President Laurie L. Patton will travel to the University of Chicago this weekend to be a panelist at a “free expression” conference, forgoing the annual president’s address that traditionally occurs on Fall Family Weekend. Susan Baldridge, the college provost, will address families on Saturday morning instead.
The Chicago Maroon first reported plans for the event in August based on internal university documents obtained by a student reporter. According to a confidential draft of the event, presidents and provosts from all U.S. colleges and universities would be invited to attend the conference. The draft estimated 2,000 public and private not-for-profit four-year institutions in total. Patton was one of several academic officials invited to be a panelist.
“Because these topics are so important to Middlebury and to institutions of higher education nationwide, President Patton made the difficult decision to attend the conference and to ask Provost Susan Baldridge to address parents in her stead,” said Lyn DeGraff, director of alumni and parent programs.
The conference, as planned when the document was written, would be composed of a keynote address on Friday and three panel discussions on Saturday. The first two panels were slated to discuss “key risks to the integrity of the academe” and hypothetical First Amendment situations.
The description of the third panel on Saturday, Oct. 14, where Patton will speak, said that presidents would discuss “what they and their institutions are doing to develop inclusive cultures supportive of free expression.” The panel would have presidents say how principles of free expression align with “other institutional priorities, such as safety and security and diversity.”
Patton wrote an op-ed on free speech that The Wall Street Journal published in June. She said that colleges have a primary obligation to foster civil discourse. She also advocated drawing a clear line between peaceful and disruptive protest.
“Free speech lies at the heart of our purpose as an institution, and we cannot allow force or disruption to undermine it,” she wrote.
Patton is alumna of the University of Chicago, having earned a master’s degree in divinity in 1986 and a doctorate in history of religions in 1991. The university emerged as an outspoken voice in the free speech debate last summer when it denounced “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings” in a letter to incoming students.
The draft listed three other confirmed panelists: Robert Zimmer of the University of Chicago, Walter Kimbrough of Dillard University, and Ana Mari Cauce of the University of Washington. John DeGioia of Georgetown University was listed as a proposed panelist but had not confirmed his attendance at the time of the draft.
Organizers of the conference could not give updated details immediately by press time.
A Campus analysis of past brochures found that nearly every family weekend since 1958 has had a “president’s address” for parents to talk directly to the college president. Some years’ brochures were missing from the college archives, but every available brochure listed a president’s address in the schedule.
The 1958 event, which was then called parents’ weekend, featured a “president’s reception for parents” in the Chateau. In the 1960s, brochures showed both a talk for parents of first-years in Wright Memorial Theater and then another one for all parents in the Chateau. Former president Olin C. Robison held his parent addresses in Mead Chapel from at least 1977 to 1989. Ronald D. Liebowitz held his address there in 2005, and in the Mahaney Center for the Arts concert hall in 2008. Patton held her past two addresses in Wilson Hall.
“Many Middlebury parents have had the opportunity — some on multiple occasions — to hear from President Patton,” said Bill Burger, the college’s spokesman. “There will be many such opportunities in the future.”
Patton will return to Middlebury on Saturday night so that she can meet on campus with a group of parent volunteers on Sunday morning, Burger said.