Laurie L. Patton Named 17th President of the College


President-elect Laurie L. Patton addresses the College community for the first time, explaining the value of a liberal-arts education. She will be the College’s 17th president. (Michael O’Hara/The Middlebury Campus)

By Joe Flaherty

Dr. Laurie L. Patton was named Middlebury College’s 17th president, and the College’s first female president in its 214-year history, at an announcement ceremony in Mead Chapel on Nov. 18. Patton, who is currently dean of the Trinity College of Arts and Sciences at Duke University and the Robert F. Durden Professor of Religion, addressed the Middlebury community for the first time at the meeting after opening remarks from President of the College Ronald D. Liebowitz, Chair of the Board of Trustees Marna Whittington and Chair of the Presidential Search Committee Allan Dragone Jr. ’78.

Faculty, alumni, Trustees and students packed Mead Chapel to witness the announcement of the new president and to hear her first remarks to the Middlebury community. After brief introductions to the proceedings by Liebowitz and Whittington, Dragone discussed the selection process at length, emphasizing the importance of the many different constituencies within the broader Middlebury community in the selection process.

According to Dragone, the committee, which was comprised of “members of the faculty of both Monterey and Middlebury, staff from both Monterey and Middlebury, alumni, Trustees and students,” made it a priority to represent stakeholders without direct representation in the process such as residents of the town of Middlebury, parents and students.

The lengthy selection process was designed to ensure that the president-elect would be a perfect fit for the College. The selection committee and the Board of Trustees played an active role in ensuring the strength of the applicant pool.

“We talked to leaders in higher education across the country who were the rising stars,” Whittington said. “And we went out and recruited some of them to our pool, so we had a terrific pool.”

“The caliber of candidates was deeper and more accomplished than I could have possibly have hoped for,” Dragone echoed. Of the more than 260 initial candidates, the committee chose 100 with competitive backgrounds and curricula vitae and then pared this group down to 50 after group deliberation. By means of another round of phone conferences and small group meetings, the committee winnowed this list down to 12 finalists who sat for comprehensive interviews with the entire committee. The committee then selected five finalists for multiple rounds of interviews and an exhaustive background and reference check.

“On our shortlist of five final candidates, any one of them would have been a good president of Middlebury College, but Laurie is the best fit for Middlebury at this time in its history,” Whittington said.

Patton, who was elected in a unanimous vote by the Trustees, emerged as the natural choice of this group of finalists for a number of reasons. Her vision for a liberal arts education in the 21st century, which she outlined in a lecture she gave at Middlebury last February entitled “Liberal Learning: The Recovery of Dialogue in a Global Context,” aligned neatly with the core competencies that the selection committee identified. These competencies were “scholarly values, leadership capabilities, management expertise, commitment to diversity and finally cultural fluency for a really global perspective,” according to Dragone.

After an introduction by Dragone and a rousing round of welcoming applause, Patton took to the podium and proceeded to outline her definition of a liberal arts education and detailed three key words as the guiding principles behind a successful 21st century liberal arts education: innovation, adaptation and integration.

“Every educational institution must exemplify these educational goals of innovation, adaptation and integration in its own unique way,” she said.

Paying homage to her background as a scholar of religion, Patton next applied her vision of a 21st-century liberal arts education by offering a list of institutional attributes she called “The Seven Great Educational Virtues of Middlebury” before concluding her speech to raucous applause.

Student reaction immediately following the announcement was overwhelmingly supportive of President-elect Patton, but student comments also carried the weight of the community’s high expectations for its new leader.

“I think the student body is passionate about a lot of different things,” Maeve Grady ’16.5 “And I’d really like Laurie to be someone who is willing to listen to a lot of different voices and take them into account.”

The Campus and other local media organizations later attended a press conference with Patton in the Davis Family Library. She was asked what, if anything, being the first female president of the College means to her. “On the one hand, it’s a wonderfully happy accident that I’m a woman, and the best thing that I can do is to be the best president I know how to be and serve this community as energetically, intelligently, patiently (and as impatiently) as I possibly can,” she said.

Patton added that she has written extensively about women in South Asia and has participated in micro-philanthropy and educational initiatives for women and girls in the Western Indian state of Maharashtra. “Women’s education is of huge importance to me. I think it is one of the major issues facing us globally,” she said. “One of the great joys that I have as an educator is when I’m able to mentor young women who have not had the privilege or the chance to build the confidence to come into their own voice. That’s true of all people but I think, in particular, it’s a great privilege to be able to be a role model for young women in that realm.”

The announcement of the next College president comes during a slightly rough patch in the otherwise positive town-gown relations of the past decade. When asked what the College’s role should be vis-à-vis the town, Patton praised President Liebowitz and outlined some future steps, based in part on her experience with the Duke-Durham partnership.

“I’ll put it very straightforwardly and simply: I think that if colleges and universities are not outward-facing toward the community, then they will not thrive in the 21st century,” she said.

In response to a question on how she plans to increase diversity in the College’s student body and engage with students from various backgrounds, she explained that diversity issues are viewed in a broader lens by students today than by her generation.

“Diversity earlier was about a binary,” she said. “I think now students are in a very multiform environment. It is something much bigger, where the multiple forms of diversity create new kinds of intersectionality, and I think students, as I listen to them, are very concerned about their multiple identities and how they intersect.  I also think sexual and gender identity and transgender identity is a very big issue for students today in ways that we need to pay attention to on college campuses.”

Patton also said that the College is uniquely positioned to both communicate the importance of diversity and also to be a place where students of different backgrounds can thrive.

“I think a lot of our admissions processes and welcome to students have to do with making sure that students of diverse populations know that they will thrive in a Middlebury context. We have to make sure we follow students from the admissions contact through to their life on campus,” she said. “I know Middlebury has participated in the Posse program which has been very successful — how do we push that even further and create even more diverse, welcoming environments to help students through their Middlebury career into their post-graduate career?”

Patton’s current position at Duke includes an active fundraising role, experience that she hopes to capitalize on at Middlebury to the benefit of financial aid.

“The crucial thing for us is building not only our endowment but also building even more endowment for financial aid. I think it’s going to be an absolutely essential mission,” she said. “Middlebury’s financial aid package is very generous, I’m really proud of that already even though I’m not here yet. But I think we need to do more and better.”

She mentioned named scholarships as one avenue that studies have shown can create a diverse campus.

“I look forward to being very creative with our financial aid packages and building them even more vigorously so we can make sure that that diversity — intellectual, economic, racial, et cetera — is protected,” she said.

Students were enthusiastic about the announcement throughout the day. “I’m really excited to see who they picked and why they picked this new person,” Vassily Zavoico ’17.5 said before the announcement. “It’d be cool to see in what direction Middlebury might be going in the next ten years.”

Members of the College community lined up in Wilson Hall in the late afternoon for a chance to chat with the College’s president-elect. “I’m really excited for Laurie and I am really excited for Middlebury College, and I think that the first few words out of her mouth — innovation, integration and adaptation — are incredibly important for this school,” Moria Sloan ’15 said. “She hit a lot of hot-button issues and hopefully she will deal with them tactfully.”

Patton professed excitement to begin working with the Middlebury community. “I can’t wait to get here,” she said. “I can’t wait to listen and to learn more, to dive into our deepest challenges and have our best arguments.”  

According to Dragone and Whittington, she will return to her post as dean at Duke for the next two months or so while Liebowitz focuses on his agenda. The College will begin to “really get focused on transition activities about Feb. 1, so you’ll hear more as we get closer to that,” Whittington said.

Additional Reporting by Hannah Bristol and Claire Abbadi