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Thursday, Jun 20, 2024

Middlebury instructs faculty not to host classes in student encampment, faces pushback

<p>Protesters at the encampment set up a &quot;People&#x27;s University&quot; tent on April 29, in which classes can be held. </p>

Protesters at the encampment set up a "People's University" tent on April 29, in which classes can be held.

The Gaza Solidarity Encampment on McCullough lawn created the “The People’s University,” a tent space where professors can host their courses, and since its inception on April 29, some Middlebury professors and staff members have taken advantage of the opportunity. 

The People’s University is now facing an uncertain future after the administration sent faculty two emails on Thursday, May 2 clarifying its stance on academic engagement with the protest. The emails stated that those teaching courses should not bring their students to the encampment, and advised them to continue regularly scheduled lectures, classes and exams in order to ensure that no one is forced to visit the site of the protest.

“I am reaching out to request that no regular academic classes be moved to the encampment area,” wrote Jeremy Ward, vice president for academic affairs, in an email to faculty on Thursday, May 2. “There are many students on campus who do not wish to engage with the encampment and the activities therein. They should not be compelled to do so just because their class is being held at the encampment site.” 

Ward thanked the faculty for their productive conversations and support for students this spring. He added that all community members are welcome to attend events at the protest site, but that professors needed to guarantee a “high quality, effective educational experience for all.”

Ward had not responded to The Campus’ request for comment as of Friday afternoon. 

The Faculty Council — the executive committee that represents professors to the administration and Board of Trustees — was consulted on the emails and provided feedback to the college before they were sent to faculty.

Other faculty members expressed their concerns with the new administrative policy against attending the encampment to The Campus, stating that it mischaracterized the encampment as hostile to the student body and students in their classes had not taken issue with visiting the space.

“The encampment is a space of education and if people are uncomfortable there then it is our job to say ‘let’s talk about that discomfort’ rather than treat students like fragile subjects who cannot be exposed to educational spaces with which they disagree,” wrote Laurie Essig, professor of Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies, in a message to The Campus. 

Essig views the encampment as an open space where all are welcome to engage, adding that the idea of discomfort with the protest may be contributing to the perception that any criticism of Israel is inherently antisemitic, an idea that she strongly disputed.

“This is not only a dangerous false equivalency but ignores the many Jewish students and other community members who are part of the movement. As a Jew at Middlebury I rarely feel I am in [a] Jewish space, but the encampment certainly feels like one,” she explained. 

Josh Glucksman 24.5’, a spokesperson for the encampment, shared his reaction to the new restrictions on how students can engage with the protest in an academic setting 

“It’s a dance, I think,” Glucksman said on Friday afternoon. “We want people to take those academic risks and at the same time we are hoping that they’d allow this.” 

The first email regarding the protest was sent on Thursday morning, which was addressed to faculty and department chairs but later forwarded to staff members. It laid out expectations regarding students' absence from classes due to the encampment and clarified that Middlebury policies do not authorize any form of “academic amnesty” from assignment submissions or final exams due to participation in protests or civil disobedience. 

Members of the encampment assert that the policy constrains professors' ability to address ongoing disruptions or to advocate for student political engagement, given that the protesters’ second demand is to safeguard the free expression rights of faculty, staff and students who endorse Palestinian liberation, ensuring protection against reparations.

The email also addressed many questions regarding faculty expectations and guidelines to follow in order to ensure a non-discriminatory classroom setting while also providing faculty the ability to express their own views in the course of their teaching. 

One component of the encampment thus far has been for students to ask their professors if they can make announcements regarding the death toll in Gaza and the encampment’s demands. The email did not encourage professors to allow students to do so.

“If it’s not a normal part of your classroom practice, it would be best to follow your normal practices,” the email shared with faculty.

It continued that it was up to the faculty to determine whether or not an announcement would endorse a particular view and or favor specific students. 

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The email also shared that the Emergency Management Team was updating its protocol for responding to classroom disruptions, and professors are free to contact Public Safety if experiencing any such issues.

One of the demands of the encampment reads: “We believe that truly effective education flexes and responds to the times we are living in. We have more to learn from engaging in political action than we do in classes that proceed as normal.”

Other students agreed with the encampment’s mission and the effectiveness of learning there.

“The encampment has been a space of learning for me and others,” Pearl Tulay ’24 said in an interview with the Campus on Friday afternoon. “I think that it’s a shame that the administration doesn’t want that to happen officially.”

Tulay, who has been involved in the encampment since Monday, invited one of her classes to attend an environmental workshop at the encampment this week. She believes that it was an educational experience for herself and those who attended.

“A lot of the most important learning that will happen in our lives happens outside of the classroom.” Tulay said. “But I think that having classes officially would just enrich that and provide access to that for more students.”

 The encampment has hosted a series of educational workshops each day that are open to the public such as, “Let’s Talk about Anti Semitism,” “Pinkwashing” and “Divest: What is a Free Palestine?” among others.

Catharine Wright, associate professor of Writing and Rhetoric as well as Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies, shared her experience bringing two classes to the encampment this week, having altered her plans for one class in order to center a discussion on issues related to the Israel-Palestine conflict.

“It was a really meaningful class, I don't think I'll ever forget it,” Wright said, adding that her students had valuable conversations that day. “They brought up a lot of things on their mind related to our course readings and the protest, and there was a lot of vulnerability and honesty. It was very moving.”

Wright shared that she understands where the administration is coming from with the email to all faculty, she does not believe it is necessary for her smaller classes where she can be attuned to individual students’ needs. 

“So even though I really understand where the administration was coming from, and why they did that, I don't know that it's a one size fits all, kind of situation,” she added.

She provided options for students and solicited input. One student elected to come have a discussion during office hours about their project rather than attend the encampment. Moving forward, Wright hopes to provide flexibility as students complete their final project but will ask all students to return on the final day of class.

Another professor who asked to remain anonymous described hosting a class in the encampment as a productive experience, with many of their students able to attend that day.

“We had an interesting and hopeful discussion that helped me and the students think critically and constructively about how people can come together across differences to work towards a common goal,” the professor added.

The same professor shared that they believe it should not be left up to administrators to decide whether or not courses can be held at the encampment. 

“I believe that senior administrators should not mandate having or not having courses at the encampment, and instead the choice should be under the discretion of the professors alongside their students,” they wrote to The Campus. “In other words I think each class should navigate this decision collectively.”

Editor’s note: Editor in Chief Maggie Reynolds ’24 and Managing Editor Katie Futterman ’24 contributed reporting to this story.

Mandy Berghela

Mandy Berghela '26 (she/her) is a Local Editor. 

She previously served as the SGA Correspondent and contributing writer for the Campus. She plans to major in Political Science, with a minor in Arabic. Along with the paper, Mandy serves on the Judicial Board, social media manager for the Southeast Asian Society (SEAS), and is also involved in many campus theatre productions. On her free time, she enjoys long walks, cycling, and reading fantasy novels. 

Ryan McElroy

Ryan McElroy '25 (he/him) is a managing editor for The Middlebury Campus.  

He previously served as a news editor and staff writer.  

Ryan is majoring in History with a possible minor in psychology or English. He also takes part in Middlebury Mock Trial and on campus. He spent this past summer working as a research assistant in the History department studying Middle Eastern immigration to New England.