December 7, 2020: “A Surprising Fruit of Our Pandemic Semester”
The following essay by President Laurie Patton first appeared in Inside Higher Ed. on Monday, December 7, 2020.
Questions abound about the state of liberal arts and sciences colleges post-pandemic. Will they survive? Will they thrive? Will remote learning, now firmly part of our educational tool kit, remain a fixed part of the liberal arts and sciences landscape? Or will it lapse back into the background when in-person learning is again possible? Will faculty, staff and students continue to innovate in digital pedagogies or, in the long run, will necessity have failed to prove itself the mother of invention?
Even as the semester winds to an end, and we are still learning and thinking in the worst of the pandemic, some things are clear. This semester, rural liberal arts and sciences colleges seem to have generally done better than their large urban counterparts. As Kelly Field has recently written in The Christian Science Monitor, the deck is stacked for us: we can isolate our campuses more easily from the surrounding community. We can utilize the outdoors more readily for physically distant recreation and socializing. We have more control over our student population because it is smaller and we can communicate more efficiently. We can take more advantage of creative thinking in small groups, which have a larger effect on the college climate. And we have more personal connections with organizations in our surrounding communities.
But there is one overarching sensibility to all of these conditions that affect small rural colleges and large universities alike: a powerful sense of place that permeates our campuses and our lives. Counterintuitively to some, the post- pandemic campus, wherever it is, will have a renewed, more dynamic sense of place, not a diminished one.
Four Ways of Learning About Place
As I have studied the books, articles and blog posts in the burgeoning field on “place” in the last two decades, I discovered a student-centered essay in Peggy Barlett and Geoffrey Chase’s now classic 2004 volume, Sustainability on Campus. In their essay “Place as the Nexus for a Sustainable Future: A Course for all of Us,” Laura B. DeLind and Terry Link of Michigan State University give us a blueprint for a relationship between place and sustainability. They describe their course, Our Place on Earth, as designed “to provide multiple opportunities [for students] to consider their relationship to place and the world around them in new, and sometimes uncomfortable ways.” While DeLind and Link launched their course in the mid-2000s on a large university campus, its goals and learning outcomes are still deeply relevant for us today, no matter what our campus size, and have particular applicability to COVID lessons learned for a post-COVID world.
First, the course makes a distinction between “discovery” and “discovering.” Discovery is where students learn a hard and fast truth about a place — a truth they can use as they move on to the next discovery. Discovering is the realization that we know so little about our surroundings — the simultaneous effect of being “humbled and awestruck” and “suspending, for a while at least, our need to judge and control.”
COVID has been a great accelerator of the “discovering,” not the “discovery,” of place. We learned that lesson again and again in our seemingly endless decision making about COVID. COVID was everywhere and nowhere. As an airborne and aerosol disease, COVID transcended space and yet forced us to redefine space wherever we went.
Suddenly, the paths across our campus and hallways in our buildings did not just lead from point A to point B; we had to ask, does this path accommodate enough people? Is this classroom building capacious enough for people to talk seriously to each other while at a distance far greater than usual? We were both awestruck at and humbled by the disease’s lethal power, and by the new lens in which we had to interpret all of our surroundings. Suddenly, our utilitarian occupational safety officer Jen Kazmierczak played a pastoral role — indeed, a luminous one — in helping people to understand and redesign our campus, chair by chair, window by window, exit by exit, street by street.
Second, DeLind and Link also wanted their course to remind students of the connections that bind them, not only to one another, but “to all places and life forms.” Those bindings and boundaries, in their view, are “far from being fixed,” but are “permeable, fluid, forever being reconfigured and negotiated.” That was deeply true of our experience of learning. When in-person classes finished, making sure the chairs were all in physically distant rows for the next class was no longer perfunctory, it was a deeply social act. Many gestures like those became ones of caring for the people whom the students and professors in one class probably would not see but knew were on their way to the same space to continue the work (now newly configured) of learning in person.
During our COVID semester, learning in person meant constant negotiation of space; it was our existential situation and our common commitment. Depending upon what phase we were in, our social configurations shifted constantly in response to the spaces we were in. Early on, in the strictest phase of entry, students could gather in some rooms but not others. They could walk in the open spaces on campus but not in the town. Discerning those boundaries was difficult, even for those of us who had drawn them.
Later, the slightly more relaxed gathering rules meant that students, faculty and staff had to constantly think about the spaces they were dwelling in, the occupancy regulations they were following and whether a crowd size, inside and out, had increased to an untenable point. Even political life, active on all college campuses this fall, was different. Students planned protests and rallies during election season, and in response to the racial climate in the country, in meticulous tandem with townspeople who wanted to do the same, so that physical distancing and crowd size could be respected and maintained.
Third, DeLind and Link wanted to provide students with a sense of engagement and empowerment at home, where “daily life is not a backdrop to education, but education itself.” That was absolutely the reality during our COVID semester. While they struggled with isolation in new ways, students still provided videos on how they navigated going to the sink to brush their teeth in their dorm, what a conversation with their roommates looked like, how they fulfilled their obligations to keep the town safe. They did this not only because they wanted to educate others, but also because they were living a historic situation that they wanted to share and narrate. This, in turn, led students to think of themselves as “placed.” As Scott Russell Sanders put it, students become “intimate with [their] home region, to know the territory as well as [they] can, and understand [their] life as woven into the local life.”
Students, faculty and staff alike were newly “placed” in a number of important ways. For example, the relationships between one state and another became paramount. What did it mean for students to come into Vermont, a state with a low COVID rate? What was the sense of place, and people in that place, that contributed to that low growth rate? And how were we responsible for those places in Vermont that experienced outbreaks; what was our obligation to them as neighbors? Students became newly aware of things like the neighborhoods and neighbors who had the biggest concerns, the local hospital capacities they should be tracking, and the needs of local business owners they needed to meet once they were allowed into town. As Rebecca Kneale Gould, an environmental writer and Middlebury professor of environmental studies, put it recently, “Community engagement became a necessary way of life for everyone.”
Contrary to the ivory tower stereotype, those of us in academic communities are often highly aware of the network of social relations in which we live. We are “placed” in both liberating and challenging senses. COVID placed us more. Because many colleges and universities are the larger (and sometimes the largest) employers in the region, its citizens frequently have a greater sense of community responsibility. This can translate into an ethos of care — both on the campus and off. Just as students were arriving on campus in the midst of some highly vocal neighborhood concern, one Middlebury student wrote about their responsibility to protect the town. Our early student survey suggested that students were more concerned about infecting others than they were themselves. As one student put it, “When you live in a small community, you don’t just interact with people and move on.”
Finally, DeLind and Link hoped that their students could bring their newly deepened sense of place out into other places in the world, “to take their place-based affections, sensibilities, and responsibilities with them to new locations.” Indeed, they, like many other theorists of place, see a direct connection between students’ appreciation of a local reality and their ability to appreciate another local reality, one that may be deeply different from their own. My colleague Rebecca Gould again: “They learn what noticing a place and caring about a place means. And because it is an embodied practice, it sticks. Once it sticks, it also transfers.”
Many colleges and universities have recently sent their students home for Thanksgiving to finish their semester remotely, and they’ve left with just that sensibility. One student leaving for France has become newly aware of Paris’s COVID rules, and that some neighborhoods with more outdoor cafe seating can sustain themselves economically better than others. Another, driving just an hour up to Burlington, has recognized the differences between two adjoining counties, their populations and their COVID configurations. Our COVID sensibilities are intensely local; we know counties, we know streets, we know houses differently than we ever did before.
A Desire for Place
Perhaps most significantly, COVID has demonstrated a longing for place in our students. It is not, as some have surmised, simply the relentlessly social nature of 18- to 22-year-olds. It is also the yearning to dwell together in a particular landscape. We hear and see these ideas in the reasons they give us for coming in such large numbers to learn on campus. Some first-year students came to Middlebury even though they had only online classes, because they wanted to be here, in this place, with other new students. Other colleges and universities report similar student decisions.
This sense of learning in a place together was true in other important ways for remote learners not on our campus. In addition to seeing the value of in-person learning once they were deprived of it, remote learners had to find ways of creating community and a new sense of place in that format. Those students learning in China, for example, formed learning groups that deepened their sense of being there during the pandemic, and not on our campus.
To put it even more strongly, remote learning has in fact created a longing for being together in a shared environment. The primary driver for students returning next semester is whether there are in-person classes on our campus. Far from being a substitute for place, remote learning has deepened our students’ place-based sensibility. As we read the predictions of those who see the disappearance of place in the advent of remote learning, we see its opposite.
Students, faculty and staff are also rethinking race in the same semester as COVID. They are using this renewed sensibility of place to ask again, “Whose stories, which took place here, have not been told?” An awareness of the darker side of place is part of this dynamism. Colleges and universities around the country are now using their own archives, deeply place-based documents, to reimagine a realistic sense of place and tell a more humane story of our local worlds. Here, social injustices occurred and should not disappear from the record. Here, citizens built social equity, and their work should continue to teach us.
In a post-COVID world, it is certain that remote learning will be more widespread than ever before. Yet in fall 2020, we have also seen that it can never substitute for learning together in a specific landscape, whether urban or rural. Despite, or perhaps even because of, the sense of mobility that remote learning has introduced, we are in fact more keenly aware of the particularities of place.
This year, we have been humbled and awestruck in the face of a disease we must respect. We are newly cognizant of the constant negotiation of boundaries it requires. We have a greater sense of empowerment and ethical engagement at home on campus and in the communities that both need and worry about college students. Going remote has only increased the possibilities for contemplation of the particularities of local landscapes. This state of mind, heart and body has not resulted in parochialism, but its opposite: a more sophisticated and humane sense of how we travel, and the ways we build, cross, draw and dissolve borders.
We are more dynamically placed: a counterintuitive but welcome result we bring into the post-COVID world.
July 8, 2020: Update on International Students
Dear Middlebury Community,
As many of you are aware, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security on Monday issued new restrictive guidelines regarding its Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) which could affect our international students’ plans for the fall.
MIT and Harvard recently filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security regarding this troubling action, and I wanted you to know that Middlebury has joined many other colleges and universities to file a friend-of-the-court brief to support Harvard and MIT in this lawsuit. Middlebury will also support the work of the Association of American Universities (AAU), the American Council on Education (ACE), and other national associations expressing concern about the guidance.
Middlebury is an active member of the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration, whose founding statement reads: We are an alliance of American college and university leaders dedicated to increasing public understanding of how immigration policies and practices impact our students, campuses, and communities. We support policies that create a welcoming environment for immigrant, undocumented, and international students on our campuses. The Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration has made a statement today condemning the forthcoming ICE policy that would ban International students enrolled in online courses. Middlebury fully stands behind this statement.
With Middlebury’s commitment to global education, we have an obligation to protect our international students, especially when policies place an undue burden on their ability to pursue an education. We must enable our students and programs to cross boundaries in as many ways as possible.
We would like to thank all of you who have already stepped up to explore ways to help. We are grateful. Please know that we have been in touch with our students and are formulating answers to the new set of concerns raised by the latest ruling from ICE. The College has invited all of our students back to campus in the fall, so our non-immigrant students on F-1 or M-1 visas may not face the same constraints as those in our peer institutions who have declared fully online fall semesters. Still, we are taking several steps to ensure that our international students can participate fully.
We are working with the dean of curriculum and the registrar’s office to ensure that our international students who are in the United States can register for in-person or hybrid classes. Currently, the ruling requires students to enroll in at least one in-person course. In those instances where a student is unable to meet the requirements for their major or curricular needs with in-person classes, we are encouraging them to explore the option of independent study courses.
Our international students who returned home during the past few months now face the challenge of closed consular services, which makes it impossible for them to obtain the necessary paperwork and jeopardizes their plans to return to campus. With the current guidance we have, these students will be able to study remotely with Middlebury in the fall. We are also working with our international programs office to make alternative arrangements for course work.
We want to underscore that we will do everything we can to help our international students continue their education at Middlebury, even as we face the uncertainty of government regulations. We will help them navigate these challenging new rules and ensure that they can make fully informed decisions.
We appreciate your support of all our students as we make our way towards the new academic year.
Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean of the Faculty
June 19, 2020: Acknowledging Juneteenth
Dear Members of the Middlebury Community,
We write today with several acknowledgments. First, we want to recognize the historical importance of Juneteenth as a celebration of liberation within the Black community, commemorating the final enforcement of the Emancipation Proclamation on June 19, 1865. This is a liberation both too long denied and that should have never been required.
Second, even though Juneteenth has a deep and vibrant history in America, it has been erased both in our culture and in our institutions. On behalf of Middlebury, we write to institutionally acknowledge Juneteenth for the first time, and in doing so take accountability for Middlebury’s participation in the relationship between this kind of erasure and systemic racism. The truths of our histories as well as our present days are both deeply entrenched in racism.
We also write today to reaffirm our commitment to anti-racist practice and to advancing anti-racist initiatives that are concrete and intentional and that will allow us to engage in transformational work on our campuses. The Office of Institutional Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion has been working on a five-year strategic plan, and we are in the process of engaging key stakeholders—including students, staff, and faculty—to ensure that our strategies are anti-racist in both intent and impact.
Finally, as part of that work, I want to share the news that Middlebury has received a $500,000 gift that will help us to advance anti-racist initiatives on all our campuses. While the donor wishes to remain anonymous, we will apply the funds toward addressing systemic racism in keeping with the donor’s previous philanthropic efforts. While the resources, people, and time we need to continue this work are substantial, this fund will position us to implement this work across Middlebury in a sustainable way and to be accountable for its results. We are particularly excited that this gift will allow us to bolster our undergraduate Black Studies Program as it begins its second year.
We will be reaching out to members of our community to think through potential action items. A deep thank you to all students, faculty, staff, and alumni who have already committed to helping us identify our next steps, and who will take part in the ongoing efforts to put the plan into action. We are greatly looking forward to working with you.
Chief Diversity Officer, Middlebury College
Educator for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion
Chief Diversity Officer, Middlebury Institute
June 5, 2020: Acknowledging Systemic Racism
Dear Members of the Middlebury Community,
Once again, we are bearing witness to unconscionable acts of violence, rooted in racism, directed at Black people in the United States.
Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Sean Reed, George Floyd, and countless other Black people have been murdered. For their family, friends, and the Black community, here and around the world, grief and loss have been exacerbated by a literal witness to their death in media—something none of us needs or wants to see, but also knowing that without it, once again, justice would not be rendered.
And still, justice has not been rendered.
These acts of violence are heartbreaking and inexcusable, individually and collectively, but they are also not isolated. They are the result of centuries of entrenched racism in a nation built on and maintained by unjust and inequitable systems of power, including the policies and practices of law enforcement. The Black community, in particular, has been on the receiving end of this historical and ongoing oppression and violence. We must stand up and state clearly that Black Lives Matter.
As I call on all of us to state that clearly—because our silence speaks just as loudly as our words—I also acknowledge that how we say it matters as well. I have received thoughtful and powerful feedback from many members of our community about the message I sent out last Sunday, including—and most important—from a collective of students who together voiced their concerns. I want to acknowledge those concerns and note that my letter failed to adequately address the magnitude of the situation. At a time when the Black community is experiencing profound pain, my letter did not focus enough on the root cause and specific harm. I apologize for not placing that front and center in my letter. I needed to name the specific and systemic violence experienced by Black people. I now understand that members of our community needed to hear that.
Many people of color experience systemic racism. At the same time, we must specifically name the ongoing oppression and violence directed at Black people, underscoring the need to center our work on the anti-Black racism that permeates our lives.
I also want to acknowledge that Middlebury is a microcosm of the culture in which we live, which means that racism happens here. It happens in our residence halls and in our classrooms, at the tables of our dining halls and in our locker rooms, on our sidewalks, within the offices where we work, and in our town. It is simultaneously difficult, important, and necessary to acknowledge this truth, because until we acknowledge the extent of the work that needs to be done, we will always fall short of the change we must make happen to transform the daily, lived experiences of Black students, staff, and faculty, and our community at large. We have begun this effort and we will continue it.
In my commitment to ensuring that this moves forward, let me speak directly to the members of our community:
To our Black students, staff, faculty, and alumni, I hear and recognize your anger, fear, and grief. I also acknowledge that while Middlebury has worked hard on issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion, it has not been immune to systemic racism or white supremacy. We are far from our goal of being an antiracist institution. We have a great deal to do. We are committed to that work and we understand that this must engage the entire institution. The effort to combat anti-Black racism on our campuses has long been done by Black students, faculty, and staff, but needs to be shouldered by the non-Black members of our community.
To the non-Black members of our community, I ask that you join me as true allies in developing deeper knowledge about racism, inequality, and the way oppression operates within our culture, within our institutions, and within ourselves. We must all take responsibility for this if we are to really change our institution. I realize that we are all at different stages of our learning process. For those who are not sure where to begin and for those who are looking for new ways to engage in this urgently needed work, we will follow up early next week with resources, activities, and next steps to help us move forward as individuals and as an institution.
I want to close by returning to the feedback voiced by students, in particular the proposals they have put forward as action steps to help further our efforts on our campuses. I think the proposals are excellent. I am eager to put them in place, and more as well, as we work together. First, the Senior Leadership Group will be open to meeting three times a semester with representatives from Black student organizations and their allies from cultural organizations who joined in solidarity to voice their concerns. Second, we will collaborate with student representatives on the College Board of Advisors to ensure that their voices and concerns are featured prominently and regularly in every agenda.
I welcome your open and honest feedback and I pledge to continue the work that I, and the Senior Leadership Team, need to do to advance antiracism at Middlebury. I ask all students, staff, faculty, and alumni to join me as well.
May 26, 2020: Graduation—Progress by Degrees
Dear Members of the Middlebury Community,
I write to offer my deep congratulations to all of you on the occasion of our graduates receiving their degrees from Middlebury, and my special congratulations to the members of the Class of 2020 themselves. One of the most inspiring parts of graduation—one I never get over—is the rows of chairs that appear so quickly the day before, and then disappear even more quickly hours after the ceremony. Sometimes, in the quieter moments before the beginning of Commencement exercises, I can see small groups of people camped in the rows, having ponderous, even tearful conversations, little islands of human intimacy in the mesmerizing labyrinth of wood. One season, I watched the Middlebury facilities team set up and break down just to witness their miraculous coordination and speed. In the words of the poet Lisel Mueller, in “Virtuosi,” “the words start over again hold no terror for them.”
This is a time of celebration of our graduates’ dedication and perseverance and inspiration—where we, and they, remember that they built something awe inspiring. A time of memory and acknowledgment, where we ponder the vital gifts that others made on their journeys. It’s worth remembering all that it took to support our graduates’ lives at Middlebury. Marvel today at their own miraculous coordination and speed that has created this moment. As always, it arrives quickly. As always, it is filled with tiny steps, or as the facilities crews teach us every year, one chair at a time.
The chairs are not there this year. But the work, the essential work, of helping our students make a transition from an educational institution out into the world has remained. In the time of COVID-19, we see evidence of the work everywhere—of people who have started and stopped and started over again on our graduates’ behalf. The facilities crews who are mowing the lawns on our Vermont campus this week, no matter that the usual thousands of feet will not tread the grassy paths. The dining teams whose prepping routine has kept students safe and healthy this spring. The MIIS tech staff who have stayed up nights and weekends to deliver the moving live graduation from the Institute we experienced this past Saturday. As our MIIS student speaker Rui Xue put it, all of these people have taught us “hope and strength in the face of challenge and disappointment.”
Take a moment to thank the postal workers who delivered messages from friends and family. Find out who shipped food to your local store as you celebrate with your loved ones. Ask who taught the faculty member to go online in an emergency so our graduates could finish their degrees. Remember all the faculty who taught them, from their beginning faltering steps to the blossoming energetic spirits they have now become. Consider how the staff members of the College and the Institute are keeping our campuses clean and safe so our students can return to us.
We knew, before COVID-19, that every one of these acts was an act of support. We know now, in the midst of COVID-19, that these same acts can save a life.
In my mind, the facilities crews are still setting up the chairs. I am comforted by the fact that those chairs will be here in the future, to welcome all graduates and families, offering small islands of comfort where they can whisper with their friends in the shade, or catch them when they jump toward the clouds.
April 13, 2020: Pandemic—About Seniors
Dear Middlebury Community,
These past weeks, seniors have been on my mind. Many have written to me with news of their alternative plans on the April occasions where they usually gather—Earth Day, Passover, Easter, or the celebration of spring. (Thank you for writing and keep doing so!) I also spoke with one senior, Kenshin Cho, about his experience of “alternative” life on Middlebury’s campus in this extraordinary time. Kenshin is the Student Government Association treasurer, and we discussed the SGA’s inspired decision to donate the remainder of its funds this year to help with our efforts towards wage continuity. You can see and hear our conversation here.
Speaking of alternative plans, you all know that we also recently made the difficult decision to move our graduations in Vermont and Monterey to being virtual ones. Don’t forget that we are nonetheless determined to hold a live ceremony within the next year for the Middlebury College Class of 2020, with all the trimmings. Never ones to lose an opportunity to be together, the College Class of 2020 will therefore have two graduations. And even though they are not technically called “seniors,” those of you graduating from our master’s programs in Monterey are missing the same in-person experience with your families and friends at historic Colton Hall. We are planning both synchronous and asynchronous events to honor our graduates, and will be including a student speaker, a trustee address, and alumni achievement award winners, just to name a few features.
Seniors have also been on my mind in another way. Our neighborhood on South Street took up the challenge of a scavenger hunt for stuffed animals placed lovingly in peoples’ windows. A nationwide phenomenon, and ostensibly for kids, the hunt has also attracted plenty of adults like me who were into the challenge of finding the dragons, cats, bears, and Raggedy Ann dolls. So, I went on the hunt, too. Just as I had finally found the armadillo, a car slowed down and a window rolled open. It was a friend from town—one of Middlebury’s great volunteers, an organizer extraordinaire of community suppers, and someone whom I see at awards dinners, Memorial Day parades, and many other local events. She took off her mask (from a safe distance) and said, “Thank you for everything the College is doing! And keep our seniors in your heart.” And she sped away. “I will, for sure …,” I called after her.
Immediately, I thought, “Seniors? Which seniors? The ones at the College, or the elderly?” Then I realized, both. I have had College seniors on my mind since we had sent out our letter about graduation. I’ve also had the elderly on my mind, since we were getting daily updates about the nursing homes in Burlington where the outbreak of COVID-19 had been particularly severe. That news had led in part to our decision to create a small unit of housing for healthy Porter Hospital employees, “the working well,” on the outskirts of campus, to reduce the likelihood of the spread here. I have also been reading about Monterey County businesses’ decision to offer seniors-only shopping hours in an effort to protect the community of elders there.
In addition to the elderly, we know how COVID-19 has disproportionately affected the poor and underrepresented populations. We are working on a number of other collaborations with Porter Hospital, and our Dining Services has regularly supplied meals to our local shelter to support our vulnerable populations here in Addison County.
This April and May especially, seniors of all kinds are on all of our minds. Those whom the pandemic has deprived of a celebratory and timely transition from college or graduate programs into the next phase of their lives. Those whom the pandemic has deprived of peaceful and productive later years, and whose homes have become places of fear and isolation, at the very best, and untimely death, at the very worst. Now the pandemic is closer. We are all grieving someone we know.
The pandemic has reminded us that these two generations have the same name. In sharing a name, young and old are bound together, inexorably, by an obligation of care, one toward the other. There would be so many senior citizens at graduation—grandmothers, great uncles, neighbors who had seen us through. And they would have been delighting in Middlebury seniors’ own joy, each accomplishment remembered and woven into a new, shared narrative of the heart. A friend—poet, professor of English, and psychologist—Gary Margolis, sent me a poem about this very simple fact:
Imagine all the seniors
in America sitting outside
on their folding chairs.
Some with their walkers,
some with their aides.
With programs in their hands
and bouquets. A pair
of binoculars, if they’re sitting
as far away as the past
of another day.
See if you can see the oceans
on either side of them.
The in-between prairies.
Vast buildings. Mounds.
Burial mounds, breaking
a bulldozer’s blade.
Flags, the Department of
Buildings and Grounds
display. Of worldly countries.
For the wind to play with.
To see if they’re listening
for the first marching notes,
a graduation’s parade.
Notes Elgar made.
For the elderly, their
families. The stand-by
ambulances. The staff
handing out bottles
of noon-day water.
After the speeches are over,
The speaker said America’s
still a big tent.
Trying to reach everybody
beyond the cliché.
Beyond the fact
of what day and month
it is. In May,
all things being equal,
when we should have been
gathering, pushing some
of our seniors into the shade.
Standing to cheer the caps
and gowns flying into the air.
Margolis’s poem speaks to this April moment, all of us trying to reach beyond the cliché as we try to articulate the losses of the spring, when we “should have been gathering.” When we should have been taking care of each other in person—the bottles of water, the music of Elgar, the graduates pushing their family seniors into the shade to make sure they were not burned by the sun. In Monterey. In Middlebury.
Instead, this spring, we are taking care of all seniors, and seniors are taking care of each other, in another, more urgent way. In an era of intergenerational misunderstanding, the COVID-19 crisis forces us to put down, for a moment, the generational differences, even resentments, and instead become vigilant for each other. In these anxious, difficult months, our practice of social distance also demands of us that we create, and practice, an intergenerational closeness. I am seeing that closeness in all of your letters and notes.
This April, I am inspired by all your plans for alternative celebrations. As you mark these moments, hold your seniors close, in all the ways you can.
March 29, 2020: Pandemic—Our Work During Crisis
Dear Students and Families, Staff, and Faculty,
As we wind down spring break and head into the second half of a semester in which we are trying something completely new, we thought it was a good time to share an overview of our work with the entire community. My guess is that in your reading about the COVID-19 pandemic, many of you have come across the phrase “social distancing does not mean social isolation.” This past week has brought us a number of ways in which we are trying to realize that statement. I believe we are doing it with the values and dispositions that I have come to think of as distinctly Middlebury: integrity, rigor, connectedness, curiosity, and openness.
First things first: We want you to know that Middlebury’s Crisis Management Team meets twice a day, in the morning and afternoon, and hears regular briefings from the Vermont Department of Health and Porter Medical Center. At the time of the writing of this letter, we have 15 COVID-19 cases in Addison County. Although there are none on our campus, this week has brought us all closer to the outbreak’s tragedies afflicting family and friends. You and your loved ones are in our hearts and on our minds. We are also connecting with our student, staff, and faculty leadership on a daily basis. I have been inspired by the integrity and rigor of everyone at Middlebury who is coming together to address this global emergency.
What’s Been Happening This Past Week?
Much of our work this week has been focused on staying connected in our learning goals. Faculty and staff have dedicated much time during spring break preparing for academic continuity through remote teaching and learning. DLINQ staff have been providing guidance for faculty on the resources available to them as remote instructors, and resources for students as they become remote learners. We have a group actively addressing student and faculty concerns about online access. And even though they are not able to be physically with them, our deans are always available to our students. Those students who need support of any kind have been reaching out, and we encourage them to continue to do so. In addition, the community—alumni, parents, students, faculty, and staff—have come together to create the Student Emergency Fund, which helps us respond quickly to student needs.
To support our hard-working staff, we developed and announced the details of the COVID-19 Pay Bank that will provide continuance of wages in an anxious time, and we will keep staff updated on workforce issues throughout. Vermont Governor Phil Scott’s Stay Home/Stay Safe directive meant we needed to decide who is required to work on campus as essential employees, and what work we needed to accomplish. We continue to evaluate how we can maintain ongoing support for staff as the pandemic evolves. As a precautionary measure, we initiated an immediate hiring freeze and shared with Faculty and Staff Councils, as well as our administrative Leadership Alliance group, our initial assessment of some of the financial challenges that lie ahead.
We have found that our students remain curious and engaged, even during COVID-19 spring break. We have been impressed with how The Campus has continued to publish their usual far-ranging journalism, and encourage you to participate in their remote storytelling project. Students write to us regularly—about academic policies, about how they are coping with being isolated from their classmates and friends, and many other issues. Have a look at the members of Middlebury Discount Comedy singing “Imagine” from their various locations. We continue to connect with our students on campus, sharing program information and physical and mental health resources and protocols. Our CRDs are also in regular contact with all students staying on campus.
Finally, we are being responsive to the community and its needs. We are working with our partners on the economic impact of COVID-19 on the town of Middlebury and Addison County. Our dining services have provided food for a number of local charities, and we have developed a protocol for community requests, whether for food, logistical help, or shelter. We have developed a local information-sharing task force with the town and the medical center. And we are working with UVM/Porter to provide urgently needed temporary housing for a small number of their employees, maximizing safety for all members of the College community.
Many of you have asked how you can help the town, and here are two ways we suggest: The United Way of Addison County is actively working with vulnerable populations to mitigate the effects of COVID-19. In addition, to address the impact on local businesses, the Better Middlebury Partnership has this website where you can buy gift certificates for businesses you love, or for inns and motels if you had to cancel a trip, or are planning a trip in the future.
What Can You Expect in the Week Ahead?
During next week’s start of classes, we want to hear from students, faculty, and staff as we move to teaching remotely. In addition to the remote resources links above, curated especially for this urgent time, we have our DLINQ staff and interns standing by to help. Faculty and staff may contact email@example.com; students may contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Next week we will be addressing the questions that we know all of you have about plans for the rest of the semester and Commencement. We are taking into consideration the best medical and public health assessments of the timeline of the virus, the State of Vermont’s recommendations, and the many factors of our collective life in this time of emergency. We will share our decisions with you on Thursday, April 2. You will also hear from our EVP for Finance and Administration David Provost early this week about his team’s initial assessment of the financial impact of COVID-19 on Middlebury.
Here’s how Middlebury can continue to remind ourselves that social distancing does not have to mean social isolation: Integrity and rigor in learning. Connectedness in creating new forms of support. Curiosity about others’ experiences through storytelling. Openness to our neighbors in an anxious time. We continue to be amazed and impressed by the work of this community gathering its resources to help maintain these values in this time of need.
Discount Comedy’s virtual rendition of “Imagine” is both whimsical and serious. I think at the deepest level, our students are asking us to imagine differently. I hope all of us can heed that call.
March 21, 2020: Pandemic—And Sense of Place
Dear Middlebury Community,
We are isolated now. The Vermont campus is emptier than it was. As I got out of my car on Tuesday to retrieve things from my office, I heard bells. Bells? The Carillon? I thought there must be something happening at Mead. But no, there couldn’t be. And then I realized: George Matthew is playing to inspire us, to orient us, to keep us together. Indeed, nothing was happening at Mead Chapel. And yet everything was.
On the Monterey campus, the small lawn of Lara-Soto Adobe, where Steinbeck wrote The Pearl, is filled with colors, but empty of the people who usually delight in impromptu gatherings there. “Shelter in Place” is fully in force. Even so, Jeremy VondenBenken, known as “Baken” to his colleagues, is installing the flags on the 400 Pacific Building on Monday, to signal that classes are resuming next week. Nothing is happening on the Monterey Campus. And yet everything is.
This was a week when we focused on our core Middlebury principles: people first. We are keeping our students learning with our extraordinary faculty, and keeping our employees compensated for the incredible work they do. We put into place new academic and living policies, and new human resources policies to meet these two major goals. They are, as all policies are, imperfect guides to signal a way of living together—necessary maps to discover what we love in common.
This was also a week that tested our second core principle: place matters. On the same day, the first positive case appeared in Addison County, and two positive cases appeared in Monterey County. In addressing the COVID19 pandemic, we are preparing to collaborate with our surrounding towns and hospitals. We want to do so in a way that honors and protects the beauty of the spaces we learn in and the people who live and learn with us.
Throughout the next week, you will be hearing more from us about the next level of policies and procedures. Rest assured our leadership teams are thinking about many things, in multiple dimensions, and playing out numerous scenarios: How can we best support students, faculty, and staff, in their enormous variety of educational objectives, as they work together on-screen? What further clarifications and details do we need to provide on remote working and human resources practices? How should we maintain academic continuity in a wide variety of programs, each with their own particular character? How can we make the best decisions now in the midst of a series of unknowns? How can we manage health decisions and educational decisions, especially when those two important values collide?
In the midst of this forest of educational decisions is something else. The ability to bend—toward each other, and into an uncertain future. The disposition to care for people who are not near to us, and whose vulnerability might not be visible. A poem, written on March 11 by Lynn Ungar, has been circulating on the web. It speaks to our condition:
What if you thought of it
as the Jews consider the Sabbath —
the most sacred of times?
Cease from travel.
Cease from buying and selling.
Give up, just for now,
on trying to make the world
different than it is.
Sing. Pray. Touch only those
to whom you commit your life.
And when your body has become still,
reach out with your heart.
Know that we are connected
in ways that are terrifying and beautiful.
(You could hardly deny it now.)
Know that our lives
are in one another’s hands.
(Surely, that has come clear.)
Do not reach out your hands.
Reach out your heart.
Reach out your words.
Reach out all the tendrils
of compassion that move, invisibly,
where we cannot touch.
Promise this world your love —
for better or for worse,
in sickness and in health,
so long as we all shall live.
The poem uses images of prayer and the spiritual tradition of Judaism. But I think the images also speak to something larger, a sense of connection that includes all people, secular or religious. I emailed with Lynn Ungar on Friday. She told me people are reading “Pandemic” in homes, in hospitals, in workplaces, and online everywhere. The poem calls us to a specific form of imagining which we are rarely asked to do: Bond with each other in a way that involves not physical presence, but heart presence. How do we gather and touch each other if we cannot actually gather and touch in the real world? Ungar tells us to “Reach out your words,” “Reach out all the tendrils/of compassion that move, invisibly,/where we cannot touch.” Emails become more like letters. Zoom becomes an occasion to see someone’s face. Phone calls matter more. There are so many ways to center down.
Already, I see and hear that the people of Middlebury are responding to this need for invisible connection. Often it takes the form of humor—that special kind of humor possible only in times of common crisis. Virtual pubs are happening all across our faculty, staff, and student groups. Our advancement team is sharing photos of themselves with backdrops of places they were going to travel to, or should have traveled to by now. And often this response takes the form of an expanded spirit, such as a student D.C. career spring break trip that actually increased, rather than contracted, the number of participants when it had to go online.
Our sense of the losses of the spring semester we imagined is deep. Friends, places, mentors, routines. Our sense of anxiety at a spring semester we don’t know how to imagine is even deeper. In Monterey, in Vermont, it now feels like nothing is happening. But everything is.
Middlebury, keep reaching out with your heart.
Yours at home, for now,
Laurie L. Patton
January 9, 2020: Inclusion as an Everyday Ethic
Dear Students, Faculty, and Staff,
Welcome to J-term! I hope everyone had a wonderful holiday and has come back refreshed and ready for a great semester. At Middlebury, J-term can be a time of creativity and focus—a chance to take risks and explore new things that we have always wanted to learn more about.
I write now with excitement about those prospects for learning, and to call us to continued creativity and inspiration about another aspect of our lives together: creating an inclusive community. This is the hard work of creating a campus experience where more and more voices are welcome and contribute to the conversations that we have every day in our classrooms, our theaters and concert halls, our athletic fields—inclusivity as an everyday ethic.
An inclusive community is a more creative one: we come up with better ideas by incorporating a broad range of human experience and a rich variety of perspectives. We expand our capacity for learning, for leading, and for demonstrating empathy and understanding of others. Diversity and inclusion are both critical to our educational mission and vital to our vibrancy and health as an academic institution.
Inclusivity as an everyday ethic is a practice of engaging one another with dignity and respect for difference in an environment that rejects the concept of “otherness,” which allows us to segment, discount, and marginalize. In striving toward this ideal, we’ve launched a number of programs and initiatives (see details here) that clearly demonstrate our commitment.
It hasn’t always been easy and it isn’t always going to be successful. And while programs count, what matters is progress.
I see creative progress, in many small and larger moments. Nocturne, for example, is now in its third year and has become a vibrant Middlebury tradition where the 24-hour festival of the arts allows us to experience each other’s worlds and talk across difference by using artistic experiences. It has grown stronger each year. Our new building on Shannon Street and the renovated Munroe Hall have been constructed with an eye toward universal design, architecture that “can be accessed, understood, and used to the greatest extent possible by all people regardless of their age, size, ability, or disability.” This fall, a large number of faculty participated in inclusive pedagogy workshops offered across all of our campuses so classrooms can be even more open, expansive learning spaces where all student voices are heard.
But even as we become more creative, I am also aware that there are dynamics in our country and on our campuses that will challenge that progress.
Inclusivity as a value itself is under threat in a country that is more divided than ever, less willing to engage across difference, more content to become comfortably numb in a self-confirming and narrow media and worldview. Inclusivity is all too frequently challenged on campuses, like ours in Middlebury and Monterey, by attitudes and behaviors rooted in implicit bias or a discomfort with difference that mirror those in our larger society and that we must continually work to address. And we can work to change them. We have a responsibility to do so by building shared experiences and a common purpose.
By Middlebury I don’t mean just me or the leadership team. This work is also not just the responsibility of people at Middlebury whose titles include “diversity” or “equity” or “inclusion.” Just as every person belongs, every member of our community has a responsibility to practice inclusion. Inclusivity as an everyday ethic can only deepen our common purpose, our shared love of learning.
Inclusivity also requires an emotional intelligence and maturity to listen and learn, and to demonstrate empathy even when we may profoundly disagree. In this view, I have been inspired by ideo.org, an organization that works on human-centered design and produces ideas for a more just and inclusive world. As Meagan Durlak writes on that website, it is impossible for us to ever truly understand the challenges that another person faces. But true empathy can often take the form of human connection over a shared emotion or experience. And for us, that shared experience is Middlebury.
So, this J-term, this coming spring semester, and in the years beyond, let us be even more creative than we’ve ever been in our own human-centered design work: building a truly inclusive community at Middlebury. I want to thank the many faculty, staff, and students who have been working to develop and live that ethic in their everyday lives.
Our shared purpose in the everyday walk through difficult terrain inspires me.
Wishing you all a wonderful New Year.