of them is that roles have been calcified into “the innovators” and “the resistors.” And in many cases, no one particularly intended this to happen, but it happened. We have a chance at this very moment to hit a reset button on this question. We might be able to think of all of us as innovators—people who have new ideas about the classroom, about higher education, and about the relationship of all the different units at Middlebury. I assume that faculty members are the source of some of the best ideas in 21st-century higher education. That is what I mean by collective ownership of innovation.

I also deeply believe that the best kinds of innovation are those that are somehow in continuity with and recognizable by tradition. I have been developing a phrase that I think can work in the Middlebury context—and that is “innovation and dynamic relationship to tradition.” I am a historian of religion and therefore I can't help but note that the first use of the term “innovator” was in fact “heretic.” It was a very dangerous thing; one risked one’s life if one went against the theological orthodoxy of the day as an innovator. While the term has developed much more positive connotations since then, the history of the word shows us the ways in which innovation always demands a dialogue with tradition and vice versa. I think faculty members are some of the best resources we have to think about the kinds of innovations that honor tradition and create the best educational practices for our students. For example, online learning has taken off when the technology has cultivated connected, rigorous, learning relationships. When liberal learning is the goal and not technology in its own right, we have exactly the kind of innovation in relationship to tradition that I would like to cultivate here at Middlebury.

Fourth, I want us to deepen a commitment to understanding and shaping our newly complex ecosystem. I want to begin my fourth point by putting everyone's mind at ease here. It would be a very unintelligent move to become a university. Even more than that: it is actually a risk factor for us to develop programs that put us in the “university” category. Our rankings would go down and we would lose our status and the unique properties that make us the vibrant community that we now are. So that being said, who are we? I'd like to quote my colleague Suzanne Gurland, who argued that we are "leading in the third space."  We are now neither only a college nor are we a university. And here is an opportunity for us to create something both old and new at the same time.

I like to think of us as a vibrant and complex ecosystem. I have tried this idea with many constituencies and it seems to have legs, if you forgive the evolutionary pun. The different species that make up the ecosystem are ones that must thrive in their diversity. The Galápagos Islands diversity is famous because its climate is one that allows species to become independent and interdependent at the same time. But such species become interdependent because they maintain species differentiation. I think the same could be said of all the different units at Middlebury. I came to Middlebury because of those different units and the fascinating possibilities of the relationships between them. But you will notice that I have focused on difference. I learned early on in my conversations with you that a forced integration, especially one that comes from above and for which there is no organic rationale, is not going to accomplish what we need and will not call us to our best educational practices.

At the same time, it is true that we are starting from a place of complexity. I am not interested in rehearsing debates about the value proposition of Monterey or the ways in which it is and is not part of the college. We are all Middlebury now. And now we might take the chance simply to coexist and see what relationships might emerge. I am not interested in forcing those relationships and want to send a clear message now: if you are not interested in connecting with another unit at Middlebury there is no reason why you should. You might thrive and flourish in a space that is uniquely within your unit. In fact you might be a better contributor to Middlebury as a whole if that were the case. I want to make sure everyone feels that they have full permission to do this. Two things are true: my job is partly to pay attention to those spaces “in-between” at Middlebury, spaces that can help different units interact, and I will be working with any faculty who are interested in doing this. But I will also be working with faculty and students and staff to make their individual units better. This two-pronged approach seems to me to be the wisest course and the most likely to develop the kind of “biodiversity” of intellectual viewpoints that we need in our Middlebury ecosystem.

Fifth, we need a shared financial conversation. What do I mean by that phrase? I mean first and foremost that I want to work closely with the resource committee and meet regularly with them to share the financial decisions that we are making and the challenges that we face. We also need clear advice on how best to communicate that to the faculty as a whole. I created such a committee at Duke and it was also pure gold in its advice about best practices for disseminating financial information. I should let you know that I am a fiscal conservative with a vision. We must be conservative in addressing our structural deficit, and we do have that deficit. We also need to think about the best investments of budgetary monies to make the biggest difference educationally. I am not talking about investing for profit. When I use that term “investment,” I use it in the context of developing the best nonprofit management style we can. We need to find the most efficient ways to manage our academic lives so that, in our daily work of education, we can be gloriously inefficient. I know that the best nonprofit organizations are ones that are tightly run, and I very much hope to share with you in future conversations the ways in which we are running the ship that you may not see.

I also would like to talk with you about that thorny question of administrative bloat and share with you the job descriptions of all the people we have working in Old Chapel now—what they do and why they do it. I believe Weber was wrong in his thinking about the routinization of charisma: institution building isn’t just a matter of a single charismatic individual and a group of bureaucratic drones that follow. Rather, administrative roles, too, have charisma. I have heard from you that they need to be stabilized, so that even as different people move through them, they would be honored to have that particular role. Even as we work toward stability of roles, I have also introduced my senior leadership team to a flatter leadership structure, in which we meet a little less and execute a little more. It is also a system in which I trust them to do their jobs and to give me the information that I need to make a good decision.

Sixth, I want to cultivate openness to having our best arguments, and teaching our students to do the same. I worry that we sometimes hide behind institutional politics or perceptions of someone else's closely held work as a "pet project" in order to avoid having a difficult conversation about values and diversity. I have heard about student stress at Middlebury, and the difficult spring you had in 2015.  I believe in addressing this question head-on—there are certain aspects of student life that we as another generation may not be able to fully understand, and where we need to let students lead. But if we are to embrace these generational differences in experience, we also need to build structures and ways of arguing amongst ourselves that our students can also follow. The Jewish tradition talks about this as “an argument for the sake of heaven”—i.e., an argument worth having. (Argument for the sake of heaven or argument for the sake of Middlebury—you can choose whether those are synonymous!) I believe that we could in many ways model those kinds of debates about big questions to our students and, in turn, train them to be better arguers in an arena of civil debate. I will always ask you, if in fact we do disagree, whether this disagreement is one for the sake of heaven.

And you should know something very important about working with me in the future: I welcome incisive critique and even more scathing commentary, however I will not allow anyone to stop there. We must always come up with a constructive solution for whatever the issues are. And I will not let you simply stop your sentences with the critique—there always must be a path forward. I am very interested in hearing your solutions. My guess is that they will most often be better than mine.

Seventh, I have heard from all of you that we need a principled sense of priorities, and a commitment to making them. We have benefited greatly from a period of rapid change at Middlebury. However, that change has also led, as it often does in creative communities, to a sense that we need guiding principles to how we make decisions. And as part of my listening this year, I am trying out some priorities and seeing what people think. When anyone comes with a new project or an old project that needs new funding, I am asking people to think about the following two questions:

Is this a place where Middlebury can particularly if not uniquely lead?

Is this a genuine contribution to global liberal learning?

Asking these two questions has helped us already this summer move beyond the “pet project” phenomenon and has encouraged people to think about the larger meaning of particular projects, and whether they are the kinds of initiatives that can help Middlebury uniquely lead. As you yourselves innovate in all the great ways that I know you will, I will ask you to consider those two questions as you think about programs and research agenda and the new possibilities for a Middlebury 21st-century education.

Eighth: the principles of working as teacher-scholar administrators should guide us. What do I mean by a scholar administrator? I mean that everything I do comes from the fact that I love teaching and research more than any other form of work. Thus, the administrative leadership that results is one that is informed by the experience of faculty members and faculty leaders in context of change and growth. And this is a very important principle for me personally since I don't believe in the academic caste system whereby to become an administrator is somehow, within 24 hours of taking the job, to have changed one’s DNA so thoroughly that one stops thinking like a teacher and a writer and a researcher. So I need you to tell me and my senior leadership group what it's like for you in your daily lives. You are the first teacher-scholar administrators who run the college, run your classrooms, and run the work of educating our students in all the vibrant ways that you do.

Let me end by saying how much I look forward to working with you. If we follow these principles and hold each other to account for them, I think we will thrive. I will inevitably disappoint you. The first decision I must make, or even the 30th decision that I must make as your academic leader might feel as if I am not following one of my principles, or that we have different interpretations of those principles. Our differences of opinion are inevitable; however what is not inevitable is that such differences will immediately break the trust that I hope to build. Indeed my hope is that our disagreements will be in a matrix of great arguments—one between loyal and faithful friends who see different paths to the same goal.

I will frequently say that you are the center of our enterprise. I will say it by now telling you why I used the rather strong wording "greatly eager to meet you" in the first part of my talk: because already I have sensed your virtues. Allow an outsider who now wishes to be among you to extol them: You are community-minded, even as you wonder about your own exhaustion. You care about this place and this educational mission more deeply than even you—the most articulate people in this green valley—can articulate. You stand ready to welcome a new leader—someone you don't know, but hope to trust. You have had arguments—passionate ones—with colleagues about the nature of this community and yet you still regularly meet for breakfast with those colleagues. You cycle, garden, climb, ski, sail, and raise children, and all of that in the midst of creating classrooms where deep transformation occurs. I have yet to meet a Middlebury graduate who has not rushed to tell me that he or she has been taught well. That fact alone makes you extraordinary. And that fact combined with all these other traits, makes you the passionate center of this strong and subtle enterprise that we call—so inadequately—21st-century Middlebury education. I invite you to care for and nourish that invaluable practice, in all its strength and subtlety, with me.

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