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Middlebury College to sell its stake in language company

MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury College is selling its 40 percent stake in Middlebury Interactive Languages, a locally based developer of software and curricula used in language education in kindergarten through 12th-grade classrooms. The college on Aug. 4 said it is negotiating the sale of its share of MIL to its partner in the venture, K12 Inc., a Herndon, Va., for-profit company that creates online educational products and curriculum.
“We made the decision to exercise our option to sell our stake in the company,” Middlebury College President Laurie Patton said in a statement. “Going forward, MIL will be able to chart its own strategic course without having to balance the different priorities of two owners.”
A K12 spokesman was quick to reassure area residents that MIL has no plans to pull up stakes. Indeed, the company closed an office in Provo, Utah, in 2014 and consolidated its operations in Middlebury.
“That’s the point,” said Mike Kraft, K12 vice president for corporate communications. “We recognized that Middlebury was an important location, we managed the consolidation into Middlebury, it’s running very well, so we plan to continue the operation of the Vermont office and want our customers to receive the highest quality service from that location.
“We plan to remain a vibrant member of the Middlebury community, and we want it to be business as usual for the kids and schools who are our customers,” he added.
When asked what would happen to the company’s name and its corporate branding given that the “Middlebury” in Middlebury Interactive Languages directly references the college and its long history of excellence in language instruction, Kraft replied, “There’s no decision on that. We understand the value of what has been built to date. But any decision is going to be part of the entire process of selling the remaining portion back to K12.
“How that Middlebury brand is used, by whom, etc., that’s just part of the conversation.”
Middlebury College and K12 Inc. are negotiating the transaction and expect to conclude the deal by December.
College spokespersons declined to comment on those “different priorities” mentioned by Patton, citing the need for confidentiality as the parties negotiate. They also declined to say whether the decision had been in the making for some time or comes directly from new college president Patton, who stated her job on July 1.
In recent years K12 Inc. has come under scrutiny for its management of virtual online “cyberschools,” which some consider a boon to primary and secondary education and others a troubling entry of the for-profit sector into primary and secondary education.
The K12–Middlebury College partnership that created Middlebury Interactive Languages was announced with great fanfare in 2010. Ron Liebowitz, then president of Middlebury College, promoted the joint venture as not just a way to provide the college with a new revenue source but also a venue for promoting foreign language learning in earlier grades — a noted weakness in American primary and secondary education and an important skill in an increasingly globalized economy. But some experts in higher education questioned whether the college wasn’t taking a risk with its outstanding academic reputation by going into a venture with a for-profit company.
When doors opened on its Middlebury offices in 2012, MIL employed seven Vermont-based workers. Today that number has increased dramatically. A small but significant employer in the Addison County area, Middlebury Interactive Languages currently employs approximately 55 people at its headquarters off Exchange Street in the Middlebury Industrial Park. Another 20 employees work from remote locations, mostly in online language instruction.
“MIL revenues have grown significantly since 2012, including a 25 percent increase over the last year alone,” Kraft said.
MIL’s online language-learning programs are deployed in nearly 1,200 schools and serve over 200,000 primary and secondary students nationwide. MIL provides technology-based instructional resources in French, Spanish, German, Chinese and Arabic, as well as resources for English language learners. Along with its products for kindergarten through grade 12 students, it also produces professional development resources for teachers and administrators.
In 2013, MIL and Middlebury College launched a joint Vermont World Language Initiative under which up to 30 Vermont schools would receive MIL courses at deeply discounted prices and the college would donate funds to help pay for those courses and for teachers’ professional development — goods and services estimated at $2.6 million over four years. The joint program was intended to run for until 2017. According to Kraft, the same “business as usual” outlook for MIL’s Middlebury employees and customers nationwide applies to the schools and students around the state who are part of the Vermont World Language Initiative.
Middlebury College Vice President for Communications and Marketing Bill Burger agreed with Kraft’s interpretation.
“It’s no one’s intention to break any commitments that have been made,” he said.
COMMITMENT TO LANGUAGE EDUCATION
The K12 Inc.–Middlebury College partnership that created Middlebury Interactive Languages took place at a time in which the college has greatly expanded its foreign-language learning capabilities.
Since 2001, the college has expanded its Middlebury Schools Abroad program to an additional 31 locations. In 2009, the Middlebury Language Schools summer intensive program (founded in 1915) expanded to a Middlebury at Mills site at Mills College in Oakland, Calif. In 2010, the college acquired the Monterey Institute of International Studies, which this past January was renamed the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey.
For its part, the college plans to continue to focus on its own greatly expanded language programs.
“Middlebury remains committed to pursuing its tradition of excellence and innovation in language education at the college, the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, the Middlebury Language Schools, and at our 36 Schools Abroad campuses,” President Patton said in the release.
Middlebury Interactive Languages CEO Jane Swift, for her part, thanked the college for its role in the company’s emergence and growth and looked forward to a bright future for the company.
“Under the sole ownership of K12 Inc., we believe that Middlebury Interactive will reach its full potential as a game-changing provider of language education products and services,” she said in a story on the Middlebury College website.
Gaen Murphree is at [email protected].

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