| by Laurie Patton

Good morning. It is truly wonderful to be here together again with you all after so many years of missing this time together.

In some cases, it’s been since before the pandemic that people have seen each other—really seen each other… We all know now that it’s not the same over Zoom.

Walking around campus in the rain earlier this week, and at Convocation, I was greeting incredibly happy new students and their parents and families, many of whom had already begun hopeful and generous conversations with you, the faculty. It reminded me how deeply precious this life is, and how our work of liberal arts and sciences in Vermont, and the Vermont tradition, is something that beckons to many people. Kevin Ellis recently wrote an op-ed in VT Digger about Vermont being a “Beckoning Country,” a refuge from the darker forces at work in much of our country, and that what we beckon with, what he calls our potent mix of good government, open politics, small businesses, and beautiful landscapes, is good for our future. It is true, and it’s what we need to continue to protect as well as to grow.

Jeff Cason knew about this precious life… Jeff, the person connected in so many important ways with each of you. Jeff knew it through patience and humor and a relaxed accessibility as well as the love of travel. At Jeff’s celebration of life, I said he was a world soul that we all recognized and loved. Raquel Albarrán also had adopted Vermont as her new home with great ferocity and vitality. She was a connector, a plain speaker who loved strongly and worked tirelessly to grow community. These are two tremendous losses for us, and all of my thoughts that I offer you today are in their memory, and the work that we do this year will be in honor to their legacy. I hope you will keep them in your minds and hearts as well.

Today, my focus is on you, the faculty.

We’ve spent the summer reading about, and thinking about, your concerns, and conceiving of a way forward. I want to begin by saying something which we all know in higher ed, and especially here at Middlebury: the job has changed. The work has changed. And some of that change is extraordinary and inspirational. For example, had we not had advances in technology, we could not have stayed open. We may well have been shut for two years. We could not have communicated as efficiently and carefully as we did with our healthcare officers in Vermont. We would not have been able to develop ways of maintaining community, challenging as it was that we did.

And yet … our workloads are greater, we are still dealing with the challenges of our decision to not limit the people who want to learn with us, we miss community, and we have fallen out of practice with building it. So we are challenged to build a new kind of community, one which both uses and transcends technology, one which both uses and transcends bureaucracy, one in which the fundamentals of arts and sciences and learning in relationship that are so frequently in peril can be strengthened and grown. So, my theme for this year is growing community—our relations with each other, our relations with our students, and our relations with our work.

I’d like to spend the entirety of the rest of the time addressing the ways that we can grow community and build faculty morale in response to the concerns you raised last spring. I will divide my thoughts into three different sections. The first is our quality of life, the second is our teaching and research environments, and the third is the quality of our community.

There are many different changes that we are going to make in response to these concerns. I look forward to working with faculty council and many others to make sure that we spend our year in intentional growing. In fact, many of these initiatives will take longer than a year, but with the planting that we will do this year, the ideas and projects that result will grow.

Let me begin with some major updates and thoughts about quality of life.

First, I want to address a concern that faculty have had about the average raise from this past year. With your help, I, Jeff Cason, David Provost, and the full board were committed to increasing the faculty salary budget by 7 percent in FY 2023. We understood that would translate into an overall average salary increase of all faculty to 7 percent.

Due to increased dollars spent on sabbaticals, and an increase of 3.5 teaching FTEs unbudgeted, some of those compensation budget dollars were allocated to address these faculty budget challenges. Although this was the proper way to address these challenges from a budgetary standpoint, the result was the overall average increase in current faculty salaries was just over 5.4 percent.

We’ve had a chance to talk this over, and the challenges we experienced as a result of the major transitions we’ve had in the office. And we feel this result does not meet the spirit of the intention of the spoken promise of myself; David, EVP of finance; and Jeff, our dear former provost, made last May of 7 percent.

Upon my return last week and working with Michelle, Jim, David, and his team, I wanted to share immediately that we are restoring the funds used to resolve sabbatical issues and new positions, to honor our word and our intentions.   

Michelle, our provost, and Jim, our interim dean of faculty, will be working on a plan to allocate these funds to faculty. This still means that there will be a range, and Michelle and Jim will be back in touch as they think through the process this fall.

Faculty salaries will be again our top priority this year when it comes to the budget process. We have already begun that process, and we are working with faculty resources, as well as with others, to find the funds to continue to make sure that your salaries are, as we have stated is our goal, in the top quarter among the NESCACs. We were delighted to be able to work with Faculty Council to push our salaries to one of the highest increases that we have given, one of the highest in Vermont, and amongst our peers. And we are not finished with the work. We know that inflation is squeezing our purchasing power, and that is one of the most powerful drivers for us as we make this our very top priority this year for the second year in a row. Thank you to the Faculty Council and its leadership for working with me and the rest of SLG in pushing for this last year.

Second, we know that housing continues to be a concern, in Addison County, and in Middlebury, and in Vermont as a whole. We have been working this spring and throughout the summer with Summit Properties to create mixed-income housing through the sale of the Mooney property on Extension Street. That will result in at least 100 new property units, which Summit hopes to start building this year. While those units will go a very long way toward helping with our housing shortage, we are also doing two things, more immediately this year, to address the shortage.

We are converting several of our currently owned units into faculty housing, and we are acquiring several more units of housing that are currently on the market. I have asked Jim Ralph to keep me personally updated and posted on things that are creating challenges for you. Through building, converting, and acquiring, we are making strides in addressing the issue in both short- and long-term ways.

Related to faculty housing challenges, we have also been working all summer with the National Bank of Middlebury to increase our mortgage program. I am delighted to announce that earlier this week the Bank of Middlebury approved our proposal to increase the loan to cover a second mortgage by almost $100,000—from the current level of $150,000 to $240,000—so that housing can be more affordable for faculty who are looking to buy in the area.

Third, let me talk a little bit about where we are on expanding access to childcare, which we know continues to be a challenge in Vermont and nationally. We are working hard with the town on expanding Otter Creek. It is a complex but much-needed project. The childcare expansion project is well into the design drawing stage. Civil engineering and required environmental assessments are under way. Middlebury College has donated the land adjacent to the Otter Creek site to be used for the expansion project. We have received grant funding from several organizations to help defray the expenses associated with design and construction drawings. We expect to be in the permit phase of the project in early spring; construction will take about two years. So, our expected completion is spring 2025, depending on financing.

This year, we are also exploring how to support folks with childcare challenges when important work that requires attendance on campus extends beyond normal work hours. We know that this does not address the root of the childcare challenge for many faculty, but it does recognize the stress many families are feeling and a way to offer some immediate relief. I have already shared this with Faculty Council and will be working on a well-defined system that is efficient and easy to use.

Fourth, I know that Faculty Council and others have been wondering about more support for faculty as they navigate the challenges of academia in 2022. Many have suggested that we revisit the idea of a VPAA as well as a dean of faculty. This semester, we’ll be working with Faculty Council and faculty strategy committees and other bodies to create a position entirely devoted to faculty. That person will focus on quality of life for faculty as well as for common issues that come up for departments around bureaucracy and logistics and workload. By early in the next year, 2023, we should have a position description and a way forward for filling the role.

Fifth, in response early after my arrival at Middlebury to faculty concerns about a meeting space just for faculty and where faculty can meet with students, we renovated space in McCullough. However, we recognize that faculty and staff are not using that space in a way that is robust and that helps build community. So again, in consultation with faculty elected bodies, we will work on another solution, finding a major building on our campus that will become the new faculty lounge. We are thinking about two different options of existing buildings on campus, and we hope to bring each of those to you by the end of the semester.

Let me turn now to our teaching and research environments.

First, in terms of our teaching and research environments, I want to make sure that you know now that our intention is to return to prepandemic student levels. And we have already begun that process. While numbers change every day, in the summer and fall they trend downwards in a process of melt. And there is usually a difference between admitted numbers and enrolled numbers.

I want to say clearly here that our goal is to get the student size and the number of students on campus the same as it has been for the last five or six years prepandemic. For fall 2020, we came in at 601, and we had a total of 2,554 students. In 2021 we came in at 681, and we had 2,833 students on campus because of an open policy re returning students in COVID, and a lack of study abroad. For fall 2022, we have 646, and a total of 2,770. That larger number of students should be graduating out of the system within the next two years. We cannot completely predict yield, and our yield has been higher the last two years—higher than our already higher predictions because of COVID.

I want to state clearly again that there is no plan to increase the student body at this time. Rather, our plan is the opposite: to decrease it back to around 610–620 (that number cannot be exact) in the next two years.

Third, I wanted to share a number of points about the increasing faculty resources: Our faculty numbers have increased from 242 to 258.6 and remained at about the same level of 256.8 this year. We know the pressure points are real, and your experience of the last two years has been such that you worry about the future. The dean of the faculty and the dean of curriculum have been at work this year to address these pressure points in our curriculum and we will continue to work with you to do so. I also want strongly to endorse the work we began last year on non-tenure-track faculty development—hearing the concerns, building a better course for careers for those in those lines at Middlebury.

Fourth, we will be increasing our stipends for faculty development, travel, and research, starting this fall. We will increase the annual limit on reimbursement for professional memberships from $450 to $600, and in addition change our policy so that $300 a year of FPDF funding can now be used for the purchase of books. And more generally, we will be increasing the overall FPDF allotment from $3,000 to $4,000 and give a corresponding bump to the funds of holders of endowed chairs.

Fifth, we will be doubling the international travel fund as a recognition that faculty at our global institution are going on the road again and that it is more costly than ever to travel.

Sixth, we will be working with Faculty Council and EAC to review previous studies of faculty workload and inequities, and to do a refreshed study that comes up with various ways to address what we find by the end of this year. There is no perfect solution to this problem. But we cannot lose resolve in tackling it, no matter how imperfect our solutions will be. We understand that there are many different threads to this knot, but your new interim provost and I are determined to support faculty committees to find a way to untangle it.

Seventh, Michelle McCauley, Jim Ralph, and Grace Spatafora have already come up with a very long list of ways to support faculty in the classroom, whether that is through technological support, reducing bureaucracy, or other kinds of logistical help. They will be working with both Faculty Council and EAC to address that list and see what can be implemented right away. I have asked Michelle to bring me recommendations within this semester, and I know she’s excited about doing so.

There are some good initiatives under way in terms of academic student support—math and physics are using new approaches to placing our incoming students; Priscilla Bremser is teaching an introductory half-credit math course for students who could benefit from extra support; Tanya Byker led a midd.data camp for 15 incoming students this summer; we are about to hire design firms to reimagine the Armstrong Library as a site for a future STEM/Quantitative Hub; our HHMI funding is helping us reimagine our STEM curriculum; and a couple of years ago Genie Giaimo developed a new way to help our incoming students assess their writing capacities through the directed self-placement survey.

Finally, I know that many of you who have been involved in the Envisioning Middlebury process have articulated that you don’t feel connected to the vision. I have asked our new provost to work with each of you to go over the campaign priorities of Envisioning Middlebury and how each department can be visible to the larger fundraising effort. I am delighted to share the news with you that we raised $102 million last year in support of all of our goals, the highest amount that we have ever raised in a single year at Middlebury. And even more delighted to note that the area where we exceeded our Envisioning Middlebury goals the most was in academic excellence.

Let me turn now to the third area—the quality of our community. These practices are things that faculty, staff, and students can all contribute to in creative ways. And they are significant. First, we’re planning to schedule a regular set of opportunities for faculty to meet to discuss teaching at the CTLR, but not with a set agenda—just discussion.

Second, we will be restoring the program that allows students and faculty to come to lunch for free any of the dining halls. Jim Ralph will be sharing more details about that in the coming months.

Third, I will be hosting a biweekly tea for groups of 20 faculty at Hadley House. Again—there will be no agenda. Its purpose is just to spend time together and get used to being together again.

I want to end by sharing the wonderful news that Middlebury has been asked to join the American Academy of Arts and Sciences Higher Education Council as an institutional member. This is a deep vote of confidence in Middlebury’s educational leadership and in you, our faculty’s, commitment to the vision of liberal arts and sciences in the 21st century. I believe that languages, arts, sciences, social sciences, and humanities at Middlebury possess unique capacities to connect across disciplines and to deepen and lead pedagogy in their own disciplines. I look forward to working with the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and with you all to imagine ways we could benefit and deepening our own mission as well as leading others in theirs.

I am constantly impressed by the depth of liberal arts and sciences here at Middlebury. It’s located here in Vermont where the tradition of democratic deliberation is still alive. It is globally engaged through long-lasting partnerships of true educational significance. Our taking up of the challenges of equitable and inclusive classrooms, environmental leadership, cross-cultural engagement, and conflict transformation are all underscored by an incredible commitment to experiential and immersive learning. My hope is that all departments can strengthen and grow through these forms of learning.

These qualities make us not only unique but inspired by a spirit that is precious and needs to be protected fiercely. It needs to be protected fiercely because our world is surrounded by articles in otherwise intelligent media outlets that talk about “regrettable majors” and how we should rank majors based on their capacity to generate income. It needs to be protected because we are soon facing a likely reversal by the Supreme Court of our admissions practices and ways of building inclusive equity and diversity in our classes. It needs to be protected because we ourselves have found ways, at a powerful and persuasively local level, to address climate change that will help us go from strength to strength as the threat continues.

Most importantly, it needs to be protected because learning in relationship—the core of liberal arts and sciences—is increasingly under threat from a world that sees education as transactional, utilitarian, and less and less as transformational. Learning in relationship is at the core of growing community. And as we work with you and all faculty committees to build that learning in relationship, I ask that we have the grace and courage to learn from each other and model transformative learning for our students.

I have been reading Rebecca Solnit’s book Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities. She argues that hope is not a prize or a gift, nor is it simply a naive or toxic positivity. Rather as she puts it, hope is “something you earn through study and through resisting the ease of despair and through digging tunnels and cutting windows and opening doors….” Education is that hope, that digs tunnels and cuts windows and opens doors of the mind. 

And, Solnit goes on, hope is in finding the people who can build with us. I believe we have found the people who can build with us, and they are sitting all around us. We are sitting next to each other. I know that in this era, at this moment, it does feel sometimes like it is hope in the dark—emphasis on the dark. But I also believe, as Kevin Ellis has said about Vermont, so too the same can be said of Middlebury. We become, just by enduring and remaining true to ourselves, a kind of beckoning country. So this year, let us grow our community and earn our hope through study. I believe we can, through constant renewal and rigorous critique, continue to be the beckoning country that we have been for so many learners for centuries.