Middlebury's Strange April

College regularly criticized over aborted talk in 2017 again fails to let a speaker talk. Campus was unsettled over chemistry exam question on how to make gas used by Nazis. Middlebury is among several colleges where recent talks have been disrupted.

April 19, 2019
 
Middlebury College

When it comes to colleges that receive extra scrutiny for the way they handle controversial speakers, Middlebury College is high on the list. Two years ago, Middlebury students shouted down Charles Murray, the controversial writer whom many accuse of espousing racist ideas, preventing him from giving a public lecture at the college. Conservative critics have called Middlebury students "snowflakes" for being allegedly unwilling to listen to ideas with which they disagree.

That's why this week's decision by Middlebury to call off a scheduled appearance by Ryszard Legutko, a Polish scholar and politician, is attracting so much attention. Middlebury is being criticized for again failing to make it possible for a conservative figure to appear. (Legutko's views on many issues are controversial. He is known to criticize Western democracies in general and gay rights in particular.)

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a watchdog group on free speech issues in academe, blasted Middlebury for blocking the talk and a planned protest against the talk. Middlebury "deprived everyone of their rights," said FIRE in a blog post. "It deprived a willing audience from hearing Legutko’s arguments. It deprived student critics of Legutko from challenging those arguments, either through peaceful protest or pointed questions. And it deprived faculty members from exercising their academic freedom right to invite speakers to campus in service of educating their students."

So how did Middlebury find itself in this situation?

Middlebury is facing the debate over the Legutko talk as it is also dealing with fallout from a bizarre incident involving a question on a chemistry exam that asked students how to create the gas that Nazis used in concentration camp gas chambers (more on that later).

The Legutko talk was called off Wednesday with Middlebury officials citing safety and security issues. When Murray was shouted down two years ago, the college not only faced the shouting and chanting at his talk, but physical attacks on a professor and on the car carrying Murray by protesters -- widely believed to be anarchists who were not necessarily affiliated with the college.

It's impossible to know what would have happened had Wednesday's talk gone on as scheduled. But the students who were organizing a protest issued a statement in advance of the event saying that they believed Legutko never should have been invited, but also that they had no plan to disrupt his appearance.

Their statement (the bold emphasis is from the protesters) appeared in the blog Beyond the Green: "We have no intention to prevent Legutko from speaking or to prevent our peers from attending. Rather, we want to provide information to contextualize his talk and to create a place of healing and inclusivity in the face of prejudice. During this protest, we will be distributing flyers which detail Legutko’s history of hateful speech against LGBTQ+, Muslim and Jewish folks, as well as women and POCs. We will distribute these flyers to anyone walking into the lecture who wants one, in order to highlight (and implicitly problematize) their potential willingness to indulge his violent rhetoric."

A Middlebury spokeswoman said via email that the students organizing the protest against the speech have been "very clear" that they were not planning to disrupt the talk, adding that "we believe they were sincere. Our concern was not with the well-intentioned organizers."

She added that "there has been no history of violence, threats or disruptive protests with this speaker and no reason to anticipate such actions during his appearance at Middlebury. Concerns about the speaker did not surface until Sunday, April 14." At that point, when the college considered locations and the two events (the speech and the protest), "it became clear with the increased number of participants, and heightened tensions on campus, that we didn’t have the capacity and resources to adequately ensure everyone’s safety."

The spokeswoman added: "The concern, quite frankly, is that when you bring hundreds of people together, even the most well-meaning, who have strong views, and place them in close proximity, there is always a risk. Any institution -- college, university, or city -- would, correctly, respond to a situation that has even a possibility of volatility with a security presence. It is a reality for us that we are not located in an urban area like New York or Washington where there would be capacity to draw on local law enforcement, so managing multiple events like these necessitates careful design, structure, and planning. As you know, a provisional invitation for the fall has been extended, which will allow us that additional time and space to execute the event(s) safely."

Peter McDonough, vice president and general counsel of the American Council on Education, said that he had no direct knowledge of the discussions at Middlebury. But he said Middlebury appeared to be "trying to make it happen," referring to the speech. He said that colleges such as Middlebury, located in rural areas, have challenges with security that are more difficult than those colleges that are in urban areas, where there may be a range of state and local police forces with which to work.

McDonough said that colleges are committed to free speech, but that college leaders must always think about student safety. When talking about free speech issues on campus these days, he said, the issue is always linked by college leaders to issues of student safety.

Linus Owens, an associate professor of sociology at Middlebury who opposed the decision to invite Legutko to campus and who has supported the student protesters, said via email that he was bothered by the way Middlebury handled the event. By talking about safety issues as the college did, he said, Middlebury was effectively blaming student protesters -- even though they had pledged not to disrupt the event.

The statements made it "pretty easy for people to interpret the 'safety risk' as the result of student protesters and the threat of disruption," Owens said. "This feeds into the existing narrative of Middlebury students (unfair to begin with, in my opinion, but this is even less grounded in actual events), and puts students at risk. Already, I have heard (unconfirmed, for now) multiple stories of student organizers and activists being targeted for 'shutting down' the event -- coming from off campus, mostly, but also on campus."

Added Owens: "It was irresponsible for the college administration to not think about how such a statement would make their students vulnerable to such attacks. And they continue to be irresponsible in not clarifying this … Several students I’ve spoken with, who now are being targeted online and are feeling like they are being left out to dry by the college, which is not in an hurry to clarify that they are not the cause of the cancellation, that they were not planning any disruption."

And on social media, there are many references to Middlebury students as the reason the lecture could not go on.

Chemistry Exam

The backdrop at Middlebury for the discussion of the lecture was a dispute over a chemistry exam last month.

A question on the exam asked students to calculate a lethal dose of hydrogen cyanide gas. As the question noted, that gas was used by Nazis in concentration camp gas chambers. As word of the test question spread, many on campus were appalled and could see no possible reason for a chemistry exam to focus on this issue.

Middlebury's president, Laurie L. Patton, issued a statement that said, "This inexplicable failure of judgment trivializes one of the most horrific events in world history, violates core institutional values and simply has no place on our campus. We expect our faculty to teach and lead with thoughtfulness, good judgment and maturity. To say we have fallen short in this instance is an understatement."

As a result of the question on deadly gas, Middlebury conducted a review of past test questions by the professor involved, Jeff Byers. The college said that the review found a question from last year with "a reference to the Ku Klux Klan in a way that appeared to be humorous in intent, but which was gratuitous and offensive."

Byers has gone on leave and issued an apology that said in part, "I apologize and take full responsibility for my actions in administering two examinations in the last year containing questions that were clearly offensive, hurtful and injurious to our students. I can offer no explanation for my actions other than carelessness and hubris. My students came to my class trusting that I would provide them with a supportive learning environment for a challenging curriculum. I failed them, and, in doing so, compromised their ability to focus on learning the subject matter I have devoted my career to teaching. I apologize without equivocation to the students, faculty and staff of Middlebury College and to the parents and alumni who, rightly, have denounced my actions."

Patton also said that Middlebury is "actively exploring practices to reduce the risk that incidents like this might occur in the future."

In an email message to the campus released Thursday, Patton said that the college valued the free exchange of ideas. "Middlebury is committed to the values of academic freedom, academic integrity, inclusivity and respectful behavior, which are intertwined at the core of our educational mission. Over the past two years, we have constructively engaged many controversial speakers, demonstrated peacefully and persuasively, and stayed in conversation with each other over very difficult issues," she said.

And Patton linked the response to the lecture to the debate over the chemistry test questions (although she alluded to that situation, and did not explicitly name it).

"It is equally important to note that this event did not occur in a vacuum. In recent weeks we have experienced several incidents of bias that are causing pain and anger in our community. It is clear that we need a deeper campuswide engagement about classroom climate and inclusive pedagogy," Patton wrote. "Members of the STEM faculty have expressed interest in a facilitated dialogue about course content, its potential impact and how to develop and maintain more inclusive classroom environments. We will meet with those faculty members early next week. That conversation with them can become a model for engaging all faculty in every department in these dialogues throughout the rest of this semester and continuing in the fall."

Other Incidents

Middlebury is not the only college to have experienced issues with disruptions.

Last month, Beloit College, a liberal arts institution in Wisconsin, shut down a planned speech by Erik Prince, an associate of President Trump and the controversial founder of the security company Blackwater. Administrators canceled Prince’s chat following student protests in which they banged on drums and built a barricade of chairs on the stage where Prince was due to give his talk.

A spokeswoman for the college, asked about any steps that have been taken since the incident, sent this email: "Beloit College cannot legally discuss disciplinary matters. As an institution of higher learning, open dialogue on all topics is one of their core principles. They review policies every year in collaboration with students, faculty and staff, and expect policies to be revisited."

At Harvard University, students who want the university to sell investments in companies involved in fossil fuels or private prisons interrupted a speech by President Lawrence Bacow, forcing him to relocate.

Bacow responded with an open letter in The Harvard Crimson, strongly criticizing the protest -- not for the views students expressed, but for the tactic of preventing a speech from being heard.

"What I saw last week was not a group of students looking to engage in conversation about things that matter to them. It was, instead, an effort to obstruct the rights of others to speak and to listen," Bacow wrote. "The heckler’s veto has no place at Harvard. When we shut down conversation, when we shut down debate, we shut down the opportunity to learn through reasoned discourse. It would be a shame if the state of our national public discourse, which has become so coarse, becomes the state of our campus discourse as well. We should strive to model the behavior we would hope to see in the rest of the world. Now is the time to ask ourselves: What kind of community do we want to be?"

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