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Friday, Dec 1, 2023

If We Are to Move Forward

The word “community” is a trite word on this campus — in classes, in club meetings, in glossy admission materials. Since the beginning of her tenure, President Laurie Patton has stressed the importance of “rhetorical resilience” in strengthening the communal ethos of Middlebury.

But when it comes to the long and complicated work of building a more just and tolerant community, what is the non-rhetorical (interpersonal) labor necessary? Our campus is small and intimate. Trust is the underlying fiber that weaves us together.

It’s safe to say that this core tenet of our campus is fractured. Charles Murray’s appearance last spring revealed and exacerbated the pre-existing rifts that divided us and continue to drive us apart — between people and systems, between people and people. Those schisms were picked up by national media outlets, exploited, sensationalized. Everyone had an opinion on how and why the Murray incident occurred and what should have happened instead. The drama was discussed and re-discussed. Some voices were amplified, others drowned out. Now that the national media has moved on, we’re left in this shared space to mend our community.

The turbulence surrounding Charles Murray’s visit wasn’t about him. His visit was merely the straw that broke the camel’s back — the incident that opened up the floodgates and revealed the burgeoning tension, frustration and anger that lived on our campus. What the event proves is that Middlebury was not, and still is not, the ideologically homogeneous bubble that some may have believed it to be. We must address this reality head-on because the events of March 2 unveiled divisions and threatened our trust in one another.

The usual conversations about race, class and gender will help us begin to heal. But it is crucial that we move forward with more rigor, and especially more vulnerability, to rebuild our shared space. Vulnerability is what allows us to change and improve. When we are vulnerable we are transparent, revealing our most authentic selves — especially the flaws — and making us more empathetic and prepared to grow. 

But it’s hard to guarantee vulnerability. It’s a challenging, serious thing to ask of anyone. True vulnerability is nearly unheard of from our administration, a body bound up in obscure legal requirements and inhibited by a strict PR narrative. Meanwhile, the faculty are vulnerable on occasion. Take when Bert Johnson publicly apologized for the departmental process of symbolically co-sponsoring Charles Murray’s talk. But more often than not, the faculty — worried, in every likelihood, about upholding authority in the classroom — seem rigid and lacking in tenderness.

Moreover, as students at an elite college, we are trained to believe we are perfect and “good, open-minded people.” But this hubris is not conducive for vulnerability. We are not good at admitting fault. All this serves to create distance, fear and distrust.

We also need to assume the best of each other. A successful community requires a foundation of goodwill. We must engage with people in a way that allows everyone to fail and learn, while recognizing that the onus of explaining and educating falls on the same groups of people all too often. This is hard to balance, but not impossible. Rebuilding the trust between students, faculty and the administration starts with recognizing that many in our community face challenges to their identity, and sometimes humanity.

It also means problematic ideas should be confronted accordingly and not indicted as malice. Similarly, systems and institutions should not be confused with individuals. We as students can criticize the administration and faculty, while simultaneously acknowledging individual administrators and professors who are serving our best interests. We all can stand to be more sensitive and patient as we look to make our campus an example of unity, equity and kinship.

All members of the Middlebury community — including the 638 new freshmen we are welcoming this fall — should believe in each other’s goodness and be dangerously vulnerable. In the past, The Campus has used its position of relative power in ways that have alienated fellow members of our community. We pledge to better use our platform to amplify the voices of those who have been speaking up about injustice at Middlebury all along — such as the AFC and cultural organizations.

Certain student leaders have stressed, time and time again, the importance of refusing to shy away from the effects of division and inequity at Middlebury. We need to learn and build from the mistakes of last year. We will undoubtedly make more, but with commitment, this year can be one of growth for our community.