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Patton sets her final goals at the college

MIDDLEBURY COLLEGE PRESIDENT Laurie Patton has identified several initiatives she hopes to tackle before leaving her current post to helm the American Academy of Arts & Sciences in January. Her goals for the months ahead include advancing fundraising efforts and ensuring the continuity of institutional priorities.  Photo courtesy of Middlebury College

MIDDLEBURY — As Middlebury College President Laurie Patton prepares to step down from her post at the end of this year, there are a few things she’s hoping to tackle over the next several months — from advancing fundraising efforts to ensuring the continuity of various initiatives she’s overseen during her nine years leading the institution. 

The Independent recently spoke with Patton about her time at Middlebury and what she hopes to accomplish before she leaves the institution in January to become president of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences. 

“At its best, Middlebury College is always working through a new issue or a new problem in fresh and courageous ways,” Patton told the Independent. “If I step back, I am inspired by the fact that I have been able to achieve so many of my dreams in the last decade because of that connection.” 

FUNDRAISING EFFORTS 

During the remainder of her time at the college, a major priority for Patton will be making progress on the institution’s ongoing fundraising efforts. 

This past fall, Middlebury College launched the public phase of the “For Every Future” campaign, the largest fundraising campaign in the institution’s 224-year history.  The drive aims to raise $600 million to support a variety of initiatives intended to enrich students’ experiences and help prepare them for the world after graduation, such as by increasing financial aid and supporting experiential learning opportunities. 

The college began counting toward the campaign in July of 2021 and hopes to reach its fundraising goal by June 2028. As of this week, the institution was over three-quarters of the way to its goal, with $452,594,000 raised. 

“We’re a year ahead in our fundraising right now, which I feel really good about,” Patton said. “Even though I am incredibly sad to leave, I feel like it’s OK, and the next six or seven months I’m totally focused on trying to finish fundraising.” 

Ongoing fundraising work ties into some of Patton’s other goals for the remainder of her time at Middlebury. 

“I want to make sure that liberal arts and sciences remains front and center as a part of our national landscape. That means continuing to work on the campaign and connecting with our departments and initiatives,” she said. “Our faculty need to feel supported in their teaching and research, and students need to feel supported in their learning. That means a robust focus on those twin priorities for our fundraising.” 

Successful fundraising was among several accomplishments from Patton’s presidency highlighted in a May 2 college press release announcing her departure. The release noted that the past three years have seen the largest fundraising totals in the institution’s history. 

College officials in the release pointed to other work Patton has done to strengthen Middlebury’s financial practices during her tenure, such as tackling a structural deficit she inherited upon taking office in 2015.  

“We had some big financial challenges when we started,” Patton recalled. “We had a large deficit that was a structural deficit that we had not really gotten our hands around, and it was really important for me as a fiscal moderate to try and make sure we got our hands around it, but I didn’t want to do it in a way that blew the whole community up.” 

Patton noted that college officials were on the cusp of resolving that deficit when the COVID-19 pandemic began in 2020. 

“When COVID hit we went back to square one in terms of the expenses, as well as inflation, to post-COVID inflation, all of the stuff that we’re now being hit with,” she explained. 

Patton and her team have nonetheless made strides in addressing the deficit. Over the past nine years, Patton and her team have returned $38 million structurally to the budget. She and her team have also developed practices of open communication and financial transparency, according to the May 2 press release. That work has allowed the institution to keep its staff and salaries competitive.   

Patton acknowledges that there’s still work to be done regarding finances, particularly in meeting college trustees’ goal of having a small surplus each year. 

“We have a relatively modest deficit every year, which is great, but it’s not a surplus,” Patton said. “Getting to that final place is where I hope my successor will go.” 

ENSURING CONTINUITY 

Another focus of Patton’s in the months ahead will be working with the college’s board of trustees to ensure the continuity of institutional priorities once her successor takes over. 

Several of those priorities have been addressed through various initiatives Patton has overseen throughout the past decade and that she and other administrators consider to be among the highlights of her presidency — such as work in the areas of conflict transformation, supporting students and the environment.   

“The board is really focused on continuity of these priorities, which I feel really glad about because if they weren’t then I wouldn’t have done right by Middlebury,” Patton said. “The fact that they’re understood as institutional priorities means a lot to me.” 

The priorities and related achievements that college officials hope to build on with Patton’s successor include: 

Access. College officials in May reported that during Patton’s presidency, Middlebury’s commitment to access for all who qualify increased significantly, almost doubling in some cases. All of the college’s financial aid is need-based. 

The college has increased the amount of financial aid it offers to students during Patton’s tenure, with around 47-52% of students now receiving aid compared to about 40% of students when Patton took over in 2015. 

“Relative to other colleges, in terms of our endowment per student, we’re very generous in our financial aid,” Patton said. “That’s been fantastic, and hard fought and hard won.” 

Unsurprisingly, the college’s student body has become more diverse over the past decade. The number of first-generation students at the college has increased from 11-12% of the student body to now around 18-21%. 

International students admitted this year are 14% of enrollment and domestic students of color make up around 37-40% each year. 

“That has been what I feel is an obligation for creating more access and having Middlebury look more like America, which has really mattered to us,” Patton said.

Energy2028. Middlebury College’s Energy2028 is a 10-year plan that sets four climate goals for the institution to meet, including using 100% renewable energy by 2028 and phasing out direct fossil fuel investments in the endowment. 

Making progress on those goals has included collaborations such as a partnership with Salisbury’s Goodrich Family Farm, Vanguard Renewables, and Vermont Gas Systems, and the state of Vermont on an anerobic digester that provides renewable natural gas to Middlebury’s main campus. 

“The fact that we have been able to partner with so many people in the community, as well as beyond, has been thrilling because it shows what can be done at the county level; it shows what can be done with really creative people who work in all sectors of society,” Patton said. 

She noted that the Energy2028 work has not always been easy but has created opportunities to have important conversations, such as about the 5 megawatt solar array constructed on 30 acres of college land on South Street Extension. 

“There were folks who had concerns about one of the largest solar fields in Vermont just at the end of South Street. That’s real, that’s an important conversation to have,” Patton said. “It felt as if even in that conversation we were still thinking about the same purpose, which is it’s a good goal to get to the largest employer in Addison County being 100% fueled by renewables, and we all wanted to work toward that goal.” 

Looking ahead, Patton noted the college’s environmental work needs a plan for the future after the institution achieves the goals outlined in Energy2028. 

Conflict transformation. The college in March ƒ2022 received a $25 million grant from an anonymous donor to fund the creation of a new conflict transformation initiative. 

Through the Kathryn Wasserman Davis Collaborative in Conflict Transformation the college has supported existing institution-wide work in the area of conflict transformation and developed new programs related to the field of study, which explores the various aspects of conflict and how to constructively change the structures and relationships that make up an environment in which conflict unfolds.

That work has taken place across various “pillars” of the institution, such as Middlebury’s undergraduate campus and the Middlebury Institute for International Studies at Monterey, and has included over 100 faculty and staff and hundreds of students. 

“I feel really excited about how students are approaching it, how faculty are engaging with it, and I want to make sure that it remains student, faculty and staff-centered,” Patton said. “So far that’s happening, but you have to be really vigilant about that.” 

The ripple effect of Middlebury students’ work with conflict transformation can be seen in part in how protests of Israel’s war against Hamas unfolded on campus this spring. Demonstrations at the college largely remained respectful and led to productive dialogue between student protestors and college administrators. 

“It’s important to know that most of the protests around Israel (and) Gaza on college campuses in the United States were peaceful,” Patton said. “While it was far from easy and definitely imperfect, our productive engagement on the issue was heartening to many.”

Patton said she believes that productive engagement was due to a number of factors, such as students’ commitment to keeping relationships open and listening to feedback as to where their actions might be effective or hurtful while making their voices heard. She noted other factors included that students began discussing the issue prior to the Oct. 7 attack on Israel launched by Hamas and collaborated on donations to World Central Kitchen after the attack, so “there was a set of relationships that had already been established,” she said. 

She added that the college’s trustees were willing to engage and keep dialogue open. 

“That is a great practice at Middlebury — dialogue between students and trustees. People are still talking this summer,” she said. 

Patton said she believes the institution’s conflict transformation programs helped for many of the students familiar with the basic tenet: that “the purpose is not to squash conflict or dissent, but to embrace it productively and engage with it.” 

“And those programs themselves have to be part of a larger understanding of what it means to build community in the middle of intense difference of opinion,” Patton continued. “Society today is always trying to find a balance between open expression, engagement with dissent, and staying in community. Our students intuitively understood that.” 

In terms of moving ahead work with the initiative, Patton noted that the institution’s conflict transformation programs will need grounding at Middlebury beyond the grant, which ends in around five years. 

“I’ll be focusing on what I can do to make that presence permanent at the college,” she said. 

Nocturne Arts Festival. Patton explained that students came up with the idea for the annual, 24-hour festival for the arts after a particularly challenging year in 2017. Throughout the event, projects in the areas of theater, painting, dance, film and other disciplines pop up around campus for a celebration of students’ creations. 

Patton said the festival has become a well-loved Middlebury tradition over the past several years and was part of the impetus behind recent renovations to the Christian A. Johnson Memorial Building.  

“The arts, I believe, is one of the places where artistic voices can really practice being in the public square in some really new ways that can show what it means to create a public voice in a way that’s sometimes less polarizing and more of bringing people together than so much of our public discourse is right now,” Patton said. “So, I’m really pleased to see that Nocturne was a student idea.” 

The college has also raised around $30 million to support construction of a new art museum that will be built near the current site of Battell Hall. 

“As soon as students wake up, people will see the democratic world, the arts world, right in front of them,” Patton said. 

She noted that the college plans to create an “arts agora” in between the Johnson Building and the new museum. 

“I’m very excited about having sown the seeds for that,” Patton said. 

Academics. Over the past several years, the college has grown its faculty and added new academic offerings, such as a new Black Studies Program and a food studies minor. 

Patton said college officials’ focus on interdisciplinary work and continued support of more traditional departments has positioned them to move forward with initiatives like MiddData, which makes data literacy a part of all Middlebury students’ experience.

MiddData is among the initiatives Patton hopes to fortify over the next several months. She told the Independent that other areas of focus include continued support of the Middlebury Language Schools. 

“I just came from my convocation at the language schools, and it was so heartening to see such a robust enrollment in our pursuit of language study,” she said. “And I want to make sure that this centuries-old traditional Middlebury value of cross cultural understanding is understood and seen in both old and new ways.  We need to support our newest language schools, such as Korean and Abenaki.” 

She noted that ensuring the traditional arts and sciences departments remain supported is another area of focus. 

“It’s not like any of these interdisciplinary initiatives supplant the philosophy department or the computer science department and so on,” Patton said. “Having that creation of these kinds of things only should make those departments more relevant, so really doubling down and supporting the traditional arts and sciences matters.” 

In addition to exploring ways to move forward various initiatives, Patton said she’ll be around to help and consult whenever she can in the months ahead. 

“In my view, Middlebury is the most interesting place in higher ed right now and I’ll be proud to be part of the project and a member of the community,” she said. 

The college and surrounding communities are ones she holds near to her heart and plans to remain a part of even after she takes on her new post at the American Academy of Arts & Sciences. Patton and her husband, Shalom Goldman, will remain at their home in Shoreham, from which Patton will commute to the academy headquarters in Cambridge, Mass. 

She said she’s learned a lot from the college and broader Addison County communities over the past decade and sees those lessons as helping inform the work she’ll take on in her next role. 

“People in the college care about the work that the town does and people in the town care about the work that the college does,” Patton said. “I also think the work of democracy has a chance in a county like Addison County. It’s one of the things that I am going to take with me and my work at the Academy. I believe people can still imagine America at the local level, and I think that is certainly the case in this community and in this college.” 

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