MICHAEL BORENSTEIN/THE MIDDLEBURY CAMPUS
The community-initiated conversations have been hosted, the survey results analyzed and invitations to facilitated talks no longer populate student inboxes. The next phase of Envisioning Middlebury begins this semester, the phase in which the framework will start to have a concrete impact on the institution. Yet, despite the fact that this process has been in the works for well over a year, many in the broader Middlebury community still do not understand what it is.
That is in part because Envisioning Middlebury is not the typical strategic plan college presidents implement upon assuming their roles. Instead, it is a set of guidelines and values that inform decision-making, big and small, across the institution. Since Envisioning Middlebury’s adoption in 2016, members of every facet of the Middlebury community have engaged in dialogues centered around the future of the institution. Those discussions shaped and informed Envisioning Middlebury, and under President Laurie Patton’s direction, then-Provost Susan Baldrige took the lead in developing the new framework. The Board of Trustees approved the framework last October.
The decision to create a framework, rather than the typical checklist plan, came after issues that arose with the institution’s last 10-year-plan, Knowledge Without Boundaries, implemented under then-President Ronald Liebowitz in 2006.
Knowledge Without Boundaries took a more traditional approach, offering 82 concrete recommendations that were hindered when the 2008 financial crisis interrupted the subsequent fundraising process. According to Vice President of Communications Bill Burger, Envisioning Middlebury is intended to be “crisis proof,” to provide more flexibility and withstand unknown future obstacles.
This fall, the project will move into the implementation stage. With all the major building blocks of the program now in place, centered around a new mission statement, the institution is ready to accept proposals for “first moves” that will lead to changes based on the values and goals laid out in the strategic framework.
Envisioning Middlebury is comprised of five distinct pieces. First, a new institution-wide mission statement, which emphasizes immersive, engaged and creative learning. Second, a vision statement, which underlines the need for a “robust public sphere” in which citizens work across boundaries. Burger said the goal of the vision statement is to provide a more short-term focus in service of the broader mission statement.
The framework also highlights “distinctions,” or areas in which Middlebury already succeeds, and “directions,” which are areas for growth. Distinctions include Middlebury programs around the world, as well as more local programs like MiddCore and Oratory Now. The “directions” aim in part to bolster existing resources and programs, like the Anderson Freeman Resource Center and the Middlebury School of the Environment. Lastly, the framework includes four principles: promoting community, making intentional choices, responsible use of resources and committing time and space to collective goals.
Burger explained the principles as values that would guide intentional choice making. “That means holding ourselves accountable for the fact that Middlebury tries to do so much, or not allocate sufficient resources to our ambitions.” he said. “We have a tendency to stretch ourselves a little too thin sometimes and so these exist to help check ourselves as an institution.”
The entire framework can be found at go.middlebury.edu/envisioningmiddlebury.
With the framework in place, the Envisioning Middlebury Committee set about developing transformational goals, which the Board endorsed in January 2017. The three goals are to turn Middlebury into a center for persuasive and inclusive dialogue, a laboratory for curricular innovation and experiential learning and a globally networked changemaker. Each goal now has a working group led by a senior administrator who is responsible for brainstorming programs in pursuit of that goal.
ALL OF THE INSTITUTION
The framework also incorporates for the first time each part of Middlebury: the Language Schools, C.V. Starr Schools Abroad, Bread Loaf School of English, Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, School of the Environment, Institute of International Studies at Monterey (MIIS) and the undergraduate college.
Amy Morsman, interim dean for faculty development and research, believes the broad framework model is particularly useful for an institution with so many branches, though she acknowledged that it may feel undefined.
“It is a set of guidelines and that sometimes can feel frustratingly vague, but Middlebury is a big place and it doesn’t make any sense to create a fixed plan that is one-size fits all,” she said. “Some folks may not like that, but that is the reality of Middlebury, and so our strategic planning process should reflect that.”
The Campus reached out to three of the four undergraduate students who served on the advisory committee. Two felt that the inclusion of MIIS and other branches of the institution in the Envisioning Middlebury process made it harder to address issues specifically related to the college during the conversation phase.
“I had to keep reminding myself that Envisioning Middlebury was about all of the programs that fall under Middlebury’s umbrella,” said Tabitha Mueller, who graduated last May.
“I’d hoped Envisioning Middlebury would be a campaign to develop and strengthen the undergraduate college, but it took a macro-scale approach rather than a micro-scale one,” she said. “This macro-scale approach may have achieved the administration’s goals, but as a student, I remember getting frustrated because there was so much I hoped to address at the more micro-scale.”
Morgan Rawlings, a MIIS student, served on the advisory committee and wished more students and staff at the institute had participated. She felt the Envisioning Middlebury process was relevant to MIIS and hopes the framework will have an impact in Monterey. She also felt, like many at the college, that students at MIIS did not understand what Envisioning Middlebury was.
Jeffrey Cason, the interim provost and vice president for academic affairs, began overseeing Envisioning Middlebury on July 1 after Baldridge stepped down, and has been tasked with moving the framework from conversation to implementation.
“Envisioning Middlebury was designed to hear from as many voices as possible across Middlebury,” Cason said. “Now that those voices have been distilled into strategic directions and transformational goals, we have a solid foundation from which to act, and to build.”
According to Cason, the next stage of the process, which is already underway, is to solicit ideas from programs, departments, offices and self-organized groups on how to move forward within the framework. Cason received initial proposals for programs and initiatives on Sept. 14, though he says the submission process will be ongoing. Working within budget constraints, academic leadership will determine which projects have priority and help refine proposed ideas. “There will also be some great ideas that we will have to say no to, because they require resources that we don’t have or don’t align with the strategic directions,” Cason said.
Cason acknowledged that resource allocation is especially important since Envisioning Middlebury took shape as much of the institution is working to cut costs and rein in financial deficits. But he argued that a strong strategic framework is exactly what Middlebury needs in the face of tough financial decisions. “In a sense, the Envisioning Middlebury process is even more important now, when we know we have to limit our expenses,” he said. “We need to decide what is most important to invest in, and we need to prioritize.”
Envisioning Middlebury is designed to create change gradually while asking big, complicated questions about what Middlebury is and where it is going. Given the wide scope of the project, it is unclear whether current students will see the effects of the framework before they graduate. With time, though, the foundation laid so far during Envisioning Middlebury, and the work that has yet to be done, could fundamentally change the character of the institution.
For that to happen, Morsman believes, faculty and staff will need to continue to frame their work with the aforementioned directions and principles in mind. She acknowledged that this can feel like a big ask when everyone is already so busy.
“If people don’t stay engaged, then they are just leaving decisions to be made by a smaller group who have to pay attention to this, and that will reinforce the notion I have heard several times on campus that the administration is ‘just going to do what it wants anyway,’” she said, adding that the framework can create lasting change.
“I see the possibility of a Middlebury that is more focused, more collaborative among faculty and staff as well as students,” she said. “And more in tune with helping learners become highly capable participants and contributors to the world that is developing in this century.”