This interview took place on Jan. 31. The transcript was lightly edited and includes clarifications made by President Patton, which The Campus agreed to as part of the terms of the interview.
ELIZABETH ZHOU: We thought we’d dive in by asking you to revisit the moment when you became the 17th president of Middlebury College. If you could travel back to that moment, knowing what you know now, what advice would you give yourself?
LAURIE PATTON: I would say a couple things. The first is that I would make sure that when you think you know a community, you really know a community. Make sure you listen carefully to the ways in which your assumptions about a community might be different than reality. I think that’s just good advice for any college president or any new leader.
I also think being a dean of a larger institution is 80 percent the same as being the president of a smaller one. But there are ways in which being a president has a bigger scope of a job. You are accountable to more constituencies. So I have seven constituencies I’m accountable to — students, staff, faculty, alums, parents, trustees and donors. The town and the state are also key constituents.
I think being accountable and balancing to all of those constituencies given (a) how complex higher education is, and (b) how wide-ranging those investments are, is an important thing to know. When you’re a dean, you’re slightly differently configured. You don’t have all those constituencies.
Deans also don’t have what many people call the “internal-external” problem, which all presidents have. How you think about and connect with people on the inside is different than how you think about and connect with people on the outside. And, often, the needs of the inside community are very different than those of the outside community. Every president has that challenge in some way or another.
Another thing I would say, not so much in the spirit of advice as appreciation, is that the students are even more amazing than you think they are. There was a moment when I was in the receiving line [after the presidential announcement in 2015] and I met two students. One was a literature major and the other was a chemistry major. I didn’t know which was which. I said, “Oh, how do you like studying literature?” And the person — the woman — started talking about how great literature was, and I said, “Well, it sounds like you love being a literature major.” And she said, “Actually, I’m the chemistry major.” And I thought, “Wow, these are fantastic students.” Then I turned to the other student and said, “Well now can you say as much about the chemistry major, given that you’re the literature major?” And he proceeded to talk about the chemistry major. These are the kind of students that I came for.
AMELIA POLLARD: How do you see the relationship of the College to the town?
PATTON: We are deeply connected to the community in a number of different ways. I think that there is only one question the president of Middlebury has to ask the community: “What do you need and how can we help?” and, very particularly, “How can we help on projects of common educational purpose?”
The relationship has been exciting, because we are now working on five or six major projects where we share common educational purpose. For example, we’re we’ve created year-long internships at the Town Hall Theatre, the Sheldon Museum, and the community music school.
I am pleased about new things that we’re doing to support the Addison Central School District in creating the International Baccalaureate curriculum. Several students are working in the community to help train teachers on what the student experience of the International Baccalaureate will be like.
Finally, we have a project underway with Habitat for Humanity, which is a perfect Middlebury project. We are working on a plan to donate land to build Habitat houses. The Art and Architecture faculty are interested in creating courses to help design these houses in an advanced, environmentally sensitive way. These are ways in which the partnership with the community has been highly productive. And it’s energizing for all of us. It’s what a good college should be doing.
ZHOU: Knowing that you occupy a unique position with a lot of responsibilities, to whom do you look for professional guidance?
PATTON: I have network of people I speak with. There’s a group of women presidents who talk to each other, call each other when things are tense or when they need to think through problems. And there are several male college presidents whose advice I value.
I don’t know if you’ve heard about the executive coaching industry. CEOs and leaders of colleges frequently have coaches who they can talk to about different challenges and issues. This can be really helpful. For instance, I work closely with members of the Senior Leadership Group. They are great people. But with supervising a team you have to be careful. You know you’d probably be friends with them in other contexts, but no matter how easygoing and accessible you are, you’re their boss. And that’s something you have to be mindful of. That’s one reason a coach can be helpful: they have some distance from the day-to-day work and that perspective is important.
I talk to my coach frequently, and it’s a good relationship.
Family’s always great, because you know they have your best interests at heart. It’s also very important to me that I maintain my long-term friendships. Every day I get up and write to two or three friends, just as a form of gratitude. I also frequently just check in with them and see where they are. So every day I have a conversation with one or two friends that are completely unrelated to Middlebury.
ZHOU: Thinking about your role as president, and going back to the Town Hall Meeting last fall, there was a little bit of pushback or confusion around the idea that there might be some conflict between your personal opinions and your opinions as a president. Knowing that that was a really limited format for everyone to engage with the idea, is there anything you would like to clarify regarding your role?
PATTON: Yes. I wouldn’t have come to Middlebury if I didn’t believe that my values were not aligned with the institution’s values. Every day I think about Middlebury’s values, articulate Middlebury’s values, promote them and talk about them. I do so because I’m committed to them personally. So that’s the most important clarification that I would make.
ETHAN BRADY: Last January, The New York Times wrote an article that was widely distributed on social media, showing a ranking of schools that have a lot of students from the top one percent, compared to the number of students from the bottom 60 percent. This was data from the class of 2013, so it could be a bit out of date. But Middlebury ranked ninth on that list. What is the college doing to address socioeconomic disparity, in terms of both numbers and impacts on campus culture?
PATTON: I think that the larger question that this article raises has to do with economic inequality in our society, which is one of the major issues of our time. Let me offer a couple thoughts about that.
One of the most interesting moments at the PEN America convening [in January] was our answer to the question of what was the biggest issue on campus for us right now. It was interesting because the number one issue was not race, even though that’s a big issue for us right now. It was class. That’s a signal for us that we need to continue to talk about that issue.
I think there are two different ways you can address those issues. The first is increasing financial aid. As you know, financial aid remains my number one priority for fundraising over the next ten years. I think is essential that we increase the number — slowly — of people on Pell Grants, and that we increase the number of people on financial aid. That’s the kind of work that I do—and love to do—every day.
But we have to do this sustainably. As you all know, I’m committed to balancing our budget. That’s crucial. And that’s why I want to keep pushing on fundraising for financial aid. I’d like to continue to grow that percentage in a way that’s financially sustainable. I don’t want to create a deficit problem five to ten years from now. I’d rather do it in a way that is truly sustainable.
The second thing we need to do relates to campus culture. It’s essential that we start having conversations across class difference, the way that we have started to do around questions of race, LGBTQI, religious difference and so on. I think we need to embrace it fully. I would welcome student proposals on how we do that.
Third, I think there are also generational differences between professor and students, things that might have been said in class in previous eras that are received the same way now. For example, when a professor says, “Do this assignment while you’re all sitting on the beach on spring break,” and many students in the class cannot afford to go to the beach on spring break, that’s a concern. So I think those three things are far more important for us to focus on than the small percentage differences between one college and another.
Obviously, our financial model is such that right now, in order for us to provide the education that we do provide, full-paying students play a role. But the more we can create greater access through all the ways that we just talked about, in both getting into Middlebury, and then studying at Middlebury, the better off we’ll be. And we need student leadership to help with that. Because the student experience at the everyday level is where we can get better.
POLLARD: What niche do you think Middlebury occupies amongst the other NESCAC schools and in the larger scope of higher education? How are we going to continue to differentiate ourselves moving forward?
PATTON: On certain days — when I’m feeling like having a sense of humor — I think there are days when we can’t decide whether we’re Amherst or Hampshire. We’re in between those two places. But if you actually look at us, we are an elite liberal arts college with fantastic graduate programs. That is what we are.
We’ve had all these metaphors in the strategic planning process. We’ve talked about a constellation. We’ve talked about an ecosystem. And all those are great metaphors. But none of those are going to be the sort of “heart” language that people land on. And a fantastic liberal arts college with great and vibrant graduate programs is the right description, and it also is something that people recognize.
In terms of the NESCAC schools: We’re the only one in Vermont, so that’s kind of interesting. Second, I think we have a combination of intellectual intensity, first-rate athletic programs, focus on language-learning, environmental leadership, and a globally networked curriculum. Those are also the directions we’re moving, the areas where we want to keep improving, and where students, faculty, and staff are enthusiastic about moving. Those should be the kinds of things that continue to distinguish us.
But what I really would like to see in the NESCAC schools is more collaboration. What are the ways in which we could collaborate more, not just on the athletic field? For example, Colby has a first-rate museum of art, and wouldn’t it be interesting for them to collaborate with our museum, which is growing and changing and doing interesting things — and has a new pink sign, right?
Or if there is a NESCAC school which has a great physics department, and another has a great biology department, then why not have exchanges between both? And so forth. I think we could get so much more done if we collaborated and exchanged more in academic ways. But that takes a lot of coordination and effort, and everyone’s so busy running their own colleges, that that may not come to fruition so quickly.
BRADY: It seems that in the wake of Charles Murray, a lot of people now have a certain association with this school. So as an ambassador of the institution, when you’re traveling around, across the globe, how do you defend the institution, and what do you talk about in those interactions?
PATTON: These are questions that are good for everybody, because at a certain level we all are ambassadors for Middlebury.
But as the person for whom that’s a primary job, I would say several things. First—and this is from my inaugural address—I would say that we are actually good at having arguments for the sake of heaven. Sometimes it’s painful and messy and hard, and breaks us apart and breaks us open. People may not land exactly where other people want them to land. They may not land where they intended to land. There are all sorts of tough distances between intentions and effects that happen in these hard conversations. What people communicate may not have the positive effect they intend, and that is always hard.
In all of the pain that the community and students felt last year, I have two strong memories. One was right after the event, when I spent an hour in a kind of “mini-seminar” with students to talk about what had just happened. The second was the student-sponsored debate that occurred a couple weeks later. All of the same issues were there, and it was remarkable to see students, once again, leading in this difficult space, and doing so respectfully and rigorously. I found both of those occasions to be very moving events. That’s the first thing I’d say: we’re good at that.
The second thing I can say now is that we have had a record number of applicants this year, which is a wonderful fact. That includes a record number of students of color, as well as a record number of international student applicants. Who knows why that is the case. Last spring we did a study of admitted students, and one of the interesting findings was that students were still intending to enroll at Midd because it was perceived as a place where real issues are talked about in really hard ways by real people. I was impressed by that, and that’s something I speak about when I’m traveling around the globe.
The third thing I would say is that it’s a deeply difficult national moment. Our challenge at Middlebury is that we need to embrace the difficulty of that moment and live through it.
It’s a challenge, but it also is an opportunity to figure out some new ways of living together, and to figure out some new ways of speaking together, and to figure out whether, as we move forward into the future, we can find a way to live across difference and to talk across difference. I actually have appreciated the opportunity to be an ambassador and speak about Middlebury in those ways.
BRADY: In the internet age, when people are able to communicate across the globe in seconds, and publish an article or an essay and post it online, how do you think that affects this idea of speech, or the public sphere?
PATTON: I think it makes a huge difference in every minute of our days. I would say to students: you exist in a public sphere that nobody else has existed in, ever. And I can’t imagine some days what that must feel like.
At any moment, you don’t know whether you’re going to be a public person or not. Before, when you decided you were going to give a speech, you would prepare, and that was the public moment, and there was a transition into the public moment. Now, there is no transition.
I think that makes it very difficult to figure out in any given moment whether something is a public conversation or whether it’s a private conversation. And that boundary is constantly oscillating. So that’s the first thing that would be deeply challenging for students today. And I think it’s one of the reasons why the public sphere and participation in the public sphere takes more courage today. And it’s why it is essential that we continue to challenge everyone at Middlebury to have that courage today, no matter what.
The second thing is that this relationship between intentions and effects that I mentioned earlier is an interesting one. You can burn a Qur’an in Florida and there can be physical violence and protest about that action somewhere halfway across the globe. Or you could think about burning a Qur’an and write about it online, and there can be physical protest to that somewhere in Afghanistan. So whether it’s in debates about policy, whether it’s in other intellectual work, whatever it is, in online work you don’t know what the effects are going to be. And those effects are exponentially magnified. That means that being a public person is a totally different experience than it was even 30 years ago.
The third thing is, actually, a real opportunity. This is related to the question of online learning in the context of the liberal arts. Our Associate Provost for Digital Learning Amy Collier talks about creativity, connection, and community as the key components of online learning in a liberal arts context. If there ever was a community that could figure that out, it’s Middlebury. So even with all the challenges that I just noted, because we have different campuses, because we have so many well-established schools abroad, we can do online learning differently.
The way I think about Middlebury now is not so much a noun, but a verb. We are travelers. In that way, we always have to learn how to travel well. We travel across campuses, both digitally as well as actually. There are ways in which we have a real interesting opportunity to make sure that that this instantaneous quality of online life, as well as that hyper-connected quality of online life, can be in service of liberal education. I think we need to continue to reflect on that. Of course, every institution of higher education has that, but I think we have a particular opportunity to do that differently.
POLLARD: My next question is about how Monterey has been incorporated into Middlebury’s vision, and whether you see it as an outlier or a new direction moving forward. David Provost noted how Monterey was actually going to need to make seven percent budget cuts moving forward. In furthering Monterey as an institution, how are you going to try to navigate the budget?
PATTON: I’ll begin by saying I think Monterey is of real value, both to Middlebury and to the world. We need only turn to the example of how much it has helped in the last three or four months on the issue of North Korea.
So many of the scholars at Monterey, particularly in the area of nuclear nonproliferation, have helped to do what good journalists should also do, which is say, “Well, wait a second, what they’re claiming isn’t true,” or “Let’s look exactly at what those Korean capabilities might be.”
I also would point to the fact that the number of Peace Corps volunteers who go from Monterey and then back to Monterey is among the highest in the country for educational institutions. They are a leading institution in areas of public service and international development.
The third thing that comes immediately to mind in terms of the value of the Institute is the number of interpreters who graduate from Monterey who go on to work for the UN and other institution across the globe. What we increasingly see is that, even in an age of machine-learning in language, more and more language experts are needed in order to work with that artificial intelligence to make sure that the language learning tools are as accurate as possible.
In terms of the history of Monterey’s value to Middlebury, I think we’re seeing a couple of things. This semester a number of faculty are going to be traveling to Monterey from the college, including many who haven’t had a lot of connection to Monterey, and I think that’s a good development.
We also have many faculty who travel from Monterey to Middlebury, and that has had a positive effect, too. We’ve had people come help us think about changing ways of learning. For instance, given the importance we place on immersive learning in Middlebury’s new mission statement, it’s natural that we would look to the interesting things they are doing with immersive learning at Monterey. I think we can learn from those initiatives.
The president’s course that I taught last spring on water was also a good opportunity to engage across different intellectual cultures of the College and the Institute. We had some wonderful conversations about, for instance, plastics in our oceans, and how you could take a literary approach, a business approach, a policy approach, or a scientific approach to that issue. Everyone in the room was talking about these issues, and that could only have happened with faculty and students from both Monterey and the College there. I think that we are continuing to deepen the relationship in encouraging ways.
Middlebury as a whole needs to achieve financial sustainability. And I’m pleased that, as David Provost said, we’re not only meeting our goals, but are surpassing them slightly. Monterey has actually surpassed its own goals for budget sustainability at a greater percentage than the College has. I’m proud of my colleagues at Monterey for that.
Do they still have a hill to climb? Definitely. But so far, I’ve been impressed by how well they’ve done. So I expect that Monterey will continue to create a very clear path towards financial sustainability. I hope that all of the units will meet financial sustainability in the next three years.
The main thing I want to say about Monterey is that every part of Middlebury should wish for its success. Part of what it means to be a great liberal arts college with fantastic graduate programs is that every unit should wish for the success of every other unit. That’s our only way forward. If a unit does well, either intellectually or financially, that helps everybody: all boats rise with that tide. That’s the perspective I want to make sure people embrace.
BRADY: The master plan was a document produced in 2008, which is similar to Envisioning Middlebury. Does the college plan in the future to follow that document? In what ways can we balance the vision that we have with financial realities?
PATTON: There are three things I would say about that. The first is that any institution that is responsible to a master plan is going to revisit it every five years and ask, “Are we going in the right direction?” I have known institutions who ignored their master plan, and then ten years later went back and said, “Oops, that plan doesn’t look anything like what we’ve done.” Last year, we did a thoughtful update to the master plan to recognize changes in our thinking.
We have a Buildings, Grounds and Lands Subcommittee of the Board of Trustees that is vigilant about this. A perfect example of the need to update a master plan would be the temporary building that we will begin work on in the next several months. That was an important moment for Middlebury, because it’s exactly related to your question, which is how you figure out a way to respond to needs that you didn’t anticipate.
Think of Bicentennial Hall, which is a beautiful building with wonderful views and, seemingly, all this space. But in a much shorter time than anyone thought possible, it became clear we needed more space for the programs that Bicentennial Hall contained because the number of students who wanted to major in the sciences grew. And so, the question became, what do we do?
We looked at a number of different options. We looked at buildings in the community, we looked at moving and shifting departments, and so on. And the number one thing that drove this change was student interest, and being able to deliver to our students the opportunity to be science majors in fields of their choice. It was that simple.
When you think about space and the master plan, you’re always thinking about what is the best and most effective way that we can fulfill our educational mission.
That’s the second thing that I wanted to talk about: the way the College and larger Middlebury is governed. Any changes to the master plan need to be talked about with the Buildings, Grounds and Lands Subcommittee of the board. We had several meetings with that committee over the last few months. We reviewed what the building might look like and we interviewed architects. It’s actually an exciting process, especially if you know the building is truly meeting a real need and that it will further Middlebury’s educational mission.
The third thing I would say around the vision for the master plan is that we need to think carefully about how we’re using space. For example, inclusivity as an everyday ethic is something that’s important to me. I think a lot about the fact that this campus was not built for students from underrepresented backgrounds. It was built for students, usually white students, who lived in the 1800s. They were not necessarily wealthy, but they were certainly middle class, and were going to go into very traditional male vocations.
How do we think about changing that space? We can’t afford to tear down all the buildings and create new spaces, but I think there are ways that we can continually think about space utilization in different eras, and 2018 looks different than even 1998 did.
I’ve also been thinking a lot about the spaces between buildings and inside buildings, or even on buildings. What can we do with those spaces? The Committee on Art in Public Places has begun to discuss an initiative that would focus on art that would welcome, and be authored by, and contributed by, students from underrepresented backgrounds—exactly in those kinds of spaces.
Consider the wonderful murals that have been done in the Anderson Freeman Center. Why not do several murals around campus like that? Why not think about the next ten years as a place where art can occupy a new role on campus, and create a different kind of space utilization that could be more welcoming, and make our campus more welcoming?
Lastly, the new building will provide what we call swing space, which will allow for the renovation of Warner, Johnson and Munroe over the next several years. Those three buildings are not ADA compliant, and don’t meet standards for universal design. That just feels unacceptable to me. We live in a world where people with disabilities should be welcomed and able to thrive on our campus.
A number of aspects of universal design will be built into the new temporary building. That’s a big priority. It’s not sexy in any way, it’s not a huge thing, but it’s long-term. In the end the effect will be a much more welcoming campus, and that’s what matters.
POLLARD: You mentioned before that there are needs we don’t anticipate as a college campus. And as of recently, the Me Too movement was brought to the fore by what’s commonly been referred to as “The List” being released the week before we went onto winter break. To what extent do you think the college is able or responsible for addressing this issue moving forward?
PATTON: The first thing I’ll say is that our Title IX office has grown substantially over the last ten years. We’ve added HROs, we’ve added JAOs; we’ve added a director and more staff. And that has been in response to the needs on campus. And if history is any indication, I expect and have confidence that the Title IX office will continue to respond to the needs of students.
I think that the number-one priority for the Title IX office, and for Middlebury more broadly, is to make sure that we are a place where students feel that they can report crimes of bias, crimes of sexual assault, and all of the other areas that fall under Title IX. That has to be our number-one priority.
Another top priority has to be for fairness for all students. Those two things are what we’re committed to and what our Middlebury values demand. So moving forward, what I expect, and know we can and should do, is to make sure that we live up to those values even in changing situations. The Me Too movement opened up all sorts of difficult issues for everyone around questions of sexual assault, around questions of reporting, and so forth.
I put a lot of confidence in the student group that is advising the Title IX office, and helping them continue to get better. We need to make sure that we continue to respond to the changing needs, as we have done in the past.
POLLARD: Do you see any kind of educational element moving forward? Any kind of blanket, almost required-for-all-students portion? I know that the Vermont executive branch has required an in-course training for all government officials on sexual assault training.
PATTON: We do have training as part of orientation. I think it’s great that all first-year students have that training and we put that in place in the last couple of years. And I think we should continue it. That’s absolutely essential.
Let’s also continue to make sure that that training is relevant to the kinds of constantly changing situations that we’re seeing. And I think that conversation should be had on a regular basis. And if we need to expand or change what we’re doing given the situations that we find ourselves in, then I expect and have confidence that we’ll be able to do that. The educational element is key. The Title IX office is eager to embrace that, and deepen that as an opportunity, and I support it 100 percent.
BRADY: The Title IX office is sort of like a justice system. Thinking of the campus as almost a small society, what is justice on this campus? And what does that mean for the students who go here?
PATTON: The first thing your question reminds me of is that the Dean of Students’ office is going to be embarking on a series of focused conversations with students on the question, “How do we live together?” That’s a central question for all of us that’s related to that question of justice.
Second, I’ve been pleased with and want to continue the conversations between faculty, administration and students on how we continue to evolve and address questions through our judicial system.
On any college campus, judicial systems should be fair and they should be open. They also should reflect the sense that the conversation about what is justice is always evolving. I think Middlebury is committed to that.
In my training in conflict mediation, we talk about three different kinds of justice. It’s important to remember that there are three different kinds of justice that are part and parcel of our world. There are many more, but certainly three major ones.
The first is the idea of justice as a system of equality, where ideas about fairness take center stage.
The second is the question of justice as equity: how much I put in is what I would get out of any given social engagement. That’s where I would expect something equitable, but not necessarily absolutely equal. A lot of times when you discuss some of these questions, people say, “Well, I’m not necessarily going to have an absolutely equal conversation about this issue, or an absolutely equal solution to this problem, but I would hope that we could all work towards an equitable conversation and an equitable solution.”
The third kind of justice is a moral one. This has to do with righting historical wrongs and acknowledging where society does not fully recognize of some of its citizens, or does not fully represent them, or does not take care of some of its most vulnerable people.
All of those three ideas of justice should be at play in the mini-society that is Middlebury. And the number-one thing we have to do as a society of learners and teachers is to reflect on those three ideas of justice and what their relationship is with one another. Can we design a system that makes sure that those three ideas of justice are part and parcel of how we live together?
I am enthusiastic about the introduction of restorative practices. About 50 people have been trained in that area. The primary application will be in student life. Part of my answer to the question of how we live together is making sure that we not only continue to work on and evolve a fair and just student conduct process, but also, as a supplement to that, have the cultural habit of restorative practices.
We’re going to be rolling restorative practices out over the next couple of years, and students and student life will be leading that effort. I remember talking about that in December of 2015, and stating how transformative it could be for Middlebury, so it’s delightful to see that moving forward.
Amelia Pollard and Elizabeth Zhou transcribed this interview.
The following questions were answered by email on Feb. 14.
CAMPUS: Should a private college treat speech the same way the U.S. government does — under a First Amendment framework? Or, since it is a place of learning where many people develop their answers to moral questions, does it occupy a "third space" in our society?
PATTON: Whereas public universities are obligated by law host even the most controversial, divisive, and in some cases repugnant speakers; as a private institution, Middlebury does not carry this burden. I remain, and Middlebury remains, committed to the First Amendment principles of free speech and by extension, academic freedom. That’s part of who we are as an American institution.
I also believe that with that right — as with any right — we have responsibilities. At Middlebury, it is our responsibility to cultivate in our students active and critical inquiry which means exposing them to ideas that may be uncomfortable. At the same time, we also have the responsibility to reflect on and incorporate the principles and values of our community. My goal is, was, and continues to be an inclusive public sphere where a richness and diversity of voices are heard and, importantly, respected.
CAMPUS: What did you learn from Charles Murray's visit to campus? Is there anything you would have done differently?
PATTON: It was an incredibly painful and difficult situation. I have learned from and been forever changed by the degree to which people were hurt by the events that occurred — both on our campus and beyond. I think we could have turned inward sooner, to collectively ask ourselves, “What just happened?” I’m also pleased that over the past year we have done a lot of work around our speaker safety guidelines to ensure that we have the time and the input to fully prepare for speaker applications. Likewise, the work done by the Committee on Speech and Inclusion Middlebury College is a really important step as we learn how to listen differently and better. While the community is still healing, I believe that we are in a very different place than we were a year ago in how we are thinking about speakers and our priorities and values.
CAMPUS: Female leadership is consistently held to a double standard in our society. Are there moments in your Middlebury career in which your gender has felt particularly prominent?
PATTON: When I am asked this question, I respond by saying that that Middlebury has been ready for a woman leader for a while. Faculty, staff, and students all have been quite welcoming of my own particular collaborative style of leadership. And we’ve got some impressively strong women leaders in other positions at Middlebury as well. So overall, it’s been easy and productive.
I think difference of note is in people’s expectations. My staff and I note the disappointment that people — students, faculty, staff, alumni, and more — express when my schedule prevents me from responding to them immediately. There is a greater degree of expectation overall that I will always be available. Studies show that female professors who devote the same amount of time (sometimes even more time) to their students as male professors, are paradoxically thought of as less accessible than men. That is because the expectations of women’s availability is so much higher.
But these kinds of things go with the territory, and my view is that you just politely and skillfully point out to people that they need to shift their view.
CAMPUS: In light of the emphasis being given to mindfulness on campus, how do you personally de-stress?
PATTON: Three different ways: First, I practice vipassana, or insight, meditation. In December I spent time at a small retreat with my niece in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Second, I write. I find scholarly and literary pursuits a powerful way of cultivating mindfulness. There’s nothing like the focus of mind that comes from creating a persuasive paragraph in a scholarly argument, or building the best stanza for a poem. Third, I walk the dogs with family and friends. Dogs keep you completely grounded. They don’t care about their image or reputation; they care about staying connected. And that’s a great lesson for all of us.
CAMPUS: Do you find time for scholarship while doing all the functions of the presidency?
PATTON: Yes. I pursue scholarship for an hour a day, no matter what. I can’t do much more than that, but that is a non-negotiable. I have a book coming out in 2019 on controversies in the study of religion, and a third book of poems coming out this spring. Writing is a basic part of who I am and it helps me be a better intellectual and institutional leader. Middlebury has been welcoming and supportive of that commitment. I have been privileged to be a guest teacher in faculty classes several times a semester. People seek each other out to talk about their ideas, including their president. That’s Middlebury at its absolute best, and it’s a fantastic part of the job. And it helps because faculty and students and staff can connect with you as a fellow thinker.
CAMPUS: What is one item on your bucket list for your time at Middlebury?
PATTON: Institutionally, I hope we can create more art in public spaces that are inclusive of all of Middlebury’s communities. The personal item is dog-sledding. I ventured out to do that last winter, and I hope to do it regularly.
CAMPUS: What is the strength of the hills, to you?
PATTON: I’ll never forget the moment in November of 2014, when I was walking up to Mead Chapel to be introduced to the community. Someone shouted out a variation of the psalm written over its doors, “The strength of the hills is hers also!” That moment caused me to ask the very same question that you have asked. The strength of the hills to me has three different aspects. First, the mountains are all about staying power. They persist. And we should too. Gary Snyder writes about them as “streams of power.” Second, mountains remind us that we are small. Emily Dickinson ended one of her poems about mountains with the line, “I’m kneeling—still—“. She wasn’t kneeling out of false reverence, but a sense that there was always something bigger surrounding her, and that gives us a profound perspective on our daily distractions. Third, mountains can also bestow a sense of contemplative peace. The poet Li Bai puts it the following way: “You ask me why I dwell in the green mountain;/I smile and make no reply for my heart is free of care.” I hope for those moments for all our students.
CAMPUS: Where do you see the institution in 10 years?
PATTON: Here’s where I want to go: in 2028, Middlebury should be a place where we have taken advantage of our global network of offerings to enrich our curriculum in all of our units. I hope we will have made significant progress on access and affordability. We should have named and be close to achieving a new environmental goal. I’d like Middlebury to be a place where faculty, staff and students see themselves as drivers of innovation. In particular, there should be a clear place to incubate curricular innovation, where people can make changes and keep traditions.
I hope in 2028 we have built a more inclusive community — through increasing team based approaches to the classroom, experiential learning, and restorative practices. I hope we will have an improved residential experience with more diverse staff, and an ongoing artistic initiative to make more inclusive spaces on campus. In 2028, I also hope we have a sense of empowerment and alliance between administration, staff, and faculty. Our final goal should be that, in 2028, Middlebury community members share a clearly articulated sense of values and that we remind ourselves of them often.