Scenes from Language Schools Commencement ’14

MIDDLEBURY, Vt.— The Middlebury Language Schools conferred 101 Master of Arts degrees and seven Doctor of Modern Languages degrees at the Language Schools Commencement on August 15 in Mead Memorial Chapel.

On a cool and cloudy summer evening the president of Middlebury College, Ronald D. Liebowitz, presented the master’s degrees for study in Chinese, French, German, Italian, Russian, and Spanish. Accompanied by Vice President Michael E. Geisler and the directors of the Language Schools, Liebowitz also granted doctoral degrees to the candidates who have completed advanced-level graduate work in two foreign languages.

Frank Trommler, professor emeritus of German at the University of Pennsylvania, delivered the Commencement Address to the gathering of graduates, family members, faculty, and guests. He called Middlebury “the premier academic institution of advanced language teaching and learning in the United States,” and stated it has played “an eminent role in America’s strong, though not always consequential, engagement with foreign languages and cultures over the past century.”

The Commencement speaker observed, “The study of foreign languages in their cultural context [is] an indispensable part of the humanities,” but that was not always the case. Most foreign language departments had to reform language instruction in “those rough years after 1980,” and yet Middlebury with its “methodological flexibility” never needed such an overhaul, Trommler remarked.


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Honorary degree recipient Frank Trommler was honored by President Liebowitz (l.) and Vice President Geisler (r.).

“The simultaneous teaching and practicing of diverse languages in the Language Schools has helped refine a concept that has much currency today: that of multilingualism in which the underlying nationalities that so often hinder full involvement in another culture fade away and something like global citizenship takes place.”

“These global citizens” – like the graduates of the Language Schools – “with special roots in one culture but with command of a second and often a third language, have long been an ideal, especially after the events in Europe 100 years ago ushered in a century of wars between nationalities,” Trommler added. 

Following his 12-minute address, the College conferred academic degrees upon its newest graduates and an Honorary Doctor of Letters to Professor Trommler.

President Liebowitz opened the ceremony by congratulating the degree candidates for their “persistence and endurance,” and said the ability to speak other languages “will enable you to engage other cultures from within, express yourself artistically and creatively in ways different from your native language and persona, and perhaps solve or explain to others some of the most intractable conflicts around the world, many of them due to an inability on the part of those involved to communicate or understand the cultural context of the disagreement.”

Middlebury’s 16th president reflected on the history of the College and acknowledged the contributions of five people in particular: Gamaliel Painter, one of the founding fathers of both the town and the College; Lilian Stroebe, who started the first language school at Middlebury, the German School, in 1915; Professor Stephen A. Freeman, who served the College and the Language Schools from 1925 to 1963; Betty Ashbury Jones, graduate of the French School, supporter of the Language Schools, and trustee emerita of Middlebury; and Kathryn Wasserman Davis, the renowned philanthropist and champion of international peace who passed away in 2013.

Video of the Commencement Ceremony

Liebowitz said, “The sustained study of foreign language and culture, through which we break down barriers and increase intercultural understanding, has become a great distinguishing characteristic of this institution. The Language Schools have been a large part of this special claim, which we treasure and honor.”

The vice president for Language Schools, Schools Abroad, and graduate programs, Michael Geisler, advised the audience that President Liebowitz is  stepping down from his post in June 2015 and, as such, he was officiating at his final Language Schools Commencement.

“It is fair to say that since President [John Martin] Thomas, under whose leadership the Language Schools were first established in 1915, there has not been a better friend and supporter of the Language Schools and of Middlebury’s global programs than President Ron Liebowitz, nor has there been anybody who understood more keenly the urgent need of globally educated and internationally competitive graduates.

“As President Liebowitz leaves, the Middlebury Language Schools are stronger and healthier than they have been in decades,” Geisler said.

To illustrate this point the vice president mentioned some of the advances made by the Language Schools during the Liebowitz presidency: the 400-student growth in enrollment, new graduate programs in Arabic and Chinese, the new School of Hebrew (and soon-to-be launched School of Korean), the expansion of the Language Schools to Oakland, Calif., and the establishment of the Kathryn W. Davis Fellowships for Peace, which provide 100 full scholarships to the Language Schools every summer.


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Candidates for the MA in French

Liebowitz received a standing ovation for his achievements.

Vice President Geisler also announced a new giving challenge. A Middlebury alumni couple has offered to match every gift this year to the Language Schools with an equal gift, up to $350,000, to the Jessica K. and Ronald D. Liebowitz Centennial Fellowships Fund, which will provide financial aid to students attending the Language Schools. The matching gift and the fund honors President Liebowitz and his wife, Jessica, and recognizes the Centennial in 2015.

Also at Commencement, the Language Schools recognized students for distinguished study in the three languages for which the college does not award graduate degrees (Hebrew, Japanese and Portuguese), and the ceremony concluded with the singing of “Gamaliel Painter’s Cane,” led by tenor Quinn Bernegger, Class of 2013, a student in the German School.

The graduates and guests then rose and marched out into the Vermont night led by marshals Bettina Matthias and Philippe France, the directors designate of the German School and French School, respectively, as Emory Fanning, professor emeritus of music, played the recessional on Middlebury’s magnificent Gress-Miles organ in the chancel at Mead Chapel.

Addendum: On August 7 at Mills College in Oakland, Calif., where the Language Schools maintains a satellite location, the Italian School conferred 18 MA degrees and two DMLs. The students who participated in the ceremony at Mills were welcomed to march a week later in Middlebury, and several of the graduates did so.

With reporting by Robert Keren, photography by May Mantell, and videorecording by Danielle Madison