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Year 50: An Interview With President Laurie Patton

Laurie Patton with her dog Suka at a football game in 2021.

The Middlebury athletic department continues its year-long celebration of Title IX with an interview with Middlebury President Laurie Patton.

As someone who has worked in higher education for many years, what are some of the impacts you’ve seen of Title IX over the years on both the academic side and within athletics specifically?

On college and university campuses, I think Title IX was experienced in stages. At first, it was understood as primarily a form of protection against discrimination. Over time, while that purpose of Title IX continued to be understood as a baseline, it was also understood as an opportunity to begin to build equity for women and minorities by creating more women’s teams, recruiting more athletes from underrepresented groups, and developing leadership possibilities. for women and athletes of color. Now, Title IX has also become a resource where universities and colleges can celebrate access for all athletes, and constantly improve their practices of equity and inclusion.

In your bio it says that you are, “the first woman to lead the institution in its 222-year history.” What does that mean to you?

It means a lot. When I first came on board, I realized that in many ways Middlebury had been ready for a woman leader for a long time. There was a lot of openness to different leadership styles, and a real conversation about ways in which a woman might choose to lead differently. When I feel as if institutional mindsets or habits might need to be changed, I have always felt comfortable saying so. I’ve shared articles on gender and leadership, and had truly transformative exchanges with faculty, staff, students, board members, and community members. That says a lot about an institution and the community around it.

The Middlebury women’s teams, and individuals on women’s teams, have had unprecedented successes during the 50th year of Title IX. How does it make you feel to hear that?

Unbelievably proud and truly moved. I have had the chance to talk to some of the coaches, players, faculty, retired coaches, alums, and community members. They are all so invested in Middlebury as a powerhouse for women athletes. With the women’s teams, you see filled stadiums, rinks, and benches. If you had said to me at the beginning of Title IX several decades ago that I would have a chance to lead a place where the women’s teams created this kind of positive vibe and community excitement, I wouldn’t have believed it. I would have thought it was heaven. And now we’re all living that extraordinary reality.

What do you think it represents for Middlebury as a community?

Imperfect as all communities are, I think Middlebury is doing the work of equity and inclusion for each generation. Athletics has stepped up in this space, and has also had to face some truly tough moments. There have been hard conversations at Middlebury, as at all institutions of higher learning, about the role of athletics. Are athletes connected enough with the rest of the community? Are they working enough on their own practices of equity and inclusion so that all feel welcomed and ready to play? While we don’t have it all perfect, we are committed to doing that work. The “Leaning Into Discomfort” series helped with that challenge, and I hope students, coaches, and others can continue to talk about these questions openly and with integrity.

You made an impactful decision to purchase all tickets for the NCAA Division III Women’s Ice Hockey Championship weekend in honor of the Title IX Celebration. What was the driving force behind making this decision?

It was a no brainer. We wanted everyone to be part of the moment and found the money to make that happen. I was delighted to have the opportunity.

We’ve had numerous athletes and fans talk about how having free admission eliminated a barrier that is often found in supporting women’s sporting events. How does it feel to be apart of that change?

I wish I could be part of more changes like this—every day. It’s truly an honor to drive as many of them—small and large—as I can.

What do you feel this illuminates in regard to barriers with supporting women in sports and women’s sports?

My theory of change is: “Have a party and see who comes.” I’ve never been part of any meaningful change that has been exclusively top-down, even though top-down changes are sometimes necessary. When people go ahead and become the change that they want to see, and are celebratory and joyful about that change even though it might be hard, people tend to resonate with it. I think the way to push down barriers is to have a long-term view, be joyful, and be strategic. And keep going no matter what, because the results over time will continue to speak for themselves. I’ve definitely seen that happen at Middlebury when it comes to women’s sports.

What advice would you have for young athletes and girls looking to get into sports?

I like quoting Assistant Director of Athletics and head field hockey coach Katharine DeLorenzo, who almost never talks about winning. Rather, she focuses constantly on the strategy and beauty of the game of field hockey. She works really hard with the team in analyzing the moves of each player on the next team they will face. It’s a form of respect—even affection—for the opposing team, as well as a deep appreciation for the elegance of the game. So I’d say to any young athlete, “What an incredible opportunity—to have a chance every day to focus on the elegance of play and to develop one’s strategic thinking. Your confidence about yourself, and life, should start from there.”


 

Do you have any highlights or memories of women’s teams or individuals this year?

I bring my big white Great Pyrenees dog Suka to as many games as I can. (She’s a specialist in helping teams come from behind or break a tie. So watch out when she arrives!) Suka is fantastic with people, but can get feisty with other dogs, so I keep a little distance and walk around the fields to let people know I’m there. So from walking the circumferences of the fields, I have wonderful memories of listening to how the team members on the sidelines encourage the players on the field. I’ve also had a chance over the years to overhear the conversations in the basketball and volleyball huddles, and to talk to the swim team members about how they view their sport. I think it’s no accident that Midd student erin nicholas is being awarded a national honor as the top athlete in Division III. But she would be the first to tell you that there are so many other women athletes who are role models for her. Midd women are grounded, focused, and ready for action. They want to connect. When I asked one woman what she loved the most about her sport, she told me that she was proud of her coach for being a good listener that year. That response told me so much.

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