Middlebury College President Ron Liebowitz reflects on town-gown legacy

MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury College President Ron Liebowitz hopes to be recalled as someone who during his 11 years in office worked to fortify the institution’s relationship with the town of Middlebury — not only through financial contributions to many community projects, but also by helping to redefine the tenor of town-gown conversations.
Liebowitz — who will soon make way for incoming President Laurie Patton — took some time on Monday to chat about the legacy he will leave, specifically as it pertains to town-gown affairs.
His on-campus résumé includes such accomplishments as leading the college through a recession and despite that economic downturn seeing its endowment grow from $664,781,000 in 2004 to more than $1 billion this year; acquisition in 2010 of the Monterey Institute of International Studies; and committing in 2007 to making the college campus carbon-neutral by 2016.
Liebowitz, a graduate of Bucknell University, had already served the college for 20 years before being named its 16th president on July 1, 2004. An expert in Russian economic and political geography, he joined the college’s faculty in 1984. He ascended the ranks to provost and dean of faculty before succeeding former President John McCardell Jr.
“Almost everything about my perception of Middlebury, both the town and the college, changed upon becoming president,” Liebowitz recalled.
“What I was struck by was how much the town mattered, even to employees of the college,” said Liebowitz. “I was struck by how when issues came up that required a vote, for example, it was not a sure thing, that Middlebury faculty and staff would vote the college’s way. The town was significant in the lives of Middlebury faculty and staff, way beyond what I had experienced at Bucknell, where the loyalties were divided along whether you worked at the university or not.
“Middlebury is not a company town, though some people accuse it of being such,” he added. “Despite the college’s large footprint and large economic impact on the town, the town still garners quite a bit of loyalty from its citizens.”
Still, the strong relationship between the town and college helped pave the way for collaborations between the two entities, said Liebowitz, who was credited by municipal officials for being an enthusiastic partner in a series of community projects.
Projects receiving college financial assistance during Liebowitz’s 11-year tenure include the Cross Street Bridge, the municipal building and recreation facility now under construction, the purchase and demolition of the former Lazarus building at 20 Main St. that will lead to a wider Printer’s Alley, the gift of land off Bakery Lane that the town will use for an as-yet undefined economic development initiative, and donations of funds and student talent to Middlebury’s Town Hall Theater.
Some of those efforts received better community receptions than others, and one of them produced one the most polarizing debates that Middlebury has witnessed in decades. Some residents were extremely critical of the town offices-recreation project, a town-gown collaboration they noted was broached and defined during private meetings between a minority of the selectboard and top college officials.
When the proposed collaboration was made public, the project drew criticism on several other counts — including a land-swap provision calling for razing the current town office and gym at 94 Main St. and replacing them with a public park.
Mary Hogan Elementary School officials opposed the notion of siting the new recreation facility near the school, citing concerns about traffic circulation and student safety, among other issues. Ultimately, the project was moved to Creek Road.
Middlebury residents approved the overall plan on Town Meeting Day 2014 and affirmed their decision during a revote that May.
Liebowitz voiced his thoughts about the town office-recreation center controversy.
“I was not surprised that there were voters against it; I was surprised with the rhetoric,” Liebowitz said. “There was really mean-spirited — and really over-the-top, in my point of view — negativity and assumptions about the motivations of the college. I think that was a little bit surprising.”
But the departing president said criticism often surfaces as a byproduct of an ambitious agenda.
“Only towards the end of my provostship, in 2002 and 2003, did I begin to have a sense that, as I have been quoted before, ‘You’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t,’” Liebowitz said. “Whether you are a significant player, you get criticized, or an insignificant player, you get criticized.”
Liebowitz chose to take the former, rather than the latter tack when it came to the town-gown relationship.
“If you do take an active role in town, you can be seen as meddling or throwing your weight around,” Liebowitz said. “If you don’t, you’re seen as aloof, sitting up there on the hill, looking down on the town, not wanting to be involved or not wanting to help. My approach upon becoming president, which is the way I approach most things, is that it is better to be active and be criticized, than be inactive and get criticized. You might as well try to make a difference and help where it is appreciated, than not.”
Liebowitz said his administration “tried to be as open and transparent as possible, despite all these accusations about ‘backroom deals,’ which couldn’t be further from the truth.”
History will show, according to Liebowitz, that town officials approached their college counterparts several times to discuss and engage issues out in the open.
“The only time we in any way kept things confidential is when we were asked to do so, because of protocols and rules governing town governing,” Liebowitz said. “So I would hope that more and more people would recognize that things we have done have not been done to benefit the college solely, but rather to do things we thought were in the best interest of both the town and the college.
“I realize there are still some great questions about the college’s motives and the college’s place in this town,” Liebowitz added. “I would hope that, after 11 years, there is at least a wider, broader and deeper understanding of what the college’s motives and also its benefits to the town are, as opposed to before.”
Looking back, Liebowitz said he hopes he influenced a change in the mindset about town-gown collaborations — that they should be actively pursued and discussed with the notion that “what’s good for the town is good for the college, and vice versa. It does help to work together. That’s really what guided my thinking about town-gown relations.”
In terms of bricks and mortar, Liebowitz cited the Cross Street Bridge project (finished in 2010) as a stand-out partnership involving the town and college. It was an undertaking made possible through a 30-year bond approved by local voters that called for a $9 million contribution from Middlebury College and revenues from 1-percent local-option taxes on sales, rooms, meals and alcohol to generate an additional $7 million.
“As for big projects, I think the Cross Street Bridge was very symbolic and important,” Liebowitz said. “I think it showed that a collaboration of this sort is possible, that we need not wait for state or federal government to accomplish something that has been attempted for a long time. Fifty years is a long time to wait for a bridge.”
Also ranking high on Liebowitz’s list of favorite town-gown collaborations was the institution’s 2007 decision to forge a partnership with Middlebury’s Town Hall Theater. That partnership called for the college to have regular use of THT’s Merchants Row building, and for the institution to provide THT with $1 million over 20 years to support an addition to the southwest corner of the structure for mechanical rooms and wing space.
It also created opportunities for Middlebury College students to work with local residents on theater productions and make more college performances accessible to the public.
“I think the Town Hall Theater … really inspires people throughout the community, and outside of the community, to come to Middlebury to share in cultural and artistic performances,” Liebowitz said. “I find that to be an important element to the vibrancy of  community in this own, but also the economic impact. There is a multiplier effect.”
That multiplier effect, Liebowitz noted, occurs when theater-goers show up early to shop, dine or book a room in Middlebury.
The college considered each of the aforementioned projects as they were pitched by community advocates, according to Liebowitz. But he said his administration approached them all with an overarching philosophy.
“It was to advance the town and advance the college’s interests as well,” Liebowitz said.
Some of the collaborations, he acknowledged, helped the town more than the college. A particular example of this, he said, was donation of the Bakery Lane parcel. Liebowitz reasoned that the land wasn’t doing the college any good, and that the institution might draw fire if it simply chose to develop the parcel.
“We knew the town would be better decision-makers, in terms of how best to use that land,” Liebowitz said. “I think anything the college would have chosen to do with that land probably would have been criticized, and it might not have been accepted by the majority of the community.”
Looking back, Liebowitz said he has no significant misgivings about his dealings with the town on behalf of the college.
“I really don’t regret any of the initiatives we put forward,” Liebowitz said. “I would say the one thing I wish I could have done better was to articulate more clearly and fully all the benefits to one another of this relationship.”
Liebowitz said the town does much for the college. For its part, Liebowitz said the college — in addition to assisting with individual projects — remains the community’s largest property taxpayer and a great source of student and faculty volunteers.
“Fifty-five to 60 percent of the students volunteer in the local community or the county, doing various things, working with youth in the elementary schools,” Liebowitz said. He said if he could set back the clock, he would do more to publicize those student contributions and the college’s economic impact on the community.
“I think all of that, in a typical New England way, has been suppressed,” he said. “No one wants to brag. But it’s not about bragging. It’s about clearing the air, providing the foundational information that might help the town-gown relationship be even stronger than it already is.”
Liebowitz will soon pass the baton to his successor, Patton. He was asked what advice he would give her about maintaining cordial and productive relations with the town of Middlebury.
 “I have made it a point to give as much advice as Laurie seeks,” he said. “We talk about (town-gown relations) a lot. I think my own advice to any college president in a small town in rural America is to engage, rather than disengage. I think open communications, being willing to think about projects and collaboration, is crucial. This relationship is far more important than I think virtually all incoming presidents might think. I certainly did not understand how important this was, up until just before I became president.”
He said he hopes Patton benefits from the same caliber of town leadership that he said he has enjoyed during the past 11 years.
 “I have been blessed with having selectboards that have been terrific to work with,” Liebowitz said, citing specifically current board Chairman Dean George and past board Chairman John Tenny. “I think from my 11 years, the selectboard has done everything you’d want out of a partner. I think the relationship has been excellent and I have enjoyed working with the selectboard.”
George and Tenny said they will miss Liebowitz and his constructive effect on relations between the town and the college.
 “It’s obviously been a very positive relationship for us, on behalf of the town,” George said, adding, “The opportunity to have open discussions about issues of mutual concern has happened without a lot of fanfare. The ability to get together and look at problems and figure out how to solve them has been fantastic.
“I hope the next relationship will be the same, but I know it will probably take some time to develop. Having said that, I know (Liebowitz’s) spirit was really, ‘What’s good for the town is also good for the college.’ That’s where a lot of his thinking went when it came time to consider some of the bigger projects we were involved with together.”
Tenny said he found Liebowitz to be a “compelling individual,” someone who challenged the selectboard and community at large to aspire to loftier goals.
“I feel that the key to Ron Liebowitz’s tenure, in terms of how it relates to the community, was that he challenged the community to see its possibilities,” Tenny said. “(He challenged Middlebury) to be a stronger community and to realize the benefits of how we could work together to employ the assets that we have to make things better. While the (Cross Street) Bridge will be looked upon as the legacy item, I think that challenge part of the relationship should be the legacy, and I hope that it will be.”
Victor Nuovo is a former Middlebury selectman and the Charles A. Dana Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Middlebury College. Nuovo, in an article that he penned for the most recent issue of Middlebury magazine, offered his own tribute to Liebowitz’s role in fostering a positive town-gown relationship during the past decade.
“So it happened that during Ron Liebowitz’s presidency, a splendid mutuality flourished between the town and college, which has resulted in major public works completed or under way in town — all with major support from the college,” he wrote.
“Much of the credit goes to Ron Liebowitz, although he did not act alone,” Nuovo continued, noting meetings with the selectboard whose ranks at the time included Nuovo.
“The result was a complex plan involving financial transactions, property exchanges and construction schedules, and before long the work will be done,” Nuovo concluded. “It will be a token of the enduring relationship between the town and the college. It will also be Ron’s legacy.”
Liebowitz, his wife Jessica, and their three children will soon relocate to Boston for a new challenge.
“My wife and I will be working on a project that has been of interest to us for a long time, which is about graduate education,” Liebowitz said. “It is a critique of graduate education, but is also prescriptive, in terms of recommending ways to improve how we are preparing our next professoriate in entering the profession. Boston is a wonderful place for that type of study to take place, with all of the universities there and PhD programs.”
Once that project is completed, Liebowitz will take his career in yet another direction. He’s not yet sure where it will take him, but he knows it will not be back to Middlebury.
“It’s time; 31 years is a long time,” Liebowitz said. “I feel very strongly that one has to make space for one’s successor.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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