‘We Are Travelers,’ Patton Says in Interview

Laurie+Patton
Laurie Patton

Laurie Patton

Middlebury College

Middlebury College

Laurie Patton

By ETHAN BRADY

President Laurie L. Patton spoke for an hour with three Campus reporters last month in a wide-ranging interview which was by turns personal and philosophical.

Amelia Pollard ’20.5, Elizabeth Zhou ’18 and Ethan Brady ’18 interviewed Patton in her office on Jan. 31. Bill Burger, the college’s spokesman, was in the room for the duration of the interview.

The Campus agreed to provide Patton a summary of topics from which questions would be drawn, but not to give any questions in advance. The interview touched on Patton’s vision for the institution as well as topical issues, including free speech and the Me Too movement.

She said Middlebury is “committed to the First Amendment principles of free speech and by extension, academic freedom. That’s part of who we are as an American institution.”

“It is our responsibility to cultivate in our students active and critical inquiry which means exposing them to ideas that may be uncomfortable,” Patton said.

Patton called Charles Murray’s visit to campus last March “painful and difficult.”

“I have learned from and been forever changed by the degree to which people were hurt by the events that occurred — both on our campus and beyond,” Patton said.

Patton shared several personal anecdotes in the interview. She said she practices scholarship for an hour a day. She also shared some of her personal hobbies, including vipassana meditation and walking her dogs.

“Dogs keep you completely grounded. They don’t care about their image or reputation,” she said.

When asked who she turns to for advice, Patton spoke about a group of women presidents that she belongs to. The women “have started to hang out together, talk to each other, call each other when things are tense or when they need to talk through problems,” she said.

In response to a question about how she sees her role as president, Patton said she was committed to Middlebury’s values on a personal level.

“I wouldn’t have come to Middlebury if I didn’t believe as a person that this institution’s values were my own values,” she said.

Patton fielded several questions about financial aid, which she called “the number one priority for me for fundraising over the next ten years.” She said she favored “slowly” growing the number of students on financial aid “in a way that’s financially sustainable” and leaves a balanced budget.

But, Patton said, full-paying students are necessary for the school’s current financial model.

When asked about how the college will distinguish itself in higher education, Patton described Middlebury as an “elite liberal arts college with fantastic graduate programs.”

“I think there are days when we can’t decide whether we’re Amherst or Hampshire. We’re in between those two places,” she said.

Patton proposed ways for Middlebury to collaborate with other NESCAC schools beyond the athletic field. She cited Colby’s museum of art, which last week received a $100 million gift to establish an institute for American art.

“Wouldn’t it be interesting for them to collaborate with our museum, which is growing and changing and doing interesting things?” she said.

In the interview, Patton stressed her goal of balancing the institution’s budget. She said that Middlebury was meeting its budget goals and surpassing them slightly. Monterey surpassed its own goals “at a greater percentage than the college has,” she said, for which she was proud.

She defended how Monterey is valuable to Middlebury and to the world, citing the institute’s consistent citing in New York Times articles on North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.

Patton also spoke about national and world issues. She called economic inequality “one of the major issues of our time,” and said that America is facing a “deeply difficult national moment.” She also cited Britain and Europe, where in the past several years populist movements have upended governments and institutions.

“Our challenge at Middlebury is that we need to embrace the difficulty of that moment and live through it.”

When asked about the nature of speech in the internet age, Patton said the instantaneous nature of communication “makes a huge difference to every minute of our days.” Students in 2018 exist “in a public sphere that nobody else has existed in, ever.”

It’s “very difficult to figure out at any given moment whether something is a public conversation or whether it’s a private conversation.” Because of that, she said, participation in the public sphere “takes more courage today.”

Patton often used terminology about travel to describe the school. “Middlebury now is not so much a noun, but a verb,” Patton said. “We are travelers.”

She mentioned travel across campuses — digital and physical. She cited interpreters for the United Nations who are affiliated with Monterey, professors who travel back and forth between Vermont and California, and video conferencing between Middlebury and Monterey, which occurred in the course on water Patton taught last spring.

Patton said she wanted to make sure “that instantaneous quality of life, as well as that hyper-connected quality of life, can be in service of liberal education.”

She said the college’s master plan, a campus planning document approved in 2008, should be connected to the school’s mission and vision. She used the temporary computer science building being built behind Johnson Memorial Building, in E lot, as an example of how her administration has adapted to changing times.

“This campus was not built for students from underrepresented backgrounds,” she said, but for “usually white” students in the 1800s going into “traditional male vocations.”

The spaces between buildings could be populated with works of public art, she said. She encouraged students to propose “pop-up contemplative spaces” on campus through the Fund for Innovation. She also praised a proposal by the Anderson Freeman Center to paint murals in buildings around campus.

Patton also answered questions about the Me Too movement and its impact on the college.

She said the movement “opened up all sorts of really important issues for everyone, around questions of sexual assault, around questions of reporting, and so forth.”

When asked how the college planned to address sexual assault in the wake of “The List,” Patton spoke about the Title IX office.

“If history is any indication, I expect and have confidence that the Title IX office will continue to respond to the needs of students,” she said.

She said the Title IX office needs to “continue to respond” to the campus’s changing needs while prioritizing “fairness for all students.” The college’s judicial system should be fair and open, she said, and the conversation about justice should be “always evolving.”

She spoke about three kinds of justice: one of equality, one of equity, and a moral justice, which deals with “righting historical wrongs.”

“All of those three ideas of justice should be at play in the mini-society that is Middlebury” — a society, she said, “of learners and teachers.”

Amelia Pollard and Elizabeth Zhou contributed reporting.

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‘We Are Travelers,’ Patton Says in Interview