December 11, 2015: Town Hall Remarks at Mead Chapel
I began my remarks to you at the inauguration focusing on the ways in which diversity should be an everyday ethic. Diversity and inclusivity are not problems to be solved but ways that we live our lives. I have been so proud of this community as I have watched us grapple with the challenges of becoming better at being inclusive. I have been saddened to hear the experiences of those who have been in pain, and I want to propose actions to create a better Middlebury.
We have expressed solidarity with students trying to make lives better in cities and in universities across the United States. We have wondered what the relationship is between speaking our minds and improving the ways we talk to each other every day. We have gathered and expressed our concerns and frustrations, as well as our hopes for the future. We have asked how we could both collectively and individually become more whole as all of our differences are gathered up into this extraordinary community called Middlebury.
I have seen remarkable intentionality and thoughtfulness in this conversation. And I have also seen ways in which we could improve both in our mindfulness of each other as well as in the care with which we imagine the future. I have had conversations with many of you in the dining halls, where you have welcomed me for lunch, and during my office hours as well as when walking across campus. I have had students of color express their frustration at not wanting to be the sole representatives of difference, and feeling solely responsible for educating about difference, when they themselves are here for an education. I have had students from majority white backgrounds express their fear at making a mistake and being called racist, or sexist, or homophobic. I have had faculty wanting more conversation about race with students. I have listened to other faculty—and even some of those same faculty—wanting to make sure that we embrace the best practices of free speech. And I have spoken to alumni and trustees and fellow travelers who wish us the best and want us to continue to talk and become the community that we always were meant to be.
I want to share a few thoughts and principles before I also share with you the ways in which we are moving forward on these central issues for our times.
First, we must make sure that no single group bears the burden of difference, but that we all aspire to inclusivity. That means that students of color should not have to be the sole educators on questions of racial prejudice; students from the LGBT community should not have to be the sole educators about different sexual orientations; students of religious backgrounds should not have to explain and be the sole representatives for all of their traditions; disabled students should not have to be the sole people working for accessibility. Some students are tired of those roles.
Second, those of us who are not part of historically underrepresented groups need to stand in alliance with those who are. And we need to be explicit and intentional about this. That means that we need white allies of people of color who work to combat racism on our campus. We need straight people to stand in alliance with LGBT people. We need people who are in majority religious traditions to stand in alliance with those who are in minority religious traditions. We need people who are not disabled to stand in alliance with people who are disabled. How can people who have wealth and access to wealth stand in alliance with those who do not? This spirit of alliance is to me exactly where we need to go in the future if we are to live into the everyday experience of difference and inclusivity. And that alliance means a commitment to educating ourselves when we are in alliance with others, not asking them to educate us.
Third, we need to not be afraid to make mistakes and to engage with others. This may be the hardest thing for members of our community to do because we are all community-minded people who want to do the right thing and we are all trying to address the stress in our lives. And that combination makes it hard sometimes for us to always get it right when it comes to living out that everyday ethic. I made a mistaken reference the other day that someone responded to and said I should think about differently. I responded to someone else who I thought was using gender-biased language yesterday. We are probably going to be in both roles. So if in fact someone asks us to change our language or behavior, we have a duty first and foremost to listen. And if we are offended by someone else’s behavior or language, let us not be afraid to name that and engage respectfully in ways in which the behavior or language could change. This is a delicate task of discernment between keeping engaged and avoiding undue burdens on a single group. We, as educators, need to educate, and to do so better. But we all need to listen.
It is only with this open perspective of discerning listening—even in the stress of everyday life—that we will achieve the kind of ethic of inclusivity that we all aspire to.
I am asking for students who are angry at each other to still listen to each other. I am asking that faculty who feel that students are demanding too much of them to listen to their concerns. I am asking that administrators remember all the hard work that is before us in listening to both faculty, students, and staff who may be coming from very different places than we are.
Fourth, I want us to have an open and complex understanding of free speech. Free speech is not the opposite of inclusivity. We need both if we are to move forward in any meaningful way. In fact, the very way that we create a more inclusive community is by exercising free speech and continuing to create understanding even in the midst of difficult tension-filled conversations. If we do not exercise free speech, we will never learn what others are thinking, and we will never learn how to understand what we may have said or done that makes the world harder for someone else.
The fifth principle is the importance of ongoing reflection about structural bias. This is the work of the Institutional Diversity Committee. We have been talking about structural issues in which racism and other forms of exclusivity are built into our systems. I think this is the biggest challenge for all of us, and I think the first step towards addressing structural prejudice is by collectively owning the work we need to do together. This is why alliance is important. For example, to change the built environment so that we are more accessible will take every single person on this campus being more and differently aware than they are now. For us to make Middlebury a rainbow space and a resilient space, and not only a white space, we need to have everyone’s reflection. And that reflection needs to be actively engaged in contexts and conversations outside Middlebury’s campus—the ways in which systems around the globe both foster inclusivity and perpetuate exclusivity. We will have deeply different opinions about these structural issues. But these are not episodic issues that will flare up and go away. We must attend to these and talk about these on an ongoing basis. We are not obliged to think the same. But I believe we are obliged to stay in the local, global, and national conversations.
And on that note of collective ownership, and with all these principles in mind, I want to remind you of, and say more about, the work we are doing on campus that I mentioned in my recent letter to the community. I also want to introduce other new activities we have started and to share some new ideas. There are 13 points.
Number 1: In the spirit of creating a better everyday life at Middlebury, we are sponsoring a series of workshops by the Posse Foundation to reach all the offices that touch students in their lives at Middlebury. The Posse Foundation is a nationally recognized expert on student leadership development—and college access, retention, and success. Each year, Posse accepts a select number of consulting requests focused on leadership development and diversity training, curriculum and program design, or team-building events related to a specific programmatic or institutional goal. Posse will be here in early May. They will hold workshops for Admissions, Student Financial Services staff, student leaders, and faculty. We are still working with Posse on designing these workshops and the goal is to reach everyone eventually. We invite you to comment and engage.
Number 2: In the spirit of making our educational practices as inclusive as possible, we must acknowledge that our most important educational spaces are our classrooms. We have hired another group to assist us—Romney and Associates. Romney focuses on the faculty recruiting process—writing a job ad that will attract a diverse applicant pool, addressing implicit bias in the search, and mentoring, among many other things. We are also sponsoring Romney workshops for people in the role of search committees particularly focused on unconscious bias and stereotype threat. Those workshops will be mandatory for all faculty search committees starting with the next round of recruiting. The first workshop will take place in late spring, and there are three more spread across the year ahead. This is particularly important because we are also expanding our Mellon-funded project, C3, which focuses on faculty diversity, by adding new universities that will be working with us to identify postdoctoral scholars of color to teach on our campuses.
Number 3: In the spirit of ongoing everyday reflection on structural bias, I would like to announce that Leslie Harris, professor of history and African-American studies at Emory University, is going to be speaking to our Board of Trustees as well as students and faculty during a visit in late January. Leslie is an expert on slavery in the Northern states and has just finished editing a volume on the university and slavery. Significantly for us, she also led a communitywide conversation at Emory University about Emory’s relationship to slavery and segregation in its first 150 years. This was called “the transforming community project” and it was a truly wonderful initiative funded by the Ford Foundation. I have asked Leslie to work with Middlebury in designing and creating an ongoing conversation about difference that lasts. I think we could do this in some unique and creative ways, with some effort and intentional reflection, and I am greatly excited about this work.
Number 4: In the spirit of not being afraid to make mistakes in the service of building a better community, I have asked a new alliance of students who are interested in hosting difficult conversations—what I have called arguments for the sake of heaven—to convene their first conversation on the subject of diversity and inclusion during J-term. I will be hosting and facilitating that conversation and we will be looking at this question from a number of different points of view. Please stay tuned.
Number 5: In the spirit of everyday public safety, I have asked our director of public safety, Lisa Burchard, to meet regularly with any concerned students about the question of public safety and inclusive practices. She and other members of her team will be joining students for lunch every month to address any issues that have come up and change our practices so that we can make Middlebury a more inclusive community.
Number 6: I have asked Erin Quinn, the director of athletics, to create a new initiative within athletics led by both students and coaches to look at inclusivity practices and the ways in which teams can lead in this area. We have the student structure in place because one of our Student Athlete Advisory Committee subcommittees is Diversity and Inclusion. That will give us an initial avenue to engage students. Erin will add additional support from coaches.
As he and I have discussed, varsity student-athletes make up approximately 28 percent of the student population and, as members of teams, they have an ability to organize effectively. Furthermore, due to participation in athletic contests, they are often visible to the College and local community. We believe they can be effective and important allies against racism.
Coaches play an integral mentoring role for their teams as they are often involved in the College and local community, and they link participation in athletics at Middlebury to issues beyond the practice and competition venues. We believe coaches can also be effective and important allies against racism.
Number 7: In the spirit of improving everyday mental health, the student-life team is in the process of hiring two full-time counseling fellows for the Parton Center. Those counselors will be hired with a view toward inclusivity and diversity and with a strong focus on addressing issues that come up for historically underrepresented groups. We are actively interviewing to fill those positions.
Number 8: In the spirit of student leadership on these issues, I am delighted to credit one of the student-led groups in the conversation around difference and inclusivity at Middlebury—JusTalks. JusTalks is working with Middlebury leaders to create wide exposure to their work on campus, and while we are still in the design phase, I invite you to stay tuned. While we will be able to share the results of the collaborations later in the academic year, we are partnering with JusTalks organizers to find a way to grow and strengthen the program and give maximum exposure to their work.
Number 9: In the spirit of everyday sharing of the burden of education about difference, I have asked the provost, as part of her work leading the strategic planning process this year and next, to include room to consider the central question of how we can create a more inclusive curriculum. Last month, the faculty took up this issue in their discussion of the AAL requirement (note: AAL refers to a distribution requirement that undergraduate students complete at least one course that focuses an aspect of the cultures and civilizations of Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Middle Easts, and the Caribbean), which they will vote on in the spring. This is just the first of many similar curricular conversations we will be having. I would like to propose here that we work on a common Middlebury bibliography as well as a common list of classes that will help us reflect about all of the issues before us. In this way we educate each other collectively rather than sitting back and allowing those who are different to constantly have to articulate their difference to others. In the same vein, I invite another all-Middlebury bibliography on the relationship between free speech and inclusivity in a vibrant democratic practice.
Number 10: In the spirit of building networks, I have been in conversation with members of the Alumni of Color organization as they plan their weekend in January. One trustee, Leilani McClellan Brown ’93, will be speaking then. I will be meeting with them and will invite those active in Alumni of Color to share with me what it would look like to take this group to the next level. I think it would be tremendously exciting to develop an entire network of alumni of color to create a mentoring program that could help support our work both before and after their time at Middlebury.
Number 11: In the spirit of supporting student leadership and creating alliances, I have been in conversation with members of the SGA and asked them to suggest ways we could move forward on real and meaningful alliances across campus that acknowledge the way our various identities shape who we are, and how race is often at the nexus of many social issues and identities, including class, gender, and sexual orientation.
They have come up with some truly wonderful suggestions that I support wholeheartedly. I will help fund these initiatives if they require such support. To name a few of them:
- A “Think About It” course for incoming first-year students that could be taken online before they arrive. This would be similar to the alcohol education course students take now.
- A concerted effort to involve more students who have demonstrated leadership in cultural organizations or activist groups on campus.
- Establishment of a program similar to Green Dot that would teach student bystanders to intervene in problematic situations before they escalate into more serious conflicts.
- Administrative support for a student organization for students who want to become better educated and better allies. This could be a model for many other groups as they design their next steps.
Number 12: In the spirit of creative thinking about everyday community practices, I have begun conversations with my diversity team on the question of applying models of restorative justice to questions of bias and cultural appropriation on campus. According to one definition, restorative justice focuses less on the idea of legal violation and more on the ideas of community and repair. As the Center for Justice and Reconciliation puts it, there are three big ideas that restorative justice practices bring to the table: (1) Repair: crime causes harm and justice requires repairing that harm; (2) Encounter: the best way to determine how to do that is to have the parties decide together; and (3) Transformation: this can cause fundamental changes in people, relationships, and communities.
I think Middlebury could come up with some truly compelling procedures for restorative justice when incidences of bias take place on campus. We are just at the beginning stages of this but I wanted to share this new approach with you as I have learned it from a student on campus who has been working on this in relationship to questions of sexual violence. I am inspired because, once again, students are leading and it is our job to support good ideas.
And Number 13: I promised you that we would name the task force on excess ability and an Alliance for Inclusivity. And I am happy to say that we are able to do that today. I share with you both the charges for these two groups and their members. We will make additional information available after the holiday break. It is my intention that these be ongoing groups with presidential support. Let me say that the student applications were fabulous. And to those who will not be part of the group but expressed an interest, thank you. I am delighted to be working with each group on next steps for our community lives together.
I will begin with the Advisory Group of Disability, Access, and Inclusion.
- Miguel Fernandez and Susan Burch (cofacilitators)
- Jodi Litchfield, Student Accessibility Services
- Yonna McShane, Center for Teaching/Learning/Research
- Lhakpa Bhutia ‘16
- Elizabeth Zhou ‘18
In my 2015 inaugural address, I expressed the idea that “diversity is an everyday ethic to be cultivated, made richer and more vibrant.” As part of this vision for Middlebury, I have charged the Advisory Group on Disability, Access, and Inclusion to identify ways to make Middlebury College a more inclusive community, focusing on issues related to disability and people with disabilities.
The group will engage with a wide array of Middlebury constituents. It will assess campus values and understandings, including policies, curricula and pedagogies, support services, events and programming, communications, and everyday interactions. The advisory group will also assess accessibility in our built environment, which may include, for example, residential and academic spaces and related campus structures, and transportation.
I am also delighted to announce the Alliance for an Inclusive Middlebury (AIM).
Faculty and Staff
- Baishakhi Taylor and Roberto Lint Sagarena (cofacilitators)
- Miguel Fernandez (Liaison to Advisory Group on Disability, Access, and Inclusion)
- Leticia Arroyo Abad, Economics
- Nicole Curvin, Admissions
- Alice Wang, CRA
- Chi Chi Chang ‘18
- Mario Picón ‘17
- Anahi Naranjo ‘17
- Angie McCarthy ‘19
The Alliance for an Inclusive Middlebury works to promote a comprehensive, collegewide approach to issues of diversity, access, and equity. Through strategic planning and programmatic development we will empower students, faculty, and staff to sustain an inclusive campus community. The core ethic of this alliance is that no one in our community should experience it as an outsider.
AIM will make regular progress reports to the president and Middlebury’s Senior Leadership Group. The group will also make reports regarding its work and findings to the broad campus community when appropriate.
The initiatives put forward by this group will be created in consultation and collaboration with the widest range of campus constituencies possible.
Members of AIM will investigate and make use of best practices around diversity and inclusivity at peer institutions, including the possibility of site visits.
In conjunction with relevant offices on campus, AIM will update, examine, and disseminate existing institutional diversity data and statistics. We believe that it is crucial that we identify the places where we need to do work as well as acknowledge the places where inclusivity is moving forward on campus.
Before I end, let me once again state the five principles I articulated at the beginning:
- Collective ownership of inclusivity where no one group bears the burden for all of us;
- The need to create alliances with historically underrepresented groups;
- Being unafraid to make mistakes as we engage with others and embracing the value of listening as we live through the difficult work of creating new community;
- Supporting the values of free speech and inclusivity as complementary values to make sure that both work towards the same goal of creating a better community;
- Committing to ongoing reflection on structural bias.
Ta-Nehisi Coates, writer and an alum of the Middlebury Language Schools, called his work on coming-of-age in Baltimore The Beautiful Struggle. It is a great title for the work his father and others did, and it is also a great name for active compassionate response to the question of difference and community. In the 13 points of action that I have shared with you, I invite you to join us in any of those projects and struggle with us. Work with athletics. Work with us as faculty to think about best practices in the classroom. Work with us in the administration as we support student groups and design workshops. Work with us in the SGA as we think about new and newly invigorated alliances. Work with us in public safety. Work with us in designing better conversations in public about tough issues. Work with alumni communities to create stronger and better networks.
More than any other community I have chosen to be a part of, I believe in this community’s power to change. I believe in Middlebury’s power to address stress and diversity and the relationship between the two. I believe in Middlebury’s power to create, slowly and imperfectly, but also compellingly, a new way forward. How can we understand and cultivate difference as one of our deepest values, as a form of richness of everyday life? There are so many new spheres and we have just begun to name them. Let us name more. And let’s create a world with new language. A world with new names. Thank you.
November 30, 2015: Inclusivity at Middlebury: Next Steps
Dear Middlebury College Students, Faculty, and Staff,
I hope you had a restful and enjoyable Thanksgiving break. Though I was physically away from Middlebury last week at a conference and then for the break, I was with all of you very much in spirit. I was heartened to hear, last Monday night, about the large turnout at the town hall discussion in Dana Auditorium and the serious conversation that took place there. I hope many of you will attend the companion event this afternoon at 4:30, also in Dana.
I hope we all have taken an opportunity for contemplation and reflection on events of the last several weeks, not only at Middlebury but also across the country—Missouri, Yale, Princeton, Amherst, Georgetown, Brown, Brandeis, among others. The list of colleges and universities that are wrestling with issues of race, inclusivity, institutional history, free speech, cultural appropriation, stress, and more is growing by the day and week.
Our campus has dealt with and confronted the questions raised by members of our own community in the best tradition of Middlebury: by talking and connecting. And though it may be difficult at times, I believe the work we are doing is helping to create new relationships and new forms of accountability. At times, we will find ourselves in disagreement with other members of our community; some of the questions we are wrestling with are difficult ones and worth arguing about. We cannot presume that everyone in our community will be of the same mind on every issue we face. Indeed, I suspect few of us would want to be part of such a community. It is in our diversity of worldview, experience, background, race, ethnicity, nationality, sexual and gender identity, physical abilities and disabilities, and more that we gain our strength. That is as true for Middlebury as it is for the larger communities in which we live—our towns, our states, our nations, and our world.
But we must do more than talk. We must also continue the difficult work of strengthening our community and ensuring that everyone feels it is, equally, their own. No one in our community should experience it as an outsider. As I said in my inaugural address, inclusivity must be our everyday ethic. Via this letter, and after consultation with students, faculty, and staff, I am announcing an Alliance for Inclusive Community: a group of faculty, students, and staff whose charge is to work on policies, best practices, and spaces across our campuses to make sure we are as inclusive as possible in all facets of our lives together. We have named this group an “alliance” because, as I wrote in my editorial for the Campus last week, the ideal is that all of us should work toward this goal. In addition, as you might remember, I also announced an Accessibility Task Force in response to the concerns about the Ridgeline project, and our senior level team is in the midst of populating that group. We envision that the Accessibility Task Force will work closely with the Alliance for Inclusive Community.
In order to create an open process, we would also like to invite students to apply to be part of the Alliance. If you are interested, please send a letter of no more than two pages to the Office of the President (firstname.lastname@example.org) by Monday, December 7, outlining your experience and perspectives on inclusive community, and your willingness to forge alliances with other groups in order to achieve this goal. I welcome other suggestions and thoughts you might have as well. We will name the members of the Alliance and give it its full charge by the end of the fall semester.
I also wanted to share with you the various other activities that we have been working on this fall to create a more inclusive community. Many of these initiatives were brought about by years of organizing by Middlebury College students. Here’s what we’re doing to bring us closer to that goal:
- We are hosting a series of faculty roundtables. The first two, held earlier this fall, focused on microaggressions and inclusive pedagogy. A third, which will take place during winter term, will include a discussion of trigger warnings. These roundtables were preceded by a webinar on microaggressions that provided important context.
- We reached out to the Posse Foundation over the summer and have scheduled three on-campus workshops that will take place in early May, one for admissions and financial aid staff, one for faculty and administrators, and one for student leaders. These half-day workshops will leverage Posse’s experience designing and facilitating interactive experiences that explore and confront challenging sociopolitical issues facing higher education today.
- We will hold four faculty-recruitment workshops, in partnership with Romney Associates, which are designed to boost our goal of further diversifying the faculty. The workshops are timed to be delivered to faculty at key points in the search calendar and will focus on recruitment and rationale for diversification; reviewing applications and discussing bias; the campus visit and how to engage candidates, conduct interviews, assess diversity qualifications, address faculty bias, and evaluate candidates; and retention strategies and mentoring. Diversity must be a priority in each and every faculty search.
- We are deepening our commitment to the Creating Connections Consortium (C3). In October we sent a delegation of students, faculty, and staff to the C3 Summit at Bates College. The C3 Summit provided structured and informal time for undergraduates from numerous liberal arts colleges to network with the graduate students to learn about their academic backgrounds, their current research, and the challenges they face in the university environment. This innovative effort, funded by the Mellon Foundation, seeks to support full participation by students and faculty of color at liberal arts colleges and research universities. C3 recently expanded its charter membership of Middlebury, Williams, Connecticut College, UC Berkeley, and Columbia to include Bates College, the University of Michigan, and the University of Chicago.
- Our faculty has begun officially to discuss specific proposals, initiated by students who are part of MiddIncluded, to revise the distribution requirement at the College to ensure a variety of cultures, previously grouped together, are separated out as their own distinct entities.
- This fall we began making counseling staff available to students in the Anderson Freeman Center in Carr Hall and I sincerely hope that our new counseling fellows program will lead to greater diversity amongst our staff of mental health professionals at the College.
This list is—must be—just a start. Seen through the lens of our 215-year history, Middlebury’s commitment to creating a truly diverse and inclusive culture for students, faculty, and staff is relatively recent, which means we have further to travel in a shorter time. And the journey won’t be a straight line. The Alliance for Inclusive Community will be vigilant about the constant improvements and investments we need to make to ensure that inclusivity is an everyday ethic. Whether the issue is cultural appropriation, the balance between free expression and community standards, or questions of language, triggers, deference, or comfort, well-meaning, well-intentioned people will not always be in agreement on the questions that face us.
But let us, together, find a way forward that honors and respects our shared values and commitment to inclusion in its broadest form.
November 5, 2015: Statement on Accessibility and the Ridgeline Housing Project
The construction of a new residence hall—the first at Middlebury in more than a decade—has sparked an important discussion in our community over what standards we should set for ourselves regarding the accessibility of our campus. I’m sure we all wish this question had arisen last spring during the open meetings held on campus and before ground was broken on the project.
That said, I’m very glad to see the passion and interest this topic has engendered. And I believe it will lead to a better process moving forward so that we do not find ourselves in this situation again.
The conversation about inclusion of differently abled people is exactly a discussion worth having; as I mentioned in my inaugural address, it is an argument for the sake of the common good. In that spirit, I want to share with the entire community a straightforward and open assessment of the limitations and opportunities we have before us. They involve two goods.
The first good is our responsibility to spend within our budget so that we can work together to make Middlebury the best it can be. This includes addressing issues of academic excellence, global engagement, environmental stewardship, diversity, financial aid, and other forms of student, faculty, and staff support. The second good is increasing our ongoing commitment to accessibility on campus, and finding ways to spend the dollars that we have in a manner that will have the biggest impact for all students, faculty, staff, as well as visitors and families. Good nonprofit management requires that we carefully pay attention to both of these goods; it also means we must make trade-offs from time to time to strike a balance between them.
Given these two common goods, we have before us two decisions. Both are important. The first decision is one I hope all of us will embrace with enthusiasm, commitment, and intellectual engagement: to create a task force on accessibility to begin the process of formulating a new set of accessibility standards for Middlebury. These standards should be rooted in our principles and must go beyond mere compliance. That principle is another I articulated in my inaugural address: diversity as an everyday ethic. We should have no illusions that this will be a simple process. Even when acting on principle, people will come to very different conclusions about what we should do. But these will be arguments worth having and we should embrace them. The task force will include faculty, staff, students, and outside experts who have written, thought, and advocated for more inclusive living and working spaces. This task force will hold open forums that bring to Middlebury leading thinkers and consultants who can advise how we should go about increasing accessibility. It will engage with students who are interested in pursuing this topic in their own design work. And it will lead us to think seriously about the massive challenge facing us to bring buildings on campus compliant with federal and state regulations—something our best estimates say would cost upwards of $50 million.
The second, more difficult decision is what we can and should do with the Ridgeline project. To recap the decision before us, the larger dormitory, containing 62 beds, is accessible and visitable on all floors. There are, in addition, three townhouse units that contain 96 beds. Those structures do not have elevators and so anyone with a mobility challenge will find it difficult to visit the lower and upper floors. (The middle floor, which is the ground floor when approached from Adirondack View, is accessible.)
This means that a mobility challenged student who drew into one of the townhouses could not move between floors in his or her own residence hall. It also means a parent with a mobility challenge could not visit his or her child’s room if it is on a lower or upper floor. Both of those scenarios (and there are more) are disheartening to consider.
However, the fact remains that the design of these buildings conforms to our current building guidelines, as well as to state and federal regulations on accessibility. And 94 of the 158 beds in the complex overall are visitable by everyone. Are these standards enough as we think about further building? In my view, no. I think we can and should hold ourselves to a higher standard as we move forward with new buildings during my time as president. Will it be a perfect standard given our budgetary limitations? No. Will it move us in the right direction and be better than what we have now? Yes.
The other consideration is a financial one. At this point, adding full elevators to the townhouses would require major work and delay, beyond what we can realistically accept given our fundamental budgetary responsibilities. When we were asked about changing the buildings last week, we quickly began looking at what might be possible. Our research showed that we would have to do several major things: 1) pull out the foundations already in place; 2) redesign the structures and seek permits for the new designs; 3) renegotiate numerous binding contracts, and; 4) pay significant penalties to do so. And finally, it is not a given that the site we have chosen could accommodate the larger buildings with elevators. Our best estimate is that stopping the project and redesigning the structures would add between $5 million and $8 million to the cost of the complex.
This large increase would occur at a time when we, like other institutions of higher learning, must exercise increased fiscal discipline to hold down rising costs. It also would come at a time when our investment in financial aid continues to increase and when we have many new and ongoing programs we want to provide to our students to further our academic mission. With great regret, given all the other educational obligations we have and our limited resources, I cannot see how we could justify such a large expense.
Nonetheless, we are committed to working toward making the townhouses more welcoming and visitable—even as construction continues. In doing this, we will be guided by the principle of “diversity as an everyday ethic,” even within our limited means. We are meeting with architects who are experts in accessible design to see what we can do within the current footprint of the building. We have and will continue to look for ways to make spaces in the greater Ridgeline complex easier to visit and live in for anyone with a mobility challenge. We must do so quickly, as every day we put more resources into the project. These improvements will come at a cost, but it will be one we can take on.
I realize that our decision not to spend the full $5 to 8 million to install elevators at this late stage of the project will disappoint some in our community.
Most important, following the long-term principle of diversity as an everyday ethic, I want to encourage all of us to raise the bar on this conversation going forward. Out of this, through an accessibility task force that will engage all members of the community who wish to participate, we will create a new standard that will guide us for years to come, and that will become a source of pride for all of us. For calling us to a higher standard, and encouraging us to act on such standards in the future, I am deeply grateful to everyone who has joined in this conversation, and I will make sure it continues.
October 11, 2015: Inaugural Address
Good morning students, faculty, staff, trustees, alumni, presidents emeriti and their families, delegates, citizens of the town of Middlebury, of Vermont, of New England, citizens of Monterey, of our nation, and of the world. We are delighted that you are here. I am particularly moved that you have come to celebrate on this joyful day the next chapter in Middlebury’s extraordinary history. Many of you have come a long way, from overseas and from states a great distance from Vermont. Others of you have made an extra special effort to get here. Let me pause now to tell you that there is a Middlebury tradition of honoring one particular person who always makes a special effort to get to Middlebury events, and I would like to follow it now. I want to acknowledge our Middlebury neighbor and friend, Butch Varno. There is a tradition where a Middlebury athletic team picks Butch up for events, and I’m delighted to say Butch has been picked up today by the basketball team to join us for this event. Butch, and his team, are you out there? Let me extend a special welcome to you and to all people who have made the effort to be with us today.
In the last three months, my husband Shalom and I have received a warm welcome that we have come to recognize as typical of you. Your welcome inspires me to continue our collective work of deepening our Middlebury traditions, as well as expanding Middlebury’s horizons.
You have greeted us with new ideas, with new arguments, with a sense of pride in this place and a sense of determined, engaged optimism about all that we can do together.
That determined, engaged optimism is at the heart of who Middlebury is. People have remarked how challenging their courses are. Others are concerned about the effortless perfection that so many elite colleges seem to demand. And some have spoken of their disappointment in some decision the institution has made. But every single person I have met has simultaneously declared his or her great love of this place and its people.
Why do we love it so? I think there are many answers to this question. As an outsider who has now chosen to be among you, I have the privilege of telling you your own stories in a different way.
Allow me today to describe that particular collective genius that has helped Middlebury endure—and in more recent decades thrive—for 215 years and has helped it to get to this particular moment on this wonderful fall morning, with all of us gathered to contemplate the next moments of transformation and hope. Allow me also to describe for us a future.
Let me begin by turning to the mountains. I have learned from you all that it is helpful to do so. At Middlebury we live the words of poet Heather McHugh, who wrote: “If you live on the edge of an enormous mountain or an enormous body of water, it’s harder to think of yourself as being so important. That seems useful to me, spiritually.”
There is a tradition that I just learned about one recent September evening. The sun was vanishing in one of those sunsets that stops us in our tracks and wakes us up, even as our minds and hearts move toward the night. I have learned that when these sunsets happen one of the athletic coaches stops the action and says, “OK, everyone needs to stop for a mountain moment.” And the players stop to appreciate the moment.
But there is even more to these mountains than contemplation. A trustee with whom I had a long dinner last spring told me, “When I was a student, and I was in the middle of working on a big philosophical problem, my brain would be exploding and I wasn’t sure I could think it through. And then I would walk outside of class, and I would look up and there would be the mountains. And somehow the problem seemed smaller with the mountains there, and yet also even more important at the same time. And I somehow thought that the mountains could help me solve the problem.”
These mountains call all of us to be bigger in our aspirations and yet also to be smaller, linked to a larger cause. Middlebury’s mountains give us a sense of place that is also a sense of community. The mountains help us find our place in the world, and even if we don’t find it immediately, we have a deep and abiding trust that we will. This is the strength of the hills.
And McHugh also reminds us that the ocean has the same effect. Now, with our campus in Monterey, we have both. In my several visits to Monterey I have already met students wandering down by the harbor, when I myself wandered there, in need of perspective and a sense of the larger picture.
That trustee dinner was also inspiring because we had a series of intense discussions about what made Middlebury special. And even though we talked about many wonderful educational traits that other liberal arts institutions can and should also claim, there was still that remainder that made Middlebury distinct from others: Is it the Adirondacks and the Greens? Is it our heritage of open-mindedness? Is it the aspirations that we have had all along, particularly the ones that have had such a lasting impact, like the Language Schools, Bread Loaf, and the Schools Abroad? Is it our capacity to create a certain kind of exuberance? Our love of and care for languages and writing and sciences and society and arts and athletics all at the same time? Is it because we all seem to love dogs?
I think it is all these things, and perhaps one thing more—our capacity to argue and be resilient in those arguments. As I have begun to learn about Middlebury’s history, I see we have argued well. Not all of our arguments have been pretty, and many of them have been petty, or even destructive. But when we have gotten those arguments right, we have done so in a committed and passionate and constructive way.
And so allow me to describe a future. Here is my thought for you, today, and in the years to come: I challenge us to have more and better arguments, with greater respect, stronger resilience, and deeper wisdom.
The Jewish tradition has a phrase: “argument for the sake of heaven.” This is an argument worth having, where the goal is not victory, nor even the proof of one’s own intelligence. Rather, the goal has been a deeper truth for the common good. It is an argument where one wants the other side to have better arguments, because all arguments are in service of the common good. We want to learn from the better arguments, so that we can create a better and more capacious home for all of us to dwell in. These are the arguments worth having.
What is more, the results of those arguments are not fleeting, but deep and enduring, and they help human beings to thrive. There may be times when we cannot discern whether an argument will result in an enduring good. And the outcome of the debate may not even be what we expected or hoped for. But we can still conduct ourselves in such a way that we hope for such a lasting result. In having these arguments, we do not become alienated from each other because one side has lost and another side has won, or because one side has proven itself more intelligent and sophisticated. Rather, in having these arguments, we become even more committed to each other.
I once visited a Tibetan monastery in Dharamsala, India, where I spoke with an elderly monk who had lost his oldest friend. The monk told me that he mourned the loss of his friend because he was the most vituperative and dynamic debate partner he ever had. “We had the most passionate arguments possible. And whenever he got the better of me and our elders judged him victorious, I would make him dinner and we would laugh and try to figure out the next topic that we would argue about.” This is a contemporary story, but it resonates with many periods of human history as well. In ancient India, when one has been vanquished in an argument, one brings the victor firewood and water as a way of honoring, nourishing, and warming the winner. It is a way of taking care of the person whose wisdom we now honor and respect.
Every single part of Middlebury has become the illustrious community it is through impassioned argument. Let me tell you this morning some stories about how we have been arguing all along.
Did you know, for example, that in the early 19th century, Middlebury townspeople argued about whether to build the campus on the east or the west side of Otter Creek? Or that the idea of a college in Middlebury was born in rivalrous competition for government funding with the citizens of Burlington, who wanted to be first to create an institution of higher learning—the University of Vermont? (I am delighted to note I learned, from my new friend Tom Sullivan, UVM’s president, that no such rivalry currently exists or might possibly be rekindled.) Or that the early leaders debated whether to send an illustrious and beloved faculty member to get further scientific training in Europe, in one of the earliest Middlebury instances of study abroad? (Only that time the student was also a professor.) Did you know that Middlebury’s beloved second president, Henry Davis, turned down offers from Yale and Trinity colleges to be their president, in order to stay at Middlebury to continue a debate about its larger educational goals?
We’ve always been having arguments about big themes. For example, we once debated about religion. Throughout the first decades of its history, Middlebury’s administrators, faculty, students, and townspeople survived several heated controversies about whether the nature of the College was to be religious—guided by the principles of the great religious revivals sweeping America—or secular and guided by the civic principles of the business people who founded it as “the town’s college.” At one point during those debates, enrollment dropped from 168 to 46, and all the faculty and President Bates resigned. It took President Labaree from 1840–66 to keep us alive, and until 1880, with the hiring of President Hamlin, to fully recover.
We’ve also been debating governance for centuries. In 1879, there was a very tough conversation about student governance. The entire student body voted to suspend itself in protest of a popular student’s dismissal. The administration suspended the students back in retaliation, except that the students didn’t care because they had already suspended themselves. It took a week of negotiations for both sides to agree to terms to end the revolt.
And we’ve been debating the lives of men and women on this campus for an equally long time. There are many examples beyond the famous one, where Emma Willard set up her school across from Middlebury’s campus because the College was not yet prepared to admit young women.
There was even a debate about whether the trustees really meant to admit women as students, or just grant them privileges. It was only after May Belle Chellis finished her course work at the top of her class three years later that they decided they must have meant to admit them after all.
And, in 1942–43, during the height of World War Two, the College lost most of its male students. It was only when President Stratton secured the V-12 Officer Training Program at Middlebury in 1943 that the campus became balanced again with male and female students.
We argued about men and women again in heated controversies of the ’60s, when students advocated for relaxed curfews and allowing women in men’s dorms without chaperones. It sounds quaint now, but it sure wasn’t then.
And in the early ’70s Middlebury debated its response to Kent State student deaths, when classes were suspended in order to, as one publication put it, pursue a “re-examination of our collective and individual directions and purposes.”
In addition to the College, the founding of our schools, too, were marked by many arguments that, while difficult at the time, led to lasting change. The Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference is a compelling example. As David Bain and Michael Collier told me, the first five years of the Writers’ Conference, from 1926–1931, were colored by a mutual personal dislike between the New York book editor John Farrar, the first conference director, and Robert Frost, by then a celebrated Pulitzer-winning poet. Farrar created the conference model of published writers helping the unpublished in their paths, whether toward publication or just a slightly higher competence, and included not only working writers, but book and magazine editors and literary agents as faculty and guest lecturers. Frost gladly lectured and read at the new entity—the nation’s first writers’ conference. But after several sessions Frost began to call the conference “The Two-Week Manuscript Sales Fair”— his way of complaining that Farrar was favoring commercialism over art. For several years, the two admittedly thin-skinned literary figures catalogued their perceived bruises from remarks both public and private. Both left Bread Loaf to pursue other projects. By then the controversy had risen into the literary and critical columns.
The Bread Loaf solution to the art versus commerce controversy eventually came in 1932 with the naming of the third director of the conference, Theodore Morrison. As a published poet and teacher, “Morrison had his feet in both camps of art and commerce. He also possessed immense diplomacy, so lacking in both Frost and Farrar. He succeeded brilliantly in combining the two missions, brokered a civil return for the two combatants, and launched what became an ambitious, far-reaching fellowship program that would recognize emerging writers and smooth their way into the literary world.”
There also were important debates about language and policy in the history of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. Dean Jeff Dayton-Johnson told me recently that in 1988, students in the policy and business programs were frustrated because the existing traditional foreign language offerings were not relevant to their degree programs. A major turning point came with the decision that year to submit a grant proposal to the Pew Foundation that facilitated the complete overhaul of the foreign language curriculum into a content-based format. The grant enabled language faculty to collaborate with policy and business faculty in developing a new approach to the curriculum that exists today.
Our environmental studies program, too, faced internal opposition when it was formed 50 years ago this year. And for years to follow, there was a sense of competition between geology and environmental studies. It took a long series of good negotiated conversations to create a healthy complementarity, and today, thankfully, both departments are thriving. As Nan Jenks-Jay told me, the elements that have helped environmental studies thrive and grow are perseverance and inclusion. This, surely, was an argument for the sake of heaven.
And lest you think there is a school at Middlebury that is controversy free, let me assure you that there is not. The Language Schools have debated over the years as to which language to adopt next, and whether one follows a moral or a market argument for adding that language. The Schools Abroad have argued in past decades about how their directors are appointed, and how they connect back to the Middlebury campus. And there were probably many arguments that have woven the fabric of who we are today that did not make it into the archives, but whose losers and winners have created the educational ethos and principles we hold so dear in 2015.
So you might be thinking now about how your own debates about Middlebury’s future will look when viewed by future Middlebury citizens 100 years from now when, perhaps, Middlebury will be inaugurating its 27th president. We should all be thinking that way, both for the sake of humor as well as for the chance to discern whether our current arguments are ones that will result in lasting change for the good. Whether they are arguments for the sake of heaven.
I hope we are all thinking about that, because I believe that Middlebury’s collective genius of warmth, optimism, rigor, and compassion can make us some of the best arguers in higher education—arguers who can think together with deeper respect, stronger resilience, and greater wisdom.
Here are more thoughts on a vision for our future. Let me name the things I hope we argue about in our years together:
I hope in the future we can create real priorities, and argue productively as we clearly state what makes us excellent, and identify the places where Middlebury can particularly lead and distinguish itself even further.
To take a first example: We say we are global. But we said that 50 years ago and then it was unusual. Now everyone in higher education is saying it. So today, can Middlebury lead again, in what I call a literate globalism, one that takes time and effort and languages and cultural knowledge to achieve?
Can we ask ourselves whether such literate globalism is truly baked into our courses of study? Are we global in our thinking about math? About psychology? About the ancient world? How do those definitions of global differ in each case?
Second, I hope we can argue about sustainability and the environment in a way that helps us to be creative and multiple in our responses. We will be one of the first institutions in higher education to be carbon neutral. For all of us that is to be celebrated. But for some that will be old news. Are we moving together to identify and move forward with the next steps? There are new forms of alternative energy, green investments, ways of holding companies and ourselves accountable for conservation and lowering our carbon footprint. Are we moving together in a way that is constructive and creative, even if we occasionally disappoint one another by not moving fast enough or radically enough or in all the right directions?
Third, I hope we can argue about how we live together in a newly diverse Middlebury. Here, with the help of our staff at our newly created Anderson Freeman Resource Center, we need to listen to students as they live and describe their experiences. Theirs is an experience of diversity that older generations did not live through. We need to honor this new experience and create structures to reflect the powerful fact that diversity and excellence in higher education go hand in hand. One creates the other. And most importantly, we must find ways to live more wisely with the knowledge that diversity is not a problem to be solved. Rather, diversity is an everyday ethic to be cultivated, made richer and more vibrant.
Fourth, I hope we can debate, in new ways, the relationship of our multiple identities as human beings. Can we find a way to think about intellectual, social, gender, economic, sexual, artistic, religious, athletic, bodily, and so many other identities, both our own and others, in new ways? Could we imagine ourselves as members of intersecting communities, all of which have something to contribute to the whole? Can we put aside some of the privileges of one of our identities in order to understand, empathize with, and work alongside of others that do not share that privilege? And here’s the biggest challenge: Can we do that even as, at the very same moment, we ourselves might be feeling falsely accused or unjustly stereotyped?
Fifth, I hope we can argue about the nature of our newly complex Middlebury world. We are no longer a single unit, and we are constantly grappling with how plural or singular we might become. Research about us suggests that we like and are identified with our individual Middlebury units: the College, Bread Loaf, Monterey, the Schools Abroad, the Language Schools, etc. And I would encourage this identification as a good thing. At the same time, from our various corners, we now are witnessing the creation of an ecosystem of relationships across schools and programs. It would be a mistake to force a false integration. It would equally be a mistake not to recognize places where collaboration across our schools could result in mutual benefit. Like all great ecosystems, species interdependence and species differentiation go hand in hand.
We will be launching a Middlebury-wide conversation in the spring—the first institution-wide discussion we’ve ever had on the topic of our intellectual direction—that will focus on who we are and where we want to go. The data we collect from this effort will form the basis of our strategic plan. Let me be clear: it would be unwise, indeed a risk factor, for us to become a university. And yet we are no longer only a college, even as the liberal arts glimmers and shines at the center of everything we do. We are leading in an as-yet undefined third space—and our challenge is to discover the features of that third space even as we live it.
Part of that complexity is not only our relationship with other units and campuses far away from us, but with those close by—the town of Middlebury and the state of Vermont. You heard me refer to the “town’s college” earlier. Indeed, if it were not for all of the townspeople who met to determine the early school buildings, the early presidents, the faculty who held the College together when there was no president—if it were not for these local stewards of that dream, there would be no Middlebury. Our history suggests that we are truly the town’s college, and that we are also a community that is the mirror of the Vermont traditions of civic engagement and local democracy. We should think together about the shape of the commitment Middlebury has to its local and state communities in 2015, and what rich, long-lasting partnerships between college and town can be born from that knowledge.
So in all these ways I challenge us to have more and better arguments, with greater respect, stronger resilience, and deeper wisdom. Exemplary sustainability. Leadership in global literacy. The everyday ethic of diversity. An exploration of privilege and identity. A newly complex and vibrant institutional life.
And finally let me describe the conditions of our arguments for the sake of heaven—conditions about which we should have no argument: greater respect, stronger resilience, and deeper wisdom. All three of these things will help our arguments become arguments for the sake of heaven.
Greater respect does not mean that we will never be disrespected nor disrespect others. We will all have both experiences, sometimes unexpected and unintentional. Just last week I inadvertently disrespected a group of students by moving too fast in support of their efforts. But respect is about what the Buddhist tradition calls right effort. Respect is the effort to imagine, before we speak or act, what it would be like to be on the receiving side of our speech or action.
And what is stronger resilience? Resilience is a word whose meaning we think we know, but we may need to think more deeply about. Resilience can mean to return to health after an injury or period of hardship. The scientific meaning of resilience involves an object being restored to its original shape after it has been bent or distorted. In everyday language, it can also mean an object that has adopted a new shape, but stronger than before.
In a newly complex Middlebury, we embrace resilience—the capacity to develop a respectful dignified response when we are injured, and the strength to return to shape. By resilience we do not mean “to power on” or “to power through” at all costs. Rather, resilience is about making the space to reflect and recover. Our students are helping lead in this effort, and we as a community should join them in developing the programs and places where resilience can grow.
And what is wisdom? Middlebury wisdom means the capacity to take the long view, understanding the breadth and depth of our world even as we passionately pursue a single cause. We are not wise if, as Middlebury educators and educated citizens, our only focus is the accumulation of profit and not the creation of value. We are not wise if we do not take time to contemplate the implications of an idea and its impact on the world. Wisdom is knowledge in context.
Exemplary sustainability. Leadership in global literacy. An everyday ethic of diversity. An exploration of privilege and identity. A newly complex and vibrant institutional life.
Here is my dream for us: What if Middlebury became a place where we had our best arguments about these aspirations? What if our arguments at Middlebury created affection and devotion between opponents, united in the service of the common good? What if at Middlebury we were like Tibetan monks, where we mourned the loss of our debate partners because we no longer had their help on the path to wisdom? What if through our arguments we became the place the world turned to, as a model of public engagement and respect?
I believe in our unique combination of warmth and optimism and compassion and rigor—we have the disposition, and the collective genius, to become that place. I believe we can become the place known to have arguments for the sake of heaven.
I believe we can do this with the exhortation and help of the mountains all around us, and now too our ocean at Monterey. These mountains will help us find our place in the world, even as we wander in our deliberations. This is the strength of the hills.
And, as a way of beginning on this path, I further invite us to argue about all of the points I have made here today, and do so with respect, resilience, and wisdom.
Since my arrival we have already started on these arguments for the sake of heaven, or Middlebury—whichever comes first in your mind. I can’t wait to continue them in the years ahead. Those are my dreams for us, and they can begin now.
October 4, 2015: Inaugural Symposium Keynote Address in Monterey
Dean Dayton-Johnson, deans, center directors, trustees, faculty, staff, alumni, and friends: It is delightful to see you all here. I began our journey together last February with a story about government policy and language from 1984 in the city of Varanasi, India. I noted at the time that Monterey was my first visit as president-elect; here again now, Monterey is my first stop in the inauguration festivities! When meeting you last February, I began to listen for the things that make Middlebury Institute at Monterey more deeply itself, and the things that faculty, staff, students, alumni, and friends want to work on for the future. And in that listening, I found that you frequently mentioned three words: language, policy, and social change. I visited you last month and proposed these three words as a way of describing the collective work we do, and I hear that you have been debating whether they are the right words to capture the spirit of the whole. This is exactly what I hoped for—an open, ongoing debate about intellectual identity. I welcome alternatives and hope that the debate continues!
So I am going to tell you another story from India, about those three things. It is not from many years ago, not an old example of an enduring dilemma. Rather it is a new example—something that happened only this past June, and in the company of a young person who is the age of many of our students here. I was traveling with my niece Caitlyn in Maharashtra, India. I wanted to introduce her to the best women of their generation—activists who had started a women’s documentation and resource center called Aalocana. The staff at Aalocana had just embarked on a training course for women in villages all around the state. The government of India had created a new policy of 30 percent reservation of seats for women, reaching all the way down to the five-person village councils, called pancayats. Even in the most rural village, women would comprise a third of these village councils. So Caitlyn and I accompanied the staff of Aalocana to work on a training session. The idea was to empower women as representatives on the village council: teach them to stand up for their own perspectives—not be intimidated by people who might belittle them—and to speak about issues that were important to them. The training of that day consisted of reading the story about the first Muslim woman train conductor in India, and how she managed to survive in the midst of a very difficult professional environment. Our visit was hailed as a sign of international support for the training and the village. I spoke Hindi, Caitlyn spoke only English, and most of the women only spoke Marathi. So interpretation was needed.
The women asked us what hardships we had suffered and how we overcame them. My niece was a first-time visitor to India. She leaned over to me and said that she really didn’t think she had much to share given the life of privilege she led compared to the women waiting expectantly before her. Then she realized that she did indeed have a story. She said to them, “I have been thinking about the ways you have said that you feel you are in a no-win situation. I too was once in a no-win situation. I was a woman wrestler on the high school wrestling team.” The women at first did not understand that she could have been a wrestler. She is slight and fair and does not look like a wrestler. But we translated the word several times into Marathi, and they understood that she was telling the truth. I also added that we had visited the god Hanuman, the god of wrestlers, at a local gym in Mumbai just the day before. So once they understood Caitlyn as a devotee of Hanuman, they lit up and began to laugh. Caitlyn went on to tell them that she really had a no-win situation on her hands as the only female wrestler on her high school wrestling team. She said, “If a guy won against me, then it didn’t really count because I was in his eyes just a girl. And if a guy lost to me then it was humiliating because I was a girl. So there was no way out. If I won it was bad for them and if I lost it was also bad for them.” The whole village courtyard burst out in applause and laughter at this story. This was a wonderful example of translatability—the theme of our panel today.
At one point in our conversations that day, discussion of empowerment of women was getting nowhere because they felt their domestic concerns were far greater than anything that confronted them in the village council. And women’s empowerment as a phrase is not truly translatable, given that the word for female power, Shakti, has deeply traditional connotations about women in the home. However, translatability emerged when the stories started to flow about no-win situations that women found themselves in. The monkey god Hanuman also came to the rescue!
I share this story because it is a compelling one from a few months ago. What is more, it illustrates the major values of Monterey and how needed the training that Monterey gives its students is in the world of 2015. To put it simply, and I will return to this point again and again, the Monterey perspective on translatability (whether it is through language learning, entrepreneurship, activism, policy work, or other forms of social change) dwells in that ethical space between the all too easy and the impossible.
Let me elaborate on this in terms of translation studies and a very helpful analysis from two Nigerian scholars, Moruwawon and Kolawole Samuels, who work at the University of Ido Akiti in the Department of French. They explain that there are three approaches to translatability. The first is the universal approach, which claims the existence of linguistic universals. Any differences that exist between languages are not obstacles to translation. This is due to the fact that every community can verbalize and has the potential to verbalize even extra-linguistic nuances, like cultures and social contexts. As Walter Benjamin also writes, “Languages are not strangers to one another.”
There are times when this approach can turn into a longing for codes and formulae, such as happened in the story our guest panelist and my friend, Peter Burian, recently told me. In that story, Peter’s international student in ancient Greek was convinced there was a series of set formulae for translating the ancient classics, and kept wondering why Peter was keeping the secret from him. This might be universalism gone awry.
The second approach is the “monadist” approach. It argues that each linguistic community perceives and interprets reality in its own particular way, and this fact undermines translatability. The worlds in which different societies live are indeed distinct worlds, and the terms are specific to each community and develop according to each culture’s linguistic codes. There is for many who espouse this view very little correspondence between two languages. Thus, the art of translation will always have to cope with the basic reality of untranslatability. This is why translation has often been characterized as “betrayal” in the play on words in Italian between traduttore and traditore –a comment many of us have heard many times in translation seminars.
Finally there is a third approach—what the Samuels duo calls the deconstructionist approach, and I call the transformational approach. It argues for a mutual change in the process of translation. Translating a language not only affects the language into which it is translated, the target language, but also affects the way in which the original language, the source language, is perceived. And thus the process of translation is constantly also modifying both languages. Translatability is a process of mutual modification. These scholars conclude that a perfect translation, i.e., one that does not involve loss of information from the original, is unattainable. They argue instead that a practical approach to translatability must accept that an evaluation of potential losses and gains in every act of translation has to be carried out.
This approach seems to me to be a wonderful middle path and a way that we might think about for Monterey in the future. In the 21st-century practice of translation, interpretation, and the work of language in the world, Monterey knows that the power of language is at the core of human relationships. That means that language can drive social change in a way that very few other things can. This is a brave and ethical stance in a world where it can sometimes seem that computational language, and not human language, provides the basis for all of our social interactions. Language drives change and the more humans can master language the more social change and better policies there will be in the world. What is more, Monterey students, faculty, and staff understand that we move between all three kinds of translatability all the time. There are times when it seems impossible to translate good policy into the world—too complex, too risky. There are times when people might think it seems all too easy: “Why wouldn’t everyone sign on to this, if we could only communicate it clearly?” And yet the Monterey community has proven time and again that both views can be mistaken. Monterey people live every day in the moments when we realize that, if we sit and do the hard work for literate social change, we can dwell in the in-between space where we change each other.
I think of a story told to me by Bill Potter at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies as a particular example of the Monterey approach to the question of translatability. It involves the journey from a universalist view of translation, to a monadist view, to one that included a back-and-forth negotiation where both parties were changed. One student who studied Russian and nonproliferation at Monterey then got a job at the Los Alamos national laboratory and was involved in a cooperative threat-reduction program. On one of his first missions to Russia as part of the U.S. team, the U.S. group found it impossible to establish any rapport with the Russian interlocutors. They made little headway in developing a cooperative plan for enhancing nuclear security at the Russian site. One evening after dinner after a particularly unproductive set of meetings, our Monterey graduate decided to recite some of Pushkin’s poems, which he had learned in a class at Monterey. The Russians were flabbergasted that an American not only could speak excellent Russian but also knew their beloved Pushkin by heart. They embraced him as a friend, not a U.S. negotiator, and the next day the two sides hammered out a mutually satisfactory agreement. Thanks to him, the negotiation was no longer seen as a “we” versus “they” proposition.
Think about this story in terms of the approaches to translatability that we just outlined. It began perhaps even before the negotiation, with the high hopes that nonproliferation could be an intelligible policy in a Russian-U.S. negotiation. In the initial expectations of our Monterey graduate, this was supposed to take place in the universally translatable nonproliferation negotiation. Instead what the Monterey graduate encountered was the opposite: the monadist approach, where no common ground could actually be the basis for an agreement. Nothing was translatable even if the two sides comprehended each other’s language. But then, after the appearance of an American reciting Pushkin, there was a change and we moved to what we have called the transformational approach to translation, where both sides were modified in their perspectives. One side understood that cultural appreciation was the only way that they could truly communicate and they did so. The other side understood that their opponent actually could have an appreciation for the Russian soul. And in this way the mutual forming of a treaty could occur. There was a movement from a naïve expectation of total translatability, to the disappointment of untranslatability in the throes of a tough negotiation, to mutual change as a result of a shift in the frame. Or, to put it more simply, Pushkin to the rescue!
And there are other stories that show the power of different kinds of translatability at Monterey. One involves 2010 graduate Sarah Irene, mentioned to me by Renee Jourdenais and Laura Burian. Sarah works at the UN in the English booth, interpreting from Russian and French. She was one of four people chosen out of hundreds to become one of the UN’s core interpreter staff. She is at the white-hot center of global politics every day and she knows it. As a recent piece on Sarah puts it, she is keenly aware of the sensitive nature of the material she interprets and the razor-thin margin for error that is a fact of life and her job. She says, “I work often on the Security Council and have personally seen tensions arise between Russia and the U.S. and Western Europe over the past year or so. This in turn impacts my experience as an interpreter, as every communication is more charged with emotion, every turn of phrase more significant. I simply cannot get anything wrong—there’s too much at stake.” So Sarah is moving between the languages of the history makers of the world, and witnessing history as it is made. She is also keenly aware of her moral responsibility to get the words right so that the world can stay stable.
Sarah knows that there are some things that are impossible to translate perfectly, and other things that are easy to translate. This knowledge does not stop her from working hard when it is easy and patiently persisting when it is not. She too, like our Pushkin-reciting friend, exists in the space between total translatability and no translatability—the ethical place where both sides accept mutual transformation even in the imperfect translation.
In addition we have those Monterey moments when there is unexpected translatability. In these cases, the work of the students in the classroom is immediately recognizable as something that can help the world. Here is a story Peter Shaw told me: Laura Preston, a student from GSIPM, learned about a curriculum project during an internship at a private school in Cameroon. After the internship, she decided to partner with a middle school science teacher in Salinas and created a project where both schools would implement an environmental science curriculum called Project WET (Water Education for Teachers). Students at both schools would share their learning online. And in addition, there is an ESL component to the class so that non-English speakers can understand the scientific content. Free training is given for teachers through the Museum of Natural History in Pacific Grove, and several MIIS teachers went through the training. And Laura is back in Cameroon and collaborating with the school where she originally had the idea. There is a lot of mutual impact in this story. Or you can hear about the surprise translatability of the project of Alan Lovewell in the IEP program and the social venture he started called Real Good Fish. Lyuba mentioned to me that Alan made a video in a class at Monterey five years ago and interviewed fishermen who felt that regulations were getting in the way of their livelihood. In his video he combined the suffering of the local fishing community with the concern for the global fish crisis. And he began to work on a business model whereby local fishing could not only be sustainable but help to regenerate fisheries. He just won a $100,000 grant from Chase, where there were thousands of applicants and only a few were selected. Here too his work was surprisingly translatable into the world around him.
So these are just a few of the many examples whereby Monterey students and faculty live in between the extremes of universal translatability, which does not recognize the particularities of culture and context, and no translatability, which gives into despair that any form of social change can occur. Instead Monterey people live in the place where standards remain high, but social change remains the ethical mandate. That is the place in between that allows for mutual transformation of the translator and the translated. This is where the Monterey soul resides.
So how do we move forward together knowing how to exist and grow in this ethical space in between? I would like to suggest three particular ways in which we can begin to move forward in this next stage of our life together as the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey.
First, we need to do a better job of translating translatability in our own backyard. Last month I listened to each of you talk about the relationship between programs and between your multiple values. You all noted that there were many separate tracks at Monterey and these tracks were difficult to maintain and to build bridges across. And yet when I asked you to tell me stories about connections, you had them at the ready. You told me enthusiastically about times when your programs go together, and do so in a vibrant and life-changing way.
It seems then, first and foremost, that you need to tell each other stories across your distances—distances that may have been inadvertently built but are nonetheless keenly felt. So the internal process of finding commonalities across programs is the first task at Monterey. We might call it the task of internal translatability.
Second, this combination of foci is something that allows us a unique perspective on social change. We learn languages at Monterey for a reason—to make the world better. And we learn policy at Monterey for a reason—to speak social change in the world, whatever shape it may take. We are entrepreneurs at Monterey not simply for profit, but because there is some form of value the world needs that we can provide. We need to translate this intellectual identity to the larger world. We need to translate ourselves better into other people’s hearts and minds. I call this the challenge of the translatability of our mission. It must be a clear mission and, stated simply and uniquely, it must be a mission whereby we see, and the world sees clearly, how Middlebury Institute at Monterey can uniquely lead. We might call our mission “literate social change”—the place where language, environmental work, policy, development, entrepreneurship, and mediation all meet and make each other so much more effective.
Third, we need to feature the deeply compelling pedagogy that is Monterey’s signature. I heard from you that you have been working hard on curricular creativity, and I’m greatly excited to hear the results. I also heard last month that some Monterey folks actually had presented a particular kind of pedagogy at several conferences but did not have the time or energy to follow up on this. It is time now with new leadership, with Middlebury 100 percent behind you, to make the Monterey method something much more than a few presentations at conferences. If curriculum is part of our creativity, then pedagogy cannot be far behind.
As the Real Good Fish project shows, your classroom projects change the world even before they leave the classroom. Or, as I was inspired to say in my last visit to you, Monterey is the place where you don’t have to wait for your education to make a difference in the world. This is one of the most exciting forms of intellectual identity that we could develop as we move together into the next decade of the 21st century.
So my blueprint for us is threefold: 1) Internal translatability—a big project that will give Monterey more coherence and better arguments to improve our intellectual lives together; 2) Mission translatability—so that the world does not only see a series of international degree programs but rather a profound commitment to the mutual interactions between our programs to create literate social change; 3) Pedagogical translatability—the ownership of our particular method of teaching that imagines students will be colleagues as soon as they finish the class—or even before. This approach means that the classroom itself is a laboratory for social change, and such a laboratory can be a wonderful contribution Monterey can make to the world.
Internal translatability, mission translatability, and pedagogical translatability are my three challenges to us as we embark on our lives together. I will help—in garnering resources, in creating intellectual synergies, and in hiring the best possible faculty for the work ahead.
Earlier you heard me talk about the soul of Monterey. I once heard that one of my role models, Hannah Gray, president of the University of Chicago, visited another illustrious university and asked the president there if his university had a soul. I gather she wasn’t impressed with the place and felt that she had to ask. The president couldn’t actually say anything to describe its soul. It is a wonderful question to ask of ourselves: does Monterey have a soul? And it is clear to me that it does, and it must be described anew—story by story, student by student, and classroom by classroom. It is about a unique experience shaped by our multilingual community, the bringing together of like-minded students, the curriculum, and the faculty (most of whom have real-life experience.) It is about that moving moment that Beryl Levinger told me about, where one discovers in a Monterey classroom that everyone has experience living and working and being creative in a country with scarce resources.
We might return now to the story of my niece Caitlyn’s village visit. She had a Monterey moment when she realized that her experience was translatable, even though she had previously thought it was impossible to connect. And that moment will last a lifetime. As she told me, she learned more in that afternoon than she did in a semester’s worth of classroom work.
Monterey’s soul dwells in that space between a falsely optimistic globalism and the despair of never truly gaining cross-cultural understanding. MIIS students thrive where human relationships thrive and where social change is possible. And that social change is possible simply because we have had the courage to imagine it, to learn the language in which it might occur, and to create the policy by which we might live into a new world. And in doing so, we might even create new languages and new narratives that can provide models for us as actors in the world. The Monterey soul is that ethical space in between, where reciprocal translatability is the best hypothesis for living; we know it is possible and necessary, even in all of its imperfections. Let us live there together.
September 17, 2015: Convocation Address, Fall 2015
Welcome to Middlebury. Please take out that book of translations we gave you and follow along as I begin to describe to you the world in which you are entering. We intend them to be “books of wisdom” that you can take with you. I am going to start where we usually end: the benediction. You will hear American author Toni Morrison’s words at the end of this Convocation, but they also serve as a fitting introduction. Morrison tells us: “Dreaming is not the activity of the sleeping brain, but rather the activity of an awake and alert one. Not idle, wishful speculation, but engaged, directed daytime vision. About entrance into another space.”
Welcome to the place of dreaming awake. You all have dreamt Middlebury. And you have done so powerfully. You were so effective in your dreaming about Middlebury that you have landed here, in this space. And you were so awake and alert that you did everything right to get here. You have entered into another space—and it happens to be the place about which you dreamt. I hope it looks and feels the same way you dreamt it.
Perhaps you are anxious right now. You are looking left and you are looking right. You may be thinking, “I wonder how many of these people have done amazing things?” You may wonder if you’re worthy, because someone casually happened to mention this morning that they were an opera singer. Or that they already knew two languages and were a varsity athlete. Or they designed a new solar-powered boat. And the worse thing was they were really nice about it. Or perhaps you are unbelievably impatient to get started right now. So much so that all this orientation and syllabus sharing and training is getting annoying. “Seriously guys?” you are thinking. “I get the good intentions, folks, but let’s just dive in.”
Yes, you might be anxious. You might be feeling inadequate. You might be impatient. In each case, however, you are no longer dreaming awake. You are no longer alert and directed, but you are distracted by your wish, your longing to be somewhere or something else than here, being what you are. I wish I were a singer or a musician. Why can’t I learn languages? I’m not an environmentalist. I am completely uncoordinated. Do I belong here?
As your new president, I am going to ask you: How long will you dwell there in distraction, focused on what you are not, instead of getting on with the glorious business of being who you are? Sitting here in the pews in Mead Chapel, you are the same person we admitted last spring: the person who might be an uncoordinated non-environmentalist, non-language learner, non-opera singer. We admitted you. The person who dreamed Middlebury and who has come here to dream other dreams. To dream themselves awake.
But dreaming awake means keeping yourself awake. Keeping yourself aware of all the opportunity that is around you and keeping yourself healthy at the same time.
At Middlebury, you will have a wealth of people to support you in that effort: Commons heads, Commons deans, JCs, RHAs, the faculty who teach you in first-year seminars, librarians, coaches, faculty who teach you in your other courses, people whom you happen to meet on campus. And they will help you develop the wisdom of staying awake. At Middlebury, we are going to ask you to become wise.
The readings we just heard are all about that wisdom, that paying attention, that dreaming awake. They are all by thinkers from the ages—secular texts, religious texts, philosophical texts, Western texts, Eastern texts. They are voices from all eras, and from all over the world. All of them are engaged in the same effort we have undertaken at Middlebury: the development of wisdom.
In our common reading for this service, we hear first a challenge from ancient Greece: the tragic playwright Euripides from the 5th century BCE. He tells us straightforwardly that “Intellect is not wisdom.” We agree with this. Make no mistake: at Middlebury, you will be all about intellect. You will be challenged to master material more than you ever have before. And there will be days when you will feel that meeting such an intellectual challenge is enough. But once you have done that, we will not simply let you rest on those laurels. Intellect is not wisdom. At Middlebury we will challenge you to take the next step, to understand the role of that knowledge in the world, and how it has shaped human hearts and minds over centuries.
Ask the librarians at Davis Library, who recently spent long hours cataloguing the papers of a single abolitionist family in Vermont. Our librarians hung in there with a huge cataloguing project because the role of a single family taking an ethical stand wasn’t just a matter of intellectual interest. Their work mattered to the whole world of people who might want to combat modern-day practices in human trafficking. Their work mattered to all the students who wanted to learn from the ethical example of the past.
Shantideva, a Buddhist writer from 8th-century India and a teacher at Nalanda University, asks us to be mindful before we begin a task. He tells us, “I will reflect upon these words on mindfulness / And lightly rise to what is to be done.” At Middlebury, we will ask you to pay attention, to be mindful, and to reflect on the purposes of your own education. Mindfulness is part of being aware of what you are doing—not just following a well-traveled route or a rote course of study. It means taking the time to observe your own situation and those around you before you make a judgment. Some people call this slow learning. We call it better learning. Just ask Julia John ’15, one of the several students on the first nature-writing course in Alaska, as she attempted to describe the allure and the treachery of hiking near the Matanuska Glacier in Alaska. No way to go through that task but slowly, carefully, and paying full attention.
And what is more, like Shantideva, at Middlebury we will ask you to carry your work lightly. That doesn’t mean that you don’t take your work seriously. It means that you understand the power of trying many times and in many different ways. At Middlebury you will learn that trying twice, trying three times, even four or five times, is part of the equation. Just ask the students at the Potomac Theater Project in New York City. They have built a major theater company over the past 30 years with Middlebury College that is the only collaboration of its kind between equity actors and college learners. But they did it not in the blink of an eye, but by trying two, three, four times. With the public. With the College. First in Washington, D.C. And now at its home in New York City.
The author of Proverbs, possibly going as far back as the 10th century BCE, tells us that “Wisdom’s value in trade is better than silver, her yield, greater than gold.” The Quran too, from 7th-century Arabia, which you will hear in a little bit, reminds us of something similar: “That whoever has wisdom has been given much good.” At Middlebury we will challenge you, like the verses in Proverbs, and like the words of the Quran, to think of the wisdom that you gain here as more valuable than gold or silver. Those reminders mean that, if you get a great internship or a fabulous high paying job when you graduate, and you think you have accomplished what you need to, then you will not be wise. And we will not have done our job as educators. If we have done our job well, then you will see that true wisdom is found in seeking a deeper and richer life, not just one that focuses entirely on material ends. Hildegard of Bingen understood this when she wrote, “Wisdom grasps all things.” She was a writer, composer, philosopher, and natural historian, whose impoverished, cloistered life did not prevent her from seeing the breadth of mind and wealth of experience that wisdom can bring.
Just ask the planters and sowers at the Middlebury College organic farm, who don’t grow their crops for a profit, but rather to support the local economy, to deepen a sense of place, and to create a source of local food for Middlebury College and the town. This kind of wisdom gives the Middlebury farm staff members the resilience to try different agricultural experiments, and to build new stoves and different kinds of shelters for plants and people. All of that work is happening there right now.
You will also hear soon from the early 2nd-century New Testament author James, who speaks about wisdom as being “peaceable” and “open to persuasion.” At Middlebury we will challenge you to be receptive to argument. That, too, is a great quality of wisdom. If you are open to others’ points of view, you will not only be able to reason and address major social issues alone but also alongside of other people. This is a real skill, and when you learn it you will know the value of others’ arguments and become willing to respect them. At Middlebury we don’t think about arguments as entirely of our own making, or as an index of how smart we are. Rather, we view arguments as moments where people are thinking their best thoughts together. If you are willing to be open to others’ arguments, you will have the support of others around you because they know you are willing to listen to them. That, too, will help us become a better community together. Just ask the debate team, now ranked in the top 5 percent of all debate teams in the nation. They tour both nationally and internationally now and say that they are successful because of the enthusiasm of the younger students—first-years and second-year Febs, who joined their ranks. Those younger people would now be you folks. Due to those younger classes joining the team, it has tripled in size from 10 to 30 and is now the largest team in NESCAC.
Finally, you will listen to the Bhagavad Gita, from 2nd-century BCE India. That text introduces the idea that wisdom is grounded in trust. “With wisdom as the highest goal, controlled the sense, and filled with trust, one reaches wisdom.” At Middlebury, we will also challenge you to trust. You will need to trust that, as you begin this adventure called a college education, even if the outcome of your efforts is not what you think it should have been, you will eventually understand what the meaning of your work is. You will find your place. And you will need to trust that there will be people around you to help you do this. Just ask the students who were part of the Solar Decathlon in 2013, who literally built their own place to dwell, and trusted that they could do this together. They were interested in reconnecting people with the community around them while at the same time focusing on economic, social, and environmental sustainability. So InSite was born. It is a house that balances public and private spaces, but is completely sustainable in all those three ways. Middlebury students literally made a home for themselves. But in doing so, they had to trust their advisors, trust their instincts, and trust that this award-winning house could be reintegrated back into the Middlebury community. And that trust has paid off; two students live there each year—selected through a rigorous application process.
And a final note about what you will learn here at Middlebury: being wise means being resilient. What do I mean by this? Resilience is one of those words that we think we know, but we don’t necessarily stop to reflect upon. Resilience is about bouncing back from adversity, but it also refers to the ability of an object to return to its original shape after being stretched out of proportion—as might happen in a crisis or time of trauma. Resilience in both those forms is essential in a diverse learning community. You are awake and resilient when you know your own shape and know that you can find it again. You are awake and resilient when you have the courage to learn and make mistakes and find your shape again after the worst thing that could happen happens. Resilience means finding your own shape, and staying in shape, in body, mind, and spirit.
Let me tell you a final story that is about resilience, and remaining awake, in body, mind, and spirit. I just learned it this past Saturday. It is about the annual Kelly Brush Century Ride, hosted by Middlebury. Middlebury student Kelly Brush, Class of 2008, sustained a spinal cord injury while competing for the Middlebury College alpine ski team in 2006 as a sophomore. Instead of giving up and resigning herself to a life of immobility, she continued to ski with the team from her new perspective of a wheelchair, and went on to become a nurse practitioner. Her family and friends then started the Kelly Brush Foundation. The foundation has hosted a bicycle ride—called the Century Ride—at Middlebury each year.
The first year, the ski team organized the ride to raise money for Kelly to buy adaptive sports equipment. And over the past 10 years it has grown to what it was on Saturday: a festival of 750 cyclists and 100 volunteers. The ride now features a large number of hand cyclists, whose athletic feats are extraordinary, and Chris Waddell ’91, another Middlebury alum who is a champion paralympic sit-skier and wheelchair track athlete. Kelly’s injury began at Middlebury. The worst thing that could happen happened. And Kelly turned that into something community focused for the team, and then for her patients, and then for the entire community of folks with spinal cord injuries who want to continue to compete athletically and live spirited, inspired lives. The whole community of Middlebury embraced her, not only after her fall, but every year up to now, 10 years later. Students. Alumni. Parents. Faculty. All of them rode in that race on Saturday. That is the community that you have become a part of. One that will encourage you in your wisdom and embrace you in your resilience, and do so over a lifetime.
You have heard today the voices of wisdom from 2nd-century Mediterranean. From 5th-century BCE Greece. From 12th-century Germany. From 8th-century India. From 7th-century Arabia. From 20th-century America. These are historical voices that join our voices in helping you find the right balance of body, mind, and spirit.
So I ask you once again: How long will you dwell in distraction, focused on what you are not, instead of getting on with the glorious business of being who you are? You have dreamt of Middlebury, and now you are here. With Toni Morrison, I welcome you to the world of engaged, directed, daytime vision. I welcome you to the place of dreaming awake. Now go, and get on with the glorious business of being who you are.
September 4, 2015: Address to Faculty Bread Loaf Meeting
Welcome back. I can’t say how delighted I am to be here and meeting you all at last. Over the course of the summer, your books, articles, CDs, catalogues, and works of art have all trickled their way into my office and with them also carrots, tomatoes, zinnias, baked goods, and one green porcelain chicken, courtesy of the math department. A true cornucopia for all forms of appetite. But my shelves are not filled yet, and I know you have been traveling. So come on in and make sure your work is in the president’s office!
Given this auspicious occasion, I want to speak today in a slightly more formal way, although I will be speaking with you and updating you much more informally in later meetings. Truth be told I have been greatly eager to meet you all, as I have already experienced your virtues and temperaments as a Middlebury faculty: on the search committee, by happenstance on the quad, in faculty council in the spring, and in the Language Schools and at Bread Loaf, where a few of you did double duty and worked on behalf of creating summer enlightenment for others. Today in light of those virtues I wanted to state some principles that I hope will guide our working together, and put a few minds at ease as well as challenge us collectively to make Middlebury more Middlebury.
The first principle I want to articulate is a deep commitment to the strength of faculty governance. I understand and have learned greatly from the processes that you have put in place in the last year to make your committee structure more vibrant and your governance more in line and more interactive with the Board of Trustees structure. I have been greatly impressed by this. And now I want to encourage you to live it intensely. I deeply believe that I cannot be your best president if you do not have a vibrant tradition and practice of faculty governance. That means having ownership and control over the curriculum, even as you interact with your leadership’s priorities around that curriculum. That means meeting without me and making curricular initiatives that are in the best interest of the College. That means having a voice at the table when it comes to finding the street to the strategic priorities of Middlebury as a whole. That means having input and collaborative engagement around our financial health. I know that this is a lot of work, but in every academic community where I have led, I have encouraged such strong faculty governance. We simply cannot be an effective administration without it. I know you will live into this new structure this year, but I will be asking you to make sure committees meet. I will be asking you to make sure committees report and deliberate in an effective and timely manner. I will ask about making sure information flows and we communicate vibrantly. If those in academic leadership know that the faculty members have deliberated and are behind something, that is pure gold for us and helps to make change in this new complex institution we call Middlebury.
Second, and a corollary to this, is the principle of collaborative decision making wherever possible. What do I mean by collaborative decision making? I want to begin by saying that I don’t mean the kind of false consultation and performative listening that can sometimes be even more disheartening than no consultation at all. Rather I mean that when there is a decision that we need to make together, even if I as president have the final word or jurisdiction over the policy, I am not going to want to make a decision without knowing what the faculty think. There will inevitably be times when we disagree. I want our common life to be such that when we do disagree, it is a moment where we both recognize that reasonable people could take the other position. We may not always reach this goal, but we can strive toward it and constantly commit to doing better if we fail. In addition, collaborative decision making means a regular flow of communication. I will commit to updating you on all the key things I am thinking about and administrative challenges that lie ahead. And because I am interested in the life that you lead in teaching, research, and administration of the many vibrant programs at Middlebury, I am going to assume that we have a common ground from which to build.
Third, and relatedly, I think we might move to a collective ownership of innovation. There are times in the life of an organization when some people have innovation fatigue. I just came from such an institution and know that there are many reasons for this dynamic. One of them is that roles have been calcified into “the innovators” and “the resistors.” And in many cases, no one particularly intended this to happen, but it happened. We have a chance at this very moment to hit a reset button on this question. We might be able to think of all of us as innovators—people who have new ideas about the classroom, about higher education, and about the relationship of all the different units at Middlebury. I assume that faculty members are the source of some of the best ideas in 21st-century higher education. That is what I mean by collective ownership of innovation.
I also deeply believe that the best kinds of innovation are those that are somehow in continuity with and recognizable by tradition. I have been developing a phrase that I think can work in the Middlebury context—and that is “innovation and dynamic relationship to tradition.” I am a historian of religion and therefore I can’t help but note that the first use of the term “innovator” was in fact “heretic.” It was a very dangerous thing; one risked one’s life if one went against the theological orthodoxy of the day as an innovator. While the term has developed much more positive connotations since then, the history of the word shows us the ways in which innovation always demands a dialogue with tradition and vice versa. I think faculty members are some of the best resources we have to think about the kinds of innovations that honor tradition and create the best educational practices for our students. For example, online learning has taken off when the technology has cultivated connected, rigorous, learning relationships. When liberal learning is the goal and not technology in its own right, we have exactly the kind of innovation in relationship to tradition that I would like to cultivate here at Middlebury.
Fourth, I want us to deepen a commitment to understanding and shaping our newly complex ecosystem. I want to begin my fourth point by putting everyone’s mind at ease here. It would be a very unintelligent move to become a university. Even more than that: it is actually a risk factor for us to develop programs that put us in the “university” category. Our rankings would go down and we would lose our status and the unique properties that make us the vibrant community that we now are. So that being said, who are we? I’d like to quote my colleague Suzanne Gurland, who argued that we are “leading in the third space.” We are now neither only a college nor are we a university. And here is an opportunity for us to create something both old and new at the same time.
I like to think of us as a vibrant and complex ecosystem. I have tried this idea with many constituencies and it seems to have legs, if you forgive the evolutionary pun. The different species that make up the ecosystem are ones that must thrive in their diversity. The Galápagos Islands diversity is famous because its climate is one that allows species to become independent and interdependent at the same time. But such species become interdependent because they maintain species differentiation. I think the same could be said of all the different units at Middlebury. I came to Middlebury because of those different units and the fascinating possibilities of the relationships between them. But you will notice that I have focused on difference. I learned early on in my conversations with you that a forced integration, especially one that comes from above and for which there is no organic rationale, is not going to accomplish what we need and will not call us to our best educational practices.
At the same time, it is true that we are starting from a place of complexity. I am not interested in rehearsing debates about the value proposition of Monterey or the ways in which it is and is not part of the college. We are all Middlebury now. And now we might take the chance simply to coexist and see what relationships might emerge. I am not interested in forcing those relationships and want to send a clear message now: if you are not interested in connecting with another unit at Middlebury there is no reason why you should. You might thrive and flourish in a space that is uniquely within your unit. In fact you might be a better contributor to Middlebury as a whole if that were the case. I want to make sure everyone feels that they have full permission to do this. Two things are true: my job is partly to pay attention to those spaces “in-between” at Middlebury, spaces that can help different units interact, and I will be working with any faculty who are interested in doing this. But I will also be working with faculty and students and staff to make their individual units better. This two-pronged approach seems to me to be the wisest course and the most likely to develop the kind of “biodiversity” of intellectual viewpoints that we need in our Middlebury ecosystem.
Fifth, we need a shared financial conversation. What do I mean by that phrase? I mean first and foremost that I want to work closely with the resource committee and meet regularly with them to share the financial decisions that we are making and the challenges that we face. We also need clear advice on how best to communicate that to the faculty as a whole. I created such a committee at Duke and it was also pure gold in its advice about best practices for disseminating financial information. I should let you know that I am a fiscal conservative with a vision. We must be conservative in addressing our structural deficit, and we do have that deficit. We also need to think about the best investments of budgetary monies to make the biggest difference educationally. I am not talking about investing for profit. When I use that term “investment,” I use it in the context of developing the best nonprofit management style we can. We need to find the most efficient ways to manage our academic lives so that, in our daily work of education, we can be gloriously inefficient. I know that the best nonprofit organizations are ones that are tightly run, and I very much hope to share with you in future conversations the ways in which we are running the ship that you may not see.
I also would like to talk with you about that thorny question of administrative bloat and share with you the job descriptions of all the people we have working in Old Chapel now—what they do and why they do it. I believe Weber was wrong in his thinking about the routinization of charisma: institution building isn’t just a matter of a single charismatic individual and a group of bureaucratic drones that follow. Rather, administrative roles, too, have charisma. I have heard from you that they need to be stabilized, so that even as different people move through them, they would be honored to have that particular role. Even as we work toward stability of roles, I have also introduced my senior leadership team to a flatter leadership structure, in which we meet a little less and execute a little more. It is also a system in which I trust them to do their jobs and to give me the information that I need to make a good decision.
Sixth, I want to cultivate openness to having our best arguments, and teaching our students to do the same. I worry that we sometimes hide behind institutional politics or perceptions of someone else’s closely held work as a “pet project” in order to avoid having a difficult conversation about values and diversity. I have heard about student stress at Middlebury, and the difficult spring you had in 2015. I believe in addressing this question head-on—there are certain aspects of student life that we as another generation may not be able to fully understand, and where we need to let students lead. But if we are to embrace these generational differences in experience, we also need to build structures and ways of arguing amongst ourselves that our students can also follow. The Jewish tradition talks about this as “an argument for the sake of heaven”—i.e., an argument worth having. (Argument for the sake of heaven or argument for the sake of Middlebury—you can choose whether those are synonymous!) I believe that we could in many ways model those kinds of debates about big questions to our students and, in turn, train them to be better arguers in an arena of civil debate. I will always ask you, if in fact we do disagree, whether this disagreement is one for the sake of heaven.
And you should know something very important about working with me in the future: I welcome incisive critique and even more scathing commentary, however I will not allow anyone to stop there. We must always come up with a constructive solution for whatever the issues are. And I will not let you simply stop your sentences with the critique—there always must be a path forward. I am very interested in hearing your solutions. My guess is that they will most often be better than mine.
Seventh, I have heard from all of you that we need a principled sense of priorities, and a commitment to making them. We have benefited greatly from a period of rapid change at Middlebury. However, that change has also led, as it often does in creative communities, to a sense that we need guiding principles to how we make decisions. And as part of my listening this year, I am trying out some priorities and seeing what people think. When anyone comes with a new project or an old project that needs new funding, I am asking people to think about the following two questions:
Is this a place where Middlebury can particularly if not uniquely lead?
Is this a genuine contribution to global liberal learning?
Asking these two questions has helped us already this summer move beyond the “pet project” phenomenon and has encouraged people to think about the larger meaning of particular projects, and whether they are the kinds of initiatives that can help Middlebury uniquely lead. As you yourselves innovate in all the great ways that I know you will, I will ask you to consider those two questions as you think about programs and research agenda and the new possibilities for a Middlebury 21st-century education.
Eighth: the principles of working as teacher-scholar administrators should guide us. What do I mean by a scholar administrator? I mean that everything I do comes from the fact that I love teaching and research more than any other form of work. Thus, the administrative leadership that results is one that is informed by the experience of faculty members and faculty leaders in context of change and growth. And this is a very important principle for me personally since I don’t believe in the academic caste system whereby to become an administrator is somehow, within 24 hours of taking the job, to have changed one’s DNA so thoroughly that one stops thinking like a teacher and a writer and a researcher. So I need you to tell me and my senior leadership group what it’s like for you in your daily lives. You are the first teacher-scholar administrators who run the college, run your classrooms, and run the work of educating our students in all the vibrant ways that you do.
Let me end by saying how much I look forward to working with you. If we follow these principles and hold each other to account for them, I think we will thrive. I will inevitably disappoint you. The first decision I must make, or even the 30th decision that I must make as your academic leader might feel as if I am not following one of my principles, or that we have different interpretations of those principles. Our differences of opinion are inevitable; however what is not inevitable is that such differences will immediately break the trust that I hope to build. Indeed my hope is that our disagreements will be in a matrix of great arguments—one between loyal and faithful friends who see different paths to the same goal.
I will frequently say that you are the center of our enterprise. I will say it by now telling you why I used the rather strong wording “greatly eager to meet you” in the first part of my talk: because already I have sensed your virtues. Allow an outsider who now wishes to be among you to extol them: You are community-minded, even as you wonder about your own exhaustion. You care about this place and this educational mission more deeply than even you—the most articulate people in this green valley—can articulate. You stand ready to welcome a new leader—someone you don’t know, but hope to trust. You have had arguments—passionate ones—with colleagues about the nature of this community and yet you still regularly meet for breakfast with those colleagues. You cycle, garden, climb, ski, sail, and raise children, and all of that in the midst of creating classrooms where deep transformation occurs. I have yet to meet a Middlebury graduate who has not rushed to tell me that he or she has been taught well. That fact alone makes you extraordinary. And that fact combined with all these other traits, makes you the passionate center of this strong and subtle enterprise that we call—so inadequately—21st-century Middlebury education. I invite you to care for and nourish that invaluable practice, in all its strength and subtlety, with me.
July 1, 2015: Language Schools Convocation Address
Friends, Colleagues, Students,
It is my great honor and pleasure, in my first official act on my very first day as your new president, to welcome you all to the opening of the second session of the Language Schools at Middlebury! And to be able to do so on the centennial anniversary, celebrating 100 years of inspirational work in the academy and the world, is an even greater privilege. This particular opening is a time of celebration—a moment where we find the courage to learn, and a season of faithfulness to the best of Middlebury’s educational principles: the tradition of immersive learning and the Language Pledge, about which you will hear more in just a few minutes.
Let me begin with celebration. My husband, Shalom, and I, in our eagerness to join the community, have been reading about the Language Schools. We were delighted to learn that the tradition of language learning goes back to the very early decades of Middlebury’s history—with the Western classical languages of Greek and Latin offered in the first year of the College in 1800, and Hebrew and the modern language of German being offered as early as the 1820s. But the establishment of the first Language School in 1915 marked a period where language fluency was no longer strictly tied to the scholarly study of classics and the Bible. Rather, language fluency became a matter of national and international relevance. As the School of Hebrew’s Bernadette Brooten reminds us, the idea of immersive language learning is a commitment to understanding other cultures and building bridges not only in spite of, but rather in the midst of, military and political turmoil. These are not flimsy bridges. They are the intellectual equivalent of bridges made of the finest steel, the hardest and most lasting substance known to humankind. The fact that this institution has lasted 100 years should be a moment for all of us, as it surely is for me, of deep admiration. We should stop to wonder at the collective genius that conceived and executed the original idea, and the extraordinary commitment that made it thrive—through the wars as well as the great achievements of peaceful diplomacy in the 20th and 21st centuries, and through the worries about language enrollments and technological changes in higher education that recent decades have also brought. As Vice President Michael Geisler puts it, it’s not just that the Language Schools have lasted. Nor are they outdated. It’s simply that the rest of the world has caught up to founder Lilian Stroebe’s idea. So this summer, make your learning celebratory. As you work with paradigms and struggle for words, remember this unique form of leadership that is Middlebury!
Let me turn now to courage. As my new colleague Stephen Snyder and I discussed this past spring, language learning is one of the deepest forms of identity creation that there is. How many graduates of language programs have said to me, “I’m a different person in my second language than I am in English—a whole other side to my personality comes out.” And as Charlemagne put it, when you learn a new language, you grow a new soul. But before this identity can emerge, there are the tough realities of hard work: the repetition of paradigms, the terror of making mistakes, the worry of offending someone through an inadvertent mis-phrasing.
And this is where the courage comes in. I know this at a very personal level. As a committed lover of language learning, I dove into learning Hindi before my first yearlong research trip to India, where I was reading Sanskrit texts with traditional teachers. But I was also 23 and had a lot of other things to distract me. And Hindi was overwhelming, with a different script. I just couldn’t transfer my knowledge of fifth-year French to the grammar of Hindi. So, being 23, I found a boyfriend who was fluent in Hindi. He also had a bright red Enfield motorcycle. So, I decided that I would ride on the back of that motorcycle all throughout India and let him speak Hindi for me. In a word, I lost the courage of learning a language and gained the foolhardiness of traveling all across India on a motorcycle without a helmet.
I discovered some of my letters from that period. And I noticed a friend had written to me, clearly in response to my discouragement at learning Hindi and giving up on the entire project. She said, “I am sorry you can’t do the Hindi thing. Maybe you need an immersion where you have no choice?” So even then, as a response to my failure of nerve, someone suggested a Middlebury-like solution. So let me say, that even though I gained some of those Hindi skills eventually, it would have been so much better if I had understood what Middlebury Language Schools have understood for a century: that such learning takes courage, and courage in the midst of a supportive, rigorous environment. When you are exhausted, when you think everyone else is learning more than you, when you can’t think of the word and lapse into discouraged silence, remember that your whole project takes an immense amount of intellectual courage—everyday courage to rewire yourself and bring that new identity into flourishing.
And finally, there is faithfulness. This summer you have to take the leap that the strangeness of the new language will eventually become familiar. You will have to have the confidence that others will help you. And most of all, your commitment to the pledge is the deepest sign that you are willing to make a promise and stick to it, no matter how tempting the world of English may be. This means that you are willing to participate in the high standards that are the hallmark of a Middlebury education. And when you have remained faithful to that pledge, you will also be able to be faithful to your own ideals of transforming the world. As so many have written, there is a freedom in the speaking of another language that allows you to cross boundaries—to create new programs and solve problems that no one else could have, because your ideas can be expressed in more than one language. We have no idea what you will do with your newfound skill, but we know it will be extraordinary because you have kept your promise to yourself and to your fellow students.
So welcome to Middlebury. I am delighted that you and I share in the joy of a first day together. Together, we will learn a new language. I will learn the language of Middlebury, and you will learn Chinese, French, German, Hebrew, Russian, and Spanish. To our Chinese learners: Nihao, Huanying. To our French learners: Bonjour et Bienvenue. To our German learners: Guten Tag und Herzlich willkommen. To our Hebrew learners: Shalom v’ Baruch Haba. To our Russian Learners: Privet, Dobro pozhalovat. And to our Spanish learners: Hola, Bienvenidos! Together we will celebrate. We will be brave. And we will know that, if we are faithful to our promises, we will indeed be able to transform the world.
July 1, 2015: Warmest Greetings from Middlebury
Dear Members of the Middlebury Community,
I write to send warm greetings on my first day as Middlebury’s new president. The glorious Vermont summer weather has matched the excitement I feel in coming to work with such an extraordinary community! As I was driving northward in late June, I brought along the works of several Middlebury writers to inspire me on the road. Upon arrival, I have already used sign language in an effort to respect the Language Pledge. It’s wonderful to begin life as a Middlebury citizen!
Since the announcement on November 18, I have had the good fortune to make several visits to both the Middlebury and Monterey campuses. During those visits, as well as others in New York and Durham, I have had the opportunity to meet with members of the Board of Trustees, faculty, students, staff, alumni, and donors.
Several things have struck me as I learn more about what makes Middlebury unique. The first is that Middlebury citizens have a wonderful practice of dynamic reflection about their own intellectual goals and the goals of the communities in which they participate. Whether the topic is the next phase of student life, faculty aspirations, staff perspectives, or new conversations amongst the trustees, there is a palpable sense of commitment to thoughtful deliberation in building intentional community.
The second is that Middlebury’s long traditions of global education could—and perhaps already have—define a new global sensibility. I have talked with Middlebury folks working in all parts of the world, from Moscow to Kabul to Durban to San Francisco to Boston to Bristol. Everyone with whom I have spoken has that special something that exists in whatever region they happen to find themselves. As I understand it, that special something consists of resilience, creativity, and perspective—the power to change where they are by engaging the people and resources that are around them.
The third is that Middlebury citizens know and engage the power of place. The mountains figured prominently in my conversations in Vermont, and the ocean figured prominently in my conversations in Monterey. And those conversations highlighted a palpable tradition of long-term, integrated, reflection—this time about our environment, both in the past and for the future. As one student put it to me, “You can’t be at Middlebury and not think about the place where you live. You just have to think about it.”
In short, this has been a dream transition, thanks to the organizational intelligence and generosity of spirit of so many. Getting to know and learn from Ron Liebowitz has been a great privilege. (We even spoke of collaborating together on a presentation: “The Good Leadership Transition”!) And two people in particular—Chair of the Board of Trustees Marna Whittington and Vice President for Academic Development Tim Spears—deserve praise for their guidance and wisdom as I made my way northward, both figuratively and literally, over the past few months.
Robert Frost, whose spirit still wanders the woods just up the road from my new office in Old Chapel, wrote that “freedom lies in being bold.” On this first day of our years together, I am confident that Middlebury can be bold in its vision of global liberal learning. By deepening the spirit that already inhabits its people and its places, Middlebury can be a beacon for all who seek to define the essentials of a 21st-century education.
Laurie L. Patton