A New Presidential Tradition Is Needed


Each year the Queen of England opens Parliament with a speech from the throne outlining her government’s legislative agenda. In similar fashion, President Trump will give a State of the Union address on Jan. 30, presenting his vision for the United States. These state speeches offer a model for Middlebury to function more like a cohesive institution: a yearly “state of the college” address given by the president during J-term.

January is a reflective period at Middlebury, sandwiched in between two semesters. The president’s office has already organized several campus-wide events this month that offer space for discussion. An annual presidential address would round it off, serving as a natural step toward achieving this administration’s own goal of achieving “rhetorical openness,” outlined in a document called “Envisioning a Rhetoric That Binds Us.”

The idea is not new among academia, either: Cornell, Texas and Virginia Tech all have yearly state of the university addresses given by their presidents. Smaller schools like Oberlin and Lafayette also have them, and arguably benefit more from them because of their tight-knit nature. Middlebury would be wise to follow these schools’ lead.

The past year has been turbulent for the campus. Since Charles Murray, administrative communication has been fraught. It came to a boil in the town hall in Mead Chapel last November. This event was necessary and cathartic, but it suffered from a lack of structure. The constant passing of mics left many questions unanswered.

The town hall, as messy as it was, was a positive thing for this campus, especially because it allowed students to hear directly from President Patton on a range of heated issues. This is something that our college needs.

Middlebury needs a better structure of communication in place, one that makes the administration accountable to its students and even alumni. A public address in Mead Chapel would encourage productive conversation, both qualifying and clarifying the direction of the college.

This board recognizes its own hand in placing sometimes impossible demands on President Patton. Students have asked that she stop talking and start listening, and now we’re asking her to talk. Generally, the president talks publicly when something goes wrong. But a speech built into the structure of the year would give more regularity to the president’s appearances. It would give her a chance to speak proactively on her administrations efforts improve this campus.

Like the United Kingdom or the United States, Middlebury is an institution rich in history. It could benefit from the ceremony of the presidential office. It also needs an accessible discourse on matters of college policy, from judicial processes to dining halls — one in which as many students as possible are involved, in a public forum and not in obscure committee rooms.

Public speeches with a question-and-answer session are healthy for a civil society, especially because they require an institution’s leader to outline her vision before a wide audience in plain terms. They also gives an opportunity to question and critique proposals. As we have seen with the current White House’s press briefings, the ability to present and defend decisions before a public audience is the mark of a good administration.

Further, the address would bring together all members of the institution to envision Middlebury’s future, especially alumni, who have expressed a keen interest in the state of the college in the comments section of this newspaper.

Such a speech runs the risk of descending into grand platitudes that whitewash unpleasant aspects of Middlebury. Our hope is that the president commits to discussing uncomfortable or challenging aspects of the school. It is precisely these that most direly need to be addressed.

In structuring the speech, the president would ideally make a concerted effort to address certain specific topics, not just push the communications office’s agenda. Perhaps the SGA could suggest specific topics they would like her to address. As a new campus tradition, this speech should cover issues of importance to Middlebury, much like world leaders talk about specific policies that are relevant to their nations’ debates.

This newspaper’s reporting has its limitations. Our reporters cannot read the administration’s minds. What’s more, trustee meetings are closed to reporters. A public address would give the president and administration a venue to present their voice directly to students without going through The Campus’ opinion pages — which are nevertheless always open.

To prevent the speech from becoming one-sided, a structured question-and-answer period is essential. What the town hall attempted to do was commendable, but it needs to be structured so that questions receive answers. It also cannot work unless there is mutual trust — trust that students are willing to listen, but also trust that President Patton will speak genuinely to the issues of greatest concern.

The state of the college should be discussed truthfully and openly, without spin, each year. In turn, many members of this institution will listen and ask questions as we collectively chart a new course.