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Three years in, college president Laurie Patton talks life in Middlebury

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Posted on August 13, 2018 |
By Nick Garber



Laurie Patton pic.jpg

MIDDLEBURY — As president of Middlebury College, Laurie Patton’s community work is guided by three principles. Or four, if you count the cauliflower principle.

“The cauliflower principle,” she said in an interview last week, “is that when I go to the store to get cauliflower, I have to be prepared for people to say hello, ask me what’s going on on some particular topic, and comment on what I’m buying.”

Now, entering her fourth year as president — and as a Vermont resident — she’s grown accustomed to the visibility that comes with leading the institution that gives the town its national stature and which serves as Addison County’s largest employer.

“I had to get used to it at first, but now I am,” she said, taking a pause from a busy summer workday to take a brisk walk through part of the college’s 350-acre campus. “I really enjoy living in Middlebury — it’s my kind of town.”

Vegetables aside, Patton’s other principles relate more directly to her work leading the college, whose presence in the area is inescapable, if not always highly popular. When approaching community stakeholders for potential partnerships, she has begun by asking two questions:“What do you need, and how can we help?”

“Anything more than that does not create a productive relationship,” she said.

Also on Patton’s checklist is ensuring that any town-college collaborations serve “a common educational purpose” for both parties — a way of avoiding one-sided efforts that fail to produce lasting results. Patton ably rattled off a handful of such projects established under her watch.

“We’ve done a yearlong internship at the Town Hall Theater, we’ve done one at the Community Music (Center), we’ve done one at the Sheldon Museum,” she said. She’s also particularly proud of the college’s work to help the Addison Central School District transition to the International Baccalaureate (IB) curriculum, which was adopted in the Fall of 2016.

“We did not say, ‘Oh, we have people with experience with the IB curriculum, you have to do this,’” she said. “The superintendent of the schools and others were thinking about, ‘What would it look like if we implemented this?’ And when I asked (Superintendent) Peter Burrows those questions in my first meeting, he said, ‘This is what we’re thinking about, and might we create that partnership?’ We said, ‘Absolutely.”

“That was a perfect example of ‘What do you need, and how can we help?’”

MORE THAN ‘ONE BIG THING’

New England life is nothing foreign to Patton, who was raised in the town of Danvers, Massachusetts.

“As I was growing up, my parents educated me to be a good citizen of a thriving, upstanding, small New England town,” she said. “I was always invested in local history, in the well-being of towns and understanding their legacies.”

But her arrival at Middlebury in 2015 was preceded by almost two decades at Emory and Duke universities, whose Southern, urban environments produced a different sort of town-gown association.

“The relationship is more intense,” she said of the dynamic here, where the college’s 2,500 students and 1,400 staff make their presence felt in the 8,500-person town. “The actions of the college affect the town more than they would for a big university in a small city.”

As a result, she’s spent the past few years working to understand the context in which she works. “As a newcomer to the area, as well as an outside president, you may not be aware of all the nuances of history,” she said. “The history of a particular relationship, and the history of how a previous action that looked like what you’re doing now, might have been received in different circumstances.”

A prime example, Patton said, is the college’s upcoming “workforce planning” process for faculty and staff, which is expected to result in cuts to both groups. Though she made no specific references, some historical precedents come to mind: the college’s 1991 staff firings became infamous for their abruptness, and its relatively unstructured buyouts following the 2008-09 financial crisis resulted in what some say was an excessive loss of crucial staff positions.

“Workforce planning… is something that we need to constantly over-communicate,” she said. “Like many places, there are periods in a college’s life where staff has to be reduced. We want to do it in a way that’s fair, compassionate and constructive. It’s going to be hard, not everyone will be happy, but it’s important that we find a way to let people in the broader community know what’s happening in as many ways as possible.”

“Generally speaking, if you share your priorities and your reasons, people won’t necessarily agree with them, but they will accept that you gave thought to a decision,” she said. “We’ve acted in the past in ways that are helpful for the town, and there are times that we’ve missed the mark, as any college would. We want to be as connected as we can, given that things will sometimes be experienced in uneven ways.”

Given the college’s financial worries, it seems that its involvement in large-scale brick-and-mortar projects could diminish in the near-term, in favor of the educational partnerships that Patton has prioritized. Patton didn’t dispute that possibility, though she noted that the college’s financial contributions to the Cross Street Bridge and new Town Offices remain ongoing.

“It was my sense that we would be better-served, given that we already had those long-term commitments, to work on common educational partnerships,” she said. “If it’s only transactional, it’s not going to be as helpful. In the past, it’s been, ‘Can you do this one big thing?’ And it’s just one big thing.”

‘A KIND OF SPIRIT’

Heading the billion-dollar-endowed institution, Patton has limited opportunities to escape her office in the college’s Old Chapel. Her Addison County bucket list, she said, remains long.

“I haven’t spent enough time on Snake Mountain. I’d love to spend more time swimming in Lake Dunmore than I have,” she said. “There are Sundays and some Saturdays where I’ll just drive around the county, because it’s so beautiful.”

She recalled one recent expedition she took with her husband, Shalom Goldman, who teaches religion at the college, to visit every interesting attraction on the drive from Middlebury to Burlington.

“We stopped at all the cool places that we’d never had a chance to stop at — Dakin Farms, (Lincoln Peak) winery on Route 7,” she said. “All these wonderful places.”

A resident of downtown Middlebury, Patton appreciates the town’s outlook on the world.

“It has a kind of spirit about it, a pride in its history, a spirit of creativity,” she said. “It likes to support local businesses and artisans, which is always a challenge.” She’s already begun brainstorming ways to help attract new retail to the town in wake of its recent spate of business closures, but is mindful of the limited role the college should play.

And as a neighbor, she said she’s relished the chance to form ties with others who call the town home.

“Things like the Festival on the Green — I go away for the month of July so I’m not able to go to much of it, but the fact that I know the organizer, can reach out and say I’m sorry I’ll miss it but I hope it goes well — those kinds of relationships are important, and things that I would do personally anyway,” she said.

“I think people have welcomed the fact that I can enjoy the town as a person as well as as president. It would be detrimental to the relationship if I only showed up as a president.”

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