MIDDLEBURY, Vt. – A committee formed in response to the aftermath of Charles Murray’s visit to campus last March has concluded its eight-month examination of campus culture with a report of findings and recommendations for change. The Committee on Speech and Inclusion, composed of students, staff, and faculty of varying perspectives, emailed the report to the campus community on January 10.
President Laurie Patton charged the committee with engaging issues that were challenging and intentionally broad, including “freedom of expression, inclusivity, and the educational and civic challenges of the 21st century.”
“In many respects, this group and their deliberations have represented both the challenges we face and the opportunities ahead of us,” wrote former Provost Susan Baldridge in the report’s preface. “The conversations the committee had were sometimes difficult and revealed differences of opinion that extended beyond the issues of speech and inclusivity.”
The report’s introduction goes further, describing a process necessarily laden with thorny discussions and self-doubt that ultimately led to “a pattern of deliberation, one based on the sort of mutual respect and understanding that emerges in durable relationships.”
The committee identified four areas in which the campus community can foster inclusive settings for robust dialogue and wide-ranging speech: community standards, continuing dialogue, classroom climate, and the role of visiting speakers.
Sarah Stroup, associate professor of political science and a committee member, said that, because of the committee’s diverse makeup, the group did not develop narrow recommendations targeted at faculty, students, or staff. “We tried to draw attention to our shared responsibility for our campus culture and suggest a few principles and techniques for facilitating open respectful dialogue,” said Stroup. “The members of the community will continue to work on these initiatives within their various stakeholder groups.”
The report frames its first category—community standards—as a means to “promote a welcoming environment for all students, faculty, and staff,” through four core values, which the committee recommends be adopted by all campus groups and integrated into orientations and trainings:
- Cultivating respect and responsibility for self, others, and our shared environment
- Encouraging personal and community growth in a challenging but respectful intellectual environment
- Manifesting integrity in all decisions and actions
- Creating a diverse and inclusive community that fosters empathy and open-mindedness
The committee identifies its second area—continuing dialogues—as a top priority. “We have found that the best way to address any issue is to consider how we talk with one another—how we listen and how we express ourselves,” wrote the committee.
Accordingly, the report suggests building on the success of a series of recent breakfast and dinner gatherings designed to engage difficult topics in lightly guided settings with equal voice given to each person at the table. The committee suggested orchestrating these dialogues in various formats before and after important events or controversial speakers.
In its third recommendation—related to campus climate—the committee urges the community to “seize the unrealized potential of the classroom” to help develop productive dialogue. While the committee acknowledges many impressive examples of effective teaching, fair treatment, and inclusion, it also notes that students’ concerns about narrow or hostile viewpoints being expressed in the classroom, without adequate avenues to address their discomfort, “demand attention.”
Among its recommendations in this area, the report suggests that faculty explore utilizing anonymous mid-course evaluations, which could provide helpful insight into the quality of class discussions while there is still time to take corrective measures and introduce new discussions before the end of the term.
The report’s fourth and final recommendation relates to how the campus community engages with visiting speakers. “We invite all members of the Middlebury community—hosts and audience members—to be more conscientious about the choices they make,” the committee writes. The committee emphasized that their recommendations were not intended to restrain speech, but to urge the campus community to think about how power and privilege complicate issues of free speech:
“For marginalized groups, the ideal of a public sphere as a level playing field where all can freely express themselves is far from the reality of their experience. People from marginalized groups may not feel they can exercise their freedom of speech, and it can be counterproductive to call for more speech that adds to this sense of exclusion, particularly in a small community like ours.”
Lastly, the report asks prospective audiences to think about how attempts to limit or regulate speech can move toward a culture “in which the heckler’s veto is accepted or where de facto censorship committees serve as gatekeepers.” Such attempts to stifle speech can lead to a chilling effect, the report says, in conflict with the spirit of the College’s vision statement, which calls for “a world with a robust and inclusive public sphere where ethical citizens work across intellectual, geographical, and cultural borders.”
The full report is available online at the College’s Critical Conversations website.