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Tuesday, Aug 9, 2022

Redefining ‘Inclusivity’ as ‘Freedoms’

Much of our campus conversation lately has been about “freedom of speech” and “inclusivity,” as if they were opposing values between which we must choose. We have heard lofty statements like, “Freedom and inclusivity must go hand-in-hand,” yet statements like these preserve the binary. Moreover, while it might look nice as a slogan on a t-shirt, this framing doesn’t help us figure out what we actually mean by “freedom” and “inclusivity.” Some of our students and colleagues have been critical of the assumptions behind the word “inclusive”: Who is being included? Who gets to do the including? And included in what?

This past fall, Professor Shapiro worked with two research assistants (Bryan Diaz ‘20 and Casey Lilley ‘20) to examine what inclusivity means to students. One key finding is that while students have difficulty defining the term inclusivity, they have a lot to say about what exclusion looks and feels like. They talk about the ways in which our institutional culture — both inside and outside the classroom — limits their sense of belonging and agency. They describe struggling to “find comfort” with one another so that they can more productively engage uncomfortable topics. Many students feel a pervasive sense of “imposter syndrome” — particularly in classes where faculty seem not to acknowledge that “people come in with different levels of preparation for this school.” One comment in particular captures the gist of many students’ views: “Integral to inclusiveness [is] the removal of barriers that distance people, and the willingness to form community.”

These comments make clear something we know but don’t always talk about: the recipe for an inclusive environment involves more than simply “add diversity and stir.” Inclusivity requires not just offering new opportunities and resources, but considering who faces barriers to accessing the opportunities and resources already available, and committing to lowering those barriers. To experience inclusivity, in other words, is to experience a sense of freedom to take advantage of all that Middlebury has to offer.

We take some inspiration here from development studies’ concept of “unfreedom” as an alternative frame for talking about social inequality. Amartya Sen, the Nobel-prize winning economist who wrote Development as Freedom (1999), argues that poverty is an interlinked set of “unfreedoms” — i.e., as a lack of political and economic freedom to choose, innovate, and even take risks. Together these unfreedoms limit options for marginalized groups’ full participation in society.

What if, instead of focusing on the tension between freedom and inclusivity, we defined inclusivity as the bundle of freedoms to participate fully in all that this institution has to offer? In our recruitment materials, and on campus tours, we pitch to students and families an idyllic vision of a well-rounded and even “intimate” educational experience that includes a rich array of academic, co-curricular, and extracurricular relationships and opportunities. Yet we have seen that this sort of experience is unequally distributed. For many students, the heavy academic workload, combined with the need to earn money through paid work, limits the amount of time available for social and co-curricular activities. Moreover, we know from studies of campus life that many students feel constrained by the stratified social structure of the college—particularly if they don’t fit the “Middkid” mold — physically, ideologically and/or culturally.

At the beginning of the development era, Franklin D. Roosevelt articulated Four Freedoms as core values of development policy for the United States: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. What if we channeled FDR by asking:

What freedoms do we imagine should be available to all students at Middlebury? We offer the following as a starting list:

- Freedom to choose the course of study which most interests a student, not just what brings economic security

- Freedom to contribute to the institution’s decision-making processes

- Freedom to build new networks and relationships

- Freedom to access support systems, resources, and accommodations to which one is entitled·

- Freedom to achieve one’s academic best

- Freedom from discrimination and stereotyping

- Freedom from threats of physical and emotional violence

- Freedom from fear of social exclusion for speaking one’s mind

- Freedom to take academic and social risks

- Freedom to grow and change — and even make mistakes

- Freedom to bring our family/community histories and life experiences into the classroom and beyond.

Imagine if everyone in the Middlebury community did this homework exercise: Consider the extent to which you feel that these freedoms characterize your own experience at Middlebury. What are ways in which our own actions, and the actions of others, further or impede access to these freedoms — for ourselves and for others? Then, talk to a friend about what you’ve concluded. Scale up the conversation.

This is more than an academic exercise.

Talking about how each member of Middlebury experiences freedoms (or “unfreedoms”) in his, her or their day-to-day experience here can, we believe, lead to more effective action. It can help us attend to inclusivity not just through “adding on” but through “opening up.” In this way, we might move past simple binaries to engage one another in a deeper and more productive discussion about who we are and who we want to become.

Shawna Shapiro is a professor of linguistics. Michael Sheridan is a professor of sociology and anthropology.