Address to Middlebury Faculty Bread Loaf Meeting, 2019

September 6, 2019


This summer I’ve been reading Maria Popova and her beautiful work of intellectual history, Figuring. From the book jacket: Figuring explores the complexities of love and the human search for truth and meaning through the interconnected lives of several historical figures across four centuries—beginning with the astronomer Johannes Kepler, who discovered the laws of planetary motion, and ending with the marine biologist and author Rachel Carson, who catalyzed the environmental movement. … Emanating from these lives are larger questions about the measure of a good life and what it means to leave a lasting mark of betterment on an imperfect world.”

Popova travels through the lives of “artists, writers, and scientists—mostly women, mostly queer—” who rose out of heartbreak in their private lives “to change the way we understand, experience, and appreciate the universe.” Astronomer Maria Mitchell and sculptor Harriet Hosmer are less well known, Emily Dickinson and Margaret Fuller more so.

Maria Popova has become someone I deeply admire because she calls herself a reader and a writer—that simple. She writes about what she reads on the website Brain Pickings, and I highly recommend it to any of you who read and write, which is all of you. As her biography tells us, she also hosts The Universe in Verse, an annual celebration of science through poetry. Popova spent her childhood in Bulgaria surrounded by the study of music and mathematics. Brain Pickings is included in the Library of Congress permanent digital archive.

I love the fact that reading and writing are what Popova is all about, straightforward with a deep love of history and scholarly pursuit even in the face of adversity. I go to her website frequently for inspiration, particularly about a topic that interests her the most: How people remain curious and creative in the midst of heartbreak and tumult.

I spend time describing her to you this morning because I believe we all have committed ourselves to reading and writing—and most important, to teaching—in the midst of adversity, in a world that understands less and less the life of the mind and engaging across boundaries. We’re being asked to remain curious in the midst of heartbreak, to become better educators in the midst of chaos. These are key to the Middlebury identity.

The chaos strikes at the heart of our educational mission. Students turned away as they arrive to study from another country. Students, faculty, and staff essential to our nation’s academic mission afraid to travel across the country. Slow-moving storms and sea-level rise making our coastal universities and colleges unlivable. Our alumni who have become journalists unable to write as they have learned to do.

And yet, there is hope, as Toni Morrison reminded us. “I have been told that there are two human responses to the perception of chaos,” she wrote, “naming and violence.” She went on to observe that there is also a third response—stillness and creativity. She felt that writers who produce meaning in the face of chaos must be nurtured, protected. I believe the same thing is true of those who teach. We who teach can and should produce meaning in the midst of chaos, perhaps especially in the midst of chaos. And those who teach must remain true, as Maria Popova is, to their simple identity as readers, writers, and thinkers.

If we do this, we’ll fulfill a vision for Middlebury that I have built from listening. I frequently share with you my vision for Middlebury 10 years from now, and will do so again here:

In 2028, Middlebury is a place where we:

  • have taken advantage of our global network of offerings to enrich our curriculum in all our units;
  • have achieved a 5 to 10 percent increase in financial aid;
  • have named and achieved a new environmental goal;
  • as Middlebury citizens (faculty, staff, and students) dwell comfortably and rigorously in the public sphere, using data to craft our arguments;
  • see ourselves as drivers and incubators of curricular innovation;
  • as faculty have given ourselves the flexibility that we need to make changes and keep traditions;
  • have built a better learning community through increasing inclusive pedagogy in the classroom;
  • have a commitment to experiential learning across the curriculum and cocurriculum;
  • have built a deep culture of restorative practices where we take responsibility for our conflicts;
  • have built an improved residential experience giving students a sense of belonging;
  • regularly engage the arts to make more inclusive spaces;
  • have a sense of empowerment and alliance between administration, staff, and faculty;
  • possess a shared articulated sense of values that we remind ourselves of often.

That is our vision. I would like this year to focus on building that learning community, particularly through the faculty-student relationship. I feel that we’re called to do so in new and important ways.

Before I turn to that, let me begin by sharing progress we’ve made on important fronts as teachers and learners.

Financial Sustainability

As I reported to you last spring, we’ve turned a corner. Our budget projects a $324,000 positive margin that we’ll reinvest in our mission. We’ve attained financial sustainability thanks to your help, and we’ll be challenged to maintain it. This year, we’ll start a new budgetary process, in which we put yet another plank in our shared governance platform. I define shared governance as regular and meaningful occasions for consequential input, and in November we’ll have an open meeting to outline budget parameters and invite input from all who would like to be there. We’ll hold a subsequent meeting with elected officials of staff, faculty, and students to talk about next steps and priorities. In February, we’ll share the next phase of this work with the same group of elected officials of staff, faculty, and students. This effort will be a pilot, a chance to smoothe out the kinks and have a regular process in which people feel engaged and empowered.

We completed workforce planning without any layoffs. While we were thrilled that we could do so, we haven’t been able to complete other necessary priorities with staff, which we’re eager to turn to this year: working on a better wage for all workers and a better rewards and recognition system. We were also only partially successful in reducing workloads in the process of workforce planning, with some departments maintaining previous levels of work with fewer people to do it. We know the impact that this has, and we’re actively working with Staff Council and others to address this.

In fundraising, which is the best thing I can do on your behalf, we raised new commitments of $44.8 million last year, including $16.5 million for financial aid for the College, the Institute, Languages, and Bread Loaf. Annual giving reached $23.9 million. Since I have become president, financial aid commitments have totaled $52.4 million ($34 million in endowment and $18.4 million in current use).

Academic Programs

Last May we approved several new programs, which were enthusiastically received by faculty, students, and staff. One, Black Studies, was decades in the making. Another, Food Studies, was a recent but highly relevant area of interest for many of our students. We’ve found a way to staff these programs and are delighted to be launching them. They were faculty driven, faculty deliberated, and it’s our job to maintain the right level of support. Our ongoing challenge will be to fund the areas we know we need, and where students are asking for important additions to the curriculum, while at the same time deepening our identity as a liberal arts and sciences institution of the highest quality.

We’re also focusing on the academic themes we shared with you last year—deepening our student-centered approach. We learned from alumni and heard from faculty in the Envisioning Middlebury process that students need and want to work with data. In fact, everyone is doing data, but I hope, with your insights, we can do it differently here within the liberal arts and sciences. We know from the great work of the Engaged Listening Project that we’ll constantly need to develop the skill of listening better. We distinguish ourselves from other schools our size by the intensity and breadth of our international offerings, and as Provost Cason and our students have put it, we’re moving from a global footprint to a global network. This means we have important work to do to clear the underbrush to make it easier for students to travel across all of Middlebury’s programs. I want to create and deepen our intellectual identity around global—which is our signature—and I welcome your ideas about how we might do that, department by department.

Environmental Sustainability

Our work in Energy2028—our comprehensive plan to completely shift our main campus to renewable energy in the next 10 years—continues to be a bellwether of the consistency of our educational mission to educate students to address the world’s most challenging problems. Two weeks ago, we broke ground on the anaerobic digester that will process manure and food waste at a local dairy farm into renewable natural gas. This is Vermont’s first biodigester and the first in the nation to fuel a college campus directly. The gas from that biodigester will provide about half the energy we need for heating and cooling our main campus, a big piece in helping us reach our renewable energy goal. It will also enable a local Vermont farm to become sustainable once again. Environmental Council faculty, students, and staff are hard at work on the next phase. Through faculty leadership and partnership with the Sustainability Solutions Lab, we’re creating inspiring projects to get us to the next level of 100 percent energy renewability.

Community Well-Being

The mental health challenges our students are experiencing are part of a nationwide concern, and I’ve asked our student affairs office to continue to focus on this critical area. Since 2015, we’ve put in place almost twice the counseling and programming staff and installed two new programs—one that allows a student access to a mental health professional 24/7, especially from abroad, and the other helps students triage and gets them to the right form of care any time of day. We’re also partnering with JED, a movement for mental health awareness, which has a particular focus on suicide awareness and prevention. The death of Eric Masinter ’21, and that of Thibault Lannoy ’20 before him, are a sign of our times.

Restorative practices are a second part of deepening our approaches to student wellness. Right now, we have more than 100 people trained in restorative practices, including all of residence life, and last year we saw the positive effects on campus of students taking on management of their own conflicts. We’re in the midst of setting a goal for how many restorative practices we have. We’re also focused on creating spaces that support our students—big, long-term projects that will allow them to connect differently and feel more welcomed in an open campus. That begins with a new student center and a replacement of Battell, projects we hope will come to fruition over the next five to 10 years. The community worked hard last year—faculty, staff, and students—on new recommendations for the Commons.

We’ve also begun to talk specifically about how we fundraise for faculty and staff positions in all of the areas I’ve described, as well as for our larger capital projects (like the student center and replacement of Battell) and even the possibility of a new museum to strengthen our burgeoning work in the arts. We’ll have more to share about this in the months ahead.

So, what does this year look like for faculty and our common work together? I would like to name this year the year of focus on the faculty-student relationship. Let me share with you why I think this is where Middlebury lives and thrives. A 2016 Gallup poll showed that the three college experiences that were predictors of fulfillment later on in life—note fulfillment, not “success” or “earnings”—were a relationship with a mentor, an application of knowledge learned in the classroom somewhere outside the classroom, and a long-term research project. Middlebury excels at all three. And at the heart of those three is the faculty-student relationship.

Several things follow from this emphasis. First, we have renewed leadership and interest in this area across our Board of Trustees, administration, and faculty. Our new board chair, George Lee, is very interested in this topic, and we’ll be featuring student, faculty, and staff pairs at board meetings to share their experiences of learning together. I have reached out to key people on campus to think about starting an oral archive for those who might want to participate in a broader way of sharing those stories of that transformative relationship throughout Middlebury’s history. We are also focused on energizing the faculty intellectual connections to the Commons so that everyone benefits.

Second, we’ll have a suite of funding to help deepen that relationship. Some of it exists already but will be focused in this arena, and some of it is new. Our Fund for Innovation has made a turn to supporting innovative educational practices in the past two years, and I’ve asked Provost Cason to emphasize educational projects that further and deepen this faculty-student relationship as he moves forward with the call for funding this year. We’ll do the same with Envisioning Middlebury funding.

Finally, we’ve been able to raise a $100,000 fund to focus on faculty-staff-student research projects that connect with Energy2028. We’ve had a groundswell of faculty coming forward to offer courses in this area and want to move forward with a research and teaching fund that can help faculty, students, and staff in the work they’re doing in questions of energy and climate change. I’m also working on a larger fund that will be entirely focused on transformative research in the context of faculty-student mentorship, for all students and for all subjects. This is where Middlebury thrives. This is where the creativity is. We as an administration need to support it as much as we possibly can.

Last year, I asked us all as a faculty to focus, department by department, on what free, inclusive, and effective pedagogy looks like in 2019–2020. I asked Faculty Council’s help in doing that. I asked our improved and emerging shared governance structures to do that. When we focus on students, we’re better. I’m calling on the depths of our shared pedagogical mission to help us stay in deliberative community. I’m calling on the depth of our vocations as teachers, the depth of our obligations to the next generation, which both needs us and is profoundly different from us. That means, in the year of focus on the faculty-student relationship, I exhort all of us to think about inclusive pedagogy. I want to pause here. No matter how many generalizations we might read about Gen Z—and how much background we can learn about their orientations, their challenges, their habits of mind—it’s not the same as doing the daily work of engaging students in 2020. That work demands yet another level of rigor. And most important, of curiosity. I worry that we’re not curious enough about whom we are teaching, and we need to be.

Over the summer, we’ve developed an Inclusive Pedagogy Program, a series of ongoing workshops throughout the year that I encourage all faculty to participate in. While anyone can come and engage in any workshop, it is in fact a curriculum in its own right. I want to emphasize here the community practitioners’ aspect of that work. The program is designed to create space for the participants in the program to explore, share, and problem solve together. We also want the program to be an avenue where faculty can take knowledge from workshops and apply it in their own classrooms, and then share the impact of those efforts with their colleagues in their home departments as a way to build internal capacity. They can share application strategies with their colleagues that are adapted for their specific disciplines. Every department is different, but I ask all departments to embark on this reflection. Even if you disagree with the language, even if it seems as if you’re already doing it, I ask you to embark on this process of reflection as a way to cultivate curiosity about whom we are teaching and about how to become more effective teachers.

I believe we can also do this through reflection on Middlebury’s engagement historically with inclusivity and diversity in all their many forms. In response to faculty interest, we’ve raised funds to help the institution explore its own archives, in collaboration with the local community. Rebekah Irwin and Bill Hart will communicate to the College specific details about this long-term project, called the Twilight Project, to commence officially later this year or early next, as we continue to develop it with an eye toward organizing a major symposium in fall 2023 to mark the bicentennial of Alexander Twilight’s graduation from Middlebury College.

To return to my beginning of this talk: Toni Morrison stood in this very spot and read for us. I think we need to follow her model—renewed reflection on the simple and hugely complex act of teaching. I’m going to keep Toni Morrison’s words with me: There are two human responses to the perception of chaos—naming and violence. And a third response, of stillness and creativity.

And I’m going to keep reading Maria Popova to explore how people remain curious and creative in the midst of heartbreak and tumult, and how we can keep working together to achieve this vision.

As educators we need to continue to name what is happening in the world around us—for the sake of all of us. We need to be still and creative as teachers, for the sake of the deep, humane consequences that spring from an ethical life of the mind.

Right now, today, this week, and this month, and this year, you as teachers and thinkers—in pursuit of an ethical life of the mind—are the bulwark against chaos. You’re the salvation of our public life. We need you to keep naming and keep creating, for the sake of our common world. As we live through deep disagreement, we have an opportunity to deepen our common purpose. I’m personally honored, in the last of the summer stillness, to welcome you to this new year. 

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