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Tuesday, Dec 5, 2023

GSFS Alumni Call for Patton to Respond to Title IX Changes in Open Letter

Discussions during a recent reunion of the department of Gender, Sexuality and Feminist Studies (GSFS) led alumni to write a letter to President Laurie L. Patton, calling for her condemnation of U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ proposed changes to Federal Title IX policy that the letter identifies as “regressive” and “terrifying.”

In a message scheduled to be sent to the community on Wednesday as of press time, Patton commented on the proposed changes to Title IX policy without mentioning the alumni letter. When The Campus asked the college whether Patton would respond directly to the letter, College Spokesperson Bill Burger referred The Campus to Patton’s statement. 

The reunion, which took place at the college on Nov. 17, brought graduated GSFS majors and current students in the department together to discuss various strategies of activism against sexual violence at the college. The changes to Title IX that DeVos announced on the morning of Nov. 16 quickly became a focus of discussion, with attendees expressing particular concern about a new policy that would require schools to offer a trial option, in which both parties would be cross-examined by the other party’s advocate. 

The discussions at the reunion prompted six GSFS alumni who graduated between 2008 and 2016 to sign a 500-word letter and email it to President Patton. The letter was drafted in the days following the reunion and sent to her on Nov. 20. Their goal, they said, is to ensure that the college would continue to provide survivors of sexual assault support under the proposed new federal laws.

“The policy proposed by Betsy DeVos threatens to return us to an era where campus sexual assault is pushed under the rug,” Maddie Orcutt ’16, one of the letter’s signees, wrote in an email to The Campus. “As someone who lived through an era where campus sexual misconduct proceedings were inaccessible to survivors and opaque at best, let me assure you we do not want to return to that era. It’s important to get the college on record about its policies and procedures because it promotes transparency and accountability.”

Beyond calling for Patton’s condemnation of the cross-examination rule and DeVos’ Title IX policy changes as a whole, the signees reflected on the importance of protest and activism as part of their time at Middlebury, writing that activism was “integral to our educations and to the very formation of our identities” during their time here. Noting the importance of activism to any student’s ability to speak out against sexual assault on college campuses, the letter calls current Middlebury College protest policies “managed and restricted” in ways that the alumni fear may be limiting students’ voices as they attempt to grapple with issues such as sexual assault and Title IX laws on campus. 

Through conversations with students during the Nov. 17 alumni reunion, the six alumni signees of the letter — Orcutt, Emily Pedowitz, ’13, Margo Cramer ’12, Kolbe Franklin ’08, Luke Carroll Brown ’14 and Kristina Johansson ’14 — felt that the culture surrounding campus activism had changed over the years and that these changes needed to be addressed in the letter. 

“What is clear from our time on campus is that students are terrified of Betsy DeVos’ recently announced Title IX policy. What is also clear to us is that Middlebury students are equally as terrified of speaking out on a campus where protest is now so managed and restricted,” the letter reads. “When we listened to students this weekend, we didn’t see the anger that had been such a catalyzing emotion for all of us. We saw students who were defeated, disillusioned, and shutdown.”

The alumni view current college protest policies as curtailing students’ ability to start conversations and hold demonstrations related to sexual assault on campus, a development they see as alarming in what the letter identifies as today’s “chilly political climate.” 

“Based on my understanding of these policies, the effectiveness of activism is likely hindered due to the ways in which these policies restrict the creativity and visibility of necessary forms of activism,” Franklin said. 

The letter closes with three demands that the alumni hope to see addressed in Patton’s response. 

“We are asking you to go on the record to publicly state the following,” the letter reads.“That Middlebury will continue to adhere to a preponderance of the evidence standard in Title IX proceedings; that live cross-examination in Title IX cases will curb reporting and make our campus less safe; and that Middlebury College does not think that Betsy DeVos’ recently announced Title IX policy is in the best interest of Middlebury students.” 

Ultimately, the authors hope that the letter will help survivors of sexual assault at Middlebury receive the recognition and support they need. 

Patton has issued statements on controversial Trump administration rulings in the past, such as the amendments to DACA and legal recognition of transgender people. The alumni who penned the letter hoped to see a similar level of recognition for survivors of sexual assault after DeVos’ Title IX announcement. 

“In the midst of our current political climate, there is such an importance for schools, organizations and leaders to actively speak up and against policies that fail to protect vulnerable populations and that promote a culture of intolerance,” Pedowitz said. “I believe this allows students to feel safe and protected by their organization when there is so much chaos, unknown and intolerance being perpetrated politically in the national landscape.”