December 8, 2016: Day to Celebrate

Dear Middlebury Community Members,

Today is a momentous one in Middlebury’s long history of environmental leadership.

I’m pleased and proud to announce that we have achieved our decade-long goal of making Middlebury’s Vermont campuses carbon neutral by the end of 2016. This accomplishment reflects the vision and determined work of countless individuals, starting with the students at the College who proposed the idea in 2007 and continuing with the staff, faculty, administrators, alumni, and trustees who studied it, endorsed it, and ultimately transformed that vision into reality.

Former President Ron Liebowitz deserves special acknowledgment today; his steadfast leadership on this issue was a driving force that kept the institution focused even when the goal, at times, seemed beyond reach.

Since Middlebury began this project, many large and small initiatives have brought us to carbon neutrality. Our biomass plant, which first came online in 2008, has helped us cut our annual usage of heating oil by more than half. Altogether, we have invested in 87 efficiency projects to reduce our electricity usage by 4.52 million kWh. Three solar projects—the last of which will go online in the coming weeks—combined will provide the equivalent of 8 percent of our electricity consumption. Most recently, thanks in great measure to the generous support of former trustee Louis Bacon ’79, we conserved 2,100 acres of beautiful forestlands at our Bread Loaf campus, creating more than enough carbon credits to push us past our goal.

But our work is not done, and will never be done. Our understanding of the dynamics of climate change will deepen, and the technologies and practices we adopt to reduce our impact will continue to evolve. The one thing that will not change is our commitment to action. Our work will carry on as we educate a new generation of environmental leaders, engage in impactful research, and work to further reduce our carbon impact in Vermont, at the Institute in Monterey, and at our operations around the world.

I invite you to learn more about today’s announcement on Middlebury’s sustainability website, where we have posted a news story, video, and other information.

With gratitude,

Laurie L. Patton

November 23, 2016: Aiding our undocumented students

Dear Members of the Middlebury Community,

I write today to underscore Middlebury’s support for all undocumented students, to state what our principles are as an institution in this area, and to announce two new steps we are taking to demonstrate this commitment.

In recent weeks our community has repeatedly shown its solidarity with, and support for, students and other individuals who are concerned that their ability to live and study in this country is in jeopardy. Undocumented students (including DACA students), American-born students who have undocumented family members in the country, and international students whose ability to travel to and from the United States may no longer be assured all have stressed the potential impact of changes in immigration policy and enforcement on their ability to pursue an education in the United States. Last week’s rally and protest outside Old Chapel was an inspiring display of empathy and support for and by our fellow community members. I thank the many students who organized and attended the event and the faculty and staff who joined them. We have seen similar displays of support among students, faculty, and staff at the Middlebury Institute.

Middlebury is and will remain unwaveringly committed to providing educational opportunities to students without regard to nationality, place of birth, immigration status, gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or economic status. We also support the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which allows undocumented individuals who arrived in the United States as children to remain in the country without fear of deportation.

Today there is understandable concern over the future of DACA, though the incoming administration has not commented on its plans. Similarly, discussions about potential deportations of some undocumented residents and the introduction of tighter restrictions for individuals entering or returning to the United States from certain parts of the world would have the potential to disrupt families and economic structures. Such changes could complicate the lives of students who leave and reenter the country to study abroad, to conduct research outside the country, or to visit family.

No one can predict what will happen right now. But I can tell you what Middlebury’s approach will be. We will take every legal measure to support our undocumented students as we continue to live up to our principles of educational access and inclusivity. We will continue to safeguard student records and will not voluntarily share them with federal or state law enforcement or other officials. We will continue to provide pro bono legal assistance to undocumented students who seek advice regarding their ability to fully participate in Middlebury’s academic programs. And we will work with our Vermont congressional delegation to encourage the continuation of DACA and the passage of the DREAM Act, which would create a pathway to legal residency for undocumented immigrants who entered the country before the age of 16, who have lived here for at least five consecutive years, and who graduated from a U.S. high school or received a GED.

Today I am announcing two additional steps we are taking. First, starting next year for applicants to Middlebury College’s Class of 2022, we will evaluate applications from undocumented prospective students under our need-blind admissions policy with a commitment to meet full demonstrated financial need. In taking this step, we are signaling to the thousands of ambitious and academically gifted young students from immigrant backgrounds across the country that Middlebury College seeks to enroll the best and most promising students regardless of their circumstances. Second, we will increase the amount of pro bono legal assistance we make available to students at the College and the Institute to assist with immigration and travel-related questions and issues. We will bring an immigration attorney to the Middlebury campus in the next two weeks for an information session and individual meetings and we will schedule a comparable day in Monterey. We will provide more details in the coming days and weeks.

Finally, we will continue to work with other institutions to advance the goals of diversity, equity, and inclusion in higher education. To that end, I have joined with other college and university leaders in signing three statements in recent days that affirm our highest principles as an institution.

I want to thank everyone at Middlebury who has contributed ideas and support for our efforts to ensure the safety and security of undocumented students. Working together, I believe we can achieve meaningful progress toward making our campus and others the inclusive places they were meant to be. My warmest wishes for a happy Thanksgiving holiday.

Laurie Patton

November 10, 2016: A Message and an Announcement 

The following message from President Patton was emailed to the full campus community on November 10, 2016. A statement from the College’s Community Bias Response Team follows.

Dear members of the Middlebury community,

This year’s election cycle brought to the surface some severe divisions in our society. Some of these played out right here, in the midst of our vibrantly shared educational ideals. Many in our community voted for Clinton. Many in our community voted for Trump.

There are two parts to this letter. The first is to state that, as you saw from the Community Bias Response Team message [see text of this message below], this community has absolutely zero tolerance for acts of intimidation based on a person’s religious, gender, sexual, disability, ethnic, or racial identity, and we must condemn them. This is not the Middlebury I recognize nor is it the Middlebury we should accept. Such behavior deeply undermines who we are, and who we are meant to be. We reject it entirely.

The second is to state that the Middlebury community I know is engaged courageously and compassionately in the public sphere, and is ready to take steps to heal our divisions. Today I ask you to join me in ensuring this community stands for something better. Reach out to someone with whom you disagree and talk to them. Attend the panels and other events that students, faculty, and staff are organizing in small and large ways to discuss the election. (To that end, I draw your attention to the announcement below.) Find someone on campus and greet them as if they deeply belong here—because every single one of us does belong here.

And finally, build bridges for each other, so that all of us feel safe to cross them. Only then can we continue to embody the Middlebury values of tolerance, care, and respect that are essential to our prospering together.

I look forward to our recreating the Middlebury we know.

Yours sincerely,

Laurie Patton


We have set aside a time tomorrow (Friday, November 11) for small groups to gather and discuss the election, the divisions that were surfaced, and how we can move forward together. We have assembled volunteers to facilitate these discussions, which will take place in Axinn and McCullough. If you are interested in participating, please come to the Axinn Winter Garden between 2:45 and 3:00 PM, and you will be directed to a room.

The following statement from the Community Bias Response Team was emailed to the full campus community on November 10, 2016.

To: The Middlebury College Community
From: The Community Bias Response Team

Our community is grappling with the rhetoric of this year’s election campaign. There is fear that the election has legitimized hate rhetoric and intolerance on all sides of the political spectrum, as we have witnessed acts of exclusion and even hate crimes occurring nationwide. In the last two days this fear has come to fruition in our own community, as messages of intolerance are being written and spoken on campus since the election.

Differences on political and economic positions and policies are all part of intellectual discourse and are welcome in our community, naturally flowing from our political process. However, discussions in our community should not embrace messages of intolerance. By our community standards, such messages are unacceptable and will not be tolerated. It is important to recognize our community standards and abide by them:

  • cultivating respect and responsibility for self, others, and our shared environment; encouraging personal and intellectual courage and growth;
  • manifesting integrity and honesty in all decisions and actions;
  • promoting healthy, safe, and balanced lifestyles;
  • fostering a diverse and inclusive community committed to civility, open-mindedness, and finding common ground.

We have a collective responsibility to create, maintain, and ensure a welcoming campus where all these standards can be met. Please report any behavior by members of our community in violation of our handbook policies to the Middlebury Department of Public Safety (802-443-5133 or

We would also like to remind everyone of the resources available on campus, and to encourage you to utilize these resources as you process recent events.

  • Parton Counseling: 802-443-5141 (after-hours counseling care available at this same number)
  • The Charles P. Scott Center for Spiritual and Religious Life: 802-443-5626
  • Atwater Commons: 802-443-3310
  • Brainerd Commons: 802-443-3320
  • Cook Commons: 802-443-3330
  • Ross Commons: 802-443-3340
  • Wonnacott Commons: 802-443-3350

September 11, 2016: Fall Convocation Address

You are here. You’ve arrived. You’ve found friends. You’ve got plans for your program of study. You may even have plans for next weekend. You have ideas about what sport you will play. Most of you will change your major, some of you many times. Most of you will discover a new sport to play. And all of you will find new friends. All of you will remember something a professor said, 50 years from now, that will help you in your journey. As the author of Proverbs hopes, so too we hope that you will be happy here because you have found new wisdom and understanding. As a member of the Class of 2020, we hope you will find your 20/20 vision.

With such an amazing future, what about the now? How do you deal with the Middlebury of the next few months? How do you become a college student of the Class of 2020—a college student with 20/20 vision to see clearly on your path? I offer a brief answer. You become a college student by becoming wise. The little book that we’ve given you, with sayings—we give that to students every year, and we want you to keep it with you. You can return to it again and again when you are in need of wisdom, when you are in need of lenses to help you see better.

Here’s the hard part. Everyone at Middlebury is as talented as you are, but in a different way. And that can be exhilarating, but it can also be disorienting and discouraging. People already know huge amounts about subjects you’ve never heard of, lived in places that you barely recognize on a map, competed in athletic contests you didn’t even know existed. And maybe you’ve met those people that Greg just talked about—the novelist three-varsity athlete who started her own NGO and hiked the Appalachian Trail, solo. And the most annoying thing was, as you’ve probably already discovered, she was really nice, too. That’s the Middlebury way.

But having a lot of information is not wisdom. As Euripides tells us in The Bacchae, intellect is not wisdom. Wisdom is not knowing a lot, but knowing your own truth. So this is the first part about becoming wise: your job is not to be like others. Your job is to be like yourself. I ask you now, and I will never tire of asking you throughout your time here, how long are you going to worry, like some of you are right now, sitting in those pews and listening to us? How long are you going to worry about who you are not, when you should be getting on with the glorious business of being who you are? Your job at Middlebury is to become more like yourself—whoever that person is and wherever that person takes us and our community.

Once you’ve stopped comparing yourself to everyone else, then you can go on to the second part of wisdom: understanding that you are Middlebury. You are probably wondering, as the Buddhist poet Shantideva does in The Way of the Bodhisattva, whether you have the strength sufficient to the task. Here’s what we want to tell you. You do have that strength, because you belong here. We chose you. We chose you because we sensed, and you did too, that there was something about you and this place that made a really wonderful match. You can do your work here, whatever that work turns out to be. You can play here, whatever that play turns out to be. Your creativity is the creativity of the whole community. Your creativity is what makes Middlebury Middlebury. Whenever you hear people talk about Middlebury as if it were outside of them, apart from them, they’re not being wise. It’s our job to remind each other: we are, all of us, Middlebury. Which means that all of us belong and have something profoundly important to contribute to this community. And we need to make changes in ourselves first and foremost if we want the community to change.

The third part of being wise is having expectations of each other. We have them of you. The Middlebury way is to be constructive. As the New Testament author James puts it, wisdom is not divided, insincere, or mean-spirited, but “peaceable…open to persuasion…filled with mercy and good fruits.” We expect you to be the same. When you think the institution could be better, we will always respond. That’s our job and we love doing it. We will work with you to make it better. That is also the Middlebury way. But that willingness to work together also comes with expectations: in the spirit of good fruits, we ask that you never stop at the criticism, but that you always move toward the constructive solution.

We had students 10 years ago who wanted Middlebury to be carbon neutral by 2016. And guess what? We did it. The students didn’t just demand that their professors and administrators do something. They themselves came up with a plan about how to get there. And everyone in our community responded and worked together to try to meet these environmental goals, step by step. And because students were constructive, and came up with a plan, professors and administration responded. And we did it together. This semester, we will be one of the largest institutions of its kind to be carbon neutral. And so your class could be the ones to help come up with the next plan: how to be permanently carbon negative. That kind of community building is what the Qur’an is referring to when it says, “Give charitably from the good things you have acquired.” At Middlebury, you will be given a great deal, and we expect you to help us build the community constructively as a way of giving back.

The fourth part of becoming wise is being resilient. It doesn’t mean just powering on without thinking or taking care. Resilience means finding a new shape after you’ve been bent out of shape, or, as the Bhagavad Gita teaches, finding wisdom in the self. It means taking care of yourself as you go through something hard. And it means, when things aren’t going your way, you keep going. You find a way forward, even if you think you can never get there. And you are never afraid to ask for help. Resilience isn’t a trait that you develop in a vacuum; you need friends and family and advisors and professors and classmates and teammates to help you keep going. At Middlebury, we expect you to be brave enough to ask for help.

Here’s a report from the summer about students just like you, who could not have accomplished what they did without that capacity for resilience and persistence. We had more than 140 undergraduates participating in summer research with faculty mentors, including seven students who created an infrared rover that can visually evaluate inaccessible places like pipes and tunnels. They could have just rested on their laurels, but instead they’re building community by giving that rover to our facilities department this fall to help our staff detect significant temperature differences in the campus steam system. That in turn will allow us to optimize our steam usage. It was not easy, and there were bumps along the way. But they gave the community a new tool to help with energy conservation.

There are the three alumnae athletes who participated in the Rio Olympics: Lea Davison ’05 in women’s mountain biking, Megan Guarnier ’07 in women’s cycling, and Sarah Groff True ’04 in women’s triathlon. These folks represent the heart and soul of persistence. And while none of them won a medal, they were simply honored to be part of the team, and their love of their sport remains just as high.

And yes, I get it. These examples are kind of spectacular. But Middlebury students tell me all the time about other, everyday forms of resilience and persistence. There’s the first-year student who, ever since she arrived at Middlebury, wanted to learn Chinese in the summer school but didn’t think she could afford it. And then, with the help of deans and fellow students, she found a way to get scholarship money and just completed her first summer in Chinese this August. There’s the student leader who guided the Student Government Association through a series of difficult conversations last year and wrote me, at the end of the year, that if someone had told her she’d be doing that this past year, she would never have believed she could do it. Or the recent graduate who, after persevering through the death of both parents, decided that his best way of honoring his parents’ memories was to create a weekly dog therapy session on campus. And my favorite example: the student who decided to write an opinion piece even after he felt silenced by some other students who disagreed with him. In this day and age, public debate is true grit. Each of you will have your own story of constructive engagement and personal resilience. And we can’t wait to hear those stories: tell them to us often.

And finally, becoming wise is developing a relationship with the landscape around you. You have come to a community with a deep sense of place. When someone says that Middlebury is “in the middle of nowhere,” I always correct them, and you should, too. Middlebury is very much deeply somewhere. You are in a town, and a state, with an extraordinary sense of the natural world, the relationship between human beings and nature, and a long-standing democratic tradition. Be respectful of the town and its citizens, whose resources keep the College going. Just 216 years ago, the citizens of Middlebury built the College themselves as “the town’s college.” Never forget that.

And most importantly of all, take refuge and delight in the mountains and the trails and the rivers and forests and lakes all around you. They are the best stress-busters around. They will help you become resilient, to help you think of creative solutions. At Middlebury, people tell each other all the time to go take a hike, and they literally will!

At Middlebury, 20/20 vision, your vision, is what Toni Morrison tells us it is: dreaming the world as it ought to be. That’s what it means to become wise. So I will ask you once more: How long are you going to worry about who you are not, when you should be getting on with the glorious business of being who you are? Becoming who you are meant to be at Middlebury is dreaming the world as it ought to be. And the community is here, and will be for the rest of your life, to dream with you.

Class of 2020: You are here. You belong. We will help you grow that 20/20 vision and become wise. We will help you build resilience. As one student put it to me, Middlebury is really supportive wilderness training for the mind, heart, body, and soul. And we can only guarantee that you will change. Are you in?

August 19, 2016: Language Schools Commencement

Graduates, Faculty, and Friends—

I am delighted to be here at the Language Schools’ Commencement. First, I would like to put Gamaliel Painter’s cane into circulation among you.

Please pass it among yourselves, and when the last person receives the cane, will he or she please return it to me.

Gamaliel Painter, the original owner of this cane, was one of the visionaries who helped found Middlebury College more than 200 years ago. When he died in 1819, he left his estate to the College, including this walking stick, which he was often seen carrying around town and across campus. At the time, campus was entirely located on the site that is now Twilight Hall, at the bottom of the hill on the way into town.

Since his death, Gamaliel Painter’s cane has become the College’s mace—carried by the president at all academic ceremonial occasions, to signify Middlebury’s founding spirit, its optimism, and its future. It’s a well-traveled, well-handled cane. Incoming undergraduates pass the cane from student to student during first-year Convocation, and it has now made the trip with me to Monterey for the Middlebury Institute of International Studies’ commencement.

Today, each of you will receive your own cane, handcrafted here in Vermont of New England beech and ash, to carry forward into your life as a graduate of the Language Schools. These canes are a symbol of the historical ties that bind us all to this institution, the generosity that supports us, the hard work and learning that brought you to this place today, and the lifelong relationship between you and your new alma mater.

Your new alma mater. Alma mater, a Latin phrase—an allegorical one that means, literally, “nourishing mother.” I’ve now given you one more phrase in a new language, one that is probably not new to you, but one whose literal meaning you perhaps haven’t considered before.

But you have spent glorious months here considering the meaning of many, many other words, and phrases, and ideas—thinking, dreaming, stumbling, joking, arguing, persuading, dancing, running, sighing, playing, and hoping, in another language.

You have succeeded in achieving what you might have dreamed was impossible all those months and years ago when you first began this adventure with your new nourishing mother and your new Language Schools family.

And within this family, because of this you have changed. Every single one of you graduates I have spoken with has told me that you indeed have a different identity in your second language. And most of you have gone on to describe what that is: I dance more in Spanish. I’m tougher in Russian. I am more easygoing in French. I like my family more in Chinese. I have more friends in Hebrew. I’m kinder in German. I have a subtler sense of humor in Japanese. And you have not wanted to relinquish those personalities after the pledge has been lifted. I still see groups of you wandering around campus, speaking your language joyfully.

What is at the heart of this change? I believe it’s the Language Pledge, and its power.

At the beginning of the summer, and at the beginning of the many summers in which you have worked to earn your degree, you were told: May the pledge be with you. And it was.

You already know that the phrase “May the pledge be with you” is, of course, a play on the phrase from Star Wars—“May the force be with you.” Don’t worry—we checked with the copyright moguls before we went ahead and used it, and it falls under fair use. However, what you may not know is that the force—that power that animates all things—is a concept from early Indian Sanskrit texts—the Upanishads.

The creators of Star Wars drew from this tradition when they wrote their screenplays.

So inadvertently, as of course you know I would think everyone always does, we return back to Sanskrit to enlighten us. You may have thought this exhortation was in English, but really—it’s Sanskrit!

More seriously, the Upanishads describe students sitting under trees with their teachers and learning things through immersion, just as you have done here at Middlebury.

Even more momentously, for early Indian thinkers, the first idea of the force—called Brahman—was not magical, or about waving a wand. It was the simple idea that the power of the word held up the world.

And the power of the well-spoken word guaranteed human flourishing and prosperity.

You have done that too. Three thousand years later, through the power of your well-spoken word, you have contributed to human flourishing and prosperity.

I offer you a bit more Latin here: You have become masters—literally, from the Latin, ones who are called to teach. You have become doctors—literally, from the Latin, ones who lead others, who show the way.

So long may you go on thinking, dreaming, stumbling, joking, arguing, persuading, dancing, running, sighing, playing, and hoping, in another language.

Finally, today: I hope, in the work of achieving your degree, you have also been replenished. I hope that the letters now written after the letters that make up your name might not only signal pedigree, but also possibility. Not only pedigree, but also possibility.

I hope that your dispositions and habits of mind have been newly sharpened, invigorated, ready to engage again in the work of placing language at the center of all our human relationships.

The pledge has clearly been with you. Congratulations and my very deepest best wishes for you in all the worlds you will now inhabit.

August 6, 2016: Bread Loaf School of English Commencement

As I have been thinking about you, and the shape of your next work in the world, I have been thinking about Melinda Talkington. She taught English in my high school, all levels. I forgot about her as soon as I graduated, in that selfish, nonchalant kind of forgetting that 18-year-olds are particularly capable of.

Melinda was the roundest person I had ever met—face and body almost perfectly spherical, interrupted only by the cat’s-eye glasses she wore—and in the late ’70s, those glasses were neither hip nor retro. A group of us intense literary aspirants, fiercely competitive but pretending not to be, visited her regularly at her home.

She would greet us barefoot with a glass of wine in her hand. Her apartment was forested with unruly ficus plants, and she would ask for an apology if you brushed by one too roughly. Their potting soil was ground into the formerly white carpet in an unapologetic mosaic. Her rooms always smelled—unmistakably of tea grounds, and then something else mysterious—a sweet rotting smell that emanated from under the newspapers in the corner that she never threw away.

She would have been, and perhaps was, in a way, a great homeless person—like Aunt Sylvie in Marilynne Robinson’s gorgeous first novel, Housekeeping. Sylvie came home to care for her nieces, but her love of the train and the bench and the itinerant life could not manifest itself at home, except in her love of piles of newspapers that harbored secrets of the road. In 1978 and ‘79, we happily ground more dirt into Melinda Talkington’s carpet mosaic with our Joni Mitchell boots. We demanded she tell us everything she knew about poetic form. She required us to write sestinas and read H. D. and become insanely competitive with each other about villanelles.

Melinda had many secrets that I never knew: she left only the faintest trace on the Internet—a poem in the Southern Review, an essay on Italian Renaissance in the Columbia literary journal electronically archived now from 1972. And here’s something more I forgot: She was always talking about the unseen effects of writing. I remember a particularly long argument with her about D. H. Lawrence, whom I hated with an inarticulate intensity the minute I read Sons and Lovers. “Why is it up to you to decide what happens to someone’s work, and where it goes in the world?” she asked me. “D. H. Lawrence might wake someone else up, and in exactly the way you want them to be woken up.”

And here’s the final thing I forgot until I remembered: she was always talking about balance. I found a note from her the other day in my yearbook, which was otherwise strewn with confidence-building felicitations such as, “Hey LP, keep the faith. You turned out to be better than I thought.” Melinda wrote: “Don’t forget to balance. Remember the balance between dreaming and the world.” I think then she was mostly telling me to chill, although I doubt I heeded that advice, which has been given rather frequently. But now I ask: why would our teacher spent countless hours with young women writing sestinas? What unspeakable privilege did I have, that I could afford to be in the company of someone who wanted us to be competitive about villanelles? Her students’ voices were voices that she believed might create, if only for a minute, a better equilibrium between the world as dreamt and the world as is.

That is the shape of your work now: the delicate balancing of the world as dreamt and the world as is. For your students, and for yourselves. If there is in your classrooms a surfeit of the world as it is, you can require your students to dream. Required reverie should never be underestimated. It’s called reading. And if there is a surfeit of dreaming in your classroom, you can ask your students to remember the world as it is—by showing them again the disciplined love of objects—things in themselves—which are the ground of our realities and the first commitment of literature. You can weave for them the ethical tapestry of the particular.

Melinda Talkington: now, the faintest of traces in the world. And yet still a towering force for young women now grown older who otherwise would not have dared to write. You now have become those towering voices that will be remembered. By returning to us, again and again over many summers, you have become Bread Loaf voices. Bread Loaf people. You have become the creators of that transformational space where students live, breathe and make quiet and loud revolutions because you teach them they can. You will be the ones who have the wisdom to help them balance their dreaming and their waking. As the psalmist says, you will bless their setting forth and their returning. And you may not feel it, and they may not always remember, but you will do so all the days of their lives.

We are so very proud. Congratulations.

June 21, 2016: Bread Loaf School of English Opening Greetings

I’m so happy to see you all here and to have this moment to speak to you. First, I can and should tell you that this has been an extraordinary year for Bread Loaf. I’m thrilled to announce that this year, we have had more donors to the Bread Loaf School of English than ever before. And we’re exploring some very exciting new partnerships with schools and foundations.

But there really is only one reason why I rushed back from a midday meeting in New York to make sure I greeted you this evening. And that reason is because I believe that there is no more hopeful antidote to the colossal failure of imagination in public life today than the work of the Bread Loaf School of English.

Just yesterday, a group of elected people in the United States tried to imagine a story where guns did not mow people down in cold blood.  They failed. And in the days before, a man in England could not imagine a world in which Britain remained in the European Union, and so he took to murder as a way out of the political debate.

These are just two of the failures of the last week.

There is the story of 10 years ago, of a young woman whose family I knew in India. She wanted to get an education, so she was pursuing a math degree at a university. But through a relationship with a young man, she found herself in a dangerous place, and caught up with a terrorist group. She could not imagine a way out of the terrorist cell she had found herself in in Mumbai, and she died in a hail of police gunfire as a result.

“We never told her another story,” said her brother.

And then there is the story of the psychologist who decided to specialize in suicide prevention after he learned something from a man who was homeless. This homeless man often encountered desperate people on a city bridge who were preparing to jump. He had the talent of being able to talk them out of it. He would get these people to go back in the story of their lives to the point where they could imagine another ending—an ending that did not result in suicide. He would walk them back, one step at a time. “What did you do before you got here? And before that? What did you see? And before that?” He would go on, very methodically and very simply. And the approach would work. Suicide is the result of not being able to imagine another ending, the psychologist told me.

Not all stories can, or should, be hopeful. Not all should be healing. But each should, at the very least, create a spark of new understanding about the nature of suffering. And with that new spark of understanding, the story begins a change in the world.

You are here because you believe that literature can change people. You understand that peace must first be imagined, and for peace to be imagined, the story of suffering must be told. Again and again. This summer, you will write and teach about the morality of the particular, a morality that can best be taught through literature, and about the innate love of people and objects, of persons and things in themselves.

Of course, you will also wander through impossibly yellow buildings and unbelievably green canopies and you will be haunted, some not for the first time, by the curmudgeonly ghost of Mr. Frost.

You and your students may not even become better people through literature. Of course I hope you do. But even if you don’t, you will be able to imagine, and teach others to imagine, other endings to the story.

And for that very essential reason, we need you. You matter now more than ever.

May 28, 2016: Baccalaureate Address

Welcome to your second to last day at Middlebury. In these intensely compressed days of endings and beginnings, you have probably been thinking about both the past and the future. I know I have. I have been thinking a great deal about a conversation I had with several of you a few weeks ago. It was a beautiful Middlebury day, and some seniors, juniors, and I were sitting at a table with the early spring green of the mountains behind us.

We were talking about how hard it is has been, especially this year, for those of you whom I was with, and for probably many, if not most of you, to write in an authentic voice, and express that voice in public settings, and even in classrooms. It’s hard to feel safe finding your voice when anything you post online might get picked up and reposted. It might get quoted by a reporter, or posted on Twitter, or mocked on Yik Yak, or critiqued on Facebook. In our conversation, I shared with you that many of your faculty members, including your president, had experienced such unwanted cyber-exposure, and survived, and went on to write more, and you all could too. But then one of you said something to me that I’ve been thinking about ever since. You said, “Yes, but when we are still finding our voices, when we still don’t know who we are and need to experiment with those voices, that’s a big ask. That’s a big ask, President Patton.”

In thinking about that conversation, I have also been reading about those who do not have a voice, and how we study and learn about voiceless-ness. What does it mean to speak, and perhaps more importantly, what does it mean not to speak? In thinking about this question, I have been inspired by the autobiography of the vocal artist Bob Dylan. Here’s how writer Edward Smith characterized Dylan’s book:

What does it take to turn artistic talent into its full creative expression? Then, once you’ve found your authentic artistic voice, how can you stop critics and followers over-defining it until you feel penned-in to the point of paralysis? And if you finally lose your voice altogether, how do you find it again?

The story starts as abruptly and arrestingly as one of his own ballads, when the 20-year-old Robert Zimmerman arrives in New York in 1961 wanting to sing folk songs. Where he came from is unimportant to this particular story. All we need to know is that he had talent and boundless self-confidence. He knew he had ‘it’. He just wasn’t quite sure what ‘it’ was. To discover that, he needed a context, a bohemian education and some good luck. New York provided all three.

It was the perfect setting: coffee-houses, smoky clubs, night-long parties, personal reinvention, the buzz of the cutting edge. He evokes the scene so well, we could be walking with him into a cold easterly breeze coming off the Hudson river. He fitted right in—sleeping on sofas, searching for Woody Guthrie records, tuning into compelling characters, tuning out of what bored him.

He played and sang wherever he could, happier to practice with an audience than alone. He was given the keys to eccentric apartments with quirky libraries. He opened books in the middle, and if he liked them went back to the beginning. A relentless curiosity coexisted with a determination not to go under to new influences. It was his voice he was looking for, not anyone else’s.

He looked around at who he admired, worked out what they had and how he might acquire it without losing his integrity. He liked hardness, edge, what was essential.

As you search for your own voice, your life at Middlebury has not been unlike Bob Dylan’s. You have opened books in the middle, and if you liked them, went back to the beginning. You have endured cold easterly breezes. You have had relentless curiosity. You have slept on sofas. You have tuned into compelling characters and tuned out of what bored you. You have been given the keys to apartments with quirky libraries, as well as to well-resourced institutional libraries and digital libraries. You have looked at role models to see who you could follow without losing your integrity. You too have been drawn to hardness, edge, and what is essential.

Let me describe yourselves to you as a way of illustrating these qualities. You are 654—309 men and 345 women. You are from 43 states in the USA and almost as many countries outside the USA.

Like Dylan, you have had a relentless curiosity. Many of you have chosen Economics, Political Science, Natural Sciences, Environmental Studies, and English—our top majors—as your first intellectual loves. But because you are curious, you have been open to many disciplines: 105 of you have had either a joint or a double major. And if we count those of you who majored in a foreign language, attended the language schools, or studied abroad at 42 different places in the world, more than half of you had the courage to study or speak a foreign language at an advanced level.

Like Dylan, you have reminded us of what is essential. You have brought the vision of restorative justice to campus, and I promise we will take it forward for you. You have formed groups of all ethnicities and races to shift campus conversations about race and racism. You have researched and implemented new policies to focus on prevention and change in attitudes re sexual assault on campus.

You have been relentlessly creative. Like Dylan, you have tuned into compelling characters, whether that has been working with the Town Hall Theatre, or receiving a nomination for the 2015 Irene Ryan award for acting at the American College Theatre Festival. You designed and built art exhibitions all around campus; 300 members—almost half of the senior class—were Student Friends of the Art Museum.

You are tough. Like Dylan you have been drawn to hardness—on the athletic field as well as in the world. 170 of you were playing on varsity teams at any time during your four years at Middlebury, with 1 team and 2 individuals winning national athletic championships, 16 teams NESCAC championships, and 104 named to all-academic teams.

And like Dylan, you have slept on sofas all around the community. Overall at least 373 out of the 525 seniors expected to graduate were involved in community engagement during their years at Middlebury (at least 71% of seniors). You led a trip to Mexico focused on supporting single mothers in partnership with the nonprofit Casa de los Ángeles. You led a trip to New York focused on urban food systems. 23 of you were senior mentors who were matched with Addison County children ages 6–12. And the average time this group of 23 students met with their mentees was 2.75 years! You created the place-based mentoring initiative DREAM, and partnered with two affordable housing apartment complexes in Middlebury. And a group of you conducted a spatial analysis study of rural public transportation needs with Addison County Transit Resources (ACTR), and from that research created a proposal for an outlying bus route. One of you participated in Language in Motion, and shared a love for Uzbekistan, Russian culture, and your experience as a Muslim with secondary students at all three of the local high schools and on the other side of the state.

And like Dylan, you have embraced those things on the edge. One of you had an internship focused on turtles, and the following summer you drew blood from prairie dogs to study plague. Another of you, through our programs in social entrepreneurship, developed the concept for an app to reduce distracted driving. And another developed an epi pen bracelet and is currently working on getting it patented.

And what is the meaningful work you are going on to do? You are going on to write programs at Google, to work on diversity at Goldman Sachs, to begin a graduate course in Neuroscience, to start workshops in theater education, to write at The Atlantic magazine, and create youth programs in Senegal.

From all these inspiring facts, you sound like the young Bob Dylan, getting his education in the clubhouses of New York, only your education has been in the mountains of Vermont. From the demographics of this class, you all look like you know you have “it,” and are filled with boundless self-confidence.

But from our conversations with you, you are also worried. Deeply worried. If we have listened to you carefully, you worry about two kinds of voicelessness: the first, when you want to speak, but cannot, because you lack the power or the capacity. And the other is equally, or perhaps even more relevant to today: when there are so many others speaking that you cannot be heard. In other words, you worry about becoming voiceless either when you are completely alone or when you are buried in the sound of a crowd.

Bob Dylan felt that he lost his voice when he was at his most famous. He had given his voice over to others, and didn’t know how to get it back. And you ask, as Dylan also did: once you’ve found your authentic voice, how can you stop critics and followers over-defining it until you feel penned-in to the point of paralysis? How can you prevent yourself from becoming voiceless once again, especially in the world of instantaneous, unwanted audiences, and the barrage of likes, unlikes, and anonymous attacks that we all dwell in?

To understand how we might respond to this deeply 21st century dilemma, it’s worth looking a little at what it means to be voiceless. Scientific studies of voicelessness are fascinating. There was the voicelessness of nineteenth century French citizen Louis Victor Leborgne, otherwise known as “patient Tan.” At 31, Leborgne lost all of his ability to speak except for one word, which he pronounced over and over again: “Tan, tan, tan.” When Leborgne died in 1861, a well-known surgeon, Paul Broca discovered in the autopsy that he had a lesion in his brain in the left upper lobe. Broca then studied 25 brains of other patients with similar disorders. He became the first to identify language processing in a part of the brain now known as Broca’s area, a key area for cognitive psychology in the last century. Broca’s work was hatched in intense debate with his medical colleagues, and laid the groundwork for methods and medicines to restore speech in the wake of traumatic brain injuries and cognitive impairments caused by disease. Broca’s conversation with his colleagues of the time about the plasticity of the brain eventually helped millions come to voice when otherwise they would have had to give up hope.

There was the voicelessness of Helen Keller in late nineteenth century Alabama, whose family had given up on her, and who had given up on herself. And yet, when her teacher, the completely determined Annie Sullivan, came from Boston, things changed. As many of you might know, the story goes that after violent episodes where Keller acted out her frustration by throwing objects and throwing tantrums, Sullivan tried the simple spelling out of the word “water” in her hand as water fell over it. It was at this moment that Helen found “voice” in the power of sign language. Helen Keller too, was written off as a deaf mute until the power of communication in a form other than “the spoken word” became a major way for Helen to share her brilliance, and her unique experience, with the world. She went on to become a writer, author, suffragist, and activist on behalf of worker’s rights, and left a legacy of powerful writings on all these subjects after her death in the 1960’s.

Since the 1960’s, the sciences of linguistics, cognition, the brain, and disease, have been revolutionized several times over. And we continue to learn about the dynamics of voice and voicelessness in subtler and subtler ways. In addition to the fields of cognitive science, there are intriguing new contributions of lay people. We might turn to the recent blogs of Paula Durbin Westby, a woman with autism who is “intermittently speechless.” Even though she may want to, Paula is not able to speak with others. But, as she puts it, this does not mean she is “locked in a non-verbal world, in some sort of dream state or alternative universe at those times.”

Paula recently posted a YouTube video, busting stereotypes about people like herself who may occasionally lose the ability to speak. She tells us,

I have read more than one author who opines that without language there is no thought. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Language includes both written and spoken words, as well as picture-based communication systems like PECS. Not talking (and also not writing) does not equate with “not being able to think,” “being lost in an unknown world” or anything other than specifically not being able to talk. For some people it could mean a lack of focus on the present moment (how many people are fully present in each moment anyway?) or not being able to think in words, which is another one of my reasons for not talking. But it is not, generally speaking, accurate to assume that because a person can’t talk, they can’t think. You wouldn’t look at someone who has a tracheostomy tube and go “Oh wow. That person can’t think!”….

And Paula responds, “Actually, I just can’t talk.”

But she surely can think, and powerfully so. Paula has founded an online research community of autistic people like herself to share their own experiences and perceptions about intermittent speech and speechlessness. She encourages more autistics to share information, including videos and articles, about speech loss/intermittent speech/non-speaking times. She tells us, “We learn so much from each other, in ways that are different from ‘therapy’ or ‘intervention.’ It is important to have a body of knowledge on this topic that we ourselves have created and that we can consult, and that can also assist non-autistic parents, educators, and professionals.”

More humorously, but equally poignantly, is the very recent story of Carly Fleischmann, who just burst onto the world on May 4th, 2016—a few weeks ago. She is 21, your age, and an author who has had a long term dream of hosting her own talk show. But due to her severe autism and an oral motor condition, she cannot speak. With the help of an Ipad that vocalizes what she writes, she’s decided to debut a YouTube show, Speechless with Carly Fleischmann. Her first interview was with Channing Tatum, a man upon whom she has had a long term crush, and who she decided, impishly, “was going to leave his wife for her by the end of the show.”

These are four stories of voicelessness, and four stories of coming to voice. One happened because of the breakthrough of early brain science and a long-term relationship with a medical community. Broca faithfully argued with his medical colleagues throughout his life. The second happened because of the breakthrough of sign language and the incredible dedication of a fierce teacher. Annie Sullivan was the lifelong companion in service of Hellen Keller’s activism on behalf of the deaf. The third happened because of the breakthrough of autistic people sharing their own experiences and research, and in doing so, advancing our understanding. Paula Durbin Westby’s autistic friends and companions provide a whole new perspective on the world of all human cognition. The fourth happened because of the breakthrough of vocalizations on an I-pad and an impish sense of humor with a first talk show guest. Cary Fleishman connects with a long term movie star crush as a way of showing the world what a talk show really means.

Even Bob Dylan, overcome by fame and its cacophony of voices telling him who he was supposed to be, had a breakthrough. He tells us in his autobiography that he turned to friendships in his middle age to find his artistic voice.

Every single one of these people overcame a cacophony of voices telling them who they were and what they were supposed to be. They felt like you do when you see, or think you might see, all those voices on the internet after you have written a single, tentative piece posted online. Or when you see someone roll their eyes at something you say in a classroom. But notice something extraordinary: in each of these stories, people overcoming voicelessness through power of human relationships, and their capacity to nurture confidence and creativity.

So let’s return to that conversation I had with several of you a few weeks ago. You worry that you will lose your voice, or that the internet world, in its harsh and swift responses, will prevent you from having one. Or that the classroom world, with its inherent judgment of you, will silence your voice. And, in a world like that, it is a big ask for an educational institution to request you to speak, to use your voice.

And here is a response. First, I think you are right. It has been a big ask for us to ask you to develop your own voice.

Second, and far more importantly, it is no longer just Middlebury, but the world that is now asking it of you. Let me put it even more strongly: it’s no longer about just you and your voice. The world needs you to share your voice as you go on to become the glorious person you are meant to be in the world.

Third, Middlebury has given you a voice that you can use to help others find their own. From now on, it’s about everyone else, and how you share that resource of a great education with the world around you, no matter how difficult that might be.

Most times, those moments will be joyous. You already know this. Most of you have already gone out into the communities around us and shared your voice. And you have helped others come to voice, right here, in these mountains, as well as in distant mountains across many oceans. Remember the power of human relationship in all of these stories about coming to voice. You are the Paul Pierre Bocas, the Annie Sullivans, the Paula Durbin Westby’s and the Carly Fleishmans of your generation.

So congratulations on becoming Middlebury graduates. You have opened books in the middle, and if you liked them, went back to the beginning. You have endured cold easterly breezes. You have had relentless curiosity. You have slept on sofas. You have tuned into compelling characters and tuned out of what bored you. You have been given the keys to apartments with quirky libraries, as well as to well-resourced institutional libraries and digital libraries. You have looked at role models to see who you could follow without losing your integrity. You too have been drawn to hardness, edge, and what is essential.

And whether you feel as if you have or not, you have already used your voice wisely. Use that voice—no matter how tentative—to help others find theirs. And if you do, you will never lose it. You will always find it. It will always be with you.

February 10, 2016: February Convocation Address

Welcome to Middlebury.

To begin, I would like to continue a custom by putting into circulation this most recognizable of College symbols—Gamaliel Painter’s cane.

Gamaliel Painter was one of the visionaries who helped to found Middlebury College over 200 years ago. He was a familiar sight to the College’s first students as he frequently roamed through the town’s streets and strolled by the College, which then was entirely located on the site that is now Twilight Hall at the bottom of the hill on the way into town.

As he strolled about the town and College, Gamaliel Painter carried with him a walking stick. When he died, Painter bequeathed to the College $13,000, which was a significant-enough sum of money to secure the future of this fledgling institution. He also left us his walking stick.

It has become a tradition for newly arrived students, at opening convocation, to pass among them Gamaliel Painter’s cane. I ask you to pass it among yourselves, but please remember to give it to Feb. Orientation senior co-chairs Sarah James or Tommy Finton when done, so future first-years can share in the tradition!

And now, I want to warmly welcome you as Febs—that special class of people who arrive in winter. Febs are bright newcomers to our community bring all their light and energy to the darker days. That’s why we welcome you with candles—they are a reminder of who you are.

There’s also something about winter that brings us down to the bare bones of things—we see the beautiful skeletons of things. We hear the sparser songs that exist underneath the songs of summer. The poet Mark Strand invites us to think about winter as a kind of listening—”listening to the tunes our bones play.”

Here’s how he puts it in “Lines for Winter”:

Tell yourself
as it gets cold and gray falls from the air
that you will go on
walking, hearing
the same tune no matter where
you find yourself—
inside the dome of dark
or under the cracking white
of the moon’s gaze in a valley of snow.
Tonight as it gets cold
tell yourself
what you know which is nothing
but the tune your bones play
as you keep going. And you will be able
for once to lie down under the small fire
of winter stars…

You all have dreamt Middlebury. And you have done so powerfully. You have listened to the tune your bones play and found this place. You may even have dreamt that, once you arrived, on one of these snowy Vermont nights you would lie down and gaze at the small fire of wintry stars. You were so effective in your dreaming about Middlebury that you have landed here, in this space. I hope it looks and feels the same way you dreamt it.

And even though you did everything right to get here, perhaps you are still 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. 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 also be impatient. In each case, however, 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 be inspired by the fires of winter stars. So what does it mean to follow the tunes your bones play, now that you are here? First and foremost it means being 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, JC’s, RHA’s, 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 listen to that tune that is yours alone, and in doing so, develop wisdom.

You see, at Middlebury, we are going to ask you not just to be smart, but to become wise.

Make no mistake: at Middlebury, you will be all about using your smarts, your intellect. You will be challenged to master material more than you ever have before. And there will be days when you’ve 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 after being smart, which is 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.

At Middlebury, we will also 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, 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, 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, DC. And now at its home in New York City.

At Middlebury we will challenge you 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 one that just focuses entirely on material ends. 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.

At Middlebury we will also 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 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 Society, which is now one of the top-ranked teams in the nation. They tour nationally and internationally, and just competed in the North American Championships. They say that they are successful because of the enthusiasm of the younger students—including first-year Febs and second-year Febs—who joined their ranks. With those younger classes joining the team, it has tripled in size to become the largest team in NESCAC. Those younger people would now be you folks. It just goes to show that Febs rule!

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. You will hear that tune your bones play in the middle of winter, and many other seasons too—in the fertile mud of spring, the green hush of summer, the heart-stopping colors of autumn. And you will need to trust that there will be people around you to help you do this in all seasons of your student life. 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 we 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 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. So that you can create your own path.

The poet Mark Strand reminds us about resilience in winter:

you will go on
walking, hearing
the same tune no matter where
you find yourself—
inside the dome of dark
or under the cracking white
of the moon’s gaze in a valley of snow.

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. You have arrived bringing us light and laughter. And we will help you follow the tune your bones play. We will help you to become wise. We will help you go on walking, no matter where you find yourself:

inside the dome of dark
or under the cracking white
of the moon’s gaze in a valley of snow.

Now go, and get on with the glorious business of being who you are.

February 6, 2016: February Celebration Address

Greetings, Middlebury class of February 2016. I want to congratulate you with a poem. It is a poem about the great outlines of winter and the great inspiration in a time of freezing temperatures and colder sunlight and long hours of reflection in the dark. And I will read it twice because you need to hear me say it at least twice. This poem reminded me of you—the winter graduates, February 2016.

Starlings in Winter
Mary Oliver

Chunky and noisy,
but with stars in their black feathers,
they spring from the telephone wire
and instantly

they are acrobats
in the freezing wind.
And now, in the theater of air,
they swing over buildings,

dipping and rising;
they float like one stippled star
that opens,
becomes for a moment fragmented,

then closes again;
and you watch
and you try
but you simply can’t imagine

how they do it
with no articulated instruction, no pause,
only the silent confirmation
that they are this notable thing,

this wheel of many parts, that can rise and spin
over and over again,
full of gorgeous life.

Ah, world, what lessons you prepare for us,
even in the leafless winter,
even in the ashy city.
I am thinking now
of grief, and of getting past it;

I feel my boots
trying to leave the ground,
I feel my heart
pumping hard. I want

to think again of dangerous and noble things.
I want to be light and frolicsome.
I want to be improbable beautiful and afraid of nothing,
as though I had wings.

As you gather here with your families, your friends, your professors, your advisors as witnesses to all your hard work over the past four years, I want to tell you: there isn’t a line in this poem that does doesn’t remind me of all the things that you are.

You came to us in winter. You began like the starlings to fly in winter. You are 124 graduates: 76 women and 48 men. You flew in from 29 states and 9 countries. And I can describe to you how you flew—how you have been acrobats in the freezing wind. Almost 20 percent of you completed a joint major or a double major. Seven percent of you majored in a foreign language, and 90 percent of you studied at least one foreign language at Middlebury. Twenty percent of you took on the rigors of the Middlebury Language Schools, and almost 50 percent of you studied abroad. Eight of you played on varsity teams, two of whom were named to NESCAC All-Academic teams. You skied competitively for Middlebury and also skied on the World Cup circuit. You represented Denmark in the 2010 Olympics at Vancouver.

You have been stars dipping and rising across the arc of your Middlebury career, and as a result made Middlebury better for all of us. You founded the M Gallery, which supports and promoted student arts initiatives by curating and hosting exhibits, funding projects and publishing finished work and criticism, so that all students could enjoy the arts. You created the Heartland Project, a documentary capturing environmental issues in small towns across America, so that we on campus could learn from them. You recorded your first albums—whether with a Middlebury band or your own electronic music, in China and around the world.

You have done things which people thought were impossible. You have done things which you yourself have thought were impossible. Many of us, watching you, have simply not been able to imagine how you have done it: You have brought students, architects, builders, and educators together to design and build sustainable projects for island communities off the coast of Maine. You have documented global maritime trade in the 17th century by examining the paint in one small piece of ceramic tile. You led the solar decathlon in 2013, as design leaders and ceramicists who made the bathroom sink and all of the plates, bowls, and mugs for the award-winning house.

And what lessons you have prepared for us, even in the leafless winter: You created Integrando a Mexico 2012, a summer camp on youth empowerment and social entrepreneurship. You encouraged and cultivated active citizenship and participation in the democratic process on the Middlebury College campus through voter registration and the facilitation of absentee ballot requests. You created dramatic performances about the lives of Muslim women around the world. Through your work in the world, you have created examples for all of us to follow.

And here is the part that is much harder sometimes for the world to see: you have fragmented, come apart and then become whole again. You wouldn’t be here with us, flying in leafless winter, if you had not struggled—if you had not come apart and then become whole again. Don’t ever forget those moments even though they might be difficult to remember. Don’t ever forget that, even though we marvel at you, you should marvel at yourselves. Because you have done what you thought you could never do. You overcame your own self-doubt, your own sense that you were not perfect at something.

And as you struggled with this you became resilient. You understood something powerful about your own staying power and ability to believe a vision even if you yourself much less the world didn’t believe it—at least not at first. And then slowly through one small act after another you became whole again. And you and acted your vision on behalf of all of us. You were making all of us better. You have risen and spun and started all over again, full of gorgeous life.

So now you fly one more time away from us in the leafless winter. May you rise and spin and start all over again, full of gorgeous life. We marvel at you now and we will marvel when you come back to see us at Middlebury. We know that you will be gloriously spinning taking your place in the world. And creating horizons filled with visions and patterns and inspiration. You are improbable, beautiful, and afraid of nothing. As though you had wings.

Let me remind you of who you are again.

Starlings in Winter

Chunky and noisy,
but with stars in their black feathers,
they spring from the telephone wire
and instantly

they are acrobats
in the freezing wind.
And now, in the theater of air,
they swing over buildings,

dipping and rising;
they float like one stippled star
that opens,
becomes for a moment fragmented,

then closes again;
and you watch
and you try
but you simply can’t imagine

how they do it
with no articulated instruction, no pause,
only the silent confirmation
that they are this notable thing,

this wheel of many parts, that can rise and spin
over and over again,
full of gorgeous life.

Ah, world, what lessons you prepare for us,
even in the leafless winter,
even in the ashy city.
I am thinking now
of grief, and of getting past it;

I feel my boots
trying to leave the ground,
I feel my heart
pumping hard. I want

to think again of dangerous and noble things.
I want to be light and frolicsome.
I want to be improbable beautiful and afraid of nothing,
as though I had wings.

January 29, 2016: Update on Our Inclusivity Efforts

Dear Middlebury Friends,

I wanted to share some thoughts with the community as we make our way through J-term (now flying by!) and following our recent visit with the Board of Trustees.

As you know, I am committed to working together to improve our practice of making inclusivity an everyday ethic at Middlebury. This was a major topic of discussion at our board meeting this past weekend.

Trustee Discussion Recap

We shared with trustees the principles and goals we are working toward and that I spoke about at the December town hall meeting in Mead Chapel. Here is that link:

We also shared with our trustees details of our work together in making our curriculum and our common life together more diverse and open, even as we discuss, agree, and disagree about best approaches, specific responses, and national and local events.

I was delighted to brief the trustees on the significant progress we have made on many of the goals I discussed:

  • The Alumni of Color weekend, which was held January 15–17, created new networks and opened the way for greater possibilities for alumni mentorship. We are planning to hold conferences on racism and conflict this coming spring.
  • In response to student leadership in the past year, faculty voted to change the Cultures and Civilizations Curriculum distribution requirement.
  • Faculty training in hiring and inclusive practices are scheduled for this spring through the visits of Romney and Associates and the Posse Foundation.
  • We’ve started the hard long-term work of institutional change through the task forces (Alliance for an Inclusive Middlebury; Advisory Group on Disability and Inclusivity) and many other student and faculty organizations.

And, I shared where we still have much short-term and long-term work to do, including:

  • Making our classrooms more inclusive on an everyday basis.
  • Working toward better representation in campus events.
  • Making sure our orientations have a clear message about inclusivity.
  • Improving engagement across differences through new practices following a restorative justice model.

Leslie Harris Visit

In December, I mentioned that I hoped to bring Leslie Harris, associate professor of African American Studies at Emory University, to help think through these issues with the trustees. Leslie is a national expert on race and the university, and has written and lectured widely on these issues.

Leslie came to Middlebury this month, and we spent an afternoon together hearing about the larger contexts of higher education and the debates about diversity, including the important Fisher vs. Texas case currently before the United States Supreme Court. Middlebury has joined a number of other colleges in filing an amicus brief in support of the admissions policies of the University of Texas that promote diversity on college campuses.

Leslie also shared her experience in creating Emory’s Transforming Community Project—a project that was funded by both the president’s office and the Ford Foundation. The project’s key element was a community-wide, long-term conversation about Emory’s racial history as well as an open embrace of small, focused conversations about many other issues of diversity.

I believe Middlebury is the kind of community that could embrace such a project with energy and wisdom, and we will be working with leaders on campus as well as with Leslie to move forward on our own efforts. This initiative is part of making inclusivity a key theme in our strategic planning process.

Signals of Support

I am greatly encouraged by the engagement and support we received from the trustees themselves last week.

  • Trustees spoke powerfully in support for the work we are doing, and their acknowledgement that there is still much more to do.
  • One trustee, upon hearing of the difficulty students on work-study programs can have participating in some courses with intensive schedules, created a fund to make it possible for them to reduce their work schedules for a time.
  • Another trustee offered a challenge gift of $50,000 to support diversity initiatives, which we hope will inspire other donors to give to our efforts. We are excited about this support and are consulting with a variety of people on campus to hear how they believe those funds could be put to best use.

Let me end by thanking everyone in the community for engaging with us in these discussions, and for their commitment to the long-term goals we share.

Yours cordially,

Laurie Patton