COVID-19: Essential Information

Speech and Inclusion Update

November 1, 2019


Dear Students, Faculty, and Staff,

I write today to let you know about the progress we’re making on an issue fundamental to Middlebury’s well-being: moving us toward a truly robust and inclusive public sphere. As I’ve stated before, I believe we can and will fulfill our equal commitments to free expression and a truly inclusive community on all of our campuses.

But we can do that only if we continue to engage in the process that we began in earnest a few years ago—which has taken rigorous self-reflection, research, and, perhaps most important of all, assuming good intentions.

I’m confident that this work can be a force for creativity. This is the Middlebury we’re trying to create.

As is often the case with dual commitments, there’s a tension here that isn’t easy to resolve. Every week, we read about institutions’ struggles over questions of speech and inclusivity. We ourselves have experienced them firsthand. Society, as a whole, has too, sometimes in painful ways.

Our work is therefore a work in progress.

Last spring, we canceled an event because we didn’t have sufficient security resources to address growing safety concerns. Criticism in response to our decision was passionate and vocal, from inside our community and out. But ensuring safety often involves judgment calls that we must make and will continue to labor over. A commitment to free expression—which lies at the heart of teaching and learning because it is based on the principle that all community members can participate equally and all voices can be heard—must be supported by a safe environment.

As our Committee on Speech and Inclusion stated in its January 2018 report, “Attempts to curtail speech that is considered offensive or controversial by some can lead to a chilling effect, in conflict with the spirit of our vision statement.”

At the same time, we must recognize that dignitary harms may be experienced along the way. As a community we need to be prepared to be supportive and attentive to those harms.

Over last summer and into fall, we’ve been working to shore up our policies and protocols to increase our ability to enable a robust range of perspectives to be included, heard, engaged with, and argued over. In the next few weeks, we’ll be sharing these policies and enhancements with you, which are based on our twin values of freedom of expression and inclusivity. I’d like to give you some brief details about them now.
  • Thanks to the incredibly thoughtful efforts of the Policy Working Group (appointed by Faculty Council), whose deep dive into our existing Protests and Demonstrations Policy last year surfaced a number of relevant issues, we’re developing a new Open Expression Policy. This policy will affirm that our civic discourse is premised on the fundamental equality of all Middlebury community members; recognize the historical importance of nonviolent public protest and demonstration; and explicitly define key disruptive behaviors that will be subject to penalties.
  • We are exploring establishing programs, such as the Open Expression Observers, to protect the rights of speakers and demonstration participants to express their opinions in nondisruptive ways, and to protect the rights of other community members to conduct normal business.
  • We’ll share a revised Policy on Scheduling Space for Middlebury Events, whose purpose is to better anticipate the impact of speaker events and execute appropriate security and support measures.
  • We’ve studied best practices at peer institutions and consulted experts in safety and security. We’ve strengthened relationships and planning practices with our local law enforcement partners and increased resources to ensure that all speakers invited by our students, faculty, or staff may speak, and that those who disagree may voice their perspectives safely.
  • We’re developing workshops for students on how to express opinions while adhering to our policies and in the spirit of our community values; FAQs on the new protocols; and online resources regarding campus speech and inclusion. We’re outlining ideas and actions that will provide space and support in the community during and around a controversial event.
My colleagues on the Senior Leadership Group and I look forward to sharing more details in the weeks ahead. Different elements will be led by certain SLG members, but we’re united in our commitment to both open expression and inclusivity.

Please know how grateful we are to you for the thought and care you’ve given to these truly difficult issues. The deliberations of the Committee on Speech and Inclusion, our commitment to Restorative Practices, the Engaged Listening Project, the multiple Critical Conversations we’ve undertaken—so many of you have done much work to strengthen our ties and our understanding of what it means to be accountable to each other in a community of learners.

Thank you all for continuing to map a constructive way forward for Middlebury.

With appreciation,

Laurie Patton
Office of the President

Old Chapel
9 Old Chapel Road
Middlebury College
Middlebury, VT 05753