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One afternoon last October, the four students studying abroad in Middlebury’s school in Yaoundé, Cameroon, received a cryptic message from the program’s director, asking them to meet for dinner at the home of one of their host families.
The puzzled students assumed that the director, Ariane Ngabeu, wanted to discuss some change to the semester’s academic programming. They nearly discounted the possibility that the meeting had anything to do with Cameroon’s contentious presidential elections, which had taken place nine days earlier on Oct. 7, and whose results were slated to be announced within the next week.
“In our wildest dreams it was something about the elections,” said Emily Ray ’20, one of the students in Cameroon last semester. In Yaoundé, the country’s bustling but tranquil capital city, the notion that the election results could unleash a wave of political violence was unthinkable.
But while the students were waiting for Ngabeu to arrive for dinner, they received an email from Nicole Chance, an assistant director for Middlebury’s international programs and a liaison for the Cameroon school. It contained a startling announcement: Middlebury had decided to relocate the four students to Morocco, fearing that electoral violence could sweep Cameroon and shutter its airports. The group would be put on flights to Rabat, Morocco just over a day later, with no guarantee that they would be able to return to Cameroon to finish their semester.
“It was traumatic,” Ray said.
Ultimately, the trip proved to be successful — and also unnecessary. The four students, along with Ngabeu, spent a pleasant week in Morocco before returning to Cameroon, which had remained almost entirely peaceful after the election results were announced.
During the hectic, stressful period immediately before the trip to Morocco, and in the months since, people involved have raised questions about how the decision to relocate was made, whether Middlebury applies standards to its African programs that it would not apply elsewhere, and how Middlebury makes judgments about its faraway programs from a campus in rural Vermont.
MESSAGES FROM MIDDLEBURY
Middlebury’s decision to relocate the students in Cameroon came as the nation, historically one of the stablest in Central Africa, entered a period of relative instability. Within the last two years, peaceful protests by the country’s English-speaking minority against the largely French-speaking national government turned violent after government forces cracked down on protesters. This growing “Anglophone crisis” has caused increased opposition to President Paul Biya, who has led Cameroon since 1982. But Yaoundé is located well within the country’s peaceful Francophone region, and last semester’s students detected little unrest as they navigated the city each day.
“I remember my host mom saying, ‘Oh, Cameroonians don’t go out in the streets, so no one’s going to protest it,’” Ray said. “No one thought that anything bad would happen in Yaoundé.”
Other educational programs operating in Cameroon have had varying responses to the country’s fraught political situation. A program operated by the SIT Graduate Institute hardly altered its plans that semester, Ngabeu said. On the other hand, Dickinson College suspended its long-running program in Yaoundé in December, citing risks posed by the Anglophone crisis.
The first signs of Middlebury’s discomfort came the morning of the elections, when Ngabeu received an email from Liz Ross, Middlebury’s associate dean for international programs, containing a link to a New York Times article published the day before. The article described Cameroon as being “on the brink of civil war,” asserting that the upcoming election was “escalating an already volatile situation” in the country.
“I was surprised,” Ngabeu said. “Because if anything is happening in Cameroon, I’m the first to know about it.”
After asking around, Ngabeu said she learned that the images in the New York Times article were out-of-date photographs of the conflict in the Anglophone region, with little bearing on the city of Yaoundé or on the upcoming elections.
Still, several days later, the message from Middlebury had grown more urgent: Chance asked Ngabeu where she would be able to travel with the students, in the event that Yaoundé became unsafe following the announcement of the election results. Ngabeu told Chance she would spend the next day putting together a plan.
Ngabeu reached out to an acquaintance who worked at the Belgian embassy in Yaoundé, asking whether any arrangements had been made to help Belgian nationals stay safe. The employee dismissed her concerns, noting that the embassy was located in Yaoundé’s upscale Bastos neighborhood.
“They told me, ‘No no no, you’re in Bastos! It’s already safe. If you’re afraid, look for a hotel in Bastos,” Ngabeu said.
So Ngabeu wrote back to Middlebury, proposing that she wait out the election results with the students from a hotel in Bastos. But Middlebury staff said this failed to address their main concern: the possibility that Cameroon would close its borders and airports, trapping the students inside the country.
“We were afraid that if [violence] did spread out, that it would be too late for us to make a decision about what to do with the students,” explained Carlos Velez, the dean of international programs, in an interview with The Campus.
Within a day of Chance’s urgent message to Ngabeu, the two of them, along with Velez and Ross, had agreed on Morocco as a destination. Middlebury’s existing program there would provide the infrastructure needed to host the visitors. The only problem was that Ngabeu, a Cameroonian national, needed a Moroccan visa which would take five days to arrive — and the group was set to leave in just two days.
So Ngabeu visited the Moroccan embassy and bribed an employee to expedite the process. Soon after, she sat with the students as they reacted incredulously to the news.
“I said, ‘Don’t ask any questions, because I am not capable of answering them,’” Ngabeu said.
Unsure whether they would ever return, students spent the next day hurriedly packing all their belongings, saying goodbye to their host families and traveling around Yaoundé, buying souvenirs to bring back to the United States. Ngabeu left her two young children at home in Yaoundé, presuming that Middlebury would not pay for their travel to Morocco.
“That’s the proof,” Ngabeu said. “I left my children and I went away, because I knew there wasn’t any violence.”
Although Ngabeu was skeptical, she said she suppressed her doubts. “When they say it’s for safety, what can I say? I can’t say with certainty that nothing bad will happen,” she said.
Velez said the Middlebury staff were certain their precautionary steps were the right ones. “Nobody could assure us that nothing was going to happen,” he said. “Even if somebody had, I’m not sure if I would’ve believed it.”
CLAIMS OF UNEQUAL TREATMENT
On Oct. 22, the students watched from Morocco as the incumbent Biya was re-elected Cameroon’s president, earning a suspiciously resounding 71% of the vote. The expected result was received calmly in Yaoundé, and within two days, the students found out they would return to Cameroon. The trip to Morocco had lasted one week.
The trip itself had been enjoyable, Ray said, but the stress caused by the departure did not seem to be fully acknowledged after the group returned. And as the months have gone by, Ray said she has begun to think more critically about Middlebury’s decision to evacuate the group.
“It just makes me mad,” Ray said. “There’s already so many different hurdles and obstacles that the Cameroon program has to go through, because it’s a program in Africa. There’s so much unfounded fear.”
Ray is not the only one troubled by the excursion to Morocco. Nadia Horning, a professor of political science who serves on a faculty committee that oversees the Cameroon program, said she was taken aback when Velez and Chance first notified the faculty committee about the trip — just hours after the decision to evacuate had been made.
“I didn’t take it particularly well,” Horning said. A native of Madagascar who studies African politics, Horning said the incident in Cameroon was the latest in a succession of cases in which the continent has received unequal treatment at Middlebury. She pointed to an effort by faculty several years ago to convince the college to offer Swahili at its summer language schools. After receiving a verbal commitment from an administrator that Swahili would be chosen as the schools’ newest language, Horning said she found out abruptly during a speech by an administrator that Korean had been picked instead.
“That did bother me personally,” Horning said.
When it came to Cameroon, Horning said she understood administrators’ desire to take safety precautions, but still felt the college applied unreasonable standards. “I’m not pro-recklessness and anti-safety,” she said. “But I’m definitely anti-exception. I’m anti-standards for Africa that don’t apply elsewhere.”
Ngabeu suggested that students studying in Asia or Europe would not have been relocated in similar circumstances. “They wouldn’t have done anything,” she said. “People would have stayed where they were.”
Moreover, she worried about the precedent the relocation may have set. “Middlebury really has to reflect on its strategy," Ngabeu said. “Because if every time there's an election, we have to send people to the opposite coast — that's nonsense.”
Velez disputed the idea that any double standard had been applied. “If I fear there will be widespread violence anywhere, I would take more drastic measures,” he said.
Still, many involved with African Studies at Middlebury tell anecdotes about biases and unfounded fears they have encountered on campus. Ngabeu recalled instances in which parents of students interested in the program asked her how their children would drink water or receive medical care in Cameroon, presuming the country did not have hospitals.
One first-year at Middlebury, interested in studying in Cameroon, told The Campus that a French professor recently tried to dissuade her from going and urged her to study in France instead.
“When I asked him why, he discussed African accents, meaning it would be really hard for me to understand an African accent and that when I came back from Cameroon, I would have an African accent,” said the student, who was granted anonymity so she could speak freely about the exchange. “He implied that that wouldn’t be good for my future career prospects,” she recalled, adding that the professor “made a face” as he discussed African French.
Seeking to expand Middlebury’s curricular offerings outside of Francophone Europe, Charlotte Cahillane ’19.5 and Zorica Radanovic ’19 — both alumnae of the Cameroon program — wrote an op-ed in this week’s Campus, advocating that the French Department create more courses that venture “beyond the geographic boundaries of France.”
For those involved in the October evacuation, meanwhile, the heart of the problem seems to lie beyond Middlebury’s campus. Ngabeu, for her part, says she cannot blame Middlebury staff for the decision they made, given that they had to account for Americans’ general prejudices towards Africa.
“It’s a question of how Americans look at us,” she said. “It’s not that Middlebury wanted to do this, it’s that Middlebury wants to show to other institutions, to parents, to Americans — ‘You know that our kids are in this country, and we’re taking care of them.’”
“The problem is distant,” Ngabeu said. “Middlebury only acted to respond to what others were thinking.”
Professor Jeff Byers will be taking an immediate leave of absence from his teaching duties for the rest of the semester, the Chemistry department announced in an email to Byers’ students on Wednesday afternoon, following campus-wide outcry over an offensive question he posed on a midterm exam last month.
The email, from department chair Bob Cluss, did not specify whether Byers' courses will be taught by another professor. It promised that the department would update students "by the end of this week" on how their courses will be completed in the remaining four weeks of the semester.
The question, part of an exam for the Chemistry 103 course, asked students to calculate “a lethal dose” of the gas “Nazi Germany used to horrific ends in the gas chambers during The Holocaust.” Although students in the class reported feeling uncomfortable at the time, it was not brought to public attention until last Friday, through an article in the student-run satirical newspaper The Local Noodle.
In a separate email sent to the college community later Wednesday afternoon and also posted to the college's website, president Laurie L. Patton called Byers' question an "inexplicable failure of judgment," which "trivializes one of the most horrific events in world history, violates core institutional values, and simply has no place on our campus." The message includes a link to a written apology by Byers, in which he committed to "spend the coming months reflecting deeply on the choices I have made."
Patton's message also revealed that an inquiry into Byers' past exams uncovered "a second objectionable question," which made a gratuitous reference to the Ku Klux Klan.
This story will be updated.
QUECHEE – Last weekend, birding enthusiasts and amateurs alike congregated in the Eastern Vermont village of Quechee for the fourth annual Owl Festival, hosted at the Vermont Institute of Natural Science (VINS).
Hundreds of attendees — college students, older couples, families with owl-costumed kids — poured into the VINS campus, ready to meet a few of these predatory birds in the flesh. Or in the feathers.
Scheduled events included “Owls of New England,” “Owl Pellet Dissection” and “Owl vs. Hawk,” where spectators learned about the differences between owls and raptor species like hawks and eagles. VINS rehabilitates these birds, many of whom have suffered permanent flight impairment after being hit by cars or shot by hunters.
Angie McCarthy ’19, who made the 63-mile drive from campus to witness the festival, said her interest in owls had been piqued ever since a barred owl began roosting near her Ridgeline townhouse several months ago.
“It was exciting to see them up close and personal and really understand him and his patterns”, McCarthy said of her own winged friend. McCarthy left the festival with more than just this knowledge — she also purchased a new pair of owl earrings.
The monthslong effort by Middlebury to shrink staff costs and reevaluate the way the institution does work is entering its most critical stage, and staff members report varying levels of satisfaction with the process as they wait for buyout offers to arrive in February.
The workforce planning process, announced by President Laurie L. Patton in a June email to college employees, began with the goal of shrinking staff compensation costs by 10 percent — about $8 million — by the end of the academic year. Now, administrators have reviewed proposals to reshape departments across the institution, and buyout offers will be sent to staff in early February. Involuntary layoffs remain a last resort, if not enough employees take buyouts by the end of the academic year.
Faculty, meanwhile, are undergoing a separate process of buyouts and retirement plans, as part of the same effort to reduce the college’s deficit.
LEARNING FROM THE PAST
For several years, college officials have been open about the financial challenges that the institution is facing, with yearly operating expenses exceeding revenues since the 2013 fiscal year. Causes of the deficit include rising financial aid commitments, a flawed policy that capped annual tuition increases and an aborted venture into online language instruction.
The college has since lowered its deficit faster than initially projected, hoping to balance its budget by fiscal year 2021. But faculty and staff pay remains the institution’s biggest expense, often making up about two-thirds of its annual spending.
This is not the first time that budgetary issues have prompted the college to rein in staff costs, and administrators are taking lessons from past mistakes. In 1991, college officials, led by then-President Timothy Light, abruptly fired 17 staff members, causing an uproar that made national news and brought about Light’s resignation. And following the 2008-09 financial crisis, the college offered voluntary buyouts to any employee interested in taking one — an unstructured process that led to excessive loss of crucial staff positions, some of which needed to be restaffed shortly afterwards.
So when administrators realized a new wave of deficit reductions were needed, they took a more deliberate approach. “To do it in a really thoughtful way we needed to think about the work we do, and how we could staff ourselves for a sustainable future,” said Bill Burger, vice president of communications and chief marketing officer.
Beginning in the early fall, staff vice presidents across the institution were tasked with leading discussions within their departments about how their work could be redesigned, and done more efficiently. In December, each department submitted two different proposals to senior leadership, containing alternate plans that would cut compensation by 10 and 15 percent, respectively.
Now, staff across Middlebury can only wait. As of last week, Burger said, senior leadership was almost done reviewing the proposals and finalizing a list of positions to be cut. Before decisions are finalized, Human Resources is required by law to review the proposals to make sure they do not disproportionately affect certain demographics.
In early February, staff working in areas where the college plans to cut positions will get letters giving them the option to apply for buyouts. The college will send more applications than necessary, anticipating that many will decline to apply. By early March, the applications will be due and administrators will know whether enough staff have volunteered to take the buyouts, or whether they will need to resort to layoffs. On the other hand, if more staff than necessary apply, the most senior staff will be offered buyouts first.
The staff cuts in some areas will be partially offset by the creation of about 40 new staff positions in other areas — the result of new needs identified through the planning process. Applications for these positions will first be made available in early February to all staff members who are offered buyouts.
WAITING FOR WORD
Workforce planning will have uneven effects across Middlebury, leaving some staff departments largely intact while transforming others. Likewise, staff contacted by The Campus report uneven feelings about the process. Many said they have been pleased with the level of transparency thus far, while some complain that the drawn-out process has left them on edge for too long. Others say they simply haven’t paid much attention to it all.
“For our area, the communication’s been really great,” said David Kloepfer, the assistant director of Student Activities. “We haven’t heard exactly what the full plan is as of yet. We’re still waiting to hear the final outcome.”
Missey Thompson, box office coordinator at the Mahaney Center for the Arts and a representative of the staff council, said workforce planning has been a major point of conversation at the council’s meetings for some time. The staff council advocates for good working conditions for college employees and has held forums and posted information about workforce planning on its blog since the process was announced.
“We knew that something was coming a while ago — we didn’t know what it all entailed until they were ready to tell us,” she said, adding that some anxiety remains about the potential job cuts. “Whenever people have to leave, it can cause a lot of tension, but I think it depends on the day and how people feel so we’re just kind of going with the flow. That’s all we can do right now.”
[pullquote speaker="" photo="" align="center" background="on" border="all" shadow="on"]You might lose the 40 percent of your job that you like.[/pullquote]
But some staff who feel most at risk of losing their jobs say that the long process has been a source of deep stress. Academic coordinators, who handle the logistics of academic departments and support faculty and student work, fear that some of their positions may be cut, while the coordinators who stay employed will need to deal with new responsibilities.
“Morale is terrible,” said Judy Olinick, coordinator for the Russian, German and Japanese Departments. “Everybody is worried about it, it’s just been going on so long.”
While Olinick, like other staff, participated in the initial planning conversations this fall, she reported feeling helpless as the final say was left to senior leadership.
“We had all these meetings where we discussed it at great lengths, breaking up into little groups — ‘What can you change, and how would you change it?’” she said. “But it doesn’t mean anything unless you have some idea of what is really going to be changed.”
Even staff who expect to keep their jobs face uncertainty about how much their job descriptions will be changed, according to Tim Parsons, landscape horticulturist and president of staff council. An employee who gets to keep 60 percent of their job tasks, for example, may still be disappointed by the results of workforce planning.
“You might lose the 40 percent of your job that you like,” Parsons said.
Still, some staff look forward to the impending changes to their departments.
“I’m looking forward to some changes, to stir things up,” said Christina Richmond, an Atwater Dining Hall I.D. checker and servery worker. “Change is always good. I’m not afraid of it.”
Multiple staff members reported frustration about the way workforce planning has become intermingled with the goals of Envisioning Middlebury, the college’s long-term strategic framework. Patton herself connected the two processes in her June message, saying that they both entail “responsible stewardship of our resources.”
Dan Frostman, manager of the Davis Family Library circulation desk, said that the alignment of the two processes made decision-making difficult.
“We were trying to envision the next five to 10 years while also trying to figure out what it would look like if we got rid of 10 percent of the staff,” he said, noting that he reached out to his circulation staff to get input on both the changes they wanted to see and the cuts that had to be made. “So that was challenging and, personally, a little bit frustrating, to try to do those two sort of opposed things at the same time. There wasn’t a lot of reconciling that could be done between the two.”
Olinick said that she and her colleagues struggled to focus on the future, since workforce planning presented a more immediate issue.
“How can you make recommendations about that if you’re worried about keeping your job?” she said.
BEYOND WORKFORCE PLANNING
Workforce planning is not the only source of staff discontent at Middlebury. Low salaries in certain staff positions have prompted some employees to seek work elsewhere, and a 2017 staff survey showed low confidence in senior leadership and dissatisfaction with the way administrative decisions are communicated.
But Burger said that those concerns have informed this process, prompting administrators to focus on communication and consider changing the compensation structure once the planning is complete.
Though administrators expect to resolve the institution’s budget shortfalls within the next few years, the college remains heavily staffed, with a growing student body. With the newly-completed Envisioning Middlebury project serving as a likely precursor to a major fundraising campaign, this may not be the last time the college has to reconcile its long-term goals with its short-term needs.
For full staff issue coverage, click here.
Correction: An earlier version of this article said that the new positions created by the planning process will first be made available to staff members who took buyouts, when they will actually first be available to all staff members who were offered buyouts.
For full staff issue coverage, click here.
Does being a student newspaper at a small college mean that we must confine ourselves to student issues? Or does it mean that we can serve as a platform for all stakeholders in our community despite our limited student perspective?
In this issue, we tried to answer this question, using the ongoing workforce planning process as the motivation to dedicate most of the paper to college staff. The front page features a story explaining the workforce planning process and the effect it has had on the people who have shaped their lives around the work they do at the college and the paychecks they receive from it. If you flip through the sections, you will also find stories about Zamboni drivers and academic coordinators, as well as staff wages and job satisfaction.
This week’s focus is overdue. We recognize that in the past, our paper has not actively sought out participation from members of the community, especially staff members whose presence is not always as visible as that of our professors and administrators, who we are more likely to engage with on a regular basis. But we hope this issue will serve as a turning point for our paper as we step up our efforts to incorporate the voices of community members who don’t have the same kind of access that we have to a student newspaper.
To any staff who have picked up a copy of our paper this week, we hope you find our coverage to be a step in the right direction. But if there are other issues or stories that you think deserve to be covered in our community newspaper, we encourage you to reach out: email us at email@example.com or send us an anonymous tip at middleburycampus.com/tips. Thank you.
When Jim Douglas ’72 published an autobiography in 2014, he gave it a subtitle: “A Republican Governor Leads America’s Most Liberal State.” Navigating those competing ideological demands has indeed been one of the central tasks of Douglas’s long career in Vermont politics, which reached its pinnacle when he was elected Governor in 2002. Though Douglas retired following his fourth term in 2011 and became an executive in residence at the college, he remains active in state politics. Douglas spoke with Nick Garber ’19, The Campus’s managing editor, about what still distinguishes Vermont from other states, and what it means to be a Republican in the Age of Trump.
What kind of involvement have you had in this election cycle?
I haven’t been that involved. I often encourage Republicans to not drag out folks from the past but to look to the future and involve people who are up and coming, not those of us who have come and gone.
How does the up-and-coming crowd compare with the come-and-gone crowd?
There’s not a big bench in the Republican Party in Vermont. You may have heard about the experience that the party had in filling its statewide slate this year, where one fellow, Brooke Paige, won six nominations. It’s tough. I was in the legislature when the majorities would move back and forth, but today it’s overwhelming Democratic majorities. It’s very unlikely that we’ll send a Republican to Congress in the near future.
When you support Republican campaigns, how much of that support is based on your personal ties to the candidates, as opposed to your ideological agreement with them?
It’s more the former. I write a number of letters to newspapers for candidates I know around the state. For someone I don’t know, I can learn about the candidate and feel comfortable doing it, but the letters probably aren’t as fervent. As time goes on, I’ll know fewer people who are actively engaged in politics, and fewer people will know me and care about whether I’m supporting them or not.
When you speak with other former governors across the U.S., how do you think that compares to how politics operates in other states?
There’s a couple of interesting examples. The Republican Governor of Nevada, who is term-limited, has not indicated support for the Republican candidate to succeed him. I think it’s because the candidate has made it very clear that he plans to undo some of the things the incumbent has done. In Kansas, there’s a former Republican governor whom I know who’s endorsed the Democrat [Laura Kelly] in the campaign this year, and I’ve discussed it with him. His public statement was “I’ve known her forever and she’s a good friend,” but I think there was probably an ideological factor there as well. (Editor’s note: the Republican nominee for Governor in Kansas is Kris Kobach, a right-wing conservative whose views on immigration and voting rights have alienated some moderates.)
Do you think that Vermont’s style of “personal politics” is sustainable?
I think it’s easier here than other places because of our size. Here, people can meet candidates for statewide office if they try, and sometimes even if they don’t. So there’s an opportunity to become personally acquainted with people, or at least have a sense of who they are based on personal interactions.
For the past few years I’ve taken a group of freshmen on a MiddView trip to the Statehouse and several times we’ve met with the current governor. Students who come from big metropolitan areas are shocked — they’ve never met the governor of their state and they’ve met two here!
And frankly, as a Republican running in a blue state I swim upstream, and personal contact gives people the opportunity to see that I don’t have horns, I’m not necessarily affiliated with the national folks. That’s of real value and that’s why Republicans can succeed here.
When you or Gov. Scott is talking to a Democrat and trying to convince them to vote for you, how much of it is, “I’m a nice guy and I know you,” versus, “My ideology is actually aligned with yours”?
I think character counts. I’ve had a lot of people over the years say to me, “I don’t agree with you on this or that or anything, but you’re honest, you’re hard-working, you’ll act in the best interests of the state, so I’m going to vote for you.”
I was listening to some radio commentary this morning where people were wondering if there even is an election in Vermont this year, since it’s so overpowered by the national scene. You’ve got the governor running for his first re-elect, a Democratic candidate with no experience who is not engaging as much as I might have anticipated. It’s kind of a sleepy election, which is beneficial to an incumbent.
Beyond that, the latest poll I saw suggests that the governor’s popularity among Democrats is higher than it is among Republicans, due to his actions on the gun bills. The buzz is, will his more conservative base turn out?
There’s this phenomenon of deep blue states electing Republican governors, not only here but in places like Massachusetts and Maryland. I’ve seen some liberal commentators suggest that this is sort of shooting yourself in the foot if you’re a liberal voter — if the point of politics is to elect people who want to implement the policies that you favor, why are you voting for conservatives?
They are Republicans, but I’m not sure I would label any of those three governors conservative. There’s a Republican base in Vermont that’s quite conservative and I had people in the party that didn’t like me because I wasn’t a hardliner. I tried to say, “Look at which Republicans have won in Vermont in the past half century or so. They’re not all conservative.”
Given the national context, do Republicans in blue states need to go even further than you did to separate themselves?
Maybe my answer will be a little inconsistent. Phil Scott said early on in 2016, “I don’t like Donald Trump, I don’t share his views and values, I’m not going to vote for him.” The fellow who ran and won for Governor in New Hampshire, Chris Sununu, said, “I don’t agree with him on a lot of things, he has personal qualities that I don’t admire, but he’s the nominee of our party and I will vote for him.” Contrast that with my friend Kelly Ayotte, a former Senator from New Hampshire, who tried to parse a middle, on-the-fence course and she [lost in 2016]. So I think people appreciate honesty in this sense. Whatever your view is, state it, be consistent and people will respect that.
I had a similar albatross with George W. Bush, who got 39 percent here as opposed to Trump’s 29 percent — still, he was not very popular. My pitch to Vermonters who tried to tie me to him was, “Vermonters know that I’ll always do what’s best for the state.” If I’m aligned with President Bush, fine, if I’m not, fine. In 2004, my first re-election, while Dubya was on the ballot, my opponent tried to make the connection. He had these signs all over Chittenden County that said “Jim = George.” When I first saw them I got nervous, and my pollster said, “Pfft, that’s not going to make any difference.” Moderates are just not going to buy this guilt-by-association. So on Election Night 2004 I was particularly happy that President Bush got more votes in Vermont than my opponent did.
Can I ask who you voted for in 2016?
Oh, I haven’t told anyone. It’s between me and God.
Fair enough. When you look at what’s happening nationally, what differences do you observe between the Republican Party you joined as a young person and today’s party?
It’s not very satisfying. I’ve been to two national conventions, and it’s a very conservative crowd compared to Republicans as a whole — it’s the activists who take a week at their own expense to go to a national convention.
There’s always been differences within the party, even in Vermont, but in the old days it was more positive. Even fairly recently, if you were for McCain or Romney or Dubya, there was some rough and tumble in the primaries but still a general sense that these were all decent people. But the Trump effect is unusual, and causing a lot of stress and tension.
Even here, there’s been some increasing polarization, right?
Yes, I often say, “Things are better here than elsewhere, but not as good as they used to be.” I half-jokingly say that we shouldn’t have built interstate highways — now there are more legislators who commute. I stayed over in Montpelier during the week, and something about having dinner with colleagues, going to events in the evening, spending time with them, it makes it more difficult to bash them in debate the next day when the house is in session. Now, there’s so many who commute that they don’t build those relationships.
That’s certainly true in Washington, where they fly in Tuesday morning and fly home Thursday night. [Congressman] Peter Welch said to me, “I don’t even know all my fellow Democrats — just the ones on my committees.” You just don’t get to know them.
I wish I were more uplifting and optimistic, but I’m not sure how we get out of this. I’ve often wondered why things are the way they are now. Gerrymandering is one reason. And cable shows can’t attract an audience unless they’re provocative and edgy.
I tell a lot of folks, don’t let this consume your life — do your job, read a book, take a walk, love your family, get on with your life and don’t let it be overwhelmed by stressful national dialogue. It’s not good for your health.
I’m in the minority, but I didn’t watch a minute of the Kavanaugh hearings — I didn’t watch a minute of the Clarence Thomas hearings in ’91. Nothing I did was going to affect the outcome.
At The Campus, we’re always looking for ways to involve the broader college community more closely in our coverage. We’re excited to announce the creation of a new tipline on our website, that allows readers to anonymously suggest stories for us to look into. The tipline can be accessed at go/campustips, or by clicking the “News Tips” tab on our website, middleburycampus.com.
We recognize that our editorial board is limited in number, so we represent only a small fraction of the students, faculty, staff and town residents that make up the Middlebury community. We need your help to tell us about the issues, events and important conversations that deserve to be covered in our newspaper.
In the past, informal tips have been an essential way for us to discover important subjects that would have otherwise gone uncovered. The life and death of former college employee Suad Teocanin, which we wrote about in a feature story last month, was only brought to our attention after a Middlebury alumna emailed us over the summer and urged us to write about him. We hope that by making the tipping process more accessible, readers can alert us to more things that fall within our blind spots as student journalists. As issues like workforce planning become more prevalent, we need your help to tell this community’s stories.
At a small college like Middlebury, we recognize that it can be difficult to speak candidly about events and people to which we feel connected personally. While we encourage readers to include their contact information with tips, we also hope that the option of anonymity will relieve some of that pressure. We can’t wait to hear what you have to share.
For three days following the tragedy, the public did not know his name.
It was in the early morning of Saturday, Jan. 13, that Middlebury police found the body of a man who had frozen to death overnight off a path on the Town Green, covered with snow and sleet. The following Monday, local media began to report his identity: Suad Teocanin, a 45-year-old Middlebury resident who had been living at the Charter House during a recent period of homelessness. Following a night of drinking, Teocanin tried to make his way back to the Charter House before apparently collapsing, just yards from the shelter’s front door.
Reports of Teocanin’s death circulated around Middlebury that week, accompanied by photographs of his smiling face, descriptions of his recent homelessness and statements by police that alcohol had been a “significant factor” in his death. What these relatively brief media accounts could not capture, however, was the totality of Teocanin’s experience before his death — a life that began in the Bosnian city of Zvornik and led to ten years of employment at Middlebury College and another decade in the kitchens of several restaurants in town.
To the many people who knew him at the college and in town, Teocanin was not only a friend and coworker, but also a generous neighbor, a fellow immigrant and a bright spot amid the stresses of college life whose broad smile was cited without exception.
“The best antidote”
Teocanin came to America as a war refugee.
From 1992 to 1995, Bosnia was torn apart by ethnic conflict, as Serbian forces targeted the Muslim Bosniak population, burning cities and towns and massacring entire communities. In Teocanin’s hometown of Zvornik, tens of thousands of residents were driven from the area, and almost 4,000 were killed.
Teocanin was not Bosniak, however, but Romani, the historically itinerant ethnic group known colloquially as gypsies. Romani people, persecuted in Bosnia as they are in much of the world, were targeted specifically in the killings that took place in Zvornik. Those who knew Teocanin in Middlebury would recall that he rarely spoke about his life in Bosnia, or about the family he left behind. One former Proctor Dining Hall colleague, however, said Teocanin had spoken of witnessing the deaths of his parents and siblings.
Over 1,700 Bosnian refugees were resettled in Vermont between 1993 and 2004, and Teocanin was one of them. In Middlebury, a small community started to form by the mid-1990s, centered in the Pine Meadow Apartments near the Pulp Mill covered bridge. From their homes in the apartment complex that became known as Little Bosnia, Teocanin and his fellow refugees began to rebuild their lives in Vermont.
Jovanka Jandric was among the Bosnians who settled in Pine Meadow during that time, along with her husband, Refik, and their children. Refik came to the United States first in 1994, to a New Hampshire hospital, having lost both of his legs in Bosnia after stepping on a landmine. Jovanka came with their children several months later, and the family moved to Middlebury.
The older couple found jobs in town — Refik at Danforth Pewter, and Jovanka at the now-closed Greg’s Meat Market — and cared for Teocanin, who, in his early twenties, had arrived in town alone. “I loved him like a son. I’m old enough to be his mother,” Jovanka said. “He was too young.”
Teocanin’s childhood education had been minimal and he never learned to read or write. In order to communicate with his brother, who fled to Germany, Teocanin brought his letters to Jovanka, who would read them and help him compose replies.
Teocanin, after a stint at Mister Up’s restaurant, found his way to the college, where he began work in 1998 as a pot washer in Proctor Dining Hall. His coworkers, several of whom remain at Proctor today, were struck by his ability to adapt in what must have been a daunting new environment.
“You always start out in a different place, not being sure of yourself,” said Claudette Latreille, who still works at the college. Colleagues watched Teocanin transform from an inexperienced new hire who spoke little English to a skilled worker who mastered the language and the intricacies of food service.
“He was the kind of guy who fit in by watching, and then doing what the cooks were doing and saying,” said Richard O’Donohue, now retired, who worked as Proctor’s head chef. Coworkers helped Teocanin study for a driving test, went with him to college hockey games and invited him to Middlebury Union High School to watch their children play sports.
A few years into his time at Proctor, Teocanin began to work in the main dining area known as the servery, and students began to gravitate toward his warmth and near-constant smile.
“College can be a little intense, and literally, Suad was the best antidote for that,” said Megan McElroy Rzezutko ’04, who formed a close bond with Teocanin at Proctor. She recalled the feeling of “being in the library for many hours and then seeing his smiling face, so elated to see you.”
Libby Pingpank ’04 remembered meeting Teocanin soon after her arrival on campus. “It was the first time we were away from home,” she said. “He was just this welcoming, friendly face that we always knew we would see when we went to eat.”
Teocanin became known for stopping by tables to chat and joke with students, and for his vast collection of movies on VHS tape that he offered up as gifts and even as betting payments, when a group of fellow employees began placing bets on football games.
“Suad had some money, but not a whole lot, and he’d make side bets,” O’Donohue said. “When he couldn’t pay the bet, he’d bring in a bag of VHSs. Everybody got to the point of, ‘No, Suad, we’re not doing VHS.’”
To employees like Dawn Boise, the current Proctor manager, memories of Teocanin’s socializing feel like symbols of a bygone era, when the smaller student population meant that staff could talk freely with students without the looming threat of the mealtime rush.
“You used to have a little down time, where you could chat with people,” she said. “Now, you really don’t have time to get to know a lot of the students, which is hard.”
For the students who knew Teocanin, memories of those conversations have only grown in value in the years since their graduation.
“Honestly, when I think back, it’s my advisor and Suad who had the most impact on my time in college,” McElroy Rzezutko said. “There’s obviously faculty and administrators there that are a part of your life, but this was different. It was comforting, and wasn’t forced.”
“He was too good”
After over a decade, Teocanin left the college in 2010 after accepting a voluntary separation package offered by Middlebury following the 2008 financial crisis.
“When he decided to leave, we were pretty upset,” O’Donohue said. “But we couldn’t talk him out of it. He had his mind set.”
Years earlier, during his stint at Mister Up’s, Teocanin had worked alongside Megan Brady. When she and her husband Holmes Jacobs prepared to open Two Brothers Tavern, Brady insisted they hire Teocanin.
“He had a reputation of being a golden soul, a great person, a great work ethic and just a big heart,” Jacobs said.
Teocanin remained at Two Brothers until his death, working his way up from dishwashing to food preparation. There, like at the college, he became a beloved and visible figure, famed for his humor and, of course, his enormous grin. “Even though he had so many things stacked against him, he brought out the best in other people,” Jacobs said.
Work was steady, but Teocanin’s personal life was not. Over the years, the Bosnian community in Middlebury splintered along many of the same ethnic lines that had been present during wartime, and prejudices welled up against Teocanin’s Romani heritage.
“Not so many people liked gypsies,” Jovanka Jandric said. “Some people would open the door for him, some people would close the door.”
To make matters worse, friends say that a girlfriend extorted Teocanin out of what little money he had. Generous to a fault, Teocanin supported her unquestioningly. “Suad was one of those rare people who gave of himself to anyone without expecting anything in return,” Jacobs said.
For years, Teocanin had moved around frequently, often camping or living out of a truck when he had no reliable source of housing. As cold weather approached in the fall of 2017, Jacobs helped Teocanin move into Charter House.
“We’re so grateful for the Charter House,” Jacobs said. “But if he had been less generous with all of his time and money he probably would have had a housing setup that was more permanent.”
“He was too good,” Jovanka Jandric said. “Too naïve.”
“Richer and happier”
Jacobs remembers the day of January 12 vividly.
“It was a really weird, beautiful, sunny, 60-degree January day,” he said. “As the sun fell, the weather turned really quick.”
Temperatures that night dipped to 30 degrees and falling rain turned to snow. And Teocanin failed to make it home to the Charter House after a night of drinking in town.
The amount of alcohol that Teocanin had ingested came as a shock to those who knew him, as alcohol did not seem to play a major role in his life. News of Teocanin’s death left many in the community with the impression that he had long struggled with drinking, a notion that Jacobs feels compelled to refute.
“I don’t believe that he had a real substance abuse problem,” Jacobs said. “But that’s how he died, and that’s perhaps part of the perception that comes from that.”
In the days and weeks following his death, posts made on the Two Brothers Tavern Facebook page memorializing Teocanin garnered hundreds of reactions and dozens of comments.
“We have lost one of the biggest hearts we have ever known,” the first post read. “But deep down, somewhere hard to find tonight, we realize, as we always have, that each of us is so much richer and happier for having had Suad in our lives.”
However, months later, his friends still puzzle over the circumstances of his last night, and why Teocanin was in such a situation in the first place.
“It still confounds me a bit how he was left alone,” Jacobs said. “It’s unclear to me why the police weren’t called sooner to try to find Suad, especially when there had been witnesses to where he was. I feel like a phone call to the police could’ve saved him.”
Of all the ironies surrounding Teocanin’s death, including that he passed out just steps from shelter and that alcohol, a substance he seemed to use only rarely, was involved, what most disturbs those who knew him is the disjunction between the way he lived and the way he died.
“To me, the most horrific thing is that he was alone,” McElroy Rzezutko said. “This person that created such warmth, human-to-human.”
Amid their grief, James and Jacobs planned a memorial befitting Teocanin’s legacy at Middlebury’s Congregational Church. After first offering a small room, a church official eventually agreed to open up the entire building for the January 27 service.
Among the many attendees were Jandric, Jacobs and several Proctor employees. Speakers recounted how Teocanin made an impact on their lives in Middlebury.
“Everyone had a story, even if they didn’t really know Suad, about how he would help them cross the street, or [how] he would hold the door for them when he was walking into their shop with a big smile,” Jacobs said.
Since January, mementos of Teocanin have accumulated inside Two Brothers Tavern. A framed photograph hangs on the wall in the dining area, near the bar. Another sits above the sink, where Teocanin spent many hours washing dishes. And Jacobs is proudest of the life-sized poster of Teocanin, showing him beaming in his cook’s uniform, that now sits in the kitchen to greet Jacobs every day as he walks into work.
“It’s not Suad,” he said. “But it still makes me smile.”
This is the question we have been asking ourselves since we assumed these roles last spring.
The Campus is unique. We are a weekly paper, run 100 percent by students. In many ways, we are the college’s journalism program, where students teach students. While we would not change a thing, this makes us prone to mistakes — we learn on the job.
It is important to recognize our own limitations. We are not the New York Times, nor do we wish or strive to be. Our Arts writers are not interested in tearing down the work of student performers. Sports reporters do not file 1,000-word diatribes on a player’s failure to perform at a certain level. And we do not see Old Chapel as our version of the Trump Administration.
We see ourselves first and foremost as a community newspaper. If we are to succeed, The Campus must be an active stakeholder in the broader Middlebury community, working to inform, and tell the stories of, its readers. We are not stenographers or cheerleaders, but journalists working to capture and understand what life is like here in this moment.
Our goal: if someone were to open up the pages of this paper 50 years from now, they would be able to take an accurate glimpse into what students, faculty and staff were thinking, feeling and doing at that time. We accomplish this by telling both the good and bad at Middlebury.
Like all journalists should, we believe our role here is to hold those in power accountable for their actions. When administrators go back on their word or the Student Government Association passes resolutions that do not serve the interests of students, it is our job to ask the tough questions, spend time understanding the history of the institutions and, yes, be adversarial when need be.
However, it is also important that we recognize the role The Campus plays as one of the largest and oldest student groups on campus. We as editors should not sit in our office and type stories about a community from which we have detached ourselves. On the contrary, when it fits our mission, we are willing and able to be a partner and participate in initiatives that bolster dialogue and community building on campus.
We recognize that our position atop this masthead is fleeting. After this issue, we will go to press a mere 24 times this year; considering the 218-year history of the institution, and the 113-year history of this paper, that ain’t a lot.
This paper is more than just those who write for and edit it. The Middlebury Campus holds meaning for many people: those who read, submit op-eds, respond to our emails and share their stories, and especially those who have written, are writing, and will write in its pages.
As temporary stewards of this paper, we will strive to be fair, accurate, collaborative, committed and unrelenting over the coming months, to be a paper worthy of this community.
This fall, we’re widening the scope of our now-former Arts & Sciences section in order to focus more broadly on academic life at Middlebury. The new name you see at the top of the page — Arts & Academics — reflects our goal of shining a brighter spotlight on things like faculty and student research, innovative teaching taking place inside classrooms and news about grants and and fellowships.
The humanities and social sciences, of course, deserve just as much coverage in the student newspaper as any other disciplines, and we’re hoping that this change will result in a section that’s academically diverse, beyond the hard sciences and the performing arts. And being the student newspaper doesn’t mean that the voices we incorporate should be limited to students — we are encouraging faculty to get more involved with The Campus as we expand our coverage of academic life.
We welcome feedback on these changes, and ideas for potential Arts & Academics stories — please contact managing editor Nick Garber at firstname.lastname@example.org if you’d like to get in touch with The Campus.
Literatures & Cultures Librarian Katrina Spencer is liaison to the Anderson Freeman Center, the Arabic Department, the Comparative Literature Program, the Gender, Sexuality & Feminist Studies (GSFS) Program, the Language Schools, the Linguistics Program, and the Department of Spanish & Portuguese.
“Fluffy” by Simone Lia, 2007
Call Number: Browsing Graphic-Davis Family PN6737.L53 F59 2007
“Fluffy” is the most absurd book I have ever read. It is also one of the most endearing and nakedly vulnerable. It follows a brief window of time in an Italian man’s life. He is ambivalent about his job, his family and definitely his romantic relationship with Suzanna. Through it all, his talking bunny, Fluffy, who thinks he is his son, expresses his unwavering affinity for him. I don’t know what author Simone Lia was going for with this. How did she decide that protagonist Michael would live in London? That he’d be a graphic designer? That he’d own and care for a talking bunny? It seems so random and fantastic. Aside from the talking animal who thinks he’s human, the struggles Michael encounters ring true and real. He settles for a relationship because it’s available. He tolerates his family’s uncomfortable idiosyncrasies because they are his family. And he wonders to what extent he is realizing his potential and worth as a human being.
I would recommend this work to the wistful, the doubtful, the traveler and anyone with a queer sense of humor. For something similar, check out Lucy Knisley’s “French Milk” (Browsing Graphic-Davis Family Library DC707 .K65 2008), another graphic novel that touches on travels in Europe. David Sedaris’ “Theft By Finding” (General Browsing-Davis Family Library PS3569.E314 A6 2017) carries something similar in it as the memoir examines the limits of the writer’s familial relationships and both the doubt and tumult it takes to become who you will be.
THE GRILLE CHANGES HOURS
The Grille has modified its hours for the rest of time. Previously open from 11:30 a.m.-3:00 p.m. and from 8 p.m.-12 a.m. on Mondays and Tuesdays, it will now close at 2 p.m. and will no longer operate for the evening on those days.
Although only affecting two days of operation, this change reduces the number of options for on-campus late night dining for students. However, on Mondays and Tuesdays, there are still three late night food options: Midd-Xpress and Wilson Café will continue to stay open until midnight and Crossroads Café will continue to stay open until 10 p.m.
— Eric Kapner
CHRISTINE HALLQUIST TO VISIT MIDDLEBURY
On Sunday, Sept. 16, The Middlebury College Democrats are hosting a screening of the documentary “Denial,” which documents Christine Hallquist’s transition during her time as the CEO of Vermont Electric Cooperative. Hallquist is the current Democratic nominee in the Vermont gubernatorial race and is the first openly transgender nominee from a major party for the office of governor in the United States.
After the screening, there will be a Q&A featuring Hallquist and Ruth Hardy, the executive director of Emerge Vermont. Hardy is also running on the Democratic ticket to represent Addison County in the Vermont State Senate.
Emerge Vermont is an organization that trains and supports women to run for public office in the state. Their mission, as stated on their website, is “To increase the number of Democratic women leaders from diverse backgrounds in public office through recruitment, training, and providing a powerful network.” 34 of the candidates in the 2018 Vermont elections are women trained by Emerge Vermont.
The screening and discussion will take place at 7 p.m. in the Dana Auditorium. The event is being cosponsored by Feminist Action at Middlebury and Middlebury Women Leaders.*
— Eric Kapner
CHANGES TO RES LIFE ROLES
Derek Doucet is now serving as the senior associate dean of students. Amanda Reinhardt is now the head of the Student Activities Office, where she will report to Doucet.
Doucet’s new role will involve overseeing the commons and residential life system — apart from the Commons Heads, who report to dean of the faculty Andi Lloyd — new student orientation, and the Student Activities Office. He will work with Reinhardt to handle the day to day proceedings of student orientation and will directly supervise the commons deans.
Doucet said he hopes that his transition will be as seamless as possible for students.
— Cali Kapp
FATAL CAR CRASH EN ROUTE TO PROCTOR
A mechanical issue at Proctor Dining Hall on Sunday afternoon caused the building’s bathrooms to fill with smoke, forcing staff to evacuate and delaying the beginning of dinner by one hour.
The incident also resulted, indirectly, in tragedy nearby. A utility vehicle from Cornwall Fire Department — one of several vehicles summoned to the scene as a precaution — was involved in a fatal crash on Route 125 near The Knoll, while on its way to Proctor. The Addison Independent reported Monday that at around 3:45 p.m., the utility vehicle collided with a pickup truck driven by 44-year-old Deane Rubright of Shoreham, who died at the scene.
As a result of the accident, a portion of Route 125 was closed for several hours, and the lights of ambulances on the scene were visible from campus into the early evening.
— Nick Garber
* Editor’s Note: Ruth Hardy is the spouse of Jason Mittell, The Campus’ academic advisor. Mittell plays no role in any editorial decisions made by the paper. Any questions may be directed to email@example.com.
Middlebury administrators have begun implementing a program to reevaluate faculty and staff positions across the institution — a process that, once completed at the end of the next academic year, could result in significant cuts to the college’s workforce.
The plan was announced to college employees in a series of emails late last month, beginning with a June 19 announcement from President Laurie L. Patton concerning “staffing and workforce planning.” In Patton’s message, she noted that the effort would eventually produce “an elective, incentive-based separation plan for staff as well as a set of elective, incentive-based retirement and separation plans for faculty.”
Involuntary layoffs remain a last resort under the plan, and will take place only if an insufficient number of employees accept buyouts and leave by the end of the 2018-2019 academic year. The cuts are part of the college’s ongoing effort to reduce its annual operating deficit, and administrators are hoping to shrink staff compensation costs by $8 million — about 10 percent of today’s level — once the process is complete.
Administrators haven’t yet specified how many of the college’s 1,100 staff positions would be affected, nor have they announced the benchmarks in faculty reductions that they are hoping to reach. The cuts will apply to faculty and staff at the college, and also at Middlebury’s Institute for International Studies in Monterey, California.
A June 27 email from David Provost, Middlebury’s executive vice president for finance and administration, and Karen Miller, the vice president for human resources, said that human resources would soon begin working with staff vice presidents across the institution to develop plans for each department. Those plans could result in redesigned departments and job responsibilities, and, eventually, a smaller overall workforce.
“We want to emphasize that workforce planning does not mean increasing the workload for fewer people,” Provost and Miller wrote. “It means prioritizing work and stopping less important work so that the workload is sustainable.”
Bill Burger, the college’s vice president for communications and marketing, told a reporter on Thursday that every department has already held internal meetings.
“Those are discussions to help people with questions they might have, to talk about how the workforce planning will take place in those departments,” he said. “There are also some Middlebury-wide discussions in workforce planning, so we’re really just in the early stages of this process.”
The first staff buyouts will be announced around October, but only for the small number of departments whose responsibilities are slated to be merged into the Green Mountain Higher Education Consortium — a cost-saving partnership founded in 2013 between Middlebury, Champlain College and Saint Michael’s College. Services that could be affected include payroll, accounts payable and benefits administration.
For the rest of Middlebury’s staff, buyouts are expected to be announced around April 2019 for the departments identified through the workforce planning process.
“We will contemplate an involuntary reduction in force only if we do not meet our goals,” read the email from Provost and Miller.
Buyouts for faculty, meanwhile, would necessarily be structured differently from those of staff, due to the existence of tenure. Provost and Miller said only that buyouts for faculty at the college, and in Monterey, would be announced “later this year.”
Nick Garber is one of the paper's managing editors.
A version of this article was originally published in the Addison Independent.
President Laurie L. Patton announced in August that Katy Smith Abbott, vice president for student affairs and dean of the college, would step down from her position at the end of December to return full-time to her faculty position in the art history department.
Her resignation will bring an end to her long tenure in student life administration, which began in 2002 when she and her husband, Steve Abbott, were named co-heads of Ross Commons.
On Monday, Smith Abbott sat down with News editors Elizabeth Sawyer and Nick Garber and discussed her work in the administration, the challenges she has faced, and why student life work has remained her central focus.
Middlebury Campus (MC): You attended many years of school, studying and learning how to teach art history. What compelled you to give that up, at least in part, to do administrative work? Did it feel like a sacrifice?
Katy Smith Abbott (KSA): When I first stepped into student life work, it was 2002, and I was teaching art history part-time at the college. My husband had just come through the tenure process a few years before that, and we were asked to serve as the heads of Ross Commons. That was the first step, toeing the water of student life work. And we believed in the commons system. We were people who always had students over for dinner anyway. So when Tim Spears, who was in something like [my current] role at the time, asked us if we would consider it, first we said, “You’ve got to be crazy!” Our children were like two and four at the time, we were like, “No way are we doing that publicly.”
And then we thought about it and we said actually, it totally aligns with what we believe in, in terms of boundary crossing, in terms of blurring the boundaries between the classroom and intellectual life outside the classroom. That was the first step in. At that point it really felt like a complement to teaching, not as consuming as [my current] work.
We did that for six years, and then Tim [Spears] again asked if I would take on another administrative role, that was called associate dean of the college. And then from that I moved into being dean of students. I had a sabbatical before becoming dean of students, and while I was away in England on that sabbatical, Shirley Collado, who was the dean of the college at the time, called and said would you come back as dean of students.
So I guess it’s a long rambling way of saying it’s been incremental. And the real answer to what would have compelled me to do it, the first step, was the commons head role. It felt like such a wonderful complement to the way Steve and I were already thinking about teaching and the way we loved being with students. And when we stepped into that, we looked at each other and went, “This is going to be the end of our innocence as faculty members. We know we’re getting closer in to students’ experience outside of the classroom in all the glory and all the grit,” and we said okay, are we ready for this?
And it was true. When you’re really engaging students and are present for students in whatever experiences they’re having, you’re not just sitting with the beautiful minds in the classroom and engaging at that level. It felt important, and teaching is of course tremendously important. But it just felt like a different way to connect. It felt like a different way to commit to this thing that I really believed in, which was thinking of students as whole people. They bring their whole selves to the college experience and I wanted to be part of that.
MC: Despite the connections you’ve cultivated with students, is there anything about the role of an administrator that automatically puts you at a distance from the perspective of students?
KSA: I think a couple things are true. I’ll first tell you a story. When my son, who’s now a junior in college, was on the college tour circuit, I went with him on the Minnesota trip, and we were on the Macalester [College] tour in a blinding snow storm. And they did this brilliant thing there, where they made the family members, mostly parents, go on one tour and the students went on a different tour, so you couldn’t humiliate your kid by asking almost gunner questions like I wanted to ask.
So I went off with my tour guide, and of course I was the first one in line, and I said, “I would love to start with the question, ‘What do you love most about Macalester?’ ” and she did not hesitate, and she said, “I love the close working relationship students have with the administration.” And I thought I was going to fall over — I was so fascinated by that. And it was completely authentic. That’s not an answer you’re going to just come up with as a student, right?
Maybe that’s not what I need Middlebury students to say is their favorite thing about Middlebury, but I thought, “How do we get closer to that? What would that look like?” I’ve sort of been haunted by it for the past three years. I haven’t followed up with colleagues there about what makes that magic, but it must have something to do with a determined approach, a conscious approach, to thinking collaboratively about the good of the institution.
Not just, “What do we need right now in this moment?” Sometimes there is a tension between the urgency students feel, rightly, because they’re only here for four years, and the administration’s long view that says we’re the shepherds for the long-term good of the institution. I think it can feel as though that’s a stark dichotomy, instead of really being pieces of a whole. They both matter, they are the same thing, but we’ve chosen to break them apart like puzzle pieces. I think when we get to these places of division or saying “Old Chapel” or “all students,” we’ve decided that we’re not really all after the same thing, which is that Middlebury feels like a place where every student can flourish and where we are mindful of the things that aren’t working right now.
I do think there’s a way in which it’s “helpful.” Things persist because they serve us well in some regard. So for students to feel kept out of decision-making or to say “Old Chapel” or “the administration,” that serves something. It makes something somebody else’s fault. Which is not to say we don’t have responsibility. And in the same way, saying, “Well, these are administrative decisions, not student decisions,” because we have the long-term interests of the institutions at heart, serves something as well.
I think there’s rich potential in reframing that narrative and rewriting it in a way that starts with “What if?” What if we did this differently? What if we started from a different point or with different assumptions in mind, in my utopian world?
MC: Speaking of long-term versus short-term perspectives: to us, Charles Murray is the biggest controversy we’ve been aware of over the past three years. But you’ve been in administrative roles for such a long time, what have some other challenges been that you’ve experienced and had to work through?
KSA: You’re not alone in thinking that. I think a lot of us think that. That’s a dramatic moment, a marker in the college’s longer history and shorter history. People who were around during the Vietnam War will say that we had much bigger controversies or much bigger moments on campus or similarly impactful moments — maybe it’s not that one is more dramatic than the others.
While I do not in any way mean that March 2 was second-most intense on my watch, I will say that for me, as hard as this is and as divided our campus feels at times — and sometimes all the time — the most difficult thing I’ve had to do is to be with a community in the wake of a student suicide. It’s just unimaginably difficult. Well, not unimaginably — many of us were here for that.
That will stand out for me forever as something that certainly shaped my own approach to my work, my approach to working with the remarkable colleagues that I have had the opportunity to work with across student life, and to what it means to be with a campus in a place of crisis that’s really disorienting in a different way than what we’re dealing with now, which is also disorienting, but I think in a different perspective.
I think for me, these two moments are really different from each other. There are lots of individual student crises, and also moments of immense celebration with students that will stay with me as well. But in terms of other things in my own work that stand out as super difficult, those two are the places of weight and deep concern.
MC: In those really hard moments, how did your responsibilities as an administrator differ from what they would have been if you had been a faculty member?
KSA: Almost in every imaginable way. One of the realities of being an administrator is that, except in moments of crisis, you tend to be farther from students. And that’s the single biggest difference and the thing I’ve missed the most — the very close connection you have with students on a daily basis when you’re teaching.
I’ve taught one class a year the whole time since I’ve been an administrator, and a little bit more than that when I was a commons head, but in my commons, you have lots of students in your house all the time or you’re at events. But the more I’ve moved into administrative work, the more distance there’s been between me and regular interaction with students. That’s probably been the thing I’ve missed the most.
When I announced my decision to go back to teaching, people asked me, “Are you leaving your administrative job because of Charles Murray?” I get it, the timing would make you want to ask that question. But the truth is that, if the moment we’re in has had any impact on my decision to go back to teaching — and there’s more than one impact — the reality is that last spring, when I was in really hard conversations with students, as hard as those conversations were, I thought, “This is what matters. This is what matters to me: being in these conversations with students.”
It was a little bit of a lightbulb moment for me, of saying, “It’s time. It’s time to be back in a place where I can be more regularly connected to students.” Hopefully not talking with quite the same intensity all the time, but I would say that’s the biggest difference. You spend a lot of time in meetings, a lot of time on email, a lot of time doing strategic planning and problem-solving, and it’s important and it’s challenging and I’ve grown tremendously as a professional as a result of all that, but I went to graduate school so that I could teach. I enjoy scholarship, but my dream was to be regularly working with students. So that’s the single biggest difference.
MC: Do you wish you’d known certain things coming into this job that would’ve helped you perform better?
KSA: I don’t know the answer to that question, to be honest. There are a lot of people in my job who come from student affairs backgrounds, have PhDs in higher education administration and who are career student life professionals. I love meeting with those people. I have colleagues at other institutions whose wisdom I tap when I need it, which is often. So I think if I had that background there are probably some things I would’ve done or managed differently.
This is not at all to say that I haven’t made mistakes, because I’ve made plenty. I think that one of the joys and privileges of doing the work with my unusual background in art history has been that I really depended upon the remarkable colleagues that I’ve had in student life, and they’ve been incredibly patient and gracious with me. I think it’s meant that I’ve done a lot of on-the-job learning from 2002 — it’s ongoing. Probably in places where it’s felt uncomfortable, I’ve had to acknowledge my shortcomings and have some humility around where my gaps in knowledge are. I feel like the places where I could’ve really screwed up, I’ve been saved by the wisdom, support and collaboration of people here and elsewhere, like my colleagues at other institutions.
If I look back on the things I wish had gone differently, to be honest, it would’ve been about moving more slowly. It would’ve been about taking more time to listen before acting. It can sometimes feel like everything has to be decided in the moment, and like I said, there can be really urgent situations that present themselves, and when that happens, like any situation, your adrenaline surges, your problem-solving superhero cape gets on, and you think, “I got this!” Sometimes you have to act with that kind of alacrity, sometimes it is a life or death moment. But most of the time it’s not.
I think if I could have cultivated a deep well of calm and patience around decision-making, some of the things that stay with me where I wish I had made a different decision or I wish I had slowed down. Maybe it’s not even that I would have made a different decision. But I think there is a way in which most of the work that’s done in my realm is aided — not by moving slowly, because goodness knows students think we move too slowly! I don’t mean around big issues that the college needs to be tending to.
I just mean in individual moments, mostly one-on-one with students or in small group situations. The ability to say, “You know what? Emotions are running high, we’re not at our best, let’s come together tomorrow over tea and talk again.” Off the top of my head, that’s what I would say is the skill or practice that’s critical, and doesn’t get enough attention.
MC: What will you miss most about this role?
KSA: I will miss most the people I work with really closely. That’s a hard one to say without getting teary. I think highly about so many colleagues across student life, but I have a senior leadership team that is just an extraordinary group of people, and I lucked into them. I hired a couple of them, but most of them were already in their positions and were my peers, the people I was sitting around a table with, reporting to somebody else. They were incredible, when I stepped into this role, about saying, “You’re the leader of the division, we’re gonna make this happen together.” It’s nine people I sit with every Wednesday morning, and who oversee the other major areas of student life across campus. They’re referred to as the student affairs leadership team, or SALT, so I refer to them as the saltines.
I’m not going anywhere, I’ll have lunch with people and go on walks with people, but there’s something extraordinary about being in a really tough work environment where you work with people you know you can depend upon in a fundamentally unshakeable way. I was lucky enough to have that, and I know that’s what I’ll miss the most.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
The controversial conservative activist James O’Keefe spoke on Thursday evening at the Courtyard Marriott hotel in Middlebury to a modest audience of college students and local residents.
Roughly 50 people, including about a dozen Middlebury students, were in attendance in the small event room in which O’Keefe delivered his lecture, though close to half of the attendees appeared to be members of the media. A two-man private security force was present at the event, and two Middlebury police officers conducted a sweep of the room with a police dog shortly before the event began. Middlebury police chief Thomas Hanley said police made periodic check-ins as well.
Hanley said that while the event’s organizers requested for two officers to be stationed there, the department only performed periodic safety checks.
“We declined the offer as we do not want our officers to be hired bodyguards,” Hanley said. “We suggested they contract with private event security for that purpose. They still requested presence.” The Marriott hotel management requested police presence as well.
Though his lecture was titled “Middlebury’s Problem With Free Speech,” O’Keefe only briefly mentioned the college during his appearance, which lasted for over an hour. Instead, his speech centered largely around his own career, and included defenses of the deceptive practices that have brought him criticism.
“[In] undercover work, you deceive in order not to be deceived,” O’Keefe said. “We’re using deception here in order to get these people to open up to us.”
While O’Keefe was speaking generally, his argument seemed also to rebut the scrutiny that he and his organization, Project Veritas, have recently faced for their tactics. Last week, the Washington Post reported that a Project Veritas employee had approached the newspaper falsely claiming to have been impregnated as a teenager by Roy Moore, the Republican nominee for Alabama’s vacant Senate seat.
The operation was an apparent attempt to discredit the Post’s coverage of other allegations against Moore, who has been accused by several women of having pursued them when they were teenagers and he was in his 30s. O’Keefe’s failed effort was met with widespread disapproval, including from the conservative National Review and Washington Examiner.
Some mystery still surrounds the events that brought O’Keefe to Middlebury. A group calling itself The Preservation Society sent two emails to all faculty, staff and students last Tuesday and Wednesday, promoting O’Keefe’s appearance and lamenting the state of free speech on campus. The group’s membership and origins are still unclear. Bill Burger, the college’s spokesman, said in an all-student email last Tuesday that no such group has approached the college to request recognition as a student organization.
However, in the Wednesday email, the group attempted to refute speculation that it is not composed of Middlebury students.
“Our group members, a handful of Middlebury students, came together and formed The Preservation Society out of a legitimate fear of punishment and/or sanctions from the University, or even violent retaliation from other students and faculty on campus,” the email read.
Samuel Zimmer ’20, who introduced O’Keefe at the event, hinted further at the group’s composition, although he is not himself a member. “A friend of mine, Bronson, a public member of The Preservation Society, approached me and asked if I could introduce Mr. O’Keefe tonight,” Zimmer said. “I’m deeply disturbed to hear from him that the other members of his group are too afraid to let their membership be known publicly to the school community.”
Zimmer was referring to Bronson Leyva ’18. In an email to The Campus, Leyva stated that he left The Preservation Society within the past week, but that multiple members remain in the group anonymously.
Responding to a reporter’s question at the event, O’Keefe said he had received “a few thousand dollars” from the Leadership Institute, a conservative organization based in Virginia, to speak in Middlebury.
Despite recent criticism, O’Keefe spoke defiantly.
“We are taking on the entire mainstream media, we have taken on the mainstream media for eight years,” he said. “We’re holding the most powerful people in the world accountable despite almost every possible economic and political force working against us.”
Will Frazier ’19, who watched O’Keefe’s speech along with Emma Helper ’19, said they had chosen to attend out of curiosity, not admiration.
“We attended because he’s essentially an embarrassment to journalism and was recently exposed once again, and we wanted to see how he could possibly defend his work,” Frazier said.
Frazier said that O’Keefe, while articulate, was ultimately unable to defend his tactics convincingly.
“We both think he spoke really well and was surprisingly eloquent in his defense of his arguments,” Frazier said. “But there were clearly many flaws in his defense and it immediately broke down upon examination.”
Last March, student-led protests of Charles Murray garnered nationwide media coverage, much of which fell into an ongoing debate over the state of free speech on college campuses. Of particular note was “Free Inquiry on Campus,” a statement of principles first published in The Wall Street Journal in March and signed by over 100 Middlebury faculty, which emphasized a commitment to free speech and condemned the protests as “coercive.”
In the weeks that followed, however, another faculty group emerged, which framed the debate in decidedly different terms. A caucus of several dozen faculty members, calling themselves the Middlebury Faculty for an Inclusive Community, first announced its formation in a May op-ed in The Campus, which outlined the group’s principles.
The statement includes a call for “active resistance” against discrimination, and a defense of civil disobedience as “a necessary means to reorganize and redefine the values and relationships that make up a community.” While stressing the importance of both freedom of speech and inclusivity, the caucus asserts that “such freedom comes with the obligation that it be exercised responsibly, especially when offering the platform of our campus to outside speakers who may undermine our culture of inclusivity — symbolically or otherwise.”
The group has since submitted two additional op-eds. The first, in September voiced support for Addis Fouche-Channer ’17, following a report by The Campus into her racial profiling claim against a Public Safety officer. The second condemned the racially-charged imagery found on a chalkboard in Munroe Hall earlier this month, and called upon senior administrators to apologize to Fouche-Channer and withdraw the September finding by the Title IX office that a preponderance of evidence indicated she had attended the Murray protests.
Today, the caucus exists primarily in the form of an email list, which comprises roughly 50 faculty members. Jason Mittell, a professor of film and media culture who serves as a spokesman for the group said that many members shared a belief that the dominant narrative unfairly portrayed the protests as an unqualified violation of free speech.
“People started gathering into an affinity group of faculty who were concerned about students, and were dismayed by the PR push to frame everything as a free speech issue,” Mittell said. “That began a series of emails which then turned into an email list which then turned into more of an organization.”
The Free Inquiry statement published in the Journal was a particular cause of dissatisfaction. Some faculty nicknamed the document “The Loyalty Oath,” because of what they viewed as an unfair assumption that a decision not to sign constituted an ideological statement against the principles of free expression.
“The way many in the college community understood that statement was either you sign it, or you’re actively not signing it,” Mittell said. “A number of us, myself included, were really put off by that, not necessarily because there was anything wrong with the principles in the abstract, but in the practicality it felt like that was not the right response,” Mittell said.
“The events of March 2 were multifaceted,” said Maggie Clinton, a history professor also on the caucus. “As many have noted, they were as much about race and power on and off campus as they were about free speech, but the free speech aspect has received by far the most national attention.”
In that vein, the first active step taken by the caucus was to successfully oppose a motion introduced at a faculty meeting in April to add a “Freedom of Expression Policy” to the College handbook — a step viewed by members of the caucus as premature.
“I think most of us thought this was way too soon — it was forcing things and it was really a divisive wedge,” Mittell said. “I think that’s when this group formed into something more than just a series of dispersed emails, and [instead] said collectively, ‘Can we come up with a strategy to push back against this?”
Of the 50 faculty members on the caucus’s email list, only 23 are listed on the group’s website, which can be accessed at go.middlebury.edu/inclusivecommunity. Mittell believes that some members are hesitant to state their involvement because other faculty have discouraged them from getting involved.
“There have been instances where we know of untenured faculty members who have gotten pressure from colleagues being told not to be too outspoken about political issues on campus,” he said.
While Mittell is not aware of explicit threats concerning tenure, he thinks the nature of the system forces faculty to be careful in this regard.
“Part of the whole tenure system is it’s a gauntlet that you have to run, and depending on your department and who’s on the college-wide tenure committee, there can be a sense of risk aversion,” he said.
The caucus plans to pursue a multifaceted approach by working with faculty, students and the town of Middlebury to achieve its aims.
“This isn’t just about what happens on our campus. This is about what’s happening to faculty, staff and students in town,” said Shawna Shapiro, a professor in the linguistics program who is a member of the caucus.
“We’ve been having some discussion about how to work with groups like SURJ [Showing Up for Racial Justice], which is a community-based group focused on racial justice, to think about ways for us to more directly talk with the town about issues of concern… instead of expecting the college to be our spokesperson,” she added.
The caucus is also considering offering a variety of events on campus next semester.
“There’s talk of doing a teach-in in the spring, there’s talk of sponsoring a series of lectures or more of a symposium event,” Mittell said.
“And maybe doing some more vocal protests that might involve students, or something more public to galvanize the energy and focus the discussion.” Shapiro added.
The caucus took what Mittell describes as its first “proactive” steps on Nov. 3, by presenting recommendations to the administration in a motion entitled “Moving Forward On Diversity Practices.” The motion passed with 113 faculty voting in favor, eight against, and one abstaining.
“Behind the scenes, members of our group had met with members of the administration and student groups, had done things to try to provide support and engage issues, but that was our first attempt to say these are four concrete things that we believe can be done which we think will help move us forward,” Mittell said.
“While statements of support and denunciation remain important, we have to go beyond words,” said Usama Soltan, a professor of Arabic, and another caucus member. “In the absence of clear and tangible progress on such issues, statements eventually start to ring hollow.”
As a result of the motion’s passing, the recommendations went to the administration for review and potential implementation. Given the stated support of several administrators, multiple caucus members expressed an expectation that the administration will pursue all of the components.
As Republicans in Congress move forward with tax reform legislation, administrators at Middlebury and at colleges across the country have expressed concerns about several provisions that could significantly alter the federal government’s role in higher education.
Most significant is a proposal to impose a 1.4 percent excise tax on the investment income of private schools with endowments worth over $250,000 per full-time student. Middlebury enrolls over 2,500 undergraduate students, with an endowment of $1.1 billion — or about $440,000 per student. It therefore ranks among the 60 to 70 colleges that would face new tax burdens if the legislation passes.
Republican leaders in the House introduced their tax reform bill on Nov. 2; the Senate rolled out its own version on Nov. 9. The endowment tax exists in both bills, along with other provisions that could impact alumni donations, student loans and tuition discounts for college employees.
“There’s a lot in this bill that attacks higher ed,” said David Provost, the college’s treasurer. “It’s clear that they’re coming after us.”
Bill Burger, the college’s spokesman, articulated the college’s opposition to the endowment tax.
“Middlebury’s endowment, like the endowments of other schools, sustain generous financial aid programs that make a high-quality education available to admitted students regardless of their ability to pay,” he said. “The perverse consequence of an endowment tax would be to shift the burden of the cost of higher education to the families that are least able to afford it.”
Provost estimates that a tax of 1.4 percent could have reduced the college’s investment income by up to $600,000 in the past year.
“Our average financial aid package is $45,000,” he said. “That’s 12 or 13 students where we wouldn’t have money to give financial aid.”
Beyond this immediate impact, the college is concerned that passing an endowment tax could embolden Congress to levy additional taxes against private colleges in the future, or to simply raise the endowment tax rate far above 1.4 percent.
“If it starts at 1.4 percent, what’s to say that they won’t make it 5 or 10 percent?” Provost said. “Once it’s in place, where does it stop?”
The endowment tax is not the only provision that has drawn the college’s attention. Both the House and Senate plans call for a significant increase in taxpayers’ standard deduction, which would reduce the incentive to make tax-deductible charitable contributions, such as donations to Middlebury.
“We have a high participation rate of alumni that give,” Provost said. While this provision would not severely harm the college’s finances, “in the context of keeping alumni engaged, it could sting.”
Next, the House bill would eliminate the student loan interest deduction, which currently allows student borrowers to reduce their yearly tax burden by up to $2,500. The Senate bill leaves this deduction intact.
Finally, the House bill would repeal tax breaks for employer-funded educational assistance. Currently, faculty and staff can receive tax-exempt tuition assistance from the college, helping them, or a dependent, take college classes or pursue a degree. This provision, like the student loan deductions, would not impact Middlebury as an institution, but could negatively impact college employees who benefit from the deduction.
Provost, who spent the past weekend at Swarthmore College discussing the tax plan with financial officers from other small liberal arts colleges, said that Middlebury’s senior administrators would meet this week to develop an official response to the legislation. Options could include releasing a joint statement of opposition alongside other selective liberal arts colleges.
Republicans in Congress, anxious for a legislative victory, hope to pass tax reform before the mid-December recess. The House could vote on its bill this week, and is expected to pass it; the Senate is still finalizing details on its own plan, which will likely encounter more opposition. If both bills pass, GOP leaders from both houses would then need to collaborate on a final bill to send to President Trump’s desk.
“I think it’s fair to say that higher education’s view of these tax proposals is well understood in the halls of Congress,” Burger said. “It’s sad that this issue has become so politicized. We hope that the Senate, in particular, will be a place where sound public policy can emerge on this issue.”
News media in the United States has changed dramatically over the past few decades, and few have a better perspective on that evolution than Walter Mears ’56. Mears served as editor-in-chief of The Campus in his senior year at Middlebury, and began reporting for the Associated Press (AP) immediately following his graduation. Mears wrote for the AP from then until 2001, during which time he covered 11 presidential elections and won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the 1976 campaign. Recently, Mears spoke by phone to Nick Garber, a news editor for The Campus, and discussed his time at Middlebury and the state of journalism in the Trump era. This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.
Nick Garber (NG): Some have alleged that the news media “graded Trump on a curve” in 2016, which minimized his flaws and exaggerated Hillary Clinton’s. What do you make of that allegation? Did you ever cover a candidate who was so unique that it felt difficult to cover them fairly?
Walter Mears (WM): “Unique” is a kind word to use for Trump. I guess the closest I could come would be [Alabama Governor] George Wallace in 1968 and 1972, and Ross Perot, who was the third-party candidate against Bill Clinton and [George H.W.] Bush. But I don’t think there’s been anyone quite like Trump.
One reason is the change in the coverage—the word news media means so many things now that it’s meaningless. You can call anything, from a totally fictitious website to the Associated Press, part of the news media, and it’s not. And the rise of social media, which I consider antisocial, has made it possible for people with all sorts of axes to grind to pose as though they were reporting news. And, egged on by Trump and also by the most liberal of us, objective news has become so subjective that it’s hard for people to know what they’re supposed to read, or hear, or see, or believe. I think that’s a great danger to our whole system, because without an informed electorate, you can’t have sensible elections.
As a reporter, I covered a lot of people I personally disagreed with. I spent a lot of time with Barry Goldwater in 1963 and ’64. I respected him and he was a patriot, but I didn’t think he ought to be president and disagreed with his views. But I covered him fairly and my colleagues did too. Barry thanked us after the campaign, saying, “I know most of you don’t agree with what I say, but I respect the way you covered it objectively.” I couldn’t cover Donald Trump fairly. I’m glad I don’t have to try. I couldn’t simply stand by and report objectively the irresponsible behavior of this man and the people around him.
NG: Can you boil down the issues with modern media into any one concept?
WM: I don’t know that there’s any one thing I could name. The fact that anybody with a computer is suddenly a journalist is part of the problem. Obviously, the biggest threat to the kind of news media I knew is the decline of the daily newspaper, because advertising migrated to the internet, and nobody’s figured out how to make a good business model to keep a newspaper going without advertising.
With that support structure being undermined by the availability of online advertising, you lose the resources that are essential to the kind of news coverage that is essential to a functioning democracy. If you look at the major newspapers, a few still maintain overseas news coverage, but most don’t bother since it’s very expensive. The coverage of statehouses is shrinking; in a lot of states where you used to have a press corps, it’s a handful of reporters who show up once in awhile but don’t cover state government the way it was covered in my era. That’s a function of resources, which are shrinking, and that’s a big problem.
NG: Thinking ahead to 2020, what do you make of the perceived split in the Republican Party? Do you expect Trump to draw any primary challengers?
WM: There’s a certain pattern that needs to be repeated. You’ve got to get through the primaries, you’ve got to get the nomination, and so forth. I’d be very surprised if there aren’t one or more challengers to Trump for renomination. [Tennessee Senator] Bob Corker, who’s retiring and telling the truth about Trump and his cadre, would seem to me to be a solid prospect for people looking for a challenger.
The campaign of 2016 was warped all out of shape by a number of factors. I hate to think a major reason was Russian interference—in my time, during and shortly after the Cold War, any candidate who was cozy with the Russians politically would’ve been laughed out of the race immediately.
NG: Can you describe how your time at Middlebury contributed to your career?
WM: Middlebury was crucial to launching me into my career in journalism. I always wanted to be a reporter. I chose Middlebury because it chose me. I wasn’t a very distinguished student going in—I did well in college and I graduated with honors, but my credentials as an applicant were not the greatest. Those four years were crucial to my maturing process, and The Campus was crucial to my career. My contacts opened the door that led me to work for the AP the morning after I graduated from Middlebury.
NG: The relationship between the student body and the administration is a dominant topic on campus these days. What kind of dealings did you have with the administration as a student, and as a student journalist?
WM: One of my duties as editor was to oversee the writing of the editorials and bring them to Sam Stratton, the president of the college, before they were published. Nothing was ever changed, though there was a sense that they were looking over your shoulder.
The biggest issue that arose in my time as editor was the summer before I became editor, a famous and beloved Dean of Men, Storrs Lee, was fired. They did it when the campus was deserted for the summer—I think because of the rebellion it would’ve caused, because he was a great dean and a fine gentleman. I wrote an editorial that basically said that we as a student body had every right to be outraged that a man of his caliber was dismissed, but that the board of trustees was within its right in doing what it did and that there was no way to overturn it. Basically, “I’m as mad as you are, but cool it.” It went over very well with the administration, but was also accepted and observed by the student body. It was regarded as a sensible, calming message from an unlikely place.
NG: Middlebury has received significant news coverage in recent months due to the March protests of Charles Murray. In the aftermath, it seemed that students on all sides of the issue were frustrated by the news coverage, which many felt failed to capture the nuances of the discourse on campus. During your career, how did you approach the challenge of accurately capturing the subtleties of the situations you reported on?
WM: Obviously, what got the attention was the fact that they shouted him off the stage and the professor was injured, and that it got out of hand. I wish that the people that objected to this man would’ve simply said, “The perfect answer is to let him have an empty arena. Nobody go—let the people who invited him listen to him, nobody else show up.” The one thing people like Murray can’t stand is to be ignored. Obviously, he wasn’t and Middlebury wasn’t—Middlebury got more news coverage than I’ve ever seen it get before or after, and all it did was inflate Murray.
It’s sort of like Trump—be outrageous and people will pay attention. I don’t know about the nuances on campus, but I think letting it get to that point takes away the ability to have rational discussion about it. I wasn’t there and don’t know exactly what happened, but it did get violent and that’s counterproductive.
NG: What advice would you give to young people that are seeking to enter journalism, or simply to hold power accountable in this era?
WM: I hope that people who aspire to journalism won’t give up because it’s too important to walk away from the institution that is crucial to democracy. I think that democracy is facing its greatest challenge in my lifetime, because its very essence is an informed electorate, and we’re losing that.
Trump, in suggesting that all stories with unidentified sources are simply made up by the reporters, is ignoring the fact that that’s a fireable offense—if you make up a source, you’re fired. That issue is one the Trump crowd rides hard because part of their stock and trade is sowing mistrust of the coverage people should be able to rely on. So, I hope people who aspire to journalism stick with it, and know it’s going to be more difficult now than ever, for the decline of the newspapers and for the fact that you’ll be surrounded by people howling that you’re a liar.
For the broader part of your question, it’s crucial to all of us that young people and old people pay attention to their sources of information. As a reporter, you don’t go with something if you have one source and you can’t back it up. Readers should apply a similar standard—not just grab a rumor from the internet, but look for backup, look for other sources. Do the research to find out what’s really going on. It’s difficult and most people don’t take the time to do it, but not doing it leads to a firestorm of misinformation. There’s so much floating around out there, and it’s easy to grab onto the latest rumor and treat it as truth. Checking sources is a standard for reporters, and it ought be what readers follow as well.
NG: We’ll see if my generation can figure that out.
WM: It’s going to be tough but I hope you do, because if we’re going to keep a democracy, we’re going to have to do better at informing ourselves about who and what we’re voting on. The whole process has been so distorted by so many factors that it’s hard to see why it’s worth it. But it’s worth it because it’s the system we’ve had for a couple of centuries, and it’s worth defending by paying attention to it.
Last week, former Congressman Barney Frank (D-MA) and former Governor John Sununu (R-NH) and chief of staff to President George H.W. Bush, came to campus for a conversation entitled, “Finding Common Ground for Economic Opportunity in the Trump Era.” (For coverage of the event, click here). Following the event, Frank and Sununu sat down with The Campus for an interview, which has been lightly edited for clarity.
Middlebury Campus (MC): Last March, in the room we were just in, students here protested a speech by Charles Murray, preventing him from speaking. This is something we've seen around the country—what are your general thoughts on college campuses shutting down speakers?
John Sununu (JS): The biggest problem in America today.
Barney Frank (BF): I don’t think it’s the biggest problem in America, but it’s outrageous. First, from a standpoint of individual rights and civil liberties, it’s wrong, morally wrong—that’s not the way you want a democracy. Secondly, it is particularly disturbing because it intrudes on the function of a university, which should be where people learn. Third, it bothers me politically. I don’t want to make that an important reason, because it’s wrong whether it’s helpful [politically] or not, but it’s totally counterproductive. These are people on the left who could not be giving the right a bigger gift; they could not be doing more to empower right-wingers.
This is an argument I’ve been having with a lot of people for 50 years. In the ‘60s when there was excessive violence in African-American communities and in Vietnam, Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew made great hay off of that, so it’s politically counterproductive in that sense. Finally, it’s very shortsighted for people who are members of vulnerable minorities. Yeah, on campus the pro-LGBT position and the pro-African American position might be in the majority. But in the broader society that isn’t always gonna be the case. For LGBT people in particular, to reaffirm the principle that if a conversation upsets people you shouldn’t have it, is an attitude I’ve been fighting all my life about my rights.
JS: The reason I think it’s the biggest problem, or one of the biggest problems, is because it’s producing a generation of young people who are on campus and who will be leaving campus who, in my opinion, are being encouraged by a lot of faculty members to feel that the First Amendment is not an appropriate right in this country. To me, none of the other rights work without First Amendment rights.
MC: What might be the causes of this phenomenon? Is it reflected in our political climate, as exhibited in Congress?
BF: I don’t know. Some of it is because of economic disadvantage, but that’s not the case here—these are not people, on the whole, who are economically disadvantaged. I’m skeptical of my ability to explain why it happened, because if I knew why it happened, maybe I would’ve known it was gonna happen. But I suppose there is one argument that I’ve heard that I totally reject—I’ve heard it from those Antifa people, who are especially obnoxious and who are themselves dangerous—that there is a danger that fascism is gonna take over. That isn’t remotely the case and even if it was, the [proper] targets are not the ones they deal with. So I do not know why we have this outbreak.
JS: I’m not sure I understand it either. Some of it is related to the point I tried to make [during the event]: that technology has permitted people to isolate themselves with others that are completely in accord with them, and give them a feeling that they don’t have to hand shouldn’t exchange ideas with other. We’ll have to see how far this thing does, but I would really urge conservatives, liberals, progressives, everybody of every philosophy, to understand the point the congressman made upstairs: that constructive discourse is necessary in a democracy.
BF: It bothers me too, because I want to make change. I want people to go out and vote and throw out the bad people and put in better people and then put pressure on them to do the right thing. The problem in part is people think, having done that, that they’ve done something for the cause. “Hey, I made America better for LGBT people by shouting down a bigot!” That doesn’t do me a goddamn bit of good. It’s an easy way out. If you really don’t like these people, get out there. Write letters, call talk shows, get on social media and make your arguments with people.
MC: This is a very liberal institution, and a lot of people here come from very liberal places. When you come to an institution that reaffirms the beliefs you’ve held all your life, how do you go about challenging yourself? How do you, as lifelong members of one political party, keep challenging yourself?
JS: Read, read, read. There’s some great authors out there. Read both sides.
BF: Find some people, go listen to them speaking, even if it’s not on campus. I wouldn’t recommend watching TV—with rare exceptions, TV people promote fighting and squabbling.
MC: Here at the college, many folks with conservative views feel silenced, as though if they express their viewpoints, other students will attack them. What would your advice be to young conservative students?
BF: Get over it. Do people still say, “Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me?” Call me a name, so what? Sununu and I have been getting called names for a living for a very long time. I would say just don’t take it to heart, don’t take these people seriously.
JS: It’s hard to do that, especially if you’re afraid of retribution from faculty. But Barney’s right—either believe in what you believe in enough to not hide it, or go somewhere else. If enough go somewhere else, maybe the institution will learn something’s wrong. Institutions have a responsibility, and in a constructive way, [students should] urge more of the kind of stuff we had tonight.
MC: Congressman Frank, during the talk, you referenced the lack of political participation in the U.S., especially in primaries. This plagues the Democratic Party in particular. Aside from reminding people of the value of voting, what kind of role does the party have in maximizing turnout?
BF: [The party] can’t take sides, but what it can do and has done is fight very hard against voter suppression. There’s a task force headed by Eric Holder, to fight at the local level against restrictive rules.
JS: Obviously I don’t agree with the congressman on that. To answer your question about what the party can do: it’s hard for the party in primaries because it doesn’t want to be perceived as favoring somebody and it doesn’t take much of a nuance or slip for that to happen. But there are ways it can fund phonebooks saying to go out and vote; door-knocking, dropping off literature about every candidate in the party. That’s what the party can do. But in primaries it’s really up to the candidates—they’re the ones receiving the contributions, they’re the ones urging people to get out, and it’s up to them to get support.
BF: You can have much more influence with your peers than we can, when you’re of that age. There are advocacy groups—part of their work is to make a list of everyone and tell them to go vote. People should not exaggerate the role of the parties. I’ve had people complain to me that “The Democratic National Committee rigged the nomination for Hillary Clinton.” My answer is, the Democratic National Committee couldn’t put out a fire in a bathtub. They just don’t have that kind of power.
MC: You talked about the role of the party; do you think there’s a need for a 3rd, 4th, 5th party?
BF: You know that story, there’s a guy next to a girl, he has his hands around her, and he says, “I wish I was an octopus so I could put 8 arms around you.” And she says, “You ain’t using the two you got!” You’re not doing what you want with what you have! The parties are not monoliths.
JS: You don’t want to get European, where you give leverage to some group that—
BF: And why would you want to start a new party? If you have enough votes to win in a new party, go vote in primaries and take over an existing one. The parties are not monoliths. And a third party, what would it be for?
MC: Well, thinking of the divide between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton—
BF: So you think it would be better to have two parties? In terms of what is achievable in the U.S. Congress in the foreseeable future, there’s no practical difference. Neither one of them could give you all of what you want; people are fighting about unrealism. So let me put it this way: if people want to start a third party to the left, the Republicans would be delighted; if the Republicans wanted to start one to the right, the Democrats would be delighted.
JS: I just think a two-party system serves the country well. You may think it’s broke, but it ain’t broke.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions dove into the debate over free speech on college campuses, delivering an address last week that denounced “political correctness” and directly referenced the protests that occurred here last March.
“Freedom of thought and speech on the American campus are under attack,” Sessions said. “The American university was once the center of academic freedom—a place of robust debate, a forum for the competition of ideas. But it is transforming into an echo chamber of political correctness and homogenous thought, a shelter for fragile egos.”
In his speech, given Tuesday, Sept. 26 at Georgetown University, Sessions also suggested that the Department of Justice would begin to involve itself in free speech disputes, even those taking place on private college campuses.
Sessions noted that public events at several colleges have recently been shut down due to student protests, naming the March 2 protests of Charles Murray as one such “frightening example.”
“Student protestors violently shut down a debate between an invited speaker and one of the school’s own professors,” Sessions said of Middlebury. “As soon as the event began, the protesters shouted for 20 minutes, preventing the debate from occurring.”
“When the debaters attempted to move to a private broadcasting location, the protesters — many in masks, a common tactic also used by the detestable Ku Klux Klan — pulled fire alarms, surrounded the speakers, and began physically assaulting them. In short, Middlebury students engaged in a violent riot to ensure that neither they nor their fellow students would hear speech they may have disagreed with.”
Later in his speech, Sessions announced that the Department of Justice would lend its support to an evangelical Christian student at Georgia Gwinnett College, who is suing his school on First Amendment grounds after administrators limited where he could preach.
In order to intervene in the Georgia case, Sessions said the Justice Department would rely on a statement of interest — essentially a formal show of support for the government’s preferred side in a pending lawsuit. Such statements have proved to be powerful means of influencing individual cases, and were used heavily by the Obama administration in civil rights suits.
Sessions suggested that the Georgia lawsuit is only the first of many cases in which the Justice Department plans to ally itself with student free speech advocates.
“We will enforce federal law, defend free speech, and protect students’ free expression from whatever end of the political spectrum it may come,” he said. “To that end, we are filing a statement of interest in a campus free speech case this week and we will be filing more in the weeks and months to come.”
An administrator told The Campus that there is no litigation currently pending against Middlebury in a federal court, but reiterated the college’s commitment to free speech and freedom of inquiry, per its Freedom of Expression Policy.
College spokesman Bill Burger took issue with Sessions’ characterization of the Murray protests.
“It’s regrettable that the attorney general’s recounting of the events at Middlebury College last March was so carelessly inaccurate,” he said.