Patton Weighs in on College’s Challenges, Opportunities

By Joe Flaherty

Duke University Dean of Arts & Sciences Laurie L. Patton was in the middle of creating an ambitious new outreach forum, the Duke Forum for Scholars and Publics, when her idea hit a roadblock.

The world-renowned historian she had appointed the director of the forum wanted a premier space on campus. The only problem? A dean of academic affairs had already promised the space to university language instructors.

“My dean of academic affairs was invested in this and had been working hard on it,” Patton said in an interview. “This new director said, ‘I really want this space.’ And, bingo: potential conflict.”

Special Feature

College President-elect Laurie L. Patton spoke with the Campus in a wide-ranging interview during one of her recent visits to campus. Patton has been making periodic trips from Duke University, where she is Dean of Trinity College of Arts and Sciences and the Robert F. Durden Professor of Religion. She has been traveling to the College in order to meet and plan with members of the College community before she assumes office on July 1.

Her mediation between the two individuals who could have been at loggerheads says a great deal about Patton and what kind of leader she may be as the College’s 17th President.

Time, Space, Money, and Relationships

In this case, Patton examined how she could resolve it based on what she calls the key matrix of time, space, money and relationships. Instead of unilaterally moving ahead, her first step was creating the relationship to solve an issue of space.

“I said, ‘I’d like you to talk to each other about your common needs and figure out not whether you fight about the space but whether there is another space that  the Dean of Academic Affairs could have for the language lab, or if there is another space for Scholars and Publics that you could talk about,” Patton said. “And I want you to talk about it first and not me, because you’re closer to the ground and you know what you need.’ And luckily they are both good people and they talked.”

After a few renovations to an existing room, the dean and the incoming director figured out a mutually agreeable solution and the Duke Forum for Scholars and Publics (FSP) was born. Patton was confident that they could figure out a solution despite what originally looked to be a deal-breaker on both sides.

“We had to spend more money to do it but that was an example where creating a relationship, forcing them to talk about their actual space needs and investing a little more money solved the problem,” Patton said.

Even though this matrix might seem rigid, she said solving problems almost always boils down to a discussion of these four areas.

“I’d like to think that even though it’s a thing that I invoke regularly, it’s capacious enough so that you could still be creative with it no matter what,” Patton said.

The Sense of the Whole

Patton’s rationale for creating FSP fits into her broader thoughts on how higher education ought to interact with the community.

“If institutions of higher learning do not become more outward-facing, then we’re in trouble,” Patton said. “I think that’s true of colleges. I think that’s true of universities. I wanted to create a space where scholars, where they live—which is creating their research—could immediately translate their research to the outer world in addition to working with members of the community who are outside the guild to co-create scholarship.”

Patton describes FSP as a “signature initiative” for her at Duke and has already met with the Middlebury selectboard to explore potential collaboration between town and College.

Patton said, “I wanted to signal early on how much I want to work with the Middlebury community.”

She also has experience with the Duke-Durham Neighborhood Partnership. The office facilitates service learning in Durham as well as economic and community development.

Patton maintains that Middlebury’s relationship to a local community in conjunction with a global outlook is something few other colleges can claim.

“The rural and cosmopolitan is Middlebury’s unique genius,” Patton said. “There is something very profound about that combination that people got when they founded this place and it keeps getting iterated.”

The Language Schools and Middlebury’s environmental studies strength were both underway long before “going global” or “sustainability” were buzzwords, said Patton. Nevertheless, these auxiliary programs present challenges when grappling with what seems to be the zero-sum game of administrative resources. 

For Patton, imagining a bigger sense of the whole is Middlebury’s biggest challenge in the next five or 10 years.

“Middlebury has grown and now we’re in this new space,” Patton said. “The College should remain at the center of everything we do but there are all these other units that have amazing trajectories—Monterey being the most recent, but also a lot of others.” 

Patton, despite being a prodigious fund-raiser while at Duke, said she is not sure you can ever raise money fast enough to always “expand the pie” for every facet of the College.  (At Duke, Patton and the development office, through a campaign called Duke Forward, have raised $343  million since 2011.)

She said the answer might lie in raising money while also gaining a new perspective on how the component parts of Middlebury can work together so they all benefit.

Patton explained, “I want to make sure that any decision in favor of one unit doesn’t mean that I’m therefore going to disfavor the others. That’s a hard step in an institution that is growing. We’re not growing into a university identity. We’re growing into leadership in this third space that is really interesting and really unique and really Middlebury. So, making sure as we grow and create—make Middlebury more Middlebury—how can we do that without reinforcing or creating a zero-sum game? That’s my one big concern: how we encourage all the units to have a sense of the whole from their particular perspective.”

Bridging the gaps between Middlebury and its other institutional arms will likely take effort. The College entered a new phase as a quasi-bicoastal institution with the acquisition of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies (formerly Monterey). However, Patton says the College can do habitual ventures that bring together the Institute and the undergraduate College, or the College and Bread Loaf, and so on.

One of the ways Patton attempted to unite a broad institutional body at Duke was the University Course series. Faculty from across the university teach a course that is open to all students, whether they are biochemistry Ph.Ds. or sophomore philosophy majors. 

While acknowledging that what will work at a university will not work at what she calls a “very unique, third-space institution like Middlebury,” Patton said that the idea has potential for the College.

“If it was hosted in Middlebury, we could have fellows from Monterey come and also have people streaming in on video who wanted to take the class,” Patton said. “If it was hosted at Monterey the next year, we could have 10 fellows from Middlebury be out there, and so forth. I think that would be a very exciting project.”

Just like a student might study abroad, Patton said, the curriculum at the College can possibly reflect the wider world as it relates to the campus in Vermont.

“That kind of constant tension between being restless and coming home is something that you learn how to think through and you learn how to be in that space,” Patton said. “So that might be how we plan curriculum: not just that one class but curriculum more broadly, which include this element where we trade places.”

In regard to a potential Middlebury Course series, Patton said her approach is iterative; in other words, the College does not have to painstakingly craft the perfect solution that can never be updated.

“Rather,” Patton said, “let’s see what happens and if we don’t like it in six months, let’s fix it. I think that’s what we could do with this class, too—let’s see if this helps us imagine a whole and if it could, then we can do it every year.”

Challenges and Changing Perceptions

Perceptions of certain issues can shift from when one is a candidate for President to the President-elect. Patton said she views diversity as an important and challenging issue that she now sees is bigger at the College than when she was first getting to know Middlebury.

“I think it’s particularly acute for many reasons: because we’re at an elite liberal arts institution that has a very unique history of global engagement which would therefore imply diversity, but then we always need to be better and to live up to what we say we are. That means to rethink and to ask the question all the time, ‘Are we living up to what we say we are?’” Patton said. “And I think diversity is the number one place where students are pushing us to ask that question in really good ways.” 

Students have almost overwhelming praised Patton for the attention she has exhibited, even at this early stage as President-elect, on issues of diversity at the College. Patton said that part of the reason why there is concern over diversity may be generational differences, where the next generation is pushing on diversity while an older generation may believe that the work has already been done.

Despite challenges such as diversity facing the College, Patton said that much of her work solving problems as College President might involve lighting a match for preexisting kindling. She sees preexisting groundwork of progress on issues like framing the College’s new identity or improving its relationship with the town.

In terms of keeping her finger on the pulse of the student body, Patton said that she aims to continue at the College many of the practices she has developed at Duke as Dean of Arts & Sciences. She also sought to dispel a common negative perception about College administrations, including Old Chapel.

“The common thing that people worry about is administrators know students leave, so if they just wait it out…” Patton said. “That’s the cynical view. I don’t want to be that way. I want to say, ‘Okay students, what legacies do you want to leave to the next students?’ The student population is only here four years but it’s a long-term relationship because they’re going to be alums and they’re going to care about what the next students do.”

Inhabiting Multiple Places

Despite the aforementioned challenges, Patton said the College is a unique institution that ought to be known more for its leadership in certain areas. She praised the restructuring of the Board of Trustees as an example of how the College is gaining recognition as an institutional leader.

“My guess is I’m going to keep on discovering ways in which Middlebury really is a national and even international leader and it needs to say more that it is a leader,” Patton said.

According to her, in higher education there is the need to be self-critical while also recognizing the ways in which an institution is succeeding.

Patton said, “Middlebury is a very self-critical institution, and it pushes—it’s not complacent. I love that because I think that’s the only way institutions of higher education should be.”

At the same time, she said, Middlebury ought to feature the different ways it is successful while simultaneously being self-critical.

In this regard, Patton cites the new place where Middlebury finds itself—with the Institute of International Studies, the Language Schools, the School of the Environment, and the Schools Abroad—as an area Middlebury can examine yet still keep an eye to its strengths.

“The way I put it at Monterey is that we’ve done something really interesting,” Patton said. “We need to tell a story of success about Monterey and making it better and being self-critical all at the same time. One of the things that is very exciting about all of the schools, but I think in Monterey’s case, is we have an opportunity to create a different connection between undergraduate and graduate education that also is an opportunity to inhabit multiple places.”

Ultimately, Patton said, administration is about listening and knowing who needs to be consulted, just like in the disagreement over the space in which FSP would be housed.

“The key to really good, careful, and subtle administration that creates community is one where you figure out who needs to be the major driver of the decision,” she said. “And when you figure that out and you get that right, everyone wants to be in the community together and they feel like there’s a greater sense of home.”