New college president reaching out to town, building partnerships

MIDDLEBURY — As dorms reopen, classes begin and Middlebury College embarks on its 216th year of expanding and sharpening young minds through the rigors of a liberal arts education, a woman takes the helm for the first time in the institution’s history.
Laurie L. Patton began her tenure as Middlebury College’s 17th president on July 1. She will be officially inaugurated on Oct. 11.
“I love the community,” said Patton, 53. “The warmth of the welcome has been truly overwhelming.”
Patton comes to Middlebury College from Duke University in Durham, N.C., where she was a professor of religion and a dean who oversaw a $435 million fundraising campaign. At Duke Patton oversaw 36 academic departments and programs, 640 faculty members and 5,200 undergraduates.
Patton’s scholarly work focuses on the history, culture and religion of South Asia. In addition to nine books (authored or edited) and over 50 articles in her field, she translated the Bhagavad Gita, an ancient Sanskrit text that is as central to Hinduism as is the Bible to Judeo-Christian culture.
Throughout her career, Patton has repeatedly taken her scholarly interests out of the classroom and into the public arena. She has blogged for the Huffington Post; served as a host and panelist on an Atlanta television series about women, religion and current events; consulted with White House offices on civic engagement and faith-based initiatives; and has published two books of lyric poetry, one focusing on Judaic and the other on Hindu spirituality.
In an interview with the Independent last week, Patton said she still devotes at least an hour a day to her scholarship — writing and reading about modern India, as well as ancient, and penning her own poetry.
Teaching is so important to Patton that she had it built into her contract. She plans to reenter the classroom after her first year as college president, perhaps teaching on a subject dealing with a big social issue.
“I can’t wait to do that,” she said. “Students keep you deeply sane and happy.”
Equally important to Patton is her “belief in the scholar/teacher/administrator.”
“Whatever I do comes out of that model,” Patton said.
While understanding that she alone must make final decisions in many instances, in a recent address to faculty Patton stressed the importance of faculty governance, collaborative decision making and the kind of bracingly honest dialogue that allows for engaged but civil public debate.
Anyone taking even the briefest of glances at Patton’s CV can see that she’s a doer with an impressive list of accomplishments. But anyone who meets her will also understand that this same commitment to collaboration and dialogue are central to Patton’s approach to leadership. This philosophy extends from decisions about how to run the college to the kinds of on-campus events that will best model real conversation.
“I want there to be more people learning how to have robust conversations with each other,” Patton said. “So instead of inviting one speaker/advocate to campus, have, for example, E.J. Dionne and Mike Gerson — Mr. Liberal and the compassionate conservative guy — together. They have this very devoted he said/he said kind of conversation. I just sponsored them speaking at Duke last spring, and it worked beautifully. We should do that with all sorts of different, tough issues so that we model that kind of conversation. This is a place where we can have our best arguments.”
For Patton this same openness to collaboration and commitment to building partnerships is essential to the college’s ongoing relationship to the town as well. To that end she has been introducing herself to local leaders and business owners and most recently attended her first selectboard meeting.
“I would love to hear from the people of Addison County about interesting, constructive ways that we might be able to partner in the future,” said Patton. “I deeply believe in creating those long-term partnerships. I think that the citizens of Addison County will be the ones who come up with the cool proposals for what we can do in the community, and I really want to hear from them.”
Patton stressed the importance of remaining active in the local economy and of continuing to partner with the town in constructive ways.
“Economic viability is huge,” Patton said. “The more partnerships we create that are mutually beneficial the better off we’re going to be.”
Patton emphasized that the college needs to remain a vibrant employer. With Middlebury College already the largest employer in Addison County, she said there were things Middlebury could do to improve economic vitality even beyond the county borders. As an example, she said the college could set up new transportations options (presumably buses) to bring in employees from outlying, rural areas.
She also said she could imagine sustainable town-gown partnerships around the arts and multi-use housing.
At the same time, Patton wondered how the college might better connect with the state as a whole as an employer, especially in providing more job opportunities for young people so that they don’t leave the state or so that they could be attracted back to the state.
In developing economic partnerships, Patton also stressed how essential it is that new partnerships be in line with each partner’s values. For the college, that means finding partnerships that help it advance its core academic mission.
Patton also wondered how the college might productively engage with the town and state in new and ongoing conversations about diversity. She stressed that addressing diversity included building the conversation around intergenerational divides — the old and the young.
When asked about student calls for the college to divest from fossil fuels, Patton responded that she wanted to push the college in as many ways as possible toward being an environmental leader.
“This is a conversation we will continue to have at Middlebury,” Patton said. “I’ve been impressed by how informed and engaged the students are on issues relating to sustainability and the environment. There are many ways we can be environmental leaders, and we want to keep pushing that envelope. Divestment of fossil fuels should be only one among many related issues we grapple with.”
Patton grew up north of Boston in suburban Danvers, Mass., but spent much of the past two decades living in large cities in the South. She said her return to New England feels like a kind of homecoming.
“I wake up in the morning and go, ‘Oh my goodness, I have the privilege of doing that?!’ I grew up knowing about Bread Loaf, knowing all about Middlebury — many friends went to college here — so it’s kind of like coming home and fulfilling a childhood dream you almost didn’t know that you had but then you realized that you did.”
Patton joked that North Carolina friends and colleagues wondered why she would move back to a colder climate.
“Here people just laughed because it’s a matter of just putting on more clothes — that’s all it is,” she said.
Patton went on to say that although Middlebury is small in population — under 10,000 compared to a quarter-million in Durham — she didn’t really see it as a small town.
“We shouldn’t let the small town identity define us. This is a very sophisticated, urbane, interesting, accessible and exciting place,” she said. “I have been making an effort to visit with many of the town’s businesspeople. Connecting with them has helped show me what an extraordinary place this is. Middlebury may be a small town in size, but it’s not small in mind, in disposition, in generosity, in sophistication of government or in engagement with the world.”
Reporter Gaen Murphree is at [email protected].

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