Laurie L. Patton began her presidency at Middlebury on July 1, 2015. Middlebury News sat down with Patton one year later to get her impressions from a very busy first year, and to take a look at the challenges and opportunities ahead.
Middlebury News: Tell us a little bit about your experience at Middlebury, what you’ve learned, and what, if anything, has surprised you.
Laurie Patton: The good surprise, if one could even call it that, has been that this community is even more stand-up, even more constructive, and even more ethical than I had imagined. I’ve never been in a place that is such an exemplar of those three qualities as Middlebury, so you can’t help but love working here. This community is very special when it comes to people getting the value of communication, of doing what they say they’re going to do, of following through, all those good things. It’s exceptional.
I’ve loved meeting our alumni. Young, middle-aged, older alums–they all had very different experiences at Middlebury. I’ve been working a lot on getting out on campus, so I meet with students in the dining halls and in the coffee shops in town. It’s a matter of walking down the street, but somehow that still symbolically makes a difference. I’ve spent a lot of time with faculty and in faculty meetings, which is natural, but also holding faculty and staff office hours and meetings at a coffee shop. Several people have asked me to teach classes for them, so I’ve taught about three or four different classes on translation, on religion, and on South Asia, so that has been exciting as well.
I feel that a president can never know the campus enough, and can never stop getting to know the campus.
MN: Middlebury is a different institution today than the one many alumni experienced as recently as 10 years ago. How has our rapid growth, including acquisition of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, changed the nature of what it means to be Middlebury’s president?
LP: A new insight I’ve developed over the past year is that a president has to decide in any given moment–of conversation, of decision-making, etcetera–whether we’re big or we’re small, and whether the value is to be big or small. So when it comes to efficiency of systems, we need to think like a more complex institution, and we are getting there. That’s been inspiring to watch.
The “small” has to do with the values that we share–how we make decisions, how we communicate. I don’t mean the systems of communication–they need to assume complexity–but rather the tone of communication, so I think those are all more village-type values that also make a difference. I think Middlebury is a more informal institution in certain ways than some of our peers, and we’re a little more open; our campus looks more open than many of our NESCAC peers. So I think for all those reasons, it’s not surprising to anyone that we are more expansive. But that also means that we really have to pay attention. We are traditionally generous and newly complex, and that can create both a fabulous dynamic and a very difficult dynamic because we spread ourselves more thinly than some of our peers, even if it’s for all sorts of good reasons.
This expansiveness in our thinking means we need to be careful that we don’t undergo mission creep. It’s one of the biggest challenges of a newly complex institution–that everything will be relevant to us. We also have to stay confident about the fact that we don’t look like a traditional liberal arts college and we don’t look like a traditional university. We are neither and, as a president, I need to constantly articulate that. Most people, even those who graduated 50 years ago, like the idea of Middlebury as a newly complex institution. I think even in the DNA from 50 years ago–having just spent time with the class of ’66–there’s an excitement about that. There’s real engagement and an expectation that new complexity will yield positive results. However, I think there’s also some anxiety about it, and as a president, you have to manage that as well.
MN: Over the past year, why do you think issues of race and inclusivity blossomed across the higher ed. landscape, and how much of your agenda going forward will be focused on these issues?
LP: I think Ferguson and a lot of the other events around police profiling and police treatment of people of color sparked it. Many of the events on a national scale heightened what feelings were already there on campuses and I think it allowed students to push certain agendas of inclusion that they may not have been so activist around in the past. That’s number one. Number two, it was a tipping point for things that had been building on campuses, and what we are looking at in higher education is a consequence of the fact that we created numerical diversity but were not as aware of the systems of support that we needed to manage that in an inclusive way.
I don’t think there’s one single answer to how you build inclusivity on campus. I think that it is incredibly important to make sure that each institution’s approach to inclusivity is true to its character and true to its values. So with Middlebury, we are, of course, way more diverse than we were even 20 years ago, and certainly 30 years ago. We continue to be more diverse partly because that’s a value for us. However, I’ve said on a number of different occasions I don’t think that only fixating on numbers is the right thing. We do need to continue to pay attention to our numbers, and make sure we are better reflecting the diversity that is out there in the world, but that can’t be the only thing. What we also must pay equal, if not more, attention to is making sure that we have the support systems in place for the folks that are here, including building on things we’re doing right now. As just one example of this, making sure the new Anderson Freeman Centerunderstands itself as a real resource for all students is going to be important for everybody moving forward.
Another key element for us in the future will be to make sure that our C3 fellows are used as well as they can be, and that we continue to hire in all forms of diversity with the faculty. This will take time given the pace at which faculty turn over, but we have to keep pushing. I also think we need to learn and re-learn how to have tough conversations across difference. I think Middlebury is uniquely equipped to do this, and I want it to be one of the signatures of my time as a leader here.
MN: Looking at economic challenges facing higher education in general, can you describe the financial challenges that lie ahead for Middlebury and some of the ways that you are working to establish financial sustainability?
LP: The simple answer is that we are spending more than we’re taking in. And so, over the next three years we are committed to achieving a new level of financial sustainability. It’s a big project, it’s a hard project and we have to execute on it. It’s our number one area of challenge right now. But it’s important to keep in mind that it’s not a crisis.
So how do you create an ethos of fiscal efficiency and discipline where it’s not a crisis? How do you create that discipline that we simply need for the future? It’s a very interesting challenge.
The plan we’ve created, with the support of the board of trustees, uses several different levers to both hold costs flat in a number of different areas while making sure that our focus on income generation and fundraising remains as aggressive as it can possibly be.
I must state the obvious: we must do this in a way that is consistent with our values.
MN: On the fundraising front, you identified three top priorities for your first year: financial aid, annual giving, and the president’s discretionary fund. How did you settle on those and what is our outlook for fundraising?
LP: Well, to begin with, financial aid–or what I prefer to call student funding with purpose–represents a core value for Middlebury and for me personally. Annual giving directly supports the essential operations of the institution. And the president’s discretionary fund supports the innovation we must pursue as an institution to continue to thrive. That strict focus on three priorities has created some difficult conversations about other priorities. But we agreed to stay focused, and now I’m pleased to say that we surpassed our goals in all three areas this year. People have seen that the discipline of sticking to those three things and continuing to do so over the next couple of years is important.
MN: Could you describe the working relationship you’ve developed with the undergraduate faculty over the past year?
LP: I think the Middlebury faculty is extraordinary. That’s been another wonderful thing about being here. It wasn’t a surprise in any way, but some things stand out. I have experienced them as ready to work, ready to engage, and ready to think in new and innovative ways.
I find them all very much aware of the changes that are happening in higher education. Of course they have different opinions about it. As one example, we had a very tough discussion around how to change our civilization requirement this year. We had really good, open debate, we had a vote, and we went forward with a significant change. I’ve seen that same attitude on a couple of smaller initiatives as well. So I’ve been very impressed with the way faculty have responded to our new governance system, the way they’ve responded to me as a president as well as to the style that I’m trying to create for leadership. I can’t say enough good things about our faculty.
MN: Envisioning Middlebury is an initiative you developed to engage the entire Middlebury community in a yearlong conversation about the future of the institution. Can you talk about how that came about and what you hope it will achieve?
LP: Because we’re newly complex, we have to figure out, with as much data and opportunity for input as possible, where we want to go. That was one of the first things that occurred to me when I got here: how exciting it would be to have as much data as possible on a broad range of topics. In typical Middlebury fashion, everybody stepped up, so now we have a program network study. We have a social network survey and we’re going to have a huge survey going out in the fall. And then we’re designing focus groups that include both alumni and parents–not with any expectation that everybody who is part of one of these groups gets to determine policy at the highest level, but that we value their input.
The Envisioning Middlebury process is, at its core, a strategic planning process. But it’s also the first time everybody’s voice will matter, and that everybody’s voice includes the undergraduate College, Monterey, the Language Schools, Schools Abroad, School of the Environment, and Bread Loaf. And so we have the good groundwork for this kind of highly consultative strategic planning process.
We made a wonderful pivot about three or four months ago when we decided that we’re not going to be doing a 92-page list for our strategic plan. Rather, we’re going to have six or seven strategic directions that people can then envision themselves in, and propose their own strategic planning underneath those directions. I want those directions not to be business as usual.
I want us to frame them in a way that wakes everybody up. I’m very committed to that. Exactly what that looks like, we don’t know yet. I have my own idea of where we want to go and I am articulating that in the form of questions so that it doesn’t feel that we’ve already made the decisions. The strategic planning process shouldn’t just feel performative. We wouldn’t do this to this extent if it were only performative. But I do think it’s only appropriate and straightforward for me to share what those ideas are so people can interact with them. My role is much more of a head coach of this project, and I think our provost, Susan Baldridge, has done a wonderful job of keeping it on track and keeping people excited about it and engaged.
MN: You came to this job with an impressive amount of personal scholarship. How do you maintain a president’s schedule while still fulfilling your own personal academic needs as a scholar?
LP: The answer is what I call the butt-in-the-chair principal, which is you just put your butt in the chair. You just write for an hour a day no matter what. Now, is it to the point where you can be as active a scholar as you once were? Absolutely not.
Can you be even as active a scholar as president as you could as a dean? No. Can you still be an active scholar? Yes. I think it’s almost a biological thing–I have to write, and I have to be around scholars, so I’ve given a couple of scholarly lectures this year, and Middlebury’s been wonderful about that. The community has supported it. I think the reason why it matters is the fact that you have to lead from who you are, and the good news is that leading an academic institution as a scholar is not hard.
That said, I don’t think I would be happy if I were only a scholar right now. I find a lot of scholarly debates really energizing. However, I think it’s the right moment for me to be above the fray on some of the scholarly debates, particularly around identity politics, where I can actually shape the debate instead of necessarily taking the side that I would have, say, 10 or 15 years ago.
MN: Tell us about some of the ways you’ve gotten to know your Addison County neighbors and also how you’re adjusting to life in a rural community.
LP: I call it a sophisticated rural community because it’s more like Aspen than it is like a small town. I’ve gone to as many possible things as I can. I think I had to turn a couple of them down, but I’ve gone to gatherings of the Addison County Economic Development Corporation, the Rotary Club, the Sheldon Museum, and the Town Hall Theater board, to name just a few. There’s any number of spaces that I’ve really wanted to engage because getting to know the community has been one of the most rewarding parts of this job.
Generally speaking, I have found that folks are appreciative of the College and also understand the history. Middlebury’s recent history is so expansive that sometimes people can forget that it’s “the town’s college.” So how do you have a newly complex institution that’s also the town’s college? The only way you do that successfully is to show up, and I happen to like showing up at all the local events.
MN: You’ve mentioned the idea of a “president’s course” over the past year. Can you tell us what this is and how it will be launched at Middlebury?
LP: The subject will be water, which of course is one of the most precious resources on the planet. I think everybody’s excited about it. We have all of our lecturers signed up and we’ll start next spring. We’re going to have lectures from stakeholders from all of our different units. It will be simulcast from and to Monterey and Middlebury. It’s being planned and led by two different professors: Lyuba Zarsky from Monterey and Dan Brayton from Middlebury. They’ve been doing a wonderful job.
The question for us right now is: How do we design it pedagogically so that even more of the community can come in? We’re also thinking about what kind of alumni portal we might design.
To some degree we think of this as an example of both an extension of Alumni College and of the kind of work we need to do to create more organic relationships between the Middlebury Institute and the College. We want to let those possibilities for the next steps emerge from this course.