Richard Brodhead

Remarks by Richard Brodhead, President, Duke University, at the inauguration of Laurie L. Patton as Middlebury's 17th president, October 11, 2015.

I am honored to have a chance to say a word on this deeply significant occasion. Today we solemnize the union of a great college with the new president who will lead Middlebury on the next stage of its journey. I knew you both before you knew each other—Laurie Patton was my colleague before you carried her off to your mountain fastness. Allow me to say how these acquaintances began.

I lived in New England for most of my life but had virtually no knowledge of Vermont until one fall day, in graduate school, my wife and I set off for a ride. We had no fixed destination, and, beguiled by the beauty of New England October, we just kept driving and driving. Toward evening, we came to a place of rest: Middlebury. We spent the night and, the next day, walked this campus, then drove up to the see the Bread Loaf School, whose name was known to everyone in my field. At both spots, I felt a total, unreasoning certainty that this place would figure in my life.

And lo, it came to pass. Soon after, I was invited to teach at Bread Loaf, which was such a happy experience that I came back, and back, and back, and after a hiatus, back again, for eight summers in all. What was so magnetic? You know. This school has a setting of heart-piercing beauty, an environment so palpable that one never forgets the primal fact of the environment, joined to a community where teaching and learning are engaged on terms both deeply serious and deeply joyous.

And now to how I came to know Laurie Patton. When Laurie  was a professor at Emory, she agreed to be considered as Dean of Arts and Sciences at Duke. She looked great on paper—a pedigree from top schools, a record of influential scholarship, prize-winning teaching, active and creative citizenship. On paper, other candidates looked good too. But once we met Laurie, there was nothing more to discuss.  A dozen or so faculty on the search committee shared their impressions before the provost and I met the finalists. People who had seldom agreed on anything agreed that Laurie has an amazing gift for interpersonal connection. One said something I’ll never forget. She said, “Laurie learned as they day went on, such that things she had heard in early meetings had become part of her own thinking as the day unfolded.”

When I first met Laurie, and in working with her over four years, this is the very thing I found to be true. This is an active and continuous learner. When you are in Laurie’s company, her way of engaging you animates you, such that your thoughts become more interesting. She actively listens, takes your ideas in, and allows them to release thoughts of her own, in a free-form synthesis that’s always opening new vistas. Couple this with her endless energy—now that you have Laurie Patton, it’s all right that Vermont Yankee is shut down--her endless interest in others, her passion for teaching and learning, and her sheer joy in the drama of education, and Middlebury, you have met your match.

And that’s a good thing, because higher education needs leaders now. We live at a funny moment. The desire to get into elite schools has deepened into real desperation in recent years. For a selective college, this is of course very flattering, but it’s also a bit disquieting, since higher education, long considered as the great equalizer of opportunity, is now being pursued on terms that would steepen inequalities even further. Plus a strange negativism has gained ground, an odd willingness to believe that—even as one desperately seeks it—college really isn’t worth the value that’s being attached to it, and however rich the experience, really has just one aim: landing a good job.

None of these challenges is trivial; none can be finessed; some of them require changes in long-running institutional habits; some require speaking up for values in danger of being lost. Getting all that right requires a tough mix of skills. Then, a further complication, leadership works very differently in a college or university from the way it works in other settings. In higher education, you can’t make things happen by command. The fact that you hold a title signifying that you are in charge makes surprisingly little difference to students or faculty. In colleges and universities, leaders only exert real authority to the extent that they palpably embody the mission: to the extent that they visibly love learning,  exude a passion for asking questions and thinking them through, a passion that can unleash and give expression to the best energies of the community.

Laurie Patton is a skilled administrator, but her real claim to the office entrusted to her today is that she is a natural leader in this sense. Building on your best thought, she will help a great liberal arts college make a profound case for the liberal arts, without being afraid to try new things or adapt to a new circumstances. Let’s be frank: she has one downside, and you have probably already discovered it. Whatever you do, she’ll work twice as hard as you. A half-baked remark from you will receive a super-thoughtful reply from her; and she will still be up answering messages long after you have folded your tent. The consolation is that with Laurie Patton around, you will never doubt that education is a source of energy, inspiration, fellowship and fun.

Dean Patton, President Patton, the Duke nation is better for you and will never forget you. Middlebury, Duke’s loss is your gain. I wish you joy in this glorious union.