MIDDLEBURY, Vt. – Excitement and anticipation filled Mead Chapel today as the Middlebury community met the institution’s next president, Laurie L. Patton, a professor of religion and the dean of Trinity College of Arts and Sciences at Duke University. Patton will succeed President Ron Liebowitz, who has served as president since 2004.
At 10 minutes past noon on November 18, Trustee Al Dragone Jr. ’78, the chair of the presidential search committee, announced that the 17th president of Middlebury “stood apart” from all of the other candidates in five respects: her intellectual curiosity, recognition as a scholar, commitment to the liberal arts, administrative experience, and alignment with Middlebury’s values.
The search committee found 53-year-old Laurie Patton to be uniquely prepared and qualified to be the next president of Middlebury, Dragone said, and thus the Middlebury Board of Trustees in special session voted unanimously to appoint her to the presidency effective on July 1, 2015. Middlebury’s first woman president will join the faculty as a tenured member of the Department of Religion.
The president-elect then ascended the chancel in Mead Chapel amid a standing ovation from the gathering of more than 500 students, faculty, staff, and trustees, and gave a short speech in which she touched upon her aspirations for Middlebury.
Patton opened her remarks with a touch of humility. Middlebury exemplifies “the best ideals of a 21st-century liberal arts education,” she said, “and it has been built, maintained, and nurtured by you—the members of the community sitting before me, and whom I am greatly excited to meet.
“Please do not be shy. Please find me today and introduce yourself,” she urged. “Please don’t worry if you may have to introduce yourself again next year, because that will simply be another occasion that we can look forward to with joy.”
Selected from a field of 260 candidates for the presidency, Patton said she sees seven great educational virtues of Middlebury, among them a “dynamism baked into the habits of the college,” students who “will always imagine themselves as travelers,” a balance and commitment to all forms of knowledge, and how the role of writing, language, and translation at the institution reaches out to the entire world. She also commended Middlebury for its “highly adaptive” Board of Trustees, how faculty and staff have embraced and been inspired by the addition of the Monterey Institute of International Studies, and for placing environmental stewardship at the forefront of nearly every conversation.
Standing at the same Mead Chapel podium that Middlebury presidents have used for generations, Patton spoke for 14 minutes and closed with a variation on a Wendell Berry quote. “I am delighted to begin work as your 17th president because here, in all the glorious places where Middlebury lives and thrives, we will become together who we are meant to be.”
Patton received another standing ovation and, as the throng exited the 99-year-old chapel, smiles and looks of satisfaction (and relief) adorned the members of the community, all of whom were invited to meet the next president at a reception in Wilson Hall later in the afternoon. But first, after a short respite, Patton met members of the news media gathered in the Harman Reading Room at Davis Family Library.
The first question went to Joe Flaherty ‘15, editor in chief of the Campus, who asked Patton about diversity on campus. Reporters peppered her with queries about town-gown relations, the rising cost of college, and the relationship of the undergraduate college to the Monterey Institute.
When Jack Thurston, a reporter for New England Cable News and a member of the Class of 2002, asked her, “What does it mean to you to be the first female president of Middlebury?” Patton remarked that it was “a wonderfully happy accident,” but not something that she set out to become. (Marna Whittington, the Board of Trustees chair seated beside Patton at the news conference, revealed that the search committee “worked very hard to convince Laurie” to be a candidate.) Patton pointed out that her research is “deeply engaged in the educational experiences of women,” and that she is personally involved in two micro-philanthropy projects devoted to women in South Asia.
“Women’s education is of huge importance to me,” she said, calling it a global issue for the women of the world “who have not yet come into their own voice.”
Following the press conference Patton walked to the reception where she shook hands with about 350 members of the Middlebury community. As the line of patient well-wishers snaked out of Wilson Hall, through the Center Gallery, and down the back hallway on the second floor of McCullough, the president-elect was happy to speak briefly with every faculty, student, and staff member who came forward.
The public portion of her day now coming to a close, Laurie Patton put on her coat and prepared to brave the 28-degree temperatures as the sun went down on her first day as president-elect. It was a day for the Middlebury community to give its next president a warm embrace, and a day when the wintry weather said “Welcome to Vermont” between gusts of wind.
Reporting by Robert Keren, photos by Todd Balfour and Brett Simison