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Middlebury College selects Patton as first female president

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Posted on November 20, 2014 |
By Zach Despart



MiddPres0110.jpg
MIDDLEBURY COLLEGE'S PRESIDENT-ELECT Laurie Patton, the dean of Trinity College of Arts and Sciences at Duke University, takes questions from the media at a press conference in the Davis Family Library Tuesday afternoon. Independent photo/Trent Campbell

MIDDLEBURY — The Middlebury College Board of Trustees on Tuesday chose as the institution’s next president a scholar in religion and a top administrator at one of the nation’s elite private colleges.

Laurie L. Patton, a dean at Duke University, will succeed current President Ronald D. Liebowitz on July 1, 2015. She will be the 17th president of the college, which was founded in 1800, and the first woman to hold the post.

The board elected Patton unanimously Tuesday morning and the college introduced the new president at a news conference Tuesday afternoon. She made it clear that she would be a hands-on leader who would leave her mark on the college.

Among the things she identified as areas she would move on were expanding diversity at the college — in particular diversity of financial background — and integration of the many schools and institutes that fall under the Middlebury College umbrella.

Patton, 53, said she would work to make the college more affordable to students by increasing the size of the Middlebury’s endowment, which recently eclipsed $1 billion, and diverting more resources to financial aid.

As an administrator at Duke, Patton said she has been a prolific fundraiser, spending as much as 30 percent of her time on the road.

“I am an active an engaged fundraiser in my current position,” Patton said. “I greatly look forward to doing that for the Middlebury community. I want us to be as aggressive as we can be in increasing our endowment.”

Patton described the rising cost of higher education as a complex issue and pledged to look to make some areas of the college more efficient while preserving the integrity of education. But she cautioned that cost cutting across the board does not make sense.

“There are certain things that can never be made more efficient, and shouldn’t be,” Patton said. “They are gloriously inefficient, and that is making sure the educational practices Middlebury is known for continue and deepen.”

She identified “relationship building” as one of those “gloriously inefficient” processes.

Patton said she believes Middlebury’s financial aid packages are stellar, but there is room for improvement. She cited research that found that the more named scholarships a school creates, the more successful it is in attracting an economically diverse student body.

“I look forward to being creative with our financial aid packages and building them even more vigorously so that diversity — economic, racial, academic — is protected,” she said.

TOWN-GOWN RELATIONS

Patton said she would also work to maintain the strong relationship with the town of Middlebury that Liebowitz championed. She said she has experience in town-gown relations, notably a program at Duke that enables professors and community members to work together on scholarship.

“Duke has a very active Duke-Durham partnership, so I’ve been very much schooled by both what exists in that arena,” Patton said. “If colleges and universities are not outward-facing toward the community, then they will not thrive in the 21st century.” 

She said in the future, the relationship between colleges and communities should be one of “mutual interdependence,” rather than a series individual projects that begin and end. Patton praised Liebowitz for his work on this issue, and vowed to continue it.

“I think that these kinds of partnerships between communities and colleges are the magical spot where higher education and communities can thrive,” she said.

As for being the first woman president in the college’s 214-year history, said it is a “wonderfully happy accident” that she is a woman, and said the best thing she can do is serve as president to the best of her abilities.

Patton said through her research in South Asia she has worked with many women who did not have the same opportunities she was afforded, and said educating women should be a global priority. She said she works with a micro-lending program in India and a program that offers scholarships to young women.

“One of the great joys I have as an educator is being able to mentor young women who have not had the chance to build the confidence to come into their own voice,” she said. “It’s a privilege to be a role model in that regard.”

PATTON CHATS WITH faculty member Phani Wunnava on campus Tuesday. Independent photo/Trent Campbell

BIOGRAPHICAL DETAILS

Patton, a Danvers, Mass., native, earned a bachelor’s degree from Harvard University in 1983 and a master’s from the Chicago Divinity School in 1986. She then earned a Ph.D. in history of religions from the University of Chicago in 1991.

Her teaching career includes posts at Bard College and Emory University. Most recently, she served as the Robert F. Durden Professor of Religion at Duke University. She has authored nine books on South Asian history, culture and religion as well as two volumes of original poetry.

Patton has also translated into English the classic “Bhagavad Gita” from its original Sanskrit. She has also published two books of her own poetry.

She has lectured widely on interfaith issues and on religion in public life, according to the Duke website.

Patton is married to Shalom Goldman, a professor of religious studies and Middle Eastern studies at Duke. Goldman will move with his wife to Vermont and join the Middlebury College faculty.

SELECTION PROCESS

At the news conference introducing Patton she was flanked by board of trustees Chair Marna Whittington and Vice Chair Al Dragone Jr., who also headed the search committee. They said the 20-member presidential search committee selected Patton from an initial group of more than 250 people, which was narrowed to a small group of finalists.

Whittington said the committee talked with all of the college’s constituents at the start of the search process and there was a universal desire for a female president.

Dragone said that the final candidates the board evaluated came from diverse backgrounds.

“We felt we wanted to see the most diverse group of candidates possible, but the goal was to find the best-qualified candidate,” he said. “It so happened that we started with 260 nominations and ended up with five finalists ... and four of the five were diversity candidates.”

Dragone said as the board whittled down its list of candidates, Patton’s skills and attributes impressed the trustees.

“We’re thrilled to have her as Middlebury’s first female president,” Dragone said.

Board Chair Whittington said that the board didn’t just wait around for applications to come in — they reached out to potential hires, including Patton.

“We worked very hard to convince Laurie that she was interested in talking to us,” Whittington said. “I think that perseverance and commitment to find the best candidate from a diverse pool paid off.”

Whittington said the search committee unanimously selected Patton, who was then elected unanimously by the board of trustees.

Liebowitz joined the Middlebury Geography Department faculty in 1984 and became president in 2004. Last December he  announced that he would retire at the end of the 2014-2015 academic year.

He praised the board’s choice in selecting Patton, and said in a statement that she is a “remarkable scholar whose deep commitment to her field would be an example and inspiration” to the Middlebury Community.

Liebowitz has not announced his next career step.

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