I’m not sure Laurie Patton, president of Middlebury College, understands what happened at the institution she leads last week. The relatively small but mobile riot that occurred on her campus placed Middlebury, and higher education in general, in a state of emergency. The emergency is not principally about matters of free speech, though it begins there. It is about use of violence against faculty members who stand for free speech. If students on any campus can attack faculty members with impunity, colleges and universities may as well close their doors. Their enterprise is finished.
You should read both of President Patton’s letters addressed to the Middlebury community. I will not try to parse them in a lot of detail, but I will draw attention to a one-sentence paragraph halfway through her March 3 letter: “We will be responding in the very near future to the clear violations of Middlebury College policy that occurred inside and outside Wilson Hall.” She would not declare her intention to respond in the ‘very near future’ if she intended to respond. She would just do it. Now a week has passed since the riot, and she has still not done anything except write two letters.
Watch for more news from the school. You may hear more expression of concern about the tension between inclusivity and free speech. What you will not hear is news that students responsible for the attack on Professor Stanger have been booted off the Middlebury campus forever. You will not see a list of their names on the Middlebury website, so people can identify those who brought so much discredit on themselves and their college. The president may respond that outside, black bloc agitators harmed Professor Stanger, not Middlebury students. If that is the case, let’s have a look at the video evidence. Let’s have a look at the eye witness reports. Apprehend the people who assaulted Allison Stanger, whether students or not.
Today our community begins the process of addressing the deep and troubling divisions that were on display last night.
I read President Patton’s letter, and I don’t see any anger or indignation in her words. Students have just assaulted one of her faculty members, but consider what she writes in response:
“Today our community begins the process of addressing the deep and troubling divisions that were on display last night. I am grateful to those who share this goal and have offered to help. We must find a path to establishing a climate of open discourse as a core Middlebury value, while also recognizing critical matters of race, inclusion, class, sexual and gender identity, and the other factors that too often divide us. That work will take time, and I will have more to say about that in the days ahead.
“Last night we failed to live up to our core values. But I remain hopeful. Last evening, several students, faculty, and staff representing a large spectrum of political perspectives remained in Wilson Hall to discuss the events and to talk about building bridges. Their ability to reach across differences in a rigorous but respectful way was a stark contrast to the events that preceded it. I firmly believe these are the Middlebury values that we have lived so long and that we must strive to embody in the future.”
It sounds rather like college president-speak to me. Do they have a school where college presidents learn to write like that? She wants to “discuss the events and to talk about building bridges.” What good does that do when she has criminals running around her campus, smug and filled with false remorse because they could assault a professor and give her a concussion without getting caught? It’s a week later, but they still sit in their dormitories, eager to plan their spring breaks so they can get out of Dodge for a week until things cool down. When they return for the last several weeks of the academic year, who do you suppose will expel them then? The people who wanted to discuss their assault and build bridges right after the riot occurred?
It sounds rather like college president-speak to me. Do they have a school where college presidents learn to write like that?
Now let’s turn to President Patton’s second letter to the Middlebury community, dated March 6. Packed with more president-speak, she refers early in the letter to an investigation that will take “some time.” Then she says the college will cooperate with the Middlebury police department. Don’t cut your toe nails too often while you wait for investigators to report their findings. Students are not going to cooperate with local police. College investigators will do what college investigators do: take care to protect Middlebury’s reputation. In this case, the college’s reputation is already in ruins, so people appointed to bring violent students to account have little motivation to act expeditiously. They can only hope Middlebury’s reputation gradually recovers as memories of the March 2nd riot fade.
After her anodyne discussion of accountability, President Patton warms to her favorite topic: building community. I cannot see why she wants to talk about community right after she declares justice for students who attacked a faculty member will be slow and – because she wants to leave it to local police – uncertain. If I’m a student at Middlebury and see a faculty member attacked with impunity, I just want to get out of there. I’m not that interested in community at that point, because I know I’m part of an institution that harbors bands of rabid rats who threaten everyone who disagrees with them.
In that atmosphere, President Patton has this to say: “This was an extremely difficult episode, especially because in the last year we have worked so hard to affirm that Middlebury is committed to unlocking the potential and brilliance of every student…. If you are here, it is because you earned your way here, and you belong.” Well I’ll be. The rioters earned their way here, so we’re going to accept them because they belong. Let me tell you something, this episode disturbs people on and off campus not because you and your faculty work so hard to unlock the potential of every brilliant student who comes under your care. It disturbs people because students attacked a faculty member, and you have not apprehended them yet.
Let me tell you something, this episode disturbs people on and off campus not because you and your faculty work so hard to unlock the potential of every brilliant student who comes under your care. It disturbs people because students attacked a faculty member, and you have not apprehended them yet.
Even worse, given that apprehension can be difficult, you have not given leadership to those charged with apprehension, or even taken personal responsibility for the job. Instead we read apparently endless reflections on community, free speech, balancing interests among diverse groups, and on and on and on. Meantime students who violated every principle of civility that defines the college’s existence think, “My goodness, they’re not going to do anything! We’re going to sit on our pillows and talk about community while Professor Stanger recovers from her concussion. Mental note: send Allison Stanger a get well card.”
The college may yet come up with a plan to punish members of the mob who attacked Professor Stanger. It looks doubtful to me right now. One report from a student already says that Professor Stanger’s neck injury was an accident, due to jostling in the crowd. Look for more excuses. I predict the president will not expel one student from campus for the events of March 2. Nor will the president name the students who attacked Professor Stanger. Lastly, President Patton will not try to explain why she withheld punishment and identification. If college leaders cannot identify the attackers, they appear incompetent or lazy. If they can identify the attackers, pressure from parents and others, plus shame will keep them from publicizing their names.
Related letters from Middlebury’s website