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Monday, May 16, 2022

Speech on Campus Addressed in Committee Report

The Committee on Speech and Inclusion, which was convened following Charles Murray’s visit to the college last March and is now officially dissolved, issued a final report on Jan. 10 that did not make any specific policy change suggestions. It instead made general recommendations for hosting and listening to controversial speakers.

Last April, after innumerable calls across campus for more conversation and “rhetorical resilience” as coined by President Laurie L. Patton, the administration appointed twelve people to a new Committee on Speech and Inclusion.

President Patton and Susan Baldridge, the college’s provost, appointed four faculty members, four staff members and four students to the committee. The committee members were tasked with tackling the immensely broad topic of “freedom of expression, inclusivity and the education and civic challenges of the 21st century.” The committee met weekly and held a community breakfast and dinner in November.

This group is one of many that emerged after the events surrounding the Charles Murray talk. Over 100 faculty members signed an op-ed submitted to The Wall Street Journal in March criticizing the Murray protests and emphasizing the importance of free speech. Another group, the Faculty for Inclusive Middlebury, formed after the Wall Street Journal op-ed was published. This group consisted of around 50 faculty members and has submitted three op-eds to The Campus.

The Committee on Speech and Inclusion was unique, however, in that it was convened by the administration and Baldridge attended all meetings. Baldridge also wrote the preface to the final report.

“Some of the natural initial suspicion in our committee was if we were going to be handed some goals and a to-do list. I think over time we recognized that we were going to be given permission to just do whatever we said we thought we needed to do,” said professor Ata Anzali, a member of the committee. “We didn’t have a mandate. A lot of people were just baffled by what happened and wanted an initiative to start a conversation on campus.”

Matt Jennings, another committee member and the editor of Middlebury Magazine, a communications office publication, echoed this sentiment.

“[The provost] made it clear from the outset that she was not serving as a conduit to the administration and that she would not be reporting on our work with anyone in Old Chapel,” Jennings said.

“The provost was intentional about choosing people that held a variety of views on Charles Murray himself and then the events surrounding it,” said political science professor Sarah Stroup, who was also a member of the committee.

Kemi Fuentes-George, another political science professor, told The Campus that the provost solicited him to take part in the committee on speech and inclusion.

“I agreed to take part because I wanted to be an advocate for those students, faculty and staff who were feeling alienated by what appeared to be faculty and administrative disinterest in their concerns about Charles Murray’s work,” Fuentes-George said. He told The Campus that although his own views fall on one end of the spectrum of opinions on the Charles Murray events, all viewpoints were fairly represented in the committee.

Some members, however, joined without strong convictions.

“I joined the committee because I was lost in the discussion between two extremes on campus, pro-inclusion and pro-free speech,” Razan Jabari ’18 said.

“Getting into this committee, I didn’t know what to expect, and honestly I didn’t have high expectations,” Anzali said. “Initially my getting into the committee was, I wanted to make sure, with how I feel about this whole event, I could play a role that defended some positions. But then gradually I realized that is not what this committee should be about.”

The report repeatedly emphasizes the importance of continuing dialogue.

“There was a lot of back and forth in terms of initial distrust or stereotyping positions, and then as you talk more you realize you can’t pigeonhole people into this position or that position. I think that was really helpful and really valuable for me to have that experience,” Anzali said.

The recommendations issued in the final report bare the same breadth as their assigned topic.

A section titled “Inviting and Engaging with Outside Speakers” ultimately does not condone silencing problematic speakers, reading, “We ask that community members consider how attempts to limit or regulate speech could establish precedents that move us closer towards a culture in which heckler’s veto is accepted or where de facto censorship committees serve as gatekeepers.”

It continues, “For a more constructive discussion and debate to take place, we recommend that students, staff and faculty organize alternative events where opposing opinions can be heard.”

The report also makes recommendations for hosts and sponsors.

“We do agree that hosts and potential sponsors must think seriously about how issues of power and privilege complicate arguments about free speech,” the final report says. It urges sponsors to give the campus “ample time to prepare,” consider spaces which accommodate the expression of opposing viewpoints and to consider the power of external funding and agendas.

Besides weekly conversations, the Committee on Speech and Inclusion hosted a breakfast and dinner in November, to which all Middlebury community members were invited. The committee presented the near 200 attendees with six questions to discuss, such as “Is disruptive protest a form of free speech?” and “How should we balance the concerns of those who wish to speak and those in the audience that feel marginalized?” The final report recommended hosting similar events in the future.

The committee also collaborated with PEN America to host a series of campus events in January, a day after the final report was published.

“This committee and its work was the first step of many that need to take place at Middlebury to effect positive change,” said Shannon Bohler, an art events coordinator and committee member.

“You could read the report as not specific enough, but I think that the problem we might face with the report is that it is too ambitious — we are asking for a change in campus culture,” Stroup said. “We are asking all of the different members of the Middlebury community to reorient the way they engage with one another, and I don’t think that happens through a half-dozen policy tweaks or new rules for speakers, or new SGA resolutions, or new staff memos.”