On Middlebury’s Mission

By THE EDITORIAL BOARD

Next month, Middlebury trustees will vote on a new mission statement to replace the existing version, first adopted in 2006. While many on campus may not know the current college credo, its importance should not be understated, nor should the shortcomings of the proposed replacement. A mission statement defines a school’s core values and highest aspirations. But the proposed revision does little to capture the essence of Middlebury College or provide a clear vision for the future of the school.

The proposed new mission statement reads:

Middlebury College seeks to create a transformative learning experience for our students, built from a strong foundation in the liberal arts and supported within an inclusive, residential environment.  We not only inspire our undergraduates to grapple with challenging questions about themselves and the world, but we also foster the inquiry, equity and agency necessary for them to practice ethical citizenship at home and far beyond our Vermont campus.

The new mission statement bears little resemblance to its predecessor, loosely defining the school’s pedagogy with glib, cliché buzzwords like “inclusivity,” “equity,” and “agency,” while avoiding any mention of Middlebury’s unique campus community. It excludes reference to Middlebury’s extensive undergraduate offerings, environmental stewardship and international focus, valuable aspects of the college that the current mission clearly states. Indeed, the proposed statement fails so completely to capture the values and character of the college that it could easily pass as the mission statement for virtually any liberal arts college in the nation.

A statement of core beliefs and aspirations should offer a clear vision for the school and a guiding philosophy for periods of hardship like the numerous challenges posed by the past year, yet the proposed mission statement does neither. Values with broad definitions like inclusivity and equity merit explanation. Middlebury’s mission statement should serve as an outline of our community’s values which can be used to consider various ethical dilemmas, like the Charles Murray lecture, which seem to put our appreciation of free speech and inclusivity at odds. The new statement puts forth few concrete values, making it virtually useless as a tool to guide our community.

Of course, the current mission statement has its shortcomings. It does not mention the liberal arts, which is a strength of the new version. Nor does the existing one touch upon the college’s partnership with the town of Middlebury or provide even the slightest nod to valuing diversity. The college strives to embrace a myriad of identities, opinions and experiences, so this should be explicit in our mission. Moreover, the school should stress its commitment to Addison County. Established to serve as the town’s college, Middlebury should care deeply about its neighbors, and there is much to learn from the people who live outside these landscaped quads.

Ultimately, little will change next month regardless of the fate of the proposed mission statement. Unwritten, the finest aspects of our college community will live on, embodied in our community. Mission statements are supposed to evolve with the school and its values. But we should take concern with the school’s unwillingness to commit to preserving the unique aspects of the Middlebury that make it stand out among its peers. More concerning is the committee’s failure to offer a clearly articulated vision that can be looked to for guidance in trying times.

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