Patton eyes town-gown future, dreams big

MIDDLEBURY — Where town-gown relations are concerned, a lot has happened during Laurie Patton’s four years as president of Middlebury College, and she’s perfectly happy to take an inventory of recent successes:
•The percentage of students engaged in community service has increased from 70 percent to 80 percent, roughly, and Patton is eyeing 90 percent in coming years.
•The college has worked with the Addison Central School District to develop an International Baccalaureate (IB) curriculum for its schools, and after two years of planning will soon roll out graduate-credit-bearing courses for ACSD teachers, as well as local classroom opportunities for Middlebury College students majoring in Education Studies.
•Through a yearlong “workforce planning” project, the college put itself on a path toward financial sustainability — without laying off any employees.
But in a recent interview with the Independent, Patton grew most excited when she talked about the “twinkles” in her eye — those still-forming dreams and schemes for collaborating with the community to solve shared challenges.
“But make sure you put ‘twinkle in my eye’ in bold,” Patton said, laughing. “We’re not at ‘Middlebury Announces New Initiatives’ yet.”
“We can be a major driver in keeping talented students here, both in the county and in Vermont,” Patton said. “The first way is to get them really excited about their internships, where they say, ‘Oh, I’d really like to stay.’ It would be great to partner with both Addison County and the broader Vermont business community on program that would offer internships, and maybe some financial aid, and in return, students could stay and work at those companies for a year or two afterward.”
Such a program, she said, would both contribute to the Vermont economy and help to keep talented young people in the state.
“That’s a really big dream,” she acknowledged. “But you have to start small. We could stand it up with three or four students, then others would say, ‘Oh, I see how this could work.’ Many young Middlebury alumni in Vermont are interested in small business, nonprofits and energy entrepreneurship, so that’s the area where I think we’d really be able to make it attractive for students.”
Another dream-project could provide useful information for such programs.
The Middlebury College Economics Department is having conversations with the governor’s office about creating a series of student research projects involving data analytics, which the college has recently begun to integrate into its curriculum.
“Again, this is in its initial stages, but we’re hoping to start with maybe two or three pilot programs for the state that would look at the effectiveness of its policies,” Patton said. “If those go well, we’d like to move on to something that would be more about panel data across the state of Vermont — for example, why young people stay here, why they go.”
Through such projects, she said, students could both further their education and be of service to their community.
And perhaps be inspired to stick around.
AS LAURIE PATTON enters her fifth year as president of Middlebury College, she continues to prioritize town-gown relations, and to approach them through the lens of a “common educational purpose.” She likes to begin potential collaborations by asking, What do you need? and How can I help? 
Independent photo/Steve James
The Energy2028 initiative approved by the board earlier this year will fully withdraw the college’s $1.1 billion endowment from investments in the fossil fuel industry, as well as reduce campus energy consumption and eliminate fossil fuel use.
“Our energy focus and what we were able to accomplish was, to my mind, the best of Middlebury,” Patton said. “And that involved an absolute understanding that we would be able to work with partners in the region to make that happen.”
Energy reduction alone is a huge project, she said.
“We have building after building after building, and the energy measurements needed for each building are going to look different. We haven’t made any specific contracts with companies yet — we’re still in the planning phase — but after we made the announcement, people who are hands-on in Vermont around energy reduction called us, and they are pushing us, and it’s really great.
“Green Mountain Power was like, ‘OK, you guys, are you ready to play with this? We have similar goals — we’re going to do this statewide. You’re not just going to be 100 percent energy neutral — you’re going to be providing energy.’”
The community has pushed the college in good ways, too, Patton said, and she finds it “exhilarating.”
“It’s faithful. It’s connected. It’s not about reinforcing everybody’s good feelings, but about ‘How do we honestly move to the next level?’”
Another twinkle in Patton’s eye made an appearance at a recent meeting of the Middlebury selectboard.
“Could we, in our energy goals, actually be of mutual benefit?” she wondered. “Could there be ways in which the town and maybe even the county could benefit from some of the energy work that we’re doing?”
Depending on how you mix in international students, Middlebury College is 29 to 36 percent diverse.
“We know diversity and excellence go hand-in-hand,” Patton said. “We also know that a more diverse community is a struggling community — in all the best ways — and Middlebury is out there, doing that work, and doing it in a tough-minded and intelligent way.”
Another project Patton hopes will lead to town-gown collaborations has already gotten under way.
“We’re working with Middlebury students to look at our own history in Vermont, very honestly,” she said. “That will mean asking, What is our history of diversity? What are the moments we’re not so proud of? Because answering those questions and telling those stories are absolutely essential for our community’s health.”
Members of the college community have received training in oral history, Patton explained, and a group of student interns this summer will be working in that area.
“We hope that our next step, in addition to telling really honest stories and embracing all the tough parts of Middlebury’s history, will be to work with our community partners to do the same.”
Again, she cautioned, this is just in the initial stages — another piece of Patton’s dream.
“But, as you’ve probably figured out, a lot of my dreams involve the community.”
Editor’s note: Christopher Ross is the spouse of a college employee.
Reach Christopher Ross at [email protected].

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