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Faith in Vermont: From a Faculty Spouse to the Middlebury College Faculty, With Respect

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Posted on April 23, 2019 | Blog Category:
By Faith Gong



Despite the fact that my husband is employed by Middlebury College, our family has a fairly distant connection to campus life. The majority of our friends are not employed by the college; they’re our neighbors, members of our church, or people we’ve met through our daughters’ involvement in the homeschool community or other activities. That said, we do number some of my husband’s colleagues among our close friends. We have students over to dinner throughout the year. Our daughters have taken swim lessons from members of the Middlebury College Swim Team, and our eldest daughter is currently studying Latin with a student from the Classics Department.

All this to say: Every interaction our family has had personally with Middlebury College faculty, staff, or students has been positive.

Most of our friends are swamped with issues like how to survive the high cost of living in Vermont, how to keep their relationships healthy, or how to raise children and care for ailing parents. Just as Middlebury College is isolated geographically from the rest of the town, campus issues tend to be of little concern to most Middlebury residents, myself included. 

Unless they’re really big issues. Which is what happened when my husband came home from work last week and said, “Well, there’s another brouhaha at the college.”

What happened, in brief, was this: 

The Alexander Hamilton Forum – a speaker series founded to “foster thoughtful engagement with the ideas that have informed the creation and development of the American polity” -- along with the Political Science Department and the Rohatyn Center for Global Affairs, invited Ryszard Legutko, who was active in the Polish anti-communist movement and is now an academic and a member of the European Parliament, to give a talk on his most recent book, The Demon in Democracy: Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies. A few days before it was scheduled to take place, details emerged about comments Legutko has made in the past; comments that have been called homophobic, xenophobic, and sexist. 

Outrage ensued among faculty and students. Although Legutko’s position on gay rights, among other issues, was not the subject of his talk, some Middlebury students and faculty objected to giving him a podium. A group of students announced their intent to protest the event, although – in a nod to the 2017 incident in which political scientist Charles Murray, accused of promoting racism through his research, was shouted down during an attempt to deliver a lecture at Middlebury – the students were very clear that they intended to let Legutko speak. 

Hours before Legutko’s talk, the Middlebury administration cancelled the lecture, citing security risks.

The story doesn’t quite end there:  The nine students in a political science class voted unanimously by secret ballot to invite Legutko to speak to their class. Their professor allowed it, and about 45 students gathered in the classroom to hear Legutko speak. When word of this got out, more outrage ensued, both among those who didn’t want Legutko to speak at all, as well as those who wanted the chance to protest. 

What upset me most, after following this story, was not Ryszard Legutko – although I have read some of his controversial comments, albeit out of context, and find them to be insensitive and provocative at best. I have no problem with students who took offense at his remarks staging a peaceful protest – as, by all accounts, they planned to do. Civil protest is an important facet of democracy. 

So, I’m not most upset at the students in this story, either.

Neither am I most bothered by the Middlebury administration, although their actions suggest an administration that is terrified of its students and faculty. This is not exactly a recipe for effective leadership; in its confusing attempt to try and make everyone happy, the administration appears to have made nobody happy. 

No: What has upset me most about this incident is the way in which I’ve seen Middlebury College professors treat each other

The professors were mad at Legutko, of course; I saw him labelled a “dumb bigot” and “diseased mind,” among other things. But they seemed to be most angry at their colleagues.

The particular target of faculty ire was the Assistant Political Science Professor who invited Legutko to speak in the first place. Although I happen to know that he didn’t expect the talk to be controversial, or even to draw a large audience, he was accused of “knowingly creating a massive distraction,” and “academic manspreading.” Those were the nicer comments; a fellow professor created a meme in which he said of both the professor who’d invited Legutko and the professor who’d allowed Legutko to speak in his class: “They should be fired,” against a background of flames. Then there was the more straightforward, “What in the holy f*** is wrong with him?” -- referring to the professor who’d invited Legutko.

These are academics who traffic in the articulation of ideas, who champion a liberal arts education, who care about social justice and climate change. These were not comments spoken in private, venting to friends or family after a difficult day; all these comments were posted on Facebook. And these were just the comments I saw, mostly on a single page, as I’m not an active presence on social media these days. 

I am not exactly a neutral party here: The reason I know that this professor didn’t expect his event to excite much interest is because our families are very close. I consider his wife a dear friend. Like us, they have four young children, whom my daughters love. We see them weekly for playdates, meals, bike rides, and book groups. 

Were we to sit down and talk politics with our friends, would we agree on every point? Certainly not. Heck, I don’t agree on politics with my own family! But then, absolute political agreement has never been a prerequisite for friendship – or even for respect. 

And respect is what, in my opinion, is missing from the way in which I’ve witnessed some Middlebury professors deal with each other. It’s fine to disagree with someone’s actions or opinions, but respect entails the acknowledgment that the person with whom you disargee is, first and foremost, a fellow member of the human race: They are someone’s child, someone’s spouse, someone’s parent. When a senior faculty member suggests that someone with four young children who is up for tenure “be fired,” that is not a joke. It affects an entire family. I know for a fact that it hurts his wife.

The logical counterargument here is that those who found Legutko’s remarks horribly offensive are also deserving of respect -- are also children, spouses, parents – and they felt disrespected by these events. I acknowledge this, and I respond with the old parenting trope that I pull out whenever one of my daughters points to her sister and says, “But she started it!”: Two wrongs don’t make a right. It is always, always better to take the high road.

Nor is this the first time I’ve seen this happen among the Middlebury faculty. In the wake of the Charles Murray debacle, the faculty divided into two camps: Those who felt it was important that the college champion “free speech,” and those who believed a narrower definition of acceptable speech was needed. And professors behaved horribly to each other. Friendships were broken. There are people who still aren’t speaking to each other. 

This behavior is not reflective of the vast majority of Middlebury College professors, of course. Still, just as it takes only a small drop of poison to spoil a glass of water, it takes only a small dose of nastiness to spoil a culture. So I think it’s vitally important for Middlebury to examine this creeping culture of disrespect among some of its faculty, if for no other reason than that the students are watching. 

Because of course they are. I recognize that these bright college students aren’t children anymore, but they’re young adults who are picking up more than just ideas from their professors; they’re also picking up social cues on how to navigate the broader world. 

As an educator myself, with four children who may one day go to college, I think about what I most want my daughters to take from their educations. The key things, I think, are: 

1.    How to be a thoughtful citizen of the world, and

2.    How to be resilient

So I’d ask each member of the Middlebury faculty: How is your behavior promoting those things? 

Out in the world there are many different views, and some of those views are going to offend us. Should we handle these disagreements by trying to silence, shame, and exile those whose views we find offensive? If we’ve learned nothing from the current political landscape in America, haven’t we at least learned that people who feel silenced and disrespected gain power and vitriol if we exile them, and emerge to select the loudest voice available to speak for them? 

As for resiliency, my opinion is that it doesn’t coexist well with being easily offended. It seems that some Middlebury professors are extremely easily offended – and thereby encourage their students to be easily offended as well.

“But they’re part of marginalized groups! They’ve earned the right to be offended!” you may say.

And I would simply ask you to think of any of the big changemakers of history – someone who successfully fought for the rights of a marginalized group, who effected positive social change. Were they easily offended? Did they post nasty comments on social media (or the equivalent) about those with whom they disagreed? Or were they resilient? Did they engage with others – even those who hated them – from a position of shared humanity? 

The purpose of a liberal arts education, it seems to me, is to be exposed to a wide array of ideas, to critically examine those ideas in order to form one’s own opinion, and to learn how to effectively articulate one’s opinion to the world through a process of respectful give-and-take. 

After all, the words “college” and “colleague” both stem from the Latin root “col-,” which means “together with.”

 If we continue to build ideological fortresses and to lob grenades of disdain at those who stand outside, nothing will change for the better in our society, in our world. Instead of working together productively towards change, we are just making noise.

Here is my respectful appeal to the Middlebury faculty: You can show your students how to make change, or you can show them how to make noise. I hope you’ll choose wisely. Perhaps you might start by simply sharing a cup of coffee with a colleague with whose views you disagree. Ask them about their day. 

 

Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit director. She lives in Middlebury with her husband, four daughters, assorted chickens and ducks, one feisty cat, and one anxiety-prone labradoodle. In her "free time," she writes for her blog, The Pickle Patch.

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