Middlebury College president-elect wants close town-gown ties

MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury College President-elect Laurie L. Patton is not even officially on the institution’s payroll yet, but she took time from her ongoing duties at Duke University to visit Middlebury municipal officials to assure them that maintaining a cordial and productive relationship with the town will be one of the top priorities of her administration.
Patton, 53, was recently picked to succeed  Middlebury College President Ron Liebowitz on July 1. She will become the institution’s first female president. Patton is currently wrapping up her duties as dean of Duke’s Trinity College of Arts and Sciences and as the Robert F. Durden Professor of Religion.
During an informal gathering with members of the Middlebury selectboard on Monday afternoon, Patton stressed her desire to forge new partnerships with the town, ranging from artistic collaborations to having more members of the college community serve on local boards.
“I grew up with a very strong model of civic leadership,” Patton said, citing her parents’ contributions to the communities in which they resided. “It has been part of my DNA that I haven’t been able to enact very much.”
Middlebury selectboard Chairman Dean George welcomed Patton to the community.
“The relationship between the town and the college has been a huge priority for us over the years and we have worked very hard to maintain a positive relationship, which I think has been productive for both the town and the college,” George said. “We look forward to working with you … and continuing that experience.”
While she is eager to see the college become more active with the town, Patton acknowledged the need for her to learn about her new surroundings.
“I think the first, best and most intelligent thing I could do is realize that Duke-Durham is different than Middlebury — which is straightforward enough to observe,” she said.
Indeed, the city of Durham, N.C., home to Duke University and North Carolina Central University, has a population of around 245,400, compared to Middlebury’s approximately 8,500.
“I think that what new leaders have a tendency to do is assume that all of their previous experience is highly relevant to the new (setting),” Patton said. “I want to make sure that in my first year, I simply listen to what the Middlebury experience has been.”
And Patton believes she is well-suited to talking about — and dealing with — any problems or strain that might exist within Middlebury’s town-gown relationship.
“I am very good at listening to very scratchy conversations and I have training in conflict mediation, ” she said. “I’m very much about naming tough issues and having them be open and part of what we share together. One of the hardest things for any group living together is when people become positional.”
Patton noted that Duke went through a turbulent period in 2006 when three of that university’s male lacrosse players were accused of raping an African-American female student. Those charges were ultimately proved false and led to the disbarment of the lead prosecutor in the case. It is a case that stirred emotions and tensions between Duke and the greater Durham community. It was in the aftermath of the scandal that Duke in 2007 hired Phail Wynn to serve as its vice president for Durham and regional affairs, with the goal of strengthening the relationship between the university and surrounding communities.
Patton hinted that Middlebury College might be well served by having a person in charge of what she called “linkages” between the town and college.
“Having someone who is in charge of the linkages, having the support of both communities, really makes a difference,” Patton said. “What (Wynn) has done is create a community around himself of people who clearly engage with this idea of a more vibrant Duke-Durham relationship.”
Duke also established an office in the middle of Durham, something Patton said would not be necessary in Middlebury College’s situation, due to its close proximity to the downtown.
Patton believes another way Middlebury College could forge closer ties to the town is for its students, faculty and staff to increasingly join community boards and committees. This, she reasoned, could lend a college perspective to issues and endeavors that could benefit from an assist from the institution.
“It would be great to have more Middlebury College presence in more helpful ways in regular goings-on of Middlebury town,” Patton said.
“When you have a relationship that’s only transactional, that’s a hard relationship to maintain.”
She’s also a big fan of town-gown arts collaborations. Patton was pleased to hear of the college’s direct involvement in Town Hall Theater productions and that the institution is also involved in the first annual Middlebury New Filmmakers Festival, to take place this August.
Patton believes the upcoming filmmakers festival could be the first of many such associations.
“It would be very interesting to think about what festivals we might create together,” she said.
Patton is also keen in looking at some of the periodic — or episodic — town/gown events and seeing if they could be held more regularly, provided they are mutually beneficial and sustainable.
“If you could provide me with a list of five things that you thought were really cool that could be deepened so they weren’t just one-offs … then we could work on what those projects would look like in developing them for the future,” she said to the assembled town officials.
It’s clear that Patton would like Middlebury College’s students more invested in the community in which they reside.
“My guess — and tell me if I’m wrong — is that you all probably know more about what Middlebury College is doing than Middlebury College students know what Middlebury town is doing,” Patton asked local officials.
Most of the selectboard members nodded in reply, though they noted some exceptions. For example, some of the college students are active volunteers within the community, especially with local nonprofits like the Charter House Coalition that provides shelter and food to those in need.
Patton believes Middlebury is likely to see more student involvement in local affairs.
“So much of change is lighting a match, because the kindling is already there,” she said metaphorically.
And Patton believes Middlebury students could benefit from some sort of training about the responsibilities they have as a result of residing in town.
“What would it be like to have an event that says, ‘This is your responsibility, because you live in the town,’” Patton said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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