‘Ron on Middlebury’ has moved!

We are now hosted at the Middlebury blogging site. Please join us there.

The economic downturn, budget cuts, and (more) student input

Like most presidents of colleges and universities, I have been trying to keep a wide range of constituents apprised of how the steep decline in the American economy is affecting the College. This has been a collective effort, as my administration and the Trustees share my desire to be fully open about the current state of College finances. We have circulated memos, held open meetings, and posted as much information as we can on the College Web site describing our economic status. And we began the process of budget-cutting early in this academic year. This has proven to be a good decision since-as I continuously remind people-we do not know whether we have hit the bottom of this global recession.

I will not repeat here much of what I have been saying for the past six months, but I do want to highlight some of the challenges we have encountered in trying to overcome the $20 million deficit we would experience if we didn’t make major cuts now. Our Budget Oversight Committee (BOC), which is comprised of two faculty, two staff, two students, and three administrators, has worked hard to review many suggestions that have come from the College community at large, from members of the president’s staff, and from within the committeee’s ranks. It has done remarkable work in what is an unprecedented economic environment, and it has had to work relatively quickly (for an academic institution) because the sooner we negate a budget gap, the less of an accumulating deficit we will face and need to address two, three, and four years out. Thus, while many would like a slower and more deliberate process than the one in place, doing so would require more drastic cuts in future years.

The big issue for all of us is how to engage and involve students more effectively in the choices before the BOC. I recognize that having two student representatives on BOC does not meet many students’ desire to voice their opinions on options before the committee as it makes its recommendations to me. Acting Provost Tim Spears and I will be meeting with the Student Government Association (SGA) this coming week to see if it can form its own budget oversight committee to recommend cuts in the budget. We will also see whether SGA can develop a process that will get from students a collective sense of what are the most important things to preserve so the BOC and I are better informed about student opinion regarding specific programs and services on campus.

To date there has been less visible student interest in the budget situation than I would have thought. The two open meetings for staff that our chief financial officer Patrick Norton, Tim Spears, and I hosted earlier this month (February 5-6) attracted nearly 500 staff members. Each meeting lasted two hours and included many, many good questions from the floor. The February faculty meeting (February 16), with finances on the agenda, was very well attended, and included, again, good questions and discussion from a wide range of colleagues. The open meeting for students, on the other hand, held at 7:30 p.m. on a Monday evening (February 10), drew fewer than 40 students. The discussion was very good, and there were more good questions, but the turnout was a disappointment. 

I will be holding more open meetings for students this semester-the next will be Thursday, March 5, at noon in McCullough Social Space-and I hope students will attend and participate. In the meantime, I would love to hear any ideas on how to bring students up to speed on the nature and magnitude of the financial challenges before us, as well as finding ways to hear what is most important to them. For starters, they should consult the Web site listed above and try to attend the open meetings in the coming months so their concerns and suggestions will be better informed and placed in a context that reflects these severe economic circumstances.

Wednesday vs. Saturday Baccalaureate?

Commencement is the most important of college traditions, and one of the activities that fills our Commencement weekend is the Baccalaureate service, which takes place on Saturday afternoon in Mead Chapel.

Traditionally, the purpose of Baccalaureate was/is for the president to give a farewell address to the seniors, which the president now gives to graduating seniors and their families.  Because space is limited in Mead, our largest (and traditional venue) we hold two services.

Over the years, students have questioned the logic of dividing the class for this event, since it represents the “other bookend” of one’s education, where the first bookend was first-year convocation.  At convocation, the president welcomes students to campus, and addresses the entire class as one. 
Following several queries from students, we have been discussing what alternatives we have to the current set up.  One that has been proposed would be to move the hour-long Baccalaureate service to Senior Week, and hold it on Wednesday afternoon just before the Senior BBQ.  In this scenario, we would hold just one service, which would enable the entire senior class to be together in Mead just as they were at Convocation when they first entered Middlebury.  We could then have a class picture following baccalaureate as we did following convocation, and move the senior BBQ to the quad in front of McCullough. It would also open up Saturday afternoon for families to take part in other events on campus, or just share time together.  The downside to this option is that families would not be able to attend the service with the graduating seniors.
I would like to know whether this option has any appeal to the class of 2009. Let me know what you think by leaving a comment.  Thanks.

UPDATE: sorry for the original typo and thanks for finding it.  I did mean the Class of 2009

Tragedy in Gaza

Amid all the hoopla and celebrations surrounding the inauguration of Barack Obama (more on that in another post), there comes terribly sad and tragic news within the Middlebury community.

Amer Shurrab, a recent Middlebury graduate from Gaza and a United World College graduate, lost two brothers in the recent conflict in northern Gaza. Twenty-eight year old Kassab and 18-year old Ibrahim were shot as they tried to make their way from their farm back to their village.  Amer’s father was with his sons when the attack occurred. He survived the shootings, and tried for hours to get aid to his sons, but medics were prevented from moving into the zone of conflict. You can find an interview with Amer about the tragedy at the Democracy Now Web site.

Amer completed his degree in economics at Middlebury this past December.  He was in Washington, D.C., when this tragedy struck. Friends are now organizing to help raise funds in support of Amer and his family. Details  on their effort can be found below.

Amer will be coming to campus this weekend, and there will be a memorial/prayer service on Thursday, January 29, at 7:30 p.m. in the Abernethy Room of the Axinn Center. 

Our hearts go out to Amer and his family, and we hope many in the extended Middlebury community will reach out and help Amer in whatever way they can.

Update, January 25: Help for a Gaza Family

. . . This tragedy has left Amer and his family in dire need of assistance. They are struggling to pay hospital fees for Mohammed Shurrab’s injury, and to pay burial fees for Kassab and Ibrahim. In addition, the Shurrab family lost their small farming business 18 months ago as the Israeli blockade on Gaza resulted in a lack of gas supplies and birdfeed. As a result, they need assistance in reviving it to sustain themselves economically.

We are devastated by Amer’s loss, and want to help him and his family as much as possible. This is why we are launching a fundraiser for Amer and his family. The money collected will go to support Amer’s family in Gaza directly and cover their basic needs. A fraction of your donation will also go to help Amer, who graduated a month ago, and is struggling to meet his living expenses.

Please join us in helping Amer and his family get back on their feet. You can do so by donating through Paypal, or by sending a money order or check to the following address where Amer currently resides:

Amer Shurrab
c/o Tristan Hayes and Pavel Svaton
2414 N 18th St
Arlington, VA 22201

You can also choose to donate to many of the international and local aid agencies currently operating in Gaza. Below are a few suggestions of internationally renowned organizations.

1) ICRC – allows you to donate specifically to help in Palestine
2) The UN – through UNRWA – has a “Special Gaza Appeal”
3) Physicians for Human Rights has offices in Israel and has been working in Gaza

We thank you for your help at this time of urgent need.


Tristan Hayes and Pavel Svaton

 Donate via PayPal (account required)

The Green Chicken for the Blue and White

Congratulations to the Middlebury College students who won this year’s annual “Green Chicken” competition against Williams College last week.

During the same weekend when the Middlebury varsity men’s soccer team and women’s field hockey team defeated their Eph counterparts, and our women’s soccer team lost a tough match (1-0) against Williams’ top-ranked D-III team in the nation, our team of math students won back the Green Chicken in a closely contested competition by the score of 293-288. The win snapped a Williams five-year win streak, and returned the highly prized green chicken casserole dish to Middlebury for at least one year.

The Boston Globe ran a piece on this rather unique and, I might add, not-yet-an-NCAA sponsored competition, on October 13. Have a read.

Kudos to the Panther’s top scorers, Victor Larsen, Ying (Daisy) Zhuo, Shengen Zhai, and Chaoyi Chai, and to other members of the victorious team: Danny Crow, Angelo Fu, David Fouhey, Armaan Sarkar, Kim Ammons, Chester Curme, Nicole Hansen, Jia (Coco) Liu, Casey McGowan, Stephen Jewell, Jeff Leitch, and Gavin Bauer.

If only Williams had a geography program, I would propose an appropriate competition that captured all the positive things the Green Chicken competition generates for our two institutions’ mathematically inclined students. Any other ideas?

Update on Financial Challenges, After the Fall Trustee Meeting

To the College Community:

The Board of Trustees met this past week for a retreat and its autumn meeting. As expected, we talked a good deal about the current financial situation and how it is likely to affect the College, including faculty, staff, students, and the families of our students. Members of Faculty Council, Staff Council, and the Student Government Association joined the Board for most of the retreat. The Trustees affirmed the approaches we are taking to address the financial challenges we face, which I outlined in my last memo to the community a little more than one week ago.

We will begin a campus-wide process to engage these challenges when the Budget Oversight Committee convenes this week. In addition, I, along with Patrick Norton, our chief financial officer, will share with various groups what we presented at the trustee retreat, beginning with a presentation to the Student Government Association at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, October 28, followed by one to faculty at the November 3 faculty meeting, and then another to staff at an open meeting in Dana Auditorium from 9:30-11:30 a.m. on Wednesday, November 12.

In the coming weeks we will schedule other meetings at which we will share information and answer questions people have about the current economic situation as it relates to the College. I will also communicate with the campus community via e-mail or postings on the College’s website.

Once again, I encourage all in the community to become informed and engaged as we seek ways collectively to secure the long-term financial health of the College. If you have any ideas, please submit them at our online suggestion box.



The Global Financial Situation and Middlebury

There is little I can add to all that has been written during the past month about the current turmoil in the financial markets around the world.  I thought it might be useful to post the two memos I sent to the campus (on September 8 and October 8), the latter of which includes a “questions and answers” sheet about the financial downturn and how it relates to the College.

With new developments surfacing frequently, I plan to update the campus community, as necessary, as we monitor the impact of the financial crisis on the College.  I have also included a link to an online suggestion box the College has set up to solicit ideas for reducing costs in response to current economic conditions:

As I wrote in my memo, we approach the financial challenges from a position of relative strength.  At the same time, we will need the collaboration of our on- and off-campus communities to meet those challenges most effectively.  I look forward to hearing what you think. Leave a comment here, or use the suggestion box.


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