Community bids farewell to Olin Robison

MIDDLEBURY — Former Middlebury College President Olin Robison was recalled on Sunday as an outstanding diplomat, scholar and administrator whose perseverance helped breathe new life into virtually every institution he helmed.
Those were among the recollections of family, friends and former colleagues of Robison — including Middlebury College President Laurie Patton and President Emeritus John McCardell Jr. Robison, Middlebury’s 13th president, died at age 82 last Oct. 22 after a long illness. His three sons and several of his grandchildren joined a chorus of speakers who serenaded him in the college concert hall that bears his name in the Mahaney Arts Center.
“It is so fitting that we’re gathered together in this space, this acoustical marvel, named for the 13th president of Middlebury, who helped bring this entire building into being,” Patton told the more than 100 people who attended the special memorial service. “All his passion for the arts is just one of the qualities we will celebrate here today.”
Robison was born in Anacoco, La., on May 12, 1936, and grew up in Port Arthur, Texas. He graduated from Baylor University in 1958 with a bachelor’s degree in history, religion, and philosophy, and studied church history at Oxford University in the early 1960s.
His lengthy resume included stints as special assistant to the deputy undersecretary of state, associate provost for social sciences at Wesleyan University, and provost at Bowdoin College.
He was a nationally recognized expert in foreign affairs, particularly on U.S.-Soviet relations.
Robison led Middlebury College from 1975 to 1990. He was credited, among other things, for increasing Middlebury’s enrollment reach, redefining the curriculum, expanding library facilities, and increasing the College’s capacity to extend financial aid to students from middle-class families. He also sought to increase faculty salaries to remain competitive with other, comparable liberal arts institutions.
Middlebury’s enrollment in 1975 was 1,750, McCardell noted. Its endowment stood at $32 million. A recently concluded capital campaign had raised a then-record $13.8 million.
The college’s summer school included instruction in several romance languages, along with Russian and Chinese.
But McCardell noted the vast majority of enrollees hailed from the Northeastern states, and Middlebury was “unable to meet the full (financial) need of every admitted student.”
Faculty salaries lagged behind those offered by comparably size institutions, according to McCardell.
A Greek social system still segmented the community by residence and by dining, he noted.
Faculty and staff at the time were having long debates on whether each building on campus should have a photocopier.
“The economy in 1975 hardly favored an agenda that sought to make progress in addressing these complex and daunting realities,” said McCardell, recalling the Dow at that time stood at 873, inflation and unemployment were both running at 8 percent, and median household income was slightly more than $10,000 per year.
Yet when Robison ended his tenure as Middlebury president in 1990, the college’s enrollment stood at 1,950, the endowment had blossomed to $220 million, and a recently concluded capital campaign had yielded $80 million. The college was attracting students from around the world amid a need-blind admissions policy. Faculty salaries had risen to “middle of the pack,” coed social houses had replaced the fraternity/sorority system, additional languages were being taught, and “there was a computer on every desk and a copier on every floor,” McCardell added with a smile.
“It’s a pretty impressive record,” he said.
“Olin discerned something in this place — something that we did not necessarily see in ourselves,” he continued. “He pushed us, he challenged us, he raised our sights, he made us better… Not more like someplace else, but more like our central, Middlebury self.”
While she never served with Robison, Patten said she gets frequent reminders of his legacy.
“I think of Olin when I think about our next decade of making Middlebury global, because I know it was Olin who put us on the global path, where we are today with 38 distinguished schools abroad and where students challenge themselves with advanced curricula of study in the language of the country,” she said. “I think of Olin on good days and bad days, when I’m alone in the office or on campus contemplating next steps. ‘Did you have days like this?’ I’ll ask him, as I look out at a student walking across through the snow. ‘What kind of decisions did you make that were Middlebury decisions, ones that hold our values dear and keep them into the next generations?’”
It was Robison who started the president’s tradition of passing Gamiliel Painter’s cane to all incoming students at Middlebury. Painter was a key figure in founding the college 200 years ago. Patton, in a parting tribute to Robison, passed Painter’s cane through Sunday’s crowd of memorial attendees.
Each year, there’s more diversity among the incoming Middlebury students thanks to some of the policies that Robison championed, according to Patton.
“By establishing Middlebury as a need-blind institution, he opened the door to the Middlebury experience to more students — different students, diverse students, international students and challenged us to welcome them more, and better,” she said.
“Financial aid will be one of the cornerstones of my time here at Middlebury for all students, so we know in this one key way — but in so many other ways too — that Olin’s legacy will continue far into the future,” Patton added. “We’re funding students from scholarships started in the 1850s. Think of how broad Olin’s legacy will be 100 years from now.”
Robison would make his mark on another organization after turning over the college’s reins in 1990.
He was named president of the Salzburg Global Seminar, an independent, non-profit organization founded in 1947 to “challenge current and future leaders to shape a better world.” He moved the Seminar’s American headquarters from Cambridge, Mass., to Middlebury. Robison led the Seminar until 2005, but didn’t leave the public eye. Up until a few years ago, he continued to deliver insightful commentaries on Vermont Public Radio on topics ranging from prehistoric art to bipartisanship in Washington to the politics of climate change.
Amy Hastings is a “senior global fellow” with the Salzburg Seminar. She praised Robison for presiding over a major turnaround in an organization that was on shaky financial footing. He quickly turned his attention to fundraising so that the Seminar could continue its mission.
“What was transparent to me, whether we were successful or not, was the esteem and respect with which Olin was held by all (the prospective donors) we met,” Hastings said. “By sheer force of his personality and reputation, Olin made the case for the importance of the Salzburg Seminar — especially now that the Cold War had ended, and why it was worthy of support.”
Upon his retirement in 2005, the Salzburg Seminar “had been re-established with global reach and outlook, and with a diverse program… that ensured Olin’s successors a firm foundation to build upon,” Hastings said.
Robinson’s son Blake recounted an experience that he said epitomized his dad’s diplomatic nature. Blake Robison had traveled to Middlebury as part of the visiting Williams College soccer team. The elder Robison stood at the center line of the pitch while his son was battling the home team. It was only after Blake had been subbed off at halftime that his dad eased over to the Middlebury side of the pitch.
An avid runner (often attired in a Brooks Brothers dress shirt and New Balance sneakers), Robison would brag that he consistently won his category in the 5-kilometer road race during reunion weekend. The category: College presidents.
“Coffee and wine were his true passions,” Blake Robison said with a chuckle. “Installing the espresso bar at the Salzburg Seminar ranked among his most proud accomplishments.”
Blake Robison said he admired his father’s abilities as a communicator.
“He had a unique ability to articulate the goals of an organization in ways everyone could understand,” Robison said. “It wasn’t folksy, but elegant in its simplicity and clarity.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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