One Dean’s View Has Moved

We are now hosted on the Middlebury website.

What Have We Learned?

This week marks the anniversary of Nick Garza’s disappearance, and the beginning of the almost four-month search that led in May to the discovery that Nick (class of 2011) died during the February break, after apparently walking off from campus and falling into Otter Creek.

We have mourned Nick’s passing, and struggled to understand how such a vital, promising young person could be here one day and gone the next.

And as our community has grieved, we have moved on to a critical follow-up question: what did we learn from Nick’s death?

There are many possible answers to this question, so I will begin with a few and hope that others chime in with their own.

  • We learned how fragile life is and how quickly it can be taken away, despite the resiliency of youth and the safety of Middlebury College.  We learned that we should not take our well being for granted.
  • We learned that northern New England winters are not to be taken lightly, that we must respect the elements when we traverse the campus and the landscape beyond, especially after dark.
  • Finally, we learned—or, more accurately, we were reminded—that use of alcohol can lead to tragic consequences.  This truth, so brutal in its impact, remains the hardest to engage.

But, of course, we can’t evade this last point, and in fact we—and here I speak as an administrator—have not ignored it.   The President’s baccalaureate speech last May, the conversations that we hosted with student leaders in the Old Chapel board room this fall, and the proposed changes in alcohol policy recently discussed in Community Council are all aimed at increasing the sense of accountability and responsibility that students feel for one another.  For this is the most important lesson of all: in order to deal effectively with dangerous alcohol use and to develop a more successful social life, students must be willing and able to watch out for one another and care for each other.   To follow up on this lesson, the administration will therefore convene a task force of students—chosen from all parts of campus life—to develop a peer-to-peer leadership program that addresses drinking and irresponsible behavior under terms that students can accept as their own.

If not this and if not now, then what have we really learned?

Center or Periphery?

At the  “We Are One” gathering on the National Mall yesterday, Barack Obama observed that “Only a handful of generations have been asked to confront challenges as serious as the ones we face right now.”  President-elect Obama wasn’t referring only to the economic crisis—his administration confronts plenty of other problems—but the recession, like the Iraq war, has touched many Americans directly, and so it’s hard, given the turmoil of the last six months, not to think of the fiscal challenges first.

These challenges resonate broadly, and speak to our own efforts here at Middlebury to contain costs.  Though the comparison breaks down at the level of scale, certain ideas or themes join our efforts to the larger national challenge.  One of these themes is the notion of sacrifice: what are we willing to give up in order to uphold and sustain the College’s educational mission?

In answering this question, we must first address the basic question “what is central to our mission?”  This is easier said than done since the education we offer at Middlebury is a multi-faceted experience.  Academics are at the center of this education, but surrounding that core are the many other experiences that constitute the liberal arts—the arts, athletics, student orgs, social activities, and the list goes on.

So, given our need to make budget cuts and trim back programs, how should we determine what is critical to our mission and what is marginal?  What—and on this point, I would especially like to hear from students—are we willing to let go?

Sounds of 2008

Last year around this time, we posted a list of favorite albums of 2007.  I say “we” because the post included input from my friend, Matt Jennings (editor of Middlebury Magazine), with whom I host a radio show on WRMC (Friday afternoons from 3:30 to 5:00 p.m.).

We thought it would be fun to do it again this year, and to make a special request to readers to share their own “best of” lists in the comments section, so we all can benefit.

One caveat: you don’t have to put together the kind of “ten best albums of the year” lists that journalists publish this time of year.  A couple or three suggestions is just fine.  That’s what Matt and I decided to do.  No pressure.  Just fun.

Here is Matt’s list:

  • Vampire Weekend, Vampire Weekend: Ok, on an undulating curve, the debut album from the kids from Columbia has passed from buzz to saturation point to backlash to buzz. But in all fairness, the album came out in January of 2008, and when it hit the airwaves it was energetic, fun, creative, and impossible to ignore. Some tracks trend a little too poppy for my taste, but others (A-Punk, for instance) have that perfect mix of alterna-ska reminiscent of Outlandous d’Amour-era Police.
  • TV on the Radio, Dear Science: Ok, this is a trendy pick. But it’s gotta be mentioned. It seems like everyone is jumping on the TV on the Radio bandwagon these days, but for good reason. These guys are good. Indie rock infused with more than a dash of soul.
  • Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, Once: Ok, this is kind of cheating, twice-over, as most, if not all, of these songs appeared on previous Hansard-Irglova collaborations (or on releases by Hansard’s band, The Frames) and the movie from which it comes was released in ’07. BUT, the soundtrack wasn’t released until last spring, so I’m including it here. This Oscar-winning soundtrack will put both a catch in your throat and a smile on your face. And during these dark winter days, who wouldn’t want that?

My list:

  • David Bryne and Brian Eno, Everything That Happens Will Happen Today: Like Matt, I am enjoying TV on the Radio’s Dear Science (it really does swing, and I listen to it a lot while working out), but in this pick I want to nod to early trend-makers and say they still make great music.  David Byrne and Eno began their collaboration in the 1970s, as the Talking Heads were coming to prominence, and this latest effort is every bit as good and very accessible.  Great pop music.
  • Elbow, The Seldom Seen Kid: This British band has made several excellent albums, and this is one of them.  Lush, lyrical, (musically) progressive, and politically engaged, Elbow evokes comparisons to Radiohead and even Coldplay (consider a melding of the two, and you get the idea), which are much better known groups.  But these guys merit just as much attention.
  • James Hunter, The Hard Way: R & B music is at the heart of rock and pop, and James Hunter, who often sounds a lot like Sam Cooke, makes music that is consistent with the golden oldies and sounds new.  This album features some punchy guitar work and growly, falsetto vocals.   Dance songs and love songs, and plenty of regret.  What could be better?

Finally, an honorable mention goes to my friend Cole Odell, who sent me a couple of discs over the holidays featuring some B-sides and live cuts from the New Pornographers.  Since I can’t call either of these discs “albums,” they don’t make my list.  But Cole, where did you get these?  The NPs sound almost like a supergroup . . . .

The B. O. C.

By now, everybody in the Middlebury community should know that the College is feeling the effects of the current recession, and is working to overcome a significant budget deficit that will grow even larger should the markets continue their downward spiral. If this is news to you, or if you have questions about whether Middlebury’s finances are tied to the world economy, then you should check out the information posted on the College website.

Although budget-cutting may not be of prime interest to students—the prospect does sound drearily bureaucratic—these are unusual times, and it’s worth paying attention since the reductions may affect how the College functions.

The group tasked with recommending budget cuts is the Budget Oversight Committee. Chaired by VP/CFO, Patrick Norton, and comprised of faculty, staff, and students, the B. O.C. will review suggestions made by anyone in the College community, and then send their recommendations on to President Liebowitz for consideration and adoption. There is even an online suggestion box for people to submit ideas for reducing the budget.

Between now and the end of Winter Term, the B. O. C. will be discussing a variety of cost reductions, related to compensation, financial aid, and campus programs. Everything is on the table, and no significant idea will be ignored. So think about how the College might save money, and forward your ideas to the committee through the suggestion box. Or contact one of us with your recommendations. Our names are below:

  • Patrick Norton, CFO/VP
  • Tim Spears, Acting Provost
  • Patty McCaffrey, Assistant Banquet Chef, Dining Services
  • Carol Peddie, Associate Dean of LIS
  • Peter Matthews, Economics Dept
  • Paul Monod, History Dept
  • Bobby Joe Smith ’08
  • Caroline Woodworth ’09
  • Dave Donahue, Special Assistant to the President
  • Derek Hammel, Director of Investments
  • Kristen Anderson, Assistant VP for Budget and Financial Planning

Addendum: the B. O. C. intends to update the campus community on its work to date before the exam period ends and the holiday break begins. That update will take the form of an email, so stay tuned.

51 Main: Thumbs Up or Down?

51 Main has been open since last May, providing a social alternative for a mix of students, faculty, staff, and townspeople. The venue is open Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights for drinks, food, and entertainment. Recently they’ve begun to host special events on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. This Tuesday, for instance, President Emeritus John McCardell gave a presentation on the drinking age.

51 Main appears to be filling a niche, but given the current fiscal situation, the establishment may be a program that the College should reassess. Although revenues are on the rise, the establishment does operate at a deficit, which is covered by a gift that the College received from a donor. The gift is restricted, which in this case means that the funds must be used to support student social life. On this point, it’s worth noting that the idea for 51 Main—and the occasion for the gift—came from an all-student task force that spent much of the 2006-2007 year brainstorming ways to improve social life on campus. So the funding for the venue is targeted. However, we could go back to the donor, and ask that he redefine the terms of the gift so that it can be used for other purposes. If we were able to redirect the gift, the money would then be put toward general budget relief.

President Liebowitz and I are willing to pursue this option, but not without first hearing from students. Is 51 Main succeeding? Should the College support its continued development?

We want to use this blog as a forum for soliciting student input on this matter. So offer your comments—anonymously, if you like—and please let us know what you think. Is 51 Main is worth keeping?

On Research and Teaching: Guest post by Dean for Faculty Development and Research, Jim Ralph

Middlebury College is hot. It is one of the most selective schools in the country. The line at Emma Willard is long, and the competition for admission is keen.

A key reason for the college’s enviable position is the quality of its teachers. In fact, the Princeton Review recently ranked Middlebury’s faculty as the best in the country.

When I encounter prospective students and their parents, I regularly hear approving statements along these lines: “At Middlebury, professors, and not TAs, teach their students” and “Undergraduates are the focus of Middlebury professors and not graduate students.”

I inevitably nod in agreement, while remembering that I was once a teaching assistant and never felt like a bumbler in the classroom. But I also try to clear away a misconception: that the energies of Middlebury faculty are exclusively directed to their charges.

By this, I don’t mean that they spend countless hours running departments and serving on committees (which they do); but rather, that they are devoted to their scholarship. That this is so is, in my opinion, a very good thing.

I say this not because I believe that Middlebury faculty must be in the forefront of the creation of knowledge, which is the essence of research and scholarship. Remarkably, many of my colleagues are, even though a residential college is not as congenial to that aspiration as a research university. My colleagues and I don’t have TAs and abundant release time from teaching as buffers to the heavy demands of the classroom.

What I’m getting at is the relationship of scholarship to teaching and thus to the fundamental mission of the college, “to engage students’ capacities for rigorous analysis and independent thought within a range of disciplines and endeavors.”

I must admit that I don’t possess empirical evidence that conclusively demonstrates that active scholarship leads to better teaching. But after nearly twenty years as a professor I am convinced that it does.

Increasingly, Middlebury faculty are asking their students to become researchers themselves. (Last spring, the faculty voted in a mandatory senior work requirement calling upon all students to take on independent projects as capstones to their Middlebury education.) To guide students in this work, it is important that faculty are active in their scholarly fields. They can then recognize the challenges and obstacles facing student researchers and readily suggest creative and innovative approaches.

Active research agendas even enrich introductory courses. Over time, these courses can become stale if their pilots lose touch with current trends in their fields of study. Introductory courses benefit from regular updating and rethinking.

At an even more basic level, the research-oriented professor serves as an example to their students of the value of the quest for knowledge and the thirst for insight. As Ernest Boyer, a seasoned observer (and friendly critic) of the academy, once wrote, “all faculty, throughout their careers, should, themselves, remain students. As scholars, they must continue to learn and be seriously and continuously engaged in the expanding intellectual world.”

In short, while it is important that Middlebury faculty conduct stimulating classes, return papers and exams in a timely fashion, and are available to field questions and to offer advice outside of the classroom, it is also vital that they find the time and space to read the latest scholarship, carry out their own experiments and field work, and write notable articles and books.


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