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Monday, Feb 26, 2024

Faculty for Inclusive Community Discuss Vision For College

Last March, student-led protests of Charles Murray garnered nationwide media coverage, much of which fell into an ongoing debate over the state of free speech on college campuses. Of particular note was “Free Inquiry on Campus,” a statement of principles first published in The Wall Street Journal in March and signed by over 100 Middlebury faculty, which emphasized a commitment to free speech and condemned the protests as “coercive.”

In the weeks that followed, however, another faculty group emerged, which framed the debate in decidedly different terms. A caucus of several dozen faculty members, calling themselves the Middlebury Faculty for an Inclusive Community, first announced its formation in a May op-ed in The Campus, which outlined the group’s principles.

The statement includes a call for “active resistance” against discrimination, and a defense of civil disobedience as “a necessary means to reorganize and redefine the values and relationships that make up a community.” While stressing the importance of both freedom of speech and inclusivity, the caucus asserts that “such freedom comes with the obligation that it be exercised responsibly, especially when offering the platform of our campus to outside speakers who may undermine our culture of inclusivity — symbolically or otherwise.”

The group has since submitted two additional op-eds. The first, in September voiced support for Addis Fouche-Channer ’17, following a report by The Campus into her racial profiling claim against a Public Safety officer. The second condemned the racially-charged imagery found on a chalkboard in Munroe Hall earlier this month, and called upon senior administrators to apologize to Fouche-Channer and withdraw the September finding by the Title IX office that a preponderance of evidence indicated she had attended the Murray protests.

Today, the caucus exists primarily in the form of an email list, which comprises roughly 50 faculty members. Jason Mittell, a professor of film and media culture who serves as a spokesman for the group said that many members shared a belief that the dominant narrative unfairly portrayed the protests as an unqualified violation of free speech.

“People started gathering into an affinity group of faculty who were concerned about students, and were dismayed by the PR push to frame everything as a free speech issue,” Mittell said. “That began a series of emails which then turned into an email list which then turned into more of an organization.”

The Free Inquiry statement published in the Journal was a particular cause of dissatisfaction. Some faculty nicknamed the document “The Loyalty Oath,” because of what they viewed as an unfair assumption that a decision not to sign constituted an ideological statement against the principles of free expression. 

“The way many in the college community understood that statement was either you sign it, or you’re actively not signing it,” Mittell said. “A number of us, myself included, were really put off by that, not necessarily because there was anything wrong with the principles in the abstract, but in the practicality it felt like that was not the right response,” Mittell said.

“The events of March 2 were multifaceted,” said Maggie Clinton, a history professor also on the caucus. “As many have noted, they were as much about race and power on and off campus as they were about free speech, but the free speech aspect has received by far the most national attention.”

In that vein, the first active step taken by the caucus was to successfully oppose a motion introduced at a faculty meeting in April to add a “Freedom of Expression Policy” to the College handbook — a step viewed by members of the caucus as premature.

“I think most of us thought this was way too soon — it was forcing things and it was really a divisive wedge,” Mittell said. “I think that’s when this group formed into something more than just a series of dispersed emails, and [instead] said collectively, ‘Can we come up with a strategy to push back against this?”

Of the 50 faculty members on the caucus’s email list, only 23 are listed on the group’s website, which can be accessed at Mittell believes that some members are hesitant to state their involvement because other faculty have discouraged them from getting involved.

“There have been instances where we know of untenured faculty members who have gotten pressure from colleagues being told not to be too outspoken about political issues on campus,” he said.

While Mittell is not aware of explicit threats concerning tenure, he thinks the nature of the system forces faculty to be careful in this regard.

“Part of the whole tenure system is it’s a gauntlet that you have to run, and depending on your department and who’s on the college-wide tenure committee, there can be a sense of risk aversion,” he said.

The caucus plans to pursue a multifaceted approach by working with faculty, students and the town of Middlebury to achieve its aims.

“This isn’t just about what happens on our campus. This is about what’s happening to faculty, staff and students in town,” said Shawna Shapiro, a professor in the linguistics program who is a member of the caucus.

“We’ve been having some discussion about how to work with groups like SURJ [Showing Up for Racial Justice], which is a community-based group focused on racial justice, to think about ways for us to more directly talk with the town about issues of concern… instead of expecting the college to be our spokesperson,” she added.

The caucus is also considering offering a variety of events on campus next semester.

“There’s talk of doing a teach-in in the spring, there’s talk of sponsoring a series of lectures or more of a symposium event,” Mittell said.

“And maybe doing some more vocal protests that might involve students, or something more public to galvanize the energy and focus the discussion.” Shapiro added.

The caucus took what Mittell describes as its first “proactive” steps on Nov. 3, by presenting recommendations to the administration in a motion entitled “Moving Forward On Diversity Practices.” The motion passed with 113 faculty voting in favor, eight against, and one abstaining.

“Behind the scenes, members of our group had met with members of the administration and student groups, had done things to try to provide support and engage issues, but that was our first attempt to say these are four concrete things that we believe can be done which we think will help move us forward,” Mittell said.

“While statements of support and denunciation remain important, we have to go beyond words,” said Usama Soltan, a professor of Arabic, and another caucus member. “In the absence of clear and tangible progress on such issues, statements eventually start to ring hollow.”

As a result of the motion’s passing, the recommendations went to the administration for review and potential implementation. Given the stated support of several administrators, multiple caucus members expressed an expectation that the administration will pursue all of the components.