Patton inaugurated as college’s first woman president
MIDDLEBURY — Laurie Patton stood before a microphone on a stage in front of Old Chapel on the Middlebury College on Sunday morning bathed in applause.
“Hello, Middlebury!” the newly minted president of the 215-year-old institution warmly greeted her cheering audience.
And thus began — officially, the tenure of Middlebury College’s 17th president.
More than 1,000 people gathered on the campus for Patton’s inauguration. A respected scholar at Emory and Duke universities and most recently dean of Duke’s Trinity College of Arts and Sciences, Patton took over the top job at the college from Ronald Leibowitz this past July.
The air was cool with the onset of autumn and abuzz with the expectant conversations of the audience seated below the stage. Among the myriad administrators, trustees, presidents emeriti, faculty, students, staff members, townspeople and other guests was U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey, who taught with Patton at Emory. Trethewey read her poem “Illumination,” and returned after Patton’s address to share one by the president herself, “On Learning Sacred Language in Childhood.”
Trethewey’s warm welcome was echoed by other speakers, including a Middlebury College alum (class of 1972), who expressed confidence in Patton’s leadership.
“We need leaders who are people with vision and perspective, with energy and talent, folks who can motivate others and keep things running smoothly, those who can respect different views and encourage everyone to move forward in the best interests of all,” said former Gov. James Douglas. “I’m confident that we have such a leader. Welcome, President Patton.”
Duke President Richard Brodhead described how Patton improves those with whom she comes in contact.
“When you are in Laurie’s company, her way of engaging you animates you, such that your thoughts become more interesting. She actively listens, takes your ideas in, and allows them to release thoughts of her own, in a free-form synthesis that’s always opening new vistas,” he said. “Couple this with her endless energy … her endless interest in others, her passion for teaching and learning, and her sheer joy in the drama of education, and Middlebury, you have met your match.
“Building on your best thought, she will help a great liberal arts college make a profound case for the liberal arts, without being afraid to try new things or adapt to new circumstances,” he continued.
Brodhead drove home his point about Patton’s energy.
“Let’s be frank: she has one downside, and you have probably already discovered it,” he said. “Whatever you do, she’ll work twice as hard as you.”
MIDDLEBURY COLLEGE FACULTY and guests process to the inauguration ceremony Sunday for the college’s new president, Laurie Patton. Photo by Brett Simison
Then it was time for the main event.
Marna Whittington, chair of the Middlebury College Board of Trustees, invested Patton with her new title and presented her with Gamaliel Painter’s cane, a walking stick borne by one of the founders of the college that the president carries at official ceremonies such as convocation and commencement. Patton smiled and clasped her hands together before her chest humbly as the audience clapped and stood up in approval.
She bowed her head as the college’s 15th President John McCardell Jr. placed around her neck the presidential medallion bearing the Middlebury seal, which the president also wears on official occasions.
Patton wove her 35-minute speech around the importance of the college’s proven capacity to progress by engaging in thoughtful arguments. She did so by discussing the Jewish phrase “argument for the sake of heaven.”
“This is an argument worth having, where the goal is not victory, nor even the proof of one’s own intelligence,” she explained. “It is an argument where one wants the other side to have better arguments … We want to learn from the better arguments, so that we can create a better and more capacious home for all of us to dwell in.”
Patton also outlined her fivefold vision for the institution’s future of argumentation. This includes leadership in global literacy, creative multipronged strides in sustainability beyond carbon neutrality, a fuller everyday ethic of diversity, and an examination of privilege and identity in human relationships. It also focuses on understanding Middlebury as a coherent ecosystem comprising not only its growing constituent schools and programs, but also its town and state communities.
“What if Middlebury became a place where we had our best arguments about these aspirations?” proposed Patton. “What if our arguments at Middlebury created affection and devotion between opponents, united in the service of the common good? What if through our arguments we became the place the world turned to, as a model of public engagement and respect?”
“I believe that Middlebury’s collective genius of warmth, optimism, rigor and compassion can make us some of the best arguers in higher education — arguers who can think together with deeper respect, stronger resilience, and greater wisdom,” she continued.
According to Patton, respect involves letting our speech and action be guided by an awareness of their potential impact on others. Resilience pertains to deliberately reflecting on and recovering from hardship with dignity. Wisdom, she believes, is about comprehending the world in all its planes of complexity, producing meaning rather than just profit, and considering the broader implications of our ideas.
“Since my arrival we have already started on these arguments for the sake of heaven, or Middlebury — whichever comes first in your mind. I can’t wait to continue them in the years ahead. Those are my dreams for us, and they can begin now,” concluded Patton to resounding applause and a second standing ovation.
After the ceremony, whose success many attributed to the inauguration committee’s months of planning, everyone climbed the hill past Mead Chapel for a community luncheon on Proctor Terrace.
True to the college’s Vermont identity, the meal also featured over a dozen different varieties of apples, cider, maple creemees and chocolate milk from local vendors. Attendees sat on the green grass beneath the sun and turning trees. The scene was set off by the surrounding mountains — mountains that Patton earlier had referred to in her address:
“These mountains call all of us to be bigger in our aspirations and yet also to be smaller, linked to a larger cause. Middlebury’s mountains give us a sense of place that is also a sense of community,” Patton said. “The mountains help us find our place in the world, and even if we don’t find it immediately, we have a deep and abiding trust that we will. This is the strength of the hills.”
FORMER VERMONT GOV. Jim Douglas speaks Sunday at the inauguration ceremony for new Middlebury College President Laurie Patton. Photo by Brett Simison