December 11, 2015: Town Hall Remarks at Mead Chapel

December 11, 2015

 

I began my remarks to you at the inauguration focusing on the ways in which diversity should be an everyday ethic. Diversity and inclusivity are not problems to be solved but ways that we live our lives. I have been so proud of this community as I have watched us grapple with the challenges of becoming better at being inclusive. I have been saddened to hear the experiences of those who have been in pain, and I want to propose actions to create a better Middlebury.

We have expressed solidarity with students trying to make lives better in cities and in universities across the United States. We have wondered what the relationship is between speaking our minds and improving the ways we talk to each other every day. We have gathered and expressed our concerns and frustrations, as well as our hopes for the future. We have asked how we could both collectively and individually become more whole as all of our differences are gathered up into this extraordinary community called Middlebury.

I have seen remarkable intentionality and thoughtfulness in this conversation. And I have also seen ways in which we could improve both in our mindfulness of each other as well as in the care with which we imagine the future. I have had conversations with many of you in the dining halls, where you have welcomed me for lunch, and during my office hours as well as when walking across campus. I have had students of color express their frustration at not wanting to be the sole representatives of difference, and feeling solely responsible for educating about difference, when they themselves are here for an education. I have had students from majority white backgrounds express their fear at making a mistake and being called racist, or sexist, or homophobic. I have had faculty wanting more conversation about race with students. I have listened to other faculty—and even some of those same faculty—wanting to make sure that we embrace the best practices of free speech. And I have spoken to alumni and trustees and fellow travelers who wish us the best and want us to continue to talk and become the community that we always were meant to be.

I want to share a few thoughts and principles before I also share with you the ways in which we are moving forward on these central issues for our times.

First, we must make sure that no single group bears the burden of difference, but that we all aspire to inclusivity. That means that students of color should not have to be the sole educators on questions of racial prejudice; students from the LGBT community should not have to be the sole educators about different sexual orientations; students of religious backgrounds should not have to explain and be the sole representatives for all of their traditions; disabled students should not have to be the sole people working for accessibility. Some students are tired of those roles.

Second, those of us who are not part of historically underrepresented groups need to stand in alliance with those who are. And we need to be explicit and intentional about this. That means that we need white allies of people of color who work to combat racism on our campus. We need straight people to stand in alliance with LGBT people. We need people who are in majority religious traditions to stand in alliance with those who are in minority religious traditions. We need people who are not disabled to stand in alliance with people who are disabled. How can people who have wealth and access to wealth stand in alliance with those who do not? This spirit of alliance is to me exactly where we need to go in the future if we are to live into the everyday experience of difference and inclusivity. And that alliance means a commitment to educating ourselves when we are in alliance with others, not asking them to educate us.

Third, we need to not be afraid to make mistakes and to engage with others. This may be the hardest thing for members of our community to do because we are all community-minded people who want to do the right thing and we are all trying to address the stress in our lives. And that combination makes it hard sometimes for us to always get it right when it comes to living out that everyday ethic. I made a mistaken reference the other day that someone responded to and said I should think about differently. I responded to someone else who I thought was using gender-biased language yesterday. We are probably going to be in both roles. So if in fact someone asks us to change our language or behavior, we have a duty first and foremost to listen. And if we are offended by someone else's behavior or language, let us not be afraid to name that and engage respectfully in ways in which the behavior or language could change. This is a delicate task of discernment between keeping engaged and avoiding undue burdens on a single group. We, as educators, need to educate, and to do so better. But we all need to listen.

It is only with this open perspective of discerning listening—even in the stress of everyday life—that we will achieve the kind of ethic of inclusivity that we all aspire to.

I am asking for students who are angry at each other to still listen to each other. I am asking that faculty who feel that students are demanding too much of them to listen to their concerns. I am asking that administrators remember all the hard work that is before us in listening to both faculty, students, and staff who may be coming from very different places than we are.

Fourth, I want us to have an open and complex understanding of free speech. Free speech is not the opposite of inclusivity. We need both if we are to move forward in any meaningful way. In fact, the very way that we create a more inclusive community is by exercising free speech and continuing to create understanding even in the midst of difficult tension-filled conversations. If we do not exercise free speech, we will never learn what others are thinking, and we will never learn how to understand what we may have said or done that makes the world harder for someone else.

The fifth principle is the importance of ongoing reflection about structural bias. This is the work of the Institutional Diversity Committee. We have been talking about structural issues in which racism and other forms of exclusivity are built into our systems. I think this is the biggest challenge for all of us, and I think the first step towards addressing structural prejudice is by collectively owning the work we need to do together. This is why alliance is important. For example, to change the built environment so that we are more accessible will take every single person on this campus being more and differently aware than they are now. For us to make Middlebury a rainbow space and a resilient space, and not only a white space, we need to have everyone's reflection. And that reflection needs to be actively engaged in contexts and conversations outside Middlebury’s campus—the ways in which systems around the globe both foster inclusivity and perpetuate exclusivity. We will have deeply different opinions about these structural issues. But these are not episodic issues that will flare up and go away. We must attend to these and talk about these on an ongoing basis. We are not obliged to think the same. But I believe we are obliged to stay in the local, global, and national conversations.

And on that note of collective ownership, and with all these principles in mind, I want to remind you of, and say more about, the work we are doing on campus that I mentioned in my recent letter to the community. I also want to introduce other new activities we have started and to share some new ideas. There are 13 points.

Number 1: In the spirit of creating a better everyday life at Middlebury, we are sponsoring a series of workshops by the Posse Foundation to reach all the offices that touch students in their lives at Middlebury. The Posse Foundation is a nationally recognized expert on student leadership development—and college access, retention, and success. Each year, Posse accepts a select number of consulting requests focused on leadership development and diversity training, curriculum and program design, or team-building events related to a specific programmatic or institutional goal. Posse will be here in early May. They will hold workshops for Admissions, Student Financial Services staff, student leaders, and faculty. We are still working with Posse on designing these workshops and the goal is to reach everyone eventually. We invite you to comment and engage.

Number 2: In the spirit of making our educational practices as inclusive as possible, we must acknowledge that our most important educational spaces are our classrooms. We have hired another group to assist us—Romney and Associates. Romney focuses on the faculty recruiting process—writing a job ad that will attract a diverse applicant pool, addressing implicit bias in the search, and mentoring, among many other things. We are also sponsoring Romney workshops for people in the role of search committees particularly focused on unconscious bias and stereotype threat. Those workshops will be mandatory for all faculty search committees starting with the next round of recruiting. The first workshop will take place in late spring, and there are three more spread across the year ahead. This is particularly important because we are also expanding our Mellon-funded project, C3, which focuses on faculty diversity, by adding new universities that will be working with us to identify postdoctoral scholars of color to teach on our campuses.

Number 3: In the spirit of ongoing everyday reflection on structural bias, I would like to announce that Leslie Harris, professor of history and African-American studies at Emory University, is going to be speaking to our Board of Trustees as well as students and faculty during a visit in late January. Leslie is an expert on slavery in the Northern states and has just finished editing a volume on the university and slavery. Significantly for us, she also led a communitywide conversation at Emory University about Emory's relationship to slavery and segregation in its first 150 years. This was called “the transforming community project” and it was a truly wonderful initiative funded by the Ford Foundation. I have asked Leslie to work with Middlebury in designing and creating an ongoing conversation about difference that lasts. I think we could do this in some unique and creative ways, with some effort and intentional reflection, and I am greatly excited about this work.

Number 4: In the spirit of not being afraid to make mistakes in the service of building a better community, I have asked a new alliance of students who are interested in hosting difficult conversations—what I have called arguments for the sake of heaven—to convene their first conversation on the subject of diversity and inclusion during J-term. I will be hosting and facilitating that conversation and we will be looking at this question from a number of different points of view. Please stay tuned.

Number 5: In the spirit of everyday public safety, I have asked our director of public safety, Lisa Burchard, to meet regularly with any concerned students about the question of public safety and inclusive practices. She and other members of her team will be joining students for lunch every month to address any issues that have come up and change our practices so that we can make Middlebury a more inclusive community.

Number 6: I have asked Erin Quinn, the director of athletics, to create a new initiative within athletics led by both students and coaches to look at inclusivity practices and the ways in which teams can lead in this area. We have the student structure in place because one of our Student Athlete Advisory Committee subcommittees is Diversity and Inclusion. That will give us an initial avenue to engage students. Erin will add additional support from coaches.

As he and I have discussed, varsity student-athletes make up approximately 28 percent of the student population and, as members of teams, they have an ability to organize effectively. Furthermore, due to participation in athletic contests, they are often visible to the College and local community. We believe they can be effective and important allies against racism.

Coaches play an integral mentoring role for their teams as they are often involved in the College and local community, and they link participation in athletics at Middlebury to issues beyond the practice and competition venues. We believe coaches can also be effective and important allies against racism.

Number 7: In the spirit of improving everyday mental health, the student-life team is in the process of hiring two full-time counseling fellows for the Parton Center. Those counselors will be hired with a view toward inclusivity and diversity and with a strong focus on addressing issues that come up for historically underrepresented groups. We are actively interviewing to fill those positions.

Number 8: In the spirit of student leadership on these issues, I am delighted to credit one of the student-led groups in the conversation around difference and inclusivity at Middlebury—JusTalks. JusTalks is working with Middlebury leaders to create wide exposure to their work on campus, and while we are still in the design phase, I invite you to stay tuned. While we will be able to share the results of the collaborations later in the academic year, we are partnering with JusTalks organizers to find a way to grow and strengthen the program and give maximum exposure to their work.

Number 9: In the spirit of everyday sharing of the burden of education about difference, I have asked the provost, as part of her work leading the strategic planning process this year and next, to include room to consider the central question of how we can create a more inclusive curriculum. Last month, the faculty took up this issue in their discussion of the AAL requirement (note: AAL refers to a distribution requirement that undergraduate students complete at least one course that focuses an aspect of the cultures and civilizations of Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Middle Easts, and the Caribbean), which they will vote on in the spring. This is just the first of many similar curricular conversations we will be having. I would like to propose here that we work on a common Middlebury bibliography as well as a common list of classes that will help us reflect about all of the issues before us. In this way we educate each other collectively rather than sitting back and allowing those who are different to constantly have to articulate their difference to others. In the same vein, I invite another all-Middlebury bibliography on the relationship between free speech and inclusivity in a vibrant democratic practice.

Number 10: In the spirit of building networks, I have been in conversation with members of the Alumni of Color organization as they plan their weekend in January. One trustee, Leilani McClellan Brown ’93, will be speaking then. I will be meeting with them and will invite those active in Alumni of Color to share with me what it would look like to take this group to the next level. I think it would be tremendously exciting to develop an entire network of alumni of color to create a mentoring program that could help support our work both before and after their time at Middlebury.

Number 11: In the spirit of supporting student leadership and creating alliances, I have been in conversation with members of the SGA and asked them to suggest ways we could move forward on real and meaningful alliances across campus that acknowledge the way our various identities shape who we are, and how race is often at the nexus of many social issues and identities, including class, gender, and sexual orientation.

They have come up with some truly wonderful suggestions that I support wholeheartedly. I will help fund these initiatives if they require such support. To name a few of them:

  • A “Think About It” course for incoming first-year students that could be taken online before they arrive. This would be similar to the alcohol education course students take now.
  • A concerted effort to involve more students who have demonstrated leadership in cultural organizations or activist groups on campus.
  • Establishment of a program similar to Green Dot that would teach student bystanders to intervene in problematic situations before they escalate into more serious conflicts.
  • Administrative support for a student organization for students who want to become better educated and better allies. This could be a model for many other groups as they design their next steps.

Number 12: In the spirit of creative thinking about everyday community practices, I have begun conversations with my diversity team on the question of applying models of restorative justice to questions of bias and cultural appropriation on campus. According to one definition, restorative justice focuses less on the idea of legal violation and more on the ideas of community and repair. As the Center for Justice and Reconciliation puts it, there are three big ideas that restorative justice practices bring to the table: (1) Repair: crime causes harm and justice requires repairing that harm; (2) Encounter: the best way to determine how to do that is to have the parties decide together; and (3) Transformation: this can cause fundamental changes in people, relationships, and communities.

I think Middlebury could come up with some truly compelling procedures for restorative justice when incidences of bias take place on campus. We are just at the beginning stages of this but I wanted to share this new approach with you as I have learned it from a student on campus who has been working on this in relationship to questions of sexual violence. I am inspired because, once again, students are leading and it is our job to support good ideas.

And Number 13: I promised you that we would name the task force on excess ability and an Alliance for Inclusivity. And I am happy to say that we are able to do that today. I share with you both the charges for these two groups and their members. We will make additional information available after the holiday break. It is my intention that these be ongoing groups with presidential support. Let me say that the student applications were fabulous. And to those who will not be part of the group but expressed an interest, thank you. I am delighted to be working with each group on next steps for our community lives together.

I will begin with the Advisory Group of Disability, Access, and Inclusion.

The members:

  • Miguel Fernandez and Susan Burch (cofacilitators)
  • Jodi Litchfield, Student Accessibility Services
  • Yonna McShane, Center for Teaching/Learning/Research
  • Lhakpa Bhutia '16
  • Elizabeth Zhou '18

In my 2015 inaugural address, I expressed the idea that “diversity is an everyday ethic to be cultivated, made richer and more vibrant.” As part of this vision for Middlebury, I have charged the Advisory Group on Disability, Access, and Inclusion to identify ways to make Middlebury College a more inclusive community, focusing on issues related to disability and people with disabilities.

The group will engage with a wide array of Middlebury constituents. It will assess campus values and understandings, including policies, curricula and pedagogies, support services, events and programming, communications, and everyday interactions. The advisory group will also assess accessibility in our built environment, which may include, for example, residential and academic spaces and related campus structures, and transportation.

I am also delighted to announce the Alliance for an Inclusive Middlebury (AIM).

The members:

Faculty and Staff

  • Baishakhi Taylor and Roberto Lint Sagarena (cofacilitators)
  • Miguel Fernandez (Liaison to Advisory Group on Disability, Access, and Inclusion)
  • Leticia Arroyo Abad, Economics
  • Nicole Curvin, Admissions
  • Alice Wang, CRA

Students

  • Chi Chi Chang '18
  • Mario Picón '17
  • Anahi Naranjo '17
  • Angie McCarthy '19

The Alliance for an Inclusive Middlebury works to promote a comprehensive, collegewide approach to issues of diversity, access, and equity. Through strategic planning and programmatic development we will empower students, faculty, and staff to sustain an inclusive campus community. The core ethic of this alliance is that no one in our community should experience it as an outsider.

AIM will make regular progress reports to the president and Middlebury’s Senior Leadership Group. The group will also make reports regarding its work and findings to the broad campus community when appropriate.

The initiatives put forward by this group will be created in consultation and collaboration with the widest range of campus constituencies possible.

Members of AIM will investigate and make use of best practices around diversity and inclusivity at peer institutions, including the possibility of site visits.

In conjunction with relevant offices on campus, AIM will update, examine, and disseminate existing institutional diversity data and statistics. We believe that it is crucial that we identify the places where we need to do work as well as acknowledge the places where inclusivity is moving forward on campus.

Before I end, let me once again state the five principles I articulated at the beginning:

  1. Collective ownership of inclusivity where no one group bears the burden for all of us;
  2. The need to create alliances with historically underrepresented groups;
  3. Being unafraid to make mistakes as we engage with others and embracing the value of listening as we live through the difficult work of creating new community;
  4. Supporting the values of free speech and inclusivity as complementary values to make sure that both work towards the same goal of creating a better community;
  5. Committing to ongoing reflection on structural bias.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, writer and an alum of the Middlebury Language Schools, called his work on coming-of-age in Baltimore The Beautiful Struggle. It is a great title for the work his father and others did, and it is also a great name for active compassionate response to the question of difference and community. In the 13 points of action that I have shared with you, I invite you to join us in any of those projects and struggle with us. Work with athletics. Work with us as faculty to think about best practices in the classroom. Work with us in the administration as we support student groups and design workshops. Work with us in the SGA as we think about new and newly invigorated alliances. Work with us in public safety. Work with us in designing better conversations in public about tough issues. Work with alumni communities to create stronger and better networks.

More than any other community I have chosen to be a part of, I believe in this community’s power to change. I believe in Middlebury’s power to address stress and diversity and the relationship between the two. I believe in Middlebury’s power to create, slowly and imperfectly, but also compellingly, a new way forward. How can we understand and cultivate difference as one of our deepest values, as a form of richness of everyday life? There are so many new spheres and we have just begun to name them. Let us name more. And let's create a world with new language. A world with new names. Thank you.

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