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Friday, Jan 21, 2022

College Tries Students in Public Hearing

On Thurs. Nov. 1 at 3 p.m. in Dana Auditorium, the five students charged by the College for their involvement in the distribution of a mock press release on Oct. 12 will go before the community judicial board — the College’s first public hearing in over five years.

Four of the students, Molly Stuart ’15.5, Jay Saper ’13, Sam Koplinka-Loehr ’13 and Amitai Ben-Abba ’15.5, will be present at the hearing. Jenny Marks ’14.5, who is currently volunteering at an urban farm in New Orleans, will participate in the hearing via telephone.

The five students are charged with violations to the College Handbook for their respective roles in the dissemination of a mock press release. Sent to hundreds of students, faculty and staff and a selection of local press, they claimed that the College had decided to divest from arms and fossil fuels in honor of His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s visit to campus nearly one month ago.

The students of the self-titled “Dalai Lama Welcoming Committee” (DLWC) face charges for alleged violations to two separate sections of the College’s Handbook policy: “communicating with honesty and integrity” under the General Conduct section of Student Life Policies and “ethical and law abiding behavior” and “respect for others” under the Responsible Use of Computing Resources and Network Infrastructure policy.

The hearing will occur in Dana Auditorium — the College’s largest auditorium on campus, containing 272 seats.

According to Karen Guttentag, associate dean for judicial affairs and student life, the space was selected in order to balance two essential ingredients.

“In planning an open hearing my consideration is how can we honor the intention of the policy to allow a reasonable number of people to be in the audience and observe, while still having a space that allows the board not to be unduly distracted by the audience,” she said.

The five students will go before the eight-member Community Judicial Board (CJB), comprised of one commons dean, one staff member, two faculty members and four students. The chair of the board will either be Sue Levine, assistant director of alumni and parent programs, or Hudson Cavanagh ’14.

Students React

In an interview with the Campus, the five students explained that they hope many members of the college community would attend the hearing.

“This is a public issue. It’s important to remember that this is a political hearing,” said Ben-Abba. “It’s not about us, it’s about a bigger issue — and that’s the issue of Middlebury’s endowment being invested in the destruction of people and the earth.”

“Since we have nothing to hide, we want as many people to come and be affected by the hearing, and have a Middlebury community that stands up to its values,” he said.

Not all community members viewed the student’s action in the same way.

In lengthy debates in the Student Government Association (SGA) meetings, senators have been divided on their support for the students’ actions.

“During our last two meetings, the SGA Senate have rendered what amounts to a split decision on this issue,” SGA President Charlie Arnowitz explained in an email.

“On the one hand, we almost unanimously agreed that it is important to us, as representatives of the student body, that [the College’s] endowment be invested in a manner consistent with our community values.”

“At the same time, most members also agreed that the methods used in this case may not have been the most effective ones to achieve that result, and in a sense may have been counterproductive,” added Arnowitz.

Stuart and Saper explained that part of the intention behind their action was to generate interest and energy on campus.

“We feel like there is great energy to change … It is out of our respect for this institution — respect for its values and its mission — and our respect for one another, that we can use a form of satire to engage people critically in dialogue, [encouraging them] to really live up to our college’s vision of what we can be,” said Saper.

The Procedure

While waiting for the CJB to convene, the four students of the DLWC in attendance at the hearing will wait together in a room separated from the convening crowd in Dana Auditorium.

Upon entering the auditorium, each member of the CJB will receive a packet of materials containing evidence collected during the College’s investigation into the students’ actions.

Under normal circumstances, the members of the CJB know very little about the case, as the College makes every effort to be discreet in the event of private hearings. In this case however, CJB members will likely be aware of some of the details of the case, as a result of the press the issue has received from local media outlets Vermont Digger, VPR and Seven Days.

At 3 p.m. Karen Guttentag, serving as the judicial affairs officer, will convene the hearing.

The five students will be invited to give opening statements that are unrestricted in content of length. Members of the board are then permitted to ask questions of the student respondents.

Following the initial questioning, witnesses will be called to testify and answer questions posed both by members of the board and the student respondents. Each of the student respondents will then be permitted to call upon a character witness. The proceedings come to a close with final statements by each of the students.

In this hearing, it may be also important to highlight a clause within the Handbook related to the cordiality of the proceedings. The policy explains that if the hearing is interrupted by audience members, “the judicial body may close the meeting to the general community.”

While uncommon, such an incident occurred at the last open judicial hearing, requiring the CJB to conclude the proceedings behind closed doors.

In the event of such an incident, the student respondents and the complainant (in this case, representatives of the College) may each select two members of the audience as observers.

Staff and Faculty Response

During the hearing, the students will be joined by faculty advisors Tara Affolter, visiting assistant professor of education studies, Laurie Essig, associate professor of sociology and women's and gender studies and Mike Olenick, professor of mathematics.

Essig and Olenick were members of a group of 17 faculty who publicly declared their support for the students last week in an open letter to the College community that was posted on the Campus’ website and on MiddNotes.

“We the undersigned would like to publicly share our support with the students for pushing all of us to put our money where our mouths and our values are,” they wrote in the letter.

“We also want to applaud them for highlighting the power of a liberal arts education in producing critically engaged citizens.”

Mirroring the division amongst members of the student body, some staff members have voiced concerns about the action taken by the students.

In a General Assembly held by the DLWC on Oct. 26, in which the students sought to provide a space for community discussion, the one staff member in attendance explained that some of her colleagues were “turned off” by the student’s tactic, though they were broadly supportive of the divestment movement.

Relaying the sentiments of one her colleagues, yet speaking solely as concerned member of the community, Brenda Ellis, research and Instruction librarian, explained, “If you want to question how our endowment is invested because you don’t think it reflects our values, then you can’t use tactics that break our values.”

In expressing her personal opinion, Ellis stated, “I won't support something, however good intentioned, if the tactics go against my values, even though I believe in trying to change our endowment and respect and admire what the students were trying to accomplish.”

Sentencing

Following the conclusion of the hearing, the members of the board will deliberate behind closed doors.

If all eight members of the CJB are present in the deliberations (as should be the case, unless extenuating circumstances intervene) a quorum of at least seven members of the board must find the students to be guilty “based on a preponderance of the evidence” in order for a sentence to be passed.

If the respondents are found guilty, the CJB will then decide upon a sanction.

According to the handbook, “Sanctions for non-academic conduct violations are assigned to meet any of several goals: to deter conduct that is harmful; to cultivate an awareness of responsibility and accountability to self and others; to make amends to harmed parties as appropriate; and to encourage education and growth.”

In nonacademic cases, sanctions can include fines, warnings (verbal or written), letters of reprimand, probationary status, suspension or expulsion.

Suspensions can be imposed for any length of time, but are normally not given for longer than one and a half academic years.

If, however, a suspension is handed down for longer than a four week period, students are required for apply for readmission to the College through the Administration Committee, and must “demonstrate a willingness to return to Middlebury,” according to the handbook.

In the event that the students are sentenced to a term that would prevent them from being able to complete their semester, they would not be refunded their comprehensive fee.

If the students are found not guilty, then all record of the charges and the hearing will be wiped from their permanent files.

Given the novelty of the public hearing and the utilization of Dana Auditorium to conduct the proceedings, students and administrators alike expect a substantial community turnout.


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