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Town leaders say college President Liebowitz, who annunced he's leaving, has had large impact

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Posted on December 16, 2013 |
By John Flowers



Liebowitz at bridge opening_6441.jpg
ONE LANDMARK OF Ron Liebowitz’s tenure at Middlebury College is the downtown Cross Street Bridge, to which the college contributed $9 million. Liebowitz is shown speaking at the bridge dedication in October 2010. Independent file photo/Trent Campbell

MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury College President Ron Liebowitz has left a lasting mark on Middlebury — both the college and the town. Liebowitz this past Thursday announced he will step down on June 30, 2015, from the top leadership position he has held since 2004.

“It has been an honor of the highest order to serve as the 16th president of this remarkable institution and a gratifying and extraordinary experience, every day, for (my wife) Jessica and for me,” Liebowitz wrote in a letter to the college community explaining his decision.

John Tenny worked with Liebowitz for many years when Tenny was chairman of the selectboard. He cited the college’s assistance on construction of the Cross Street Bridge and its assistance in underwriting the newly created position of Business Development Director as examples of how the institution under Liebowitz’s leadership has recognized — and contributed to — initiatives benefitting both entities.

“(Ron Liebowitz) has been fully engaged with the community and been quite insightful about the needs and concerns of the community,” Tenny said.

“I think the town and the college together have enjoyed a very strong and productive relationship during Ron’s tenure, and I expect that will continue during the next year and a half (of his tenure),” he added.

Liebowitz said he announced his decision 18 months in advance in order to give college trustees the time necessary to select a search committee, conduct a thoughtful search to identify the best candidates, and select Middlebury’s next president.

“With its dedicated and committed staff, superb faculty and outstanding students, Middlebury has never been stronger or better positioned for the future, and it deserves the best possible presidential transition,” Liebowitz said in his letter to the community.

During Liebowitz’s presidency so far, the college acquired the Monterey Institute of International Studies; opened 23 new Schools Abroad sites; added 120 endowed student scholarships for financial aid and 15 endowed faculty positions; established the School of Hebrew — Middlebury’s 10th intensive summer language school — and the summer School of the Environment; sent two successful teams to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon competition; inaugurated the Franklin Environmental Center for the study of the environment and sustainability; created the Center for Social Entrepreneurship; and initiated an array of programs to help students acquire leadership and communication skills.

The college has also made headlines off campus during Liebowitz’s time at the helm of one of the country’s premier liberal arts institutions.

In 2007, Middlebury College and Town Hall Theater Inc. formed a partnership that allows the college regular use of THT’s building, and calls for the college to provide the organization with $1 million over 20 years to support an addition to the southwest corner of the building that houses mechanical rooms and wing space. The partnership also creates opportunities for college students to work with community members on theater productions and make more college performances accessible to the public.

Liebowitz recalled that agreement and other town-gown interactions during a phone interview with the Addison Independent.

“I thought, ‘Wait a minute, this has a multiplier effect,’” Liebowitz said of the partnership with the THT, a facility that attracts people who dine, shop and stay in local hotels.

He credited Bruce Hiland, a local entrepreneur and business leader, with helping him realize the value of investing in Middlebury and its economic development potential. He soon met with members of the local business community and asked each to come up with “a big idea, something where the college could be a partner with the town and the business community, to do something that would make a difference.” The notion of wireless Internet access in the downtown emerged as one idea, though it has yet to come to fruition.

It’s also been during Liebowitz’s tenure that the college agreed to contribute $9 million toward Middlebury’s Cross Street Bridge project and agreed to support “51 Main at the Bridge,” a student-managed eatery and entertainment venue that is in part designed to draw members of the college community into the downtown to shop.

Liebowitz, together with town leaders, has also been supportive of an “economic development initiative” envisioned for municipal and college-owned land behind the Ilsley Library. The college and town are finalizing an agreement through which the college would acquire and convey to the town the Lazarus building at 20 Main St., a structure that would then be razed to allow for widening of Printer’s Alley and better access to the Marble Works complex. For its part, the town would convey to the college the small amount of land it owns behind the Ilsley Library, which the institution would combine with its own holdings in that neighborhood to someday host an as-yet undefined commercial/office/retail project.

Middlebury selectboard Chairman Dean George lauded Liebowitz for his interactions with the town during his presidency.

“We’ve had a wonderful relationship with the college and working with (Liebowitz) has been a pleasure,” George said.

He believes that Liebowitz has understood the value of having a positive town-gown relationship, and said that philosophy has permeated interactions between the two entities.

TOWN AND COLLEGE

Currently, the college and town are discussing an agreement that would lead to the construction of a new municipal building and recreation center. That complex deal is proving controversial, as it calls for — among other things — the college to acquire the current municipal building/gym property at 94 Main St., which would be cleared for a park. Some residents adamantly believe the town should retain and rebuild on that site. Others believe the college should not come into possession of additional downtown real estate, particularly a parcel of such prominence.

Liebowitz acknowledged the recent controversy, but believes the town-gown relationship is — and will remain — strong.

“It’s really the norm for some tensions between an academic institution and a local community,” Liebowitz, a native of New York City, told the Independent. “It’s natural. There are different groups that represent different things and different missions. I believe … that we are really fortunate to be in a town like Middlebury, to have a history that we have as a college, and to recognize that we were founded by people from the town of Middlebury — not by some lone benefactor or in-migrating individual. That sets us apart and gives us a chance to work collaboratively with the town and to understand better some of these tensions.”

Liebowitz said it has been his goal to work with the town without a lot of fanfare.

“I’ve always wanted to foster a strong relationship (with the town),” he said. “I am one who firmly believes that the future and well-being of our institution is tied in with a healthy town of Middlebury, and vice-versa.”

Liebowitz, now 56, graduated in 1979 from Bucknell University, where he majored in economics and geography and competed as a varsity swimmer. A specialist in Russian economic and political geography, he earned his doctorate from Columbia University.

He first came to Middlebury in 1980 and 1981 — as a Language School student. Liebowitz joined the faculty at Middlebury in 1984 to teach geography. He was promoted to associate professor in 1988 and full professor in 1993. He was appointed provost in 1997 and began his presidency on July 1, 2004, succeeding John McCardell Jr.

In 2009, Time magazine named Liebowitz one of the “10 best college presidents” in the country. He and his wife, Jessica, have three children: David Heschel, Shoshana, and Ezra.

COLLEGE GOVERNANCE

While he has announced his departure timetable, Liebowitz stressed he will continue to be an active leader during the next year-and-a-half. His announcement coincided with the college trustees’ approval of a new board governance structure that will take effect July 1, 2014.

The college’s most recent reaccreditation by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges in 2012 noted that “Middlebury’s organizational structure has yet to catch up with the rapid rate of change in the institution.” The report recommended the creation of “administrative and governance structures that reflect the college’s varied programs and geographic reach” (see related story here).

Marna Whittington, chair of the Middlebury Board of Trustees, called Liebowitz a “transformational president” for Middlebury.

“Ron has never been content with what Middlebury is,” Whittington said in a written statement about Liebowitz’s announcement. “Instead, he has always focused on what it can be. His passion for Middlebury is unmatched and he has led this institution brilliantly. The unyielding dedication to a demanding and long-term view of Middlebury’s educational mission, which Ron and Jessica Liebowitz have demonstrated through their work together, is truly extraordinary.”

While he will miss Middlebury, Liebowitz is confident that the time is right for his departure. He does not anticipate remaining in the college’s employ in some other capacity after June 30, 2015.

“It is time for the institution and for us to do something new,” he said.

“It has been an honor and a privilege to be here.”

Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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