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Going All Out

Watching UVM and Middlebury send off their grads


Published May 26, 2004 at 4:00 a.m.

This year's crop of college graduates are being released into a world complicated by war and economic uncertainty. But you would never have known it from the motivational speakers hired to send them off. In simultaneous ceremonies, graduating seniors at the University of Vermont got an earful from playwright and screenwriter David Mamet, while their counterparts down the road at Middlebury College were inspired by actor Christopher Reeve.

Both were safe bets for institutions more interested in feathering their nests than ruffling feathers. Two thousand four has been a big year. While President Daniel Fogel has been pulling out the stops to bolster UVM's image, retiring Middlebury President John McCardell has built a new library and an unprecedented endowment.

We sent a pair of reporters out into the rain Sunday morning to get a read on the pomp and reflect on the circumstances.

UVM story: Peter Kurth

UVM image: Jordan Silverman

University of Vermont

What a difference 30 years makes! That's all I could think of on Sunday morning, as I huddled under a tree outside the University of Vermont's Waterman Building and listened to playwright-director-scenarist-essayist-novelist-poet-and-part-time-Vermont-er David Mamet tell 2284 graduating students that, to the best of his knowledge, "You can't go back."

He's right. If you do, you'll get rained on. I graduated from UVM in 1976 and such is my reward.

Trust me -- they called it a "drizzle" and "a very fine mist," but it was rain, pure and simple. I know this, because the notes I tried to take while Mamet gave his speech quickly turned into illegible blobs and streaks of ink. Professor Emeritus Robert V. Daniels, who delivered the "Closing Reflec-tion," and whom I've known since I was 7 -- eek! -- got the biggest laugh of the morning when the pages of his speech stuck together and he ventured that the modern university owed society some explanations.

"They decided two days ago that they'd have it out here unless there was a hurricane or something," said Alan Parshley, director of the University Brass Ensemble, who bravely led his troupe in processional music beneath a tent not far from where I stood. "They" also said that 10,000 people had gathered for the event -- the University of Vermont's 200th Commencement Ceremony and the first to be held on the UVM green since 1962 -- but I find that hard to believe. Either my eyesight is failing or the Class of 2004 has some very skinny relatives. Also, my glasses kept fogging up.

"The weather's not great, but the spirit is!" said Professor Emerita Marion Brown Thorpe, late of the UVM Home Economics Department, whose 2001 "Student Enrichment Fund" was established "to enhance the educational experiences of students enrolled in UVM's Family and Consumer Sciences Education program." Dr. Thorpe's simple words were the most inspiring of the day.

"You may be only one person in the world," she declared, "but you may be the world to one person."

This is the kind of thing that always makes me melt. Still, I expected something more from Mamet -- something fiery and passionate and, you know, socially responsible. In my day, if a big American war was going on catastrophically in some helpless part of the world, we'd all have been shredding our diplomas, overturning cars, burning our bras and French-kissing our girlfriends, while parents, faculty and newsmen gasped.

Note that we had no "boyfriends" then, no same-sex stuff, although we, just like the graduates on Sunday, were encouraged to follow our individual lights; to go out there and "make a difference"; to remember that "we're all individuals forming a whole"; and to put our own needs first in the service of a greater good. Mamet dispensed with this confusing, practically schizophrenic concept in his opening remarks.

Reflecting on his own very patchy formal education "at a college about 38 miles from here that seems to have disappeared" -- Goddard -- the Sage of Chicago seemed to be arguing against moral relativism, the noxious modern notion, born in contemporary schools of education and nursed there ever since, that everyone and everything are equally good, bad or indifferent, starting and ending with brains and ideas.

"I'm gonna talk a little bit about tattooing," Mamet began, referring to the age-old phenomenon of adolescent rebellion. He moved on from there to the human need for ritual and ceremony, the inevitability of suffering, the delusion of self-fulfillment, Moses, Pharaoh, the parting of the Red Sea, "this idiot shambles," "this sorry brink," "the punch in the nose of life" and his own undoubted "hero," hippie philosopher Eric Hoffer, among whose smarter remarks was the observation that "When people are bored, it is primarily with their own selves that they are bored."

Nobody on Sunday could argue with that, but, don't get me wrong, it was a fun speech. It was also fun to see David Mamet wearing a mortarboard and tassel instead of a baseball cap. Mamet described himself as "an egotistical bastard" -- I think he said "bastard," but my notes, as I've told you, were a bit wet -- and attributed his astonishing success in the world of arts and letters (Obies, Pulitzers, Oscar nominations, etc.) to "luck, genetics, greed, ambition and, perhaps, a small admixture of application."

This a terrible lie, really, when measured against Mamet's sheer output, but it's the kind of lie Mamet knows he has to tell so as not to seem elitist or, God forbid, more talented than most people. It may also be what he really thinks about himself, but I suspect that's only when he's tired.

"Never let a man like that into an academic environment," whispered a UVM department chair whose name I won't reveal in the interest of his safety and career. "They feel insecure and overcompensate."

OK, I don't really blame Mamet for this rambling stuff, any more than I blame UVM President Daniel Mark Fogel for insisting that the commencement be held on the green come hell or -- literally -- high water. At his best, Mamet discussed the importance of courage, "calling" and "devotion to devotion," saying, "We all die in the end, but there's no reason to die in the middle." The kids, in any case, reserved their loudest whistles and cheers for each other, and, when it was all over, immediately started telling reporters how hard it would be for them to find jobs.

Special mention should be made of the expert prelude music provided by David Neiweem, Professor of Music and University Carillonneur. But the absolute prize goes to somebody's grandmother, who, when UVM student Nathaly Fillion, Class of 2005, rose to sing the national anthem, the un-singable "Star Spangled Bannner," cried out in spite of herself: "Oh, that poor girl!" But, I have to say, Ms. Fillion did it very well, drenched though she and all of us were.

Middlebury story: Kevin J. Kelley

Middlebury images: Andy Duback

Middlebury College

John McCardell had reasons to gloat. Tastefully, though. The Middlebury College president began his commencement day welcoming speech last Sunday not by citing the school's many academic, athletic and financial triumphs of the past year, but by thanking support staff who had pitched tents to shelter speakers on a drizzly morning and prepared a luncheon for some 5000 celebrants. It was the sort of graceful gesture, executed effortlessly, that marks Middle-bury as a classy college -- in all senses of the term.

As its 203rd commencement demonstrated, Middlebury remains a WASP-y institution catering to students from well-bred backgrounds. Parking areas surrounding the college green were crammed with BMWs and Lexus sedans. The parents who drove up in them must have been among the 60 percent who didn't need any help paying the school's yearly comprehensive fee of $38,100 -- one of the priciest in the nation.

Middlebury has newly acquired an aura of Hollywood glitz to accompany its intellectual heft and scent of old money. The college's star power was put on display -- tastefully, of course -- as a beaming Meryl Streep received her honorary Doctor of Arts degree and as a clear-voiced Christo-pher Reeve delivered the commencement address. McCardell called Streep "the most accomplished actress of her generation," and highlighted Reeve's advocacy on behalf of disabled persons as well as his work as an actor, director and producer.

The college also acknowledged its prep-school tributary network by conferring an honorary Doctor of Letters degree on F. Washington Jarvis, who is about to retire after a 30-year stint as headmaster of Roxbury Latin School in Massachusetts.

The roster of other honorees showed that Middlebury takes care to cosset all its constituencies.

Doctorates were awarded to alumni for achievements in the fields of banking and psychiatry, and for long service to the college. Local resident Arthur Cohn was hailed for his work at the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum, which he co-founded 20 years ago. Kenneth Feinberg, special master of the September 11 Victim Compensation Fund and the father of a Middlebury student, was given a Doctor of Laws degree.

And as an affirmation of the college's continuing association with famed poets, it presented a Doctor of Letters degree to Paul Muldoon -- Bread Loaf faculty member, Pulitzer Prize-winner and "the most significant English-language poet born since the Second World War," according to the (London) Times Literary Supplement.

All the honorary degree recipients, as well as the 625 graduating seniors, were handed replicas of the walking stick twirled around town 200 years ago by Gamaliel Painter. That college co-founder, McCardell pointed out, had "bequeathed a significant sum of money" to Middlebury.

But even as it tastefully observed tradition and showcased its elite status, the college also demonstrated how much it has changed since Painter's time.

Commencement serves as "an anthropological rite of passage," remarked Dana Morosini Reeve, member of the class of 1984, in the commencement address she co-delivered with her husband, Christopher. Since that's undoubtedly so, Middle-bury itself might thus be said to have been signaling a transformation of its own.

Siddartha Rao, a mathematics major of apparently Indian ancestry, was chosen to deliver the student commencement address. In considering why "some of the brightest minds in the world come to Middlebury to get a college education," Rao made reference to The Matrix and quoted extensively from Friedrich Nietzsche and from Indian philosopher Adi Shankaracharya.

As Rao spoke, the flags of 36 nations swayed soggily from poles attached to a building behind the stage. The flags represented the homelands of this year's crop of international graduates. Students from outside the United States account for 8 percent of the college's total enrollment of 2400, while American minorities make up another 16 percent of the current student body.

Durcilla Johnson and Bill Jones, the proud parents of one of the African-American graduates, said their son greatly enjoyed his time at Middlebury. Morgan Jones, a Chinese major and prize-winning break-dancer, came to the college from Midwood High School in Brooklyn, which has an enrollment almost twice as large as Middlebury's, and where African-Americans are close to a majority. Morgan had "no trouble fitting in" at Midd, said his father. "He felt at home here."

As another indicator of its altered makeup, Middlebury's 16th president in 204 years will also be the first Jew to hold that post. Ronald Liebowitz, the college's provost and an authority on Russian economic and political geography, will take over from McCardell this summer.

As an expression of faith in the college's leadership, present and future, an anonymous donor recently gave Middlebury a gift of $50 million. This donation, the largest ever made to a New England liberal arts college, was immediately followed by another anonymous gift of $10 million.

The contributions extended in grand style the winning streak that Middlebury has enjoyed for the past couple of years, beginning with the election of James Douglas, an alum, as governor of Vermont.

The school's endowment now stands at $676 million. That's $100 million more than it had in the bank, and the market, less than a year ago.

Next month, the college will open its new $40 million, 140,000-square foot "library of distinction."

And then there's the Panthers' performance in athletic competitions. National championships were won this year by the men's hockey and tennis teams and by the women's hockey and lacrosse teams. Middlebury skiers bested perennial powerhouses, UVM and Dartmouth, in the Eastern Intercollegiate Skiing Association championships in February.

Many members of Midd's class of 2004 will likely continue winning as they enter the larger world. But Siddartha Rao cautioned his fellow graduates that success should not be defined in terms of "membership at a country club." And Dana Morosini Reeve warned, tellingly, "There's no way of knowing where life's journey will take you. Some choices will choose you."