Broken Inquiry on Campus: A Response by a Collection of Middlebury Students

On March 2, 2017, several hundred students participated in a disruptive protest to prevent a racist and academically discredited speaker from communicating with his audience on the campus of Middlebury College.  That this speaker would be presenting on campus was announced one week before the event.  Between the announcement and the event, hundreds of Middlebury students, alumni, and professors raised concerns or warnings about the event through institutional channels.

Let us be clear: we do not condone physical violence or intimidation. A very small group of protesters participated in such activities, and we reject that behavior. Our comments are meant to address the actions of the vast majority of Middlebury students and community members who attended the event in protest.

During this period and despite the significant concerns raised, the Middlebury College Political Science Department refused to withdraw its co-sponsorship of the event and the administration failed to take meaningful action.  In fact, President Patton agreed to speak at the event  – thus raising its visibility further.  After the event, President Patton sent two emails and initiated an investigation of the protesters involved.  Subsequently, more than 75 Middlebury College professors signed a document outlining what they believe to be “core principles” deemed “unassailable in the context of higher education within a free society.”  This document was then published in the Wall Street Journal to a national audience.

Below, we address each of those principles with the goal of expanding our collective understanding of the concepts and issues implicated by the events of March 2. With this document we hope to demonstrate that these principles, and their various applications, are not unassailable, but rather warranting of robust, nuanced, and continuing civil debate. Finally, we hope to begin altering the fundamental dynamics of our community, moving away from an imbalanced, disconnected dialogue and towards the collective establishment of core values at Middlebury.

Genuine higher learning is possible only where free, reasoned, and civil speech and discussion are respected.

Many who chose to disrupt the events of March 2 did so with this principle in mind. We contend that free, reasoned, and civil discussion are certainly necessary for genuine higher learning, but that the speaker in question denies the basic equality of those invited to engage in such discourse, and therefore undermines the foundation of such discourse. By protesting the characterization of the speaker’s research as worthwhile of academic inquiry, students did more to defend the integrity of reasoned and civil discourse at Middlebury than did the administration and co-sponsors of this event.

We hope that Middlebury College would not allow a classroom debate in which a white student argued that the black students in the class, due to inferior intellectual inheritance, did not belong.  We ask the undersigned professors to consider the historical and societal context for such a debate, and to consider what base assumptions make the inverse argument, that white students are genetically inferior to black students, so far outside of our collective imagination or dialogue.

Only through the contest of clashing viewpoints do we have any hope of replacing mere opinion with knowledge.

This principle is an effective statement of the intense and valid fears of those who decided to disrupt the event on March 2. By elevating bigotry and engaging with it in open debate under the misguided view that all ideas must be respected, we risk elevating biased opinions with no solid, factual foundation into the realm of  “knowledge”  and affirming the unconscious biases many hold.   In fact, the speaker in question has made this point explicitly in describing his work (1994):  “A huge number of well-meaning whites fear that they are closet racists, and this book tells them they are not. It’s going to make them feel better about things they already think but do not know how to say.” If we hold that the contest of clashing viewpoints is the only way to solidify knowledge, it naturally follows that we have a responsibility to articulate some parameters for which viewpoints are worthy of such a process.

To state that these protests are the product of mere “opinion” is to dismiss the real, felt experiences of the students who chose to dissent in various forms. We contend that experiences and emotions are valid ways to see the world, and that the hegemony of rational thought-based perspective often found in a university setting limit our collective creativity, health, and potential. If we are to move from opinion to knowledge, it is truly imperative to listen, understand, and reflect upon the various lenses members of our community use to view the world.

The incivility and coarseness that characterize so much of American politics and culture cannot justify a response of incivility and coarseness on the college campus.

We do not believe that physical violence, whether performed by Middlebury students, community members, or security personnel, is ever acceptable. While we understand the spirit of this principle, we contend that it denies the basic reality of many students on campus, who are met daily with incivility and coarseness. The Anti-Defamation League reports that 107 incidents of white supremacist activity have been documented on American college campuses in the current academic year. The report went so far as to call these figures an “unprecedented” level of white supremacist activity on college campuses in the United States. To suggest that marginalized students and their allies cannot meet intolerance with opposition is to apply an unfair double standard.

Furthermore, to suggest that we must insulate ourselves from the impacts of American politics and culture is to deny the context in which the speaker was brought to campus. In their Letter from the AEI Middlebury Student Leadership, the AEI Club wrote that the speaker’s talk would be “useful for all to better… understand how these divisions contributed to the election of Donald Trump, and how they are reshaping American society.” Clearly, the speaker was brought to campus to contextualize many of the troubling dynamics we have witnessed following the Presidential Election. Meanwhile his research, whether intentionally or unintentionally, provides a false legitimacy to the dangerous claims of some of the most intolerant groups in America.

The vast majority of students protesting the speaker did so nonviolently and with an earnest belief that they were doing the right thing. In reflecting on the protests, we ask that you be precise in what you believe to be uncivil and coarse and that you strive for a deeper understanding of what would move students to act in this manner. We ask that you support students in a way that does not condone violent protest or physical intimidation, but respects their right to peacefully disrupt what they see as injustice.

The impossibility of attaining a perfectly egalitarian sphere of free discourse can never justify efforts to silence speech and debate.

The impossibility of attaining a perfectly egalitarian sphere of free discourse does not mean that we should end all efforts to achieve such a laudable goal.  In fact, this has been a core premise of our liberal arts education at Middlebury: that we have the ability, and in fact the responsibility, to continue striving for a better world. In a moment where many students feel unheard or unsupported by our academic community, it is disappointing that the undersigned professors would not include the pursuit of an egalitarian sphere of free discourse on a list of unassailable core values for higher education.

Every day Middlebury students sit in classrooms that are far from egalitarian spheres of free discourse. They do not expect perfection.  But is it reasonable for students or community members to be asked to debate someone who has presented their intellectual inferiority as an irrefutable fact? When will minorities, low income students, and women no longer have to justify their presence in institutions of higher learning? Why do we not entertain similar conversations about the rest of our students?

Exposure to controversial points of view does not constitute violence.

This statement is by no means “unassailable.” In fact, academics and activists alike remain deeply divided over the relationship between intolerant speech and violence. After winning the Nobel Prize for literature, Toni Morrison said:

“Oppressive language does more than represent violence; it is violence; does more than represent the limits of knowledge; it limits knowledge… Sexist language, racist language, theistic language – all are typical of the policing languages of mastery, and cannot, do not permit new knowledge or encourage the mutual exchange of ideas.”

This statement makes for a more meaningful debate than the speaker could have ever given us. Is violence always physical? Can words be violent?

The events of March 2 could serve as part of a nuanced and inclusive discussion on this topic, if all sides were willing to listen. To label the speaker’s claims as “controversial” is to signal that the intellectual inferiority of women, minority, and low income communities is up for debate at Middlebury. Words have power. Throughout history, words resembling those of the speaker have been employed to legitimize and justify violence in many forms. In our society, disruptive protest is often considered violence, while the stripping of health care from millions, policy. Our collective and individual definitions of violence are worthy of more thoughtful debate.

Students have the right to challenge and to protest non-disruptively the views of their professors and guest speakers.

This principle represents a fundamental mischaracterization of the history of protest.  The foundations of protest lie in the intent to disrupt a norm in order to call attention to injustice.  Is passivity the only acceptable form of protest in higher education? Historically, institutions of higher learning have served as incubators for radically successful social movements, including the Civil Rights Movement and the opposition to US involvement in Vietnam, both of which were labeled as unruly and violent by many inside and outside the academic community.

In this case, the students who disrupted the event of March 2 did not believe that registering respectful disagreement was enough. They took the great risk of standing up for their principles, at the expense of their reputations, to insist that some views are not worthy of a platform at one of the most elite colleges in the country.

A protest that prevents campus speakers from communicating with their audience is a coercive act.

In his oft-quoted Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King Jr warned of a white moderate “who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action.’”  

We hope that our undersigned professors reflect on their unequivocal support of a white supremacist’s right to be heard, in tandem with their refusal to meaningfully consider the right of their students to engage in nonviolent protest (even if that protest interferes with the speaker’s ability to communicate).

No group of professors or students has the right to act as final arbiter of the opinions that students may entertain.

This principle cannot stand alone from the fact that choosing what opinions to entertain is itself a privilege.  If the speaker of March 2 was to be brought to campus to share his opinion, then did those most directly implicated in his claims have a choice to ignore him?  Not all members of the Middlebury community can afford to ignore such claims if they find them distasteful. Thus, a group of students, professors, and administrators acted as the final arbiter of the opinions those students must, out of simple self defense, entertain.

We ask our professors to consider the power that they hold in the Middlebury and national communities compared to their students. We ask that they consider whether, by nationally publishing a document of unassailable values in condemnation of what they deem to be unacceptable student action, they do not use their power to dictate the terms of the discussion. Finally, we ask them to consider, in the context of this principle, the implications of punishing students who peacefully disrupted the event of March 2.

No group of professors or students has the right to determine for the entire community that a question is closed for discussion.

What is the point of enumerating “unassailable” core values if not to signal that certain questions are closed for discussion?  When professors say “the impossibility of attaining a perfectly egalitarian sphere of free discourse can never justify efforts to silence speech and debate,” does that not signal to student protesters that they are unwilling to listen to or discuss alternative perspectives on the matter?

The purpose of college is not to make faculty or students comfortable in their opinions and prejudices.

This is an accurate statement, but one that rests on an inaccurate narrative about young people, and Middlebury students in particular.  It is disappointing that the undersigned professors would risk reducing the efforts of their students, who now face national scorn and disciplinary action to reject such a speaker’s ideas, as an attempt to remain “comfortable” in their opinions and prejudices.  Is it merely uncomfortable to listen to a speaker in a College endorsed and supported forum talk about whether you are genetically inferior?  It is not the College’s job to keep students comfortable in their opinions.  It is its duty to provide an environment that supports them as equals and as humans.

We respectfully submit that it is necessary for many Middlebury administrators and professors to venture from the comfort of their opinions and prejudices. To realize that retreating to the moral absolutes of free inquiry cannot and will not insulate our community from the perils of injustice. To realize that such isolationism in higher education, rather than protecting our community, actually reinforces inequalities.  

The purpose of education is not the promotion of any particular political or social agenda.

We agree.  The purpose of education is not the promotion of any particular political or social agenda.  Surely we can distinguish political and social agendas from the fundamental human agenda of insisting upon the basic equality of all individuals.  Refusing to stand by a core tenet as simple as this one – opening it up for debate and civil discourse – paves the way for hate and prejudice.   A commitment to open-mindedness is compatible with the decision to reject intolerance. We mustn’t be required to “hear both sides” when one side seeks to undermine the core values of a free, democratic society.

Further, whether or not education at Middlebury promotes any particular political or social agenda, an education from Middlebury College remains inherently political.  At a college where considerably more students are a part of the top 1 percent of income earners than from the bottom 60 percent, this reality is unavoidable.  The act of withholding education, or allowing it to be exclusive to certain groups, is political.  If Middlebury continues to advertise itself as a worldly institution, one focused on global justice and multifaceted diversity, then it cannot ignore the real links between its community and the outside world.

The primary purpose of higher education is the cultivation of the mind, thus allowing for intelligence to do the hard work of assimilating and sorting information and drawing rational conclusions.

We are in full agreement that the primary purpose of higher education is to cultivate the mind.  However, we reject the implications present in this document that the cultivation of the mind is a purely intellectual task. To help its students become informed, compelling, and driven members of society, the school must also be committed to their physical, emotional, and spiritual health.

By insisting on top-notch athletic and health facilities, nutritious food in dining halls, and a continuing campus conversation about stress, Middlebury has shown it understands the role that these other factors play in the lives of its students. This is why the portrayal of the events of March 2 as purely academic by many Middlebury administrators and professors is disappointing. Supporting this event did not acknowledge the non-academic consequences of the “civil debate” in question, one that is exhausting, upsetting, and deeply stressful for many in our community.

Moreover, we have seen evidence that organizing and protest can also cultivate the mind. Skill-based learning is also learning, and in working to register dissent effectively many students practiced entrepreneurship and innovative thinking (two values Middlebury hopes to instill). This protest and other forms of dissent were not, and should not be portrayed as, mindless.

A good education produces modesty with respect to our own intellectual powers and opinions as well as openness to considering contrary views.

Should black and/or latinx students at Middlebury be asked to “consider” whether the concentration of disadvantage in their communities is a matter of pathology, rather than clear historical factors?  Should women be asked to “consider” if they are innately less valuable than men in the workplace because they are more likely to worry about their kids?

If the answer to either of these questions is yes, then we must also consider why we do not ask our white male students to consider similar hypotheses. Perhaps it is because those students are not asked to have modesty about their intellectual powers and opinions. Perhaps it is because, as a society, we are not open to considering such a view.

All our students possess the strength, in head and in heart, to consider and evaluate challenging opinions from every quarter.

We also believe that all Middlebury students possess that strength.  This principle is not what the protests of March 2 were meant to challenge.  Rather, they were meant to challenge a college practice and policy which puts undue burden on specific groups of students, asking them to continually defend their right to exist in an academic community for the supposed intellectual enrichment of that same community.  This practice is wrong, one-sided, and must end. We ask you to employ your heads and hearts in considering our opinions, and our contexts, even if they may be challenging to you.

We, the undersigned Middlebury College students, have written and signed this document in the hope of creating a more connected, meaningful community discussion on these matters.  We ask that the professors to whom we are responding, and those who shared their words, consider this perspective: that many students on our campus felt and continue to feel unheard and unsupported by our community.  That feeling will not be addressed by enumerating “unassailable” core values or principles, which signals an unwillingness to listen or compromise, or by a narrow-minded focus on the rights of classically powerful individuals like the speaker on March 2.

This problem can only be addressed by a community-wide reckoning on who we are and who we hope to eventually become.  It will require of us, the Middlebury community, a new openness to immense discomfort, a discomfort that currently rests only on the shoulders of students who don’t have the option to ignore it.  It will demand of us the soft vulnerability of listening and the hard work of sharing.  It will ask of us constant action and accountability.  We will have to do it together, or it will not be done at all.

We affix our signatures to this document in the name of nuanced thought, inclusive conversation, and a steadfast commitment to uncompromised campus justice.  We encourage our peers at colleges across the country to remain committed to these principles as well, even when faced with institutional resistance.

Signed,

Alex Brockelman ’18
Emma Bliska ’18
Alexander Carlson ’18
Jiya Pandya ’17
Oakley Haight ’17
Vignesh Ramachandran ’18
Isabella Alfaro ’18
Gabe Weisbuch ’18
Alexis De La Rosa ’19
Toni Cross ’18
Jennifer Damian Reyes ’18
Nell Sather ’19
Zoe Keskey ’18
Sophia Leiter ’18
Mariana Oshana ’18
Anna Paritsky ‘17.5
Sarah Koch ‘18.5
Oliver Oglesby ’18
Sofi Hecht ’18
Klaudia Wojciechowska ’17
Jake Guth ’19
Eliza Renner ’18
Jocelyn Tenorio ’19
Natalie Figueroa ’18
Maya Peers Nitzberg ‘16.5
Weiru Ye ’19
Sandra Luo ’18
Elizabeth Giovanniello ’19
Emily V Cox ’17
Elizabeth Lee ’17
Syeda Habib ‘13.5
Steven Li ’18
Andrew Hollyday ‘18.5
Clara Sternberg ’19
Ben Freedman ’19
Nina Job ’18
Travis Sanderson ’19
Alexandra P. Scott ’19
Tiffany Martinez ’19
Anna Cerf ’18
Raphael Mettle ’18
Brendan Kelley ’18
Hannah Patterson ’19
Octavio Hingle-Webster ’17
Kathleen Wilson ‘18.5
Muriel Lavallee ’18
Jacob Villalobos ’20
Caroline Cating ‘16.5
Cindy Lee ’17
Sara Hodgkins ‘17.5
Julia Struzyna ‘19.5
Samuel Tompkins Martin ’19
Elizabeth Dunn ’18
Juliana Dunn ’19
Joshua Claxton ’18
Liana Barron ’18
Will Lupica ’18
Juan Andrade-Vera ’19
Amity Calvin ’16
Gigi Miller ’18
Jeremy Stratton-Smith ’17
Ian Driscoll ‘18.5
Caroline Grego ’11
Anahi Naranjo ’18
Hana Gebremariam ’17
Stephen Chen ‘19.5
Maya Doig-Acuna ‘16.5
Michael Cunningham ’15
Katherine Morillo ’18
Sandra Ruiz ’18
Emma Walker ’18
Bryce Williamson ’18
Fiona Mohamed ’18
Ernesto Barcenas ’18
Nina Curtis ’17
Sierra Jackson ’18
Tatyana Fernandez ’18
James Scott ’19
Maddy Dickinson ’18
Becca Holdhusen ’18
Jonathan O’Dell ‘18.5
Shuba Maniram ’17
Galen Fastie ’20
Michael O’Hara ’17
Danielle Surrette ’18
Bianca Gonzalez ‘17.5
Samantha Lamont ’17
Dylan Otterbein ‘15.5
Aashna Aggarwal ’16
Milo Stanley ‘17.5
Mika Morton ’19
Alejandra Chavez ’19
Alex Browne ’18
Catherine Brams ’18
Dingun Forrester ‘19.5
Julia Shumlin ‘17.5
Carissa Lee ’19
Ascencion Aispuro ’18
Sean Bonawitz, MIIS ’18
Donald Srader MIIS ’17
Divesh Rizal ’17
Isabella Alonzo ’18
Jessica DiFoggio, MIIS ’17
Susan Deutsch ‘19.5
Katy Murdza MIIS ’17
Patrick McElravey ’17
August Laska ’17
Harrison Gill MIIS ’18
Eleanor Eagan ’18
Michelle Hwang ’19
Ellen Colton ’19
Miles McQueen ’20
Deniz Bingul ’18
Anna Jacobsen ‘16.5
Michael Schermerhorn ’18
Juliette Gobin ’16
Will Kelley ‘19.5
Chris Feeney ‘19.5
Kaila Bradley ’20
Harrison Rohrer ’20
Kendrick Fernández ’19
Arden Coleman ‘20.5
Esteban Arenas-Pino ’18
Lia Yeh ’20
Kaitlynd Collins ’19
Lynn Travnikova ’20
Anna Iglitzin ‘17.5
Jeremy Vandenberg ’17
Ariel Watkins MIIS ’17
Austin Kahn ‘17.5
Clair Beltran ’16
Anna Durning ‘19.5
Matthew Sjogren ’19
Victoria Laven ’17
Yovany Martinez Barahona ’20
Devon Tomasi ’17
Julie Merchant ’17
Julia Trencher ’18
Mary Thomas ’17
Sandra Markowitz ‘15.5
Anna Willig ’20
Sarah Gledhill ’17
Cora Kircher ’20
Ruby Edlin ‘19.5
Lily Oyler, ‘15.5
Shaun Christean ’19
Prasanna Vankina ’18
Clare Donohue-Meyer ’16
Liesel Robbins ’18

Madeleine Bazemore ’19

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