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Why Do Americans Distrust Science?


On the late afternoon of October 6, as a Category 4 hurricane lumbered toward the southeast coast of Florida, conservative political commentator Matt Drudge sent a pair of messages to the 414,000 people who follow him on the social media app Twitter: “The deplorables are starting to wonder if govt has been lying to them about Hurricane Matthew intensity to make exaggerated point on climate” and “Hurricane Center has monopoly on data. No way of verifying claims. Nassau ground observations DID NOT match statements! 165 mph gusts? WHERE?”

Earlier that afternoon, radio host Rush Limbaugh presaged the Drudge Report founder’s comments when he announced to his listening audience, “The National Hurricane Center is part of the National Weather Service, which is part of the Commerce Department, which is part of the Obama administration, which by definition has been tainted just like the [Department of Justice] has…With hurricane tracking and hurricane forecasting, I’ve been able to spot where I think they might be playing games because it’s in the interests of the left to have destructive hurricanes because then they can blame it on climate change, which they desperately continue trying to sell.”

Limbaugh allowed that Matthew was a “serious storm,” and he was right. By the time the hurricane’s posttropical remains had been absorbed by a front that was moving across eastern Canada, it had been responsible for an estimated $5–7 billion in damage ($4–6 billion in the U.S. alone)—and 1,044 fatalities.

An estimated one thousand residents of Haiti died after the storm ravaged that island country—a day before Drudge implied that the American government was intentionally exaggerating the hurricane’s strength to score political points. And 38 Americans lost their lives as a result of the storm’s impact on coastal communities in the days that followed Matthew’s initial U.S. landfall—in the early morning hours of October 7.

Now, is Matt Drudge or Rush Limbaugh or anyone else who might have suggested that Hurricane Matthew’s strength was exaggerated by a government agency—for partisan political purposes—responsible for the deaths of American citizens? That’s both virtually impossible to know and equally as dangerous to suggest as the initial comments themselves.

What is not in doubt, though, is that the American public and American scientists have drifted far apart in their perception of vital scientific issues, and this disconnect poses a clear and present danger to an educated and engaged citizenry. And it’s important to note that this disconnect exists across the ideological spectrum; it is neither a conservative nor liberal, a Republican nor Democratic “war on science.”

We’re all complicit. Even the scientists themselves.


hope you’re still reading this story. That is, I hope you didn’t stop because you saw this piece as an attack on conservative thought and beliefs. I hope you didn’t drop the magazine in disgust, decrying yet another example of a liberal bashing Republicans. But here’s the thing. You’d have a valid point. I chose to lead this story with an anecdote that conformed to my worldview—basically that people who don’t believe in anthropogenic climate change (or worse, people who actively seek to mislead the public) are inherently dangerous to mankind. I can obviously cite scientific consensus on the issue not only to bolster my point but to justify my decision to begin the story this way. But you know what? I could have also cited scientific consensus on another issue—whether it’s safe to eat genetically modified food—and chosen an anecdote involving GMOs, but I opted not to do so. I’d like to think that that is because, as a professional writer, I understand how to write a strong opening, and that when a recent event involving mass destruction and death sits within the context of the story topic, then focusing on that anecdote is an obvious solution. But you should know something. The GMO thing? My personal beliefs are in conflict with scientific consensus. That surprised the hell out of me, and, quite frankly, prompted me to be even more curious about why we, as a populace, see things differently than scientists do. (And that curiosity is a good thing, I would learn; more on that later.)

So let’s see if you’re as surprised as I was.

Like most U.S. adults, I believe that genetically modified foods are unsafe to eat; scientists believe otherwise. In a 2015 study conducted by the Pew Research Center in collaboration with the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), just 37 percent of the general public said that it is safe to eat genetically modified foods. By contrast, 88 percent of AAAS scientists say that such foods are safe. And that 51-point gap? It’s the largest opinion difference between the public and scientists on any issue surveyed. It’s larger than the differences in opinions on whether humans have evolved over time (98–65 percent); whether childhood vaccines should be required (86–68 percent); whether climate change is mostly due to human activity (87–50 percent). (In all of these cases, scientists represent the higher numbers.)

So, you tell me: Should I have led with an anecdote about genetically modified food, since on no issue are scientists and the public further apart?

I guess that’s to be debated.

What really isn’t up for debate is the main takeaway from the Pew report, which is that “citizens and scientists often see science-related issues through different sets of eyes.”

I wanted to know why, so I turned to a psychologist, a philosopher, a political scientist, and a physicist to shed light on this issue.


Barbara Hofer seems to be a relatively laidback person—until she starts talking about a topic that she cares deeply about; then, she practically radiates energy. I met the psychology professor for coffee one morning in the Davis Library’s Wilson Café, and about halfway through our conversation about the public’s understanding of science—and the global implications therein—she stopped mid-sentence and declared: “I care about this so passionately.”

That’s why I was there talking to her, having read a journal article that she recently cowrote, in which she and her coauthor presented research on why the public was struggling to better understand science, why it matters, and what can be done about it.

We had started by talking about scientific literacy, what I had—somewhat erroneously, it turned out—thought of as simply being well-read about scientific issues.

“I don’t think anyone would argue that there is a need for improved science literacy,” Hofer told me. (On this issue, a vast majority of those surveyed by Pew seemed to agree. Nearly 80 percent of the public said science has made life easier for people, yet both the public and scientists were highly critical of science education in America. Just 29 percent of adults said it was above average, a figure that drops to 16 percent for scientists.) “But we need to be very careful about how we rely on this literacy and even how we define ‘literacy.’”

Hofer brought up a view that psychologists refer to as the “knowledge deficit”; that is, if you simply acquire knowledge about an issue, you’ll understand it better. (What I understood as being well-read.) “Then why aren’t we seeing greater acceptance of evolution and climate change?” On these issues, the public remains far removed from scientific consensus. While 97 percent of scientists believe that the earth is warming (and have produced studies showing this to be the case), a quarter of the public says there is no solid evidence. On evolution, 98 percent of scientists say that humans have evolved over time, while one-third of U.S. adults say we have existed in our present form since the beginning of time.

“Literacy can’t just be content,” she said. “It’s a fallacy to believe that if we just impart more facts then we’ll have done our jobs. The definition of scientific literacy needs to be thought of as an understanding of the very nature of science itself and how it is conducted.”

She added: “So much of what we are encountering is a failure to understand the epistemology of the issue.”

(A quick note: If you’ve been out of the classroom for a while, it’s possible that the word epistemology rings a bell, but its definition escapes you. It means the study of the nature of knowledge; an epistemologist is one who studies how we know what we know. Both Hofer and her colleague in philosophy, Heidi Grasswick, whom I interviewed for this piece, speak often about epistemology, so I thought it best to offer this refresher.)

“One of the fundamental tenets of the scientific method is that knowledge is always open to revision. That’s how you produce solid science, science that is durable,” she said. Indeed, she makes this very point in her journal article, writing “scientists work toward increasingly accurate approximations to describe phenomena in the world and revise them as new information becomes available, usually through modification.”

And people can have a problem with an absence of absolute certainty. Hofer talks about epistemic cognition, basically how people think about reason and knowledge. The absolutist stance, where one holds a dualistic view that you are either right or wrong based on knowledge that is certain, is perhaps the most problematic dimension when it comes to scientific understanding, Hofer said. (For instance, I’ve spoken to someone who told me he was withholding judgment on climate change until scientists had reached 100 percent consensus.) This might explain why, according to the Pew report, at least a third of the populace believes that scientists do not agree that the Earth is getting warmer or humans evolved over time, despite the fact that 97 and 98 percent, respectfully, believe it to be true.

There is also a multiplistic stance in epistemic cognition, in which knowledge is based on interpretation and belief without clear criteria “for ascertaining the truth value of a claim.” About five years ago, Hofer conducted a study with Middlebury first-year students, gauging their attitudes toward evolution. She was stunned to learn that one-third of those students applied the colloquial definition of theory to scientific theory, stating that it meant one person’s opinion. Further, “a surprising number of students thought we should teach intelligent design right alongside evolution—even if they believed in evolution—so that people could ‘make up their own minds’ in the issue. This floored me. Science is not a belief system, it’s a method of investigation,” she said in describing an extreme instance of multiplistic cognition as applied to scientific understanding.

And then there is the evaluativist view, what Hofer described as an integration of objectivity and subjectivity, an appreciation for the relative nature of certainty, and a recognition that knowledge is contingent and contextual. 

“But even then you need to be epistemically vigilant,” she said. “Students and the public need to understand where the biases are. They need to understand how to critically evaluate claims and studies.”

They need to know whom and how to trust. And when it comes to epistemic trust, there are few, if any, people on the Middlebury campus who have thought more about this than philosophy professor Heidi Grasswick.


“I am an epistemologist, first and foremost,” Grasswick told me one day over lunch. “And I love thinking about not just what counts as knowledge, and what we do as individuals, as knowers, but how the circulation of knowledge is itself a philosophical issue. We’re dependent on others for knowledge, and not just experts, but us, here, talking.”

(As an example, she asked me what my birthday was. When I told her, she asked how I knew. “You don’t actually know that on your own,” she said, smiling slyly. “You’re depending on other people to tell you something as personal and individual as when you were born.”)

Grasswick said that testimony has become a more prevalent topic in epistemology during the past few decades, which drew her toward the epistemology of trust. “For us to depend on other people,” she said, “we’re going to need to have some sort of grounding in trust, and not just trust in information, but also trust in a relationship.”

Grasswick is the George Nye and Anne Walker Boardman Professor of Mental and Moral Science at Middlebury, and she says that philosophical reflections on “the repercussions of how society thinks about itself, how people think about themselves, and how any shift in knowledge might lead to a shift in practice” have always fascinated her.

Last January, she gave her inaugural lecture as the forenamed professor, a talk titled “In Science We Trust!—Or Not? Developing a Situated Account of Responsible Trust in Scientific Experts.” (It was this talk that initially turned me on to this subject as a potential story.)

“Scientists are often surprised or dismayed when their work is met with distrust or rejection by members of the general public,” she said then. “As far as they are concerned, they are engaged in the most robust form of knowledge generation available. They are the experts on their topics, and it seems to follow that nonexperts should follow what they have to say. Furthermore, since sound policy making needs to be based on sound science, it’s deeply worrisome that trust in science is not widespread.”

“It is worrisome,” Grasswick told me, when I asked her about this statement. “But it’s not as simple as just saying, ‘Trust me.’”

To begin with, she said, there are legitimate, contemporary reasons why people may distrust scientists. Scientists have been wrong, she said, citing the devastating effects of thalidomide use among pregnant women in the 1950s; and they have behaved unethically, even criminally, such as with the 40-year clinical study in which the U.S. government studied the progression of untreated syphilis in African American men in the rural South—withholding a known cure for thirty years after the efficacy of penicillin was proven, all under the guise of receiving free health care. 

“Entire communities, understandably, lose trust in the institution,” she said. “And there are two levels at which this impacts knowledge. The most obvious is that if I don’t have a reason to trust, then I’m going to miss out on that knowledge. And then there is the impact on knowledge generation, itself. If you have a group of scientists who have no input from those who are socially situated differently, you run a far greater risk of being influenced by biases.

“It’s the idea that you need to diversify your scientific community in order to be able to see some of the holes or the blind spots in your thinking,” she said. “No matter how good a scientist you are, you must start with an assumption; that’s part of the scientific method. But you also need people who see things differently. And then the scientists can work it out, and maybe some of the theories live and some die.”

I asked her about scientific literacy, and Grasswick echoed Hofer nearly word for word. “Knowing some basic facts that are understood as scientific facts is not going to help you all that much. If you are going to be literate in science, you need to have an essential understanding in how science works. And then you can discern what makes for a robust application of science versus a less robust application, and this builds trust.”

With this in mind, I asked Grasswick about the increased privatization and corporatization of scientific research and how one could be epistemically vigilant, as Hofer prescribes, in order to build trust in these institutions and, therefore, their results.

“I think it comes down to what we want to demand of these institutions, these companies, in order for us to say, ‘OK, we’ll give you our trust.’ I touched on this in my talk when I said that trust can come from a history of that party willingly circulating knowledge rather than hiding it from you,” she said. “And as soon as we find out that there has been information hidden or manipulated, then that itself takes away from our trust, as it should as reasonable beings.”

But what if we can’t be reasonable?


sat down with political science professor Matt Dickinson the day after presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump met in their second debate, a clash the New York Times described as “unremittingly hostile,” and one that seemed to end with the populace agreeing on only one thing—at least democracy itself did not go up in flames on that autumn evening.

I hauled out my now dog-eared copy of the Pew report and asked him about the findings that showed that Democrats are more likely than either Independents or Republicans to say there is solid evidence of global warming or that more Democrats than Republicans disagree with scientific findings on the safety of genetically modified foods, and he offered a wan smile.

“The party sorting that has increasingly matched party labels with ideology has not helped the discourse,” he said. “It’s made it too easy for people to think that the opposing party is increasingly out of step with what one believes is right. And I think part of what’s happening is when a scientific consensus dovetails with a policy objective that resonates with one party more than the other, then that doesn’t help people appreciate the science.”

I tell him that I know that every generation likes to think about themselves in extremes—things are either better or worse than they’ve ever been—but it sure seems like we’re seeing extreme views right now.

“The liberal Republican and conservative Democrat have become extinct,” he confirmed. “Before, you wouldn’t necessarily dismiss what a Democrat said or what a Republican said by virtue of their partisan affiliation, because that wasn’t an automatic indication of what their beliefs were. That’s not the case anymore. And what we’re seeing is that when you have ideologically active partisans presented with conflicting evidence, they double down on their initial inclinations. The people with the most well-developed worldviews are the ones who are most resistant to accepting disconfirming evidence.”

We touch on the subject of trust, and Dickinson said that when we view our governing institutions as out of touch with our concerns, as a significant portion of the electorate does, “we increasingly are willing to discount what they tell us is the truth. And if you don’t trust the government, why should you trust the National Science Foundation or the National Institutes of Health?” The populist movement that has aligned itself with Donald Trump on the right and with Bernie Sanders on the left has further exacerbated these inclinations, Dickinson said. “One of the hallmarks of populism is a distrust of elites, and that seems particularly pronounced in this election cycle. And science can be a part of that.”


could have ended the story there, but that would have been depressing—plus I promised you a physicist, and I think you’ll be glad that I did.

Rich Wolfson is the Benjamin F. Wissler Professor of Physics, and he’s taught at Middlebury since 1976. Like any other Middlebury professor, his office bookshelves creak under the weight of their load, which, in his case, includes Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond and Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World by Mark Kurlansky, along with the dozens of physics texts that have titles too long to include here.

Wolfson has authored a number of books himself, including Simply Einstein: Relativity Demystified and the texts Physics for Scientists and Engineers, Essential University Physics, and Energy, Environment, and Climate. The last book is about to reach its third edition, a milestone that Wolfson seems particularly proud of. Before achieving his PhD in physics, he earned a master’s degree in environmental studies and focused his thesis on environmental ethics.

He is active in outreach communications to what he calls “the non-science public,” something he has been doing for decades, “long enough that I have seen scientists move from looking down their nose at folks like me who reached out to lay people to recognizing that ‘hey, this might not be a bad idea.’”

Wolfson has taught courses on climate change since the 1990s and a specific course titled The Science of Climate Change since 2002. Designed for nonmajors, the class addresses the following questions: “Why do human activities affect climate? What future climatic changes can we expect? And what will be their impacts?”

He says that the course always fills—anywhere from 24 to 36 students. Half tend to be environmental studies majors, though not those already in the science track. The rest include religion majors, econ majors, history majors. (Similarly, Grasswick reports that her course on Science and Society draws not only philosophy majors and other humanities students, but also neuroscience majors and biochem majors. “I’ve had students tell me that it’s so great to also think about science in addition to practicing it.”)

On the day that I visited Wolfson in his sunny Bi Hall office, his Science of Climate Change students were taking an exam. Sporadically, they would filter into his office, seeking clarification on one question or another. Most queries were focused on one specific part of the exam, a classically Wolfsonian-inspired entreaty to analyze a climate system for a fictional planet named Zorq. For weeks they’d been studying Earth’s energy flows, Wolfson explained, and this particular task was a simpler subset of what they’d been studying.

As the top of the hour neared, students began to spill into the office, dropping off their exams. To each, Wolfson asked, “Did you get Zorq?” Responses ranged from the confidently affirmative to shakier “I think so?” As I prepared to leave, I thanked Wolfson for his time and added, “I hope they all get Zorq.”

“They won’t,” he replied. “But that’s not entirely the point, is it?”

I smiled, and thought about something Barbara Hofer had told me. Those first-year students who had failed to understand the meaning of scientific theory, who had wanted creationism to be taught alongside evolution to ensure a “balanced debate”? A longitudinal follow-up to that study showed who had changed their views and why. Those who had exhibited “scientific curiosity” by indicating they intended to take further courses in the sciences (whether they had actually done so or not) had changed the way they thought about the issue.

I don’t think I have to tell you what they thought.    



Orational Thought


The revival of a 200-year-old speech competition gets prime-time trappings.

And it just might change the curriculum.

Sitting with my fellow judges in a packed Dana Auditorium, I feel like Simon Cowell in Middlebury’s version of America’s Got Talent. The College hasn’t fully gotten oratory just yet, but tonight’s Parker Merrill Speech Competition is a promising step.

Dana Yeaton, the event’s director and mastermind, bustles up and down the aisle, obsessing over the sound and quality of video. As the founder of Oratory Now, an effort to bring the art back to the College, this theatre professor has a lot riding on the event. It could be the start of something big—big as in, restoring rhetoric to its rightful place in the academy and giving renewed vigor to the perceived value of a liberal education.

Actually, I’m more token geezer than Simon Cowell. My fellow judges, both much younger, have serious oratorical chops. Dena Simmons ’05, a newly minted EdD working at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, has given two TEDx Talks as well as a TED Talk on Broadway. Cloe Sasha ’11 founded TEDxMiddlebury and now works as the content and program producer at TED itself. TED is the Big Top of oratory, the Woodstock and Bonnaroo of the spoken word. Simmons and Sasha’s generation truly recognizes the value of the art.


A word about oratory: It’s to speechmaking what writing is to typing. Oratory injects thought into speech. The original form of persuasion, it moves an audience, changing its mood, its mind, even its willingness to change the world.

Of course, there’s evil oratory as well as good, as every dictator will show you. Effective oratory disguises its tricks. Donald Trump’s rousing non sequiturs, delivered in 12-second comedic punch lines, instinctively imitate the ancient Greek period, a point or concept delivered in the length of a human breath. (The Greeks believed that the patterns of our brains follow the rhythmos, or symmetry, of our bodies.) His audiences love this brilliant attention-holding device. Modern sophisticates, who see only the buffoon, reveal a fundamental ignorance.

Our forebears knew otherwise. Applicants to Middlebury in the early 1800s used Latin oratory as a form of SAT; a student was considered worthy of entrance if he could recite long passages of Marcus Tullius Cicero’s unparalleled prosecution of the Roman rebel Catiline. Top graduates gave Latin orations at Commencement. But the art soon faded as the classics became increasingly unfashionable. By 1855, when pastor and Middlebury trustee Thomas A. Merrill added his name to the College’s Parker Speech Competition—thus inaugurating the Parker Merrill Prize—he made the affair sound like an exercise in deportment. The winner, he said, would demonstrate “the superior propriety and elegance of his manners.”

Harvard administered the coup de grâce to the dying art in 1876, when Francis James “Stubby” Child, Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory, got himself awarded a chair in English literature. The first Boylston professorship had been filled by John Quincy Adams, who shared the rhetorical secrets of the ancients (and whose syllabus provided my own introduction to the art). Professor Child, on the other hand, disdained oratory, saying he “would much rather be teaching dancing.”

As Harvard went, so went Middlebury, to the point where spoken rhetoric—one of the original liberal arts—became at best an extracurricular activity. The Parker Merrill competition itself went moribund in 1965, staying silent until this spring, when Dana Yeaton and his cadre of Oratory Now peer tutors chose to revive it.


A wiry, successful playwright, Yeaton took his first step toward oratory five years ago with a first-year seminar titled Speechmaker’s Studio. The class borrowed a popular technique from the ancients by channeling great speakers through the ages, from Demosthenes and Lincoln through Churchill and Martin Luther King Jr.—with a dose of spoken-word poetry and TED Talks. In 2014, Speechmaker’s Studio became a J-term course and began to morph, Yeaton says, “from a class into something of a movement.” Students who complete a nine-hour training program can qualify as paid “oratory coaches,” while faculty can dial up a pair of Oratory Now tutors for any class or project. Organizations like TEDxMiddlebury, the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee, and Midd Entrepreneurs collaborate regularly with Oratory Now; so does the Center for Careers and Internships. Oratory can now even fulfill the PE credit, with a single eight-hour course.

But Middlebury oratory isn’t all about physical drama. “I’ve seen coaches come out of a session absolutely giddy about the sudden improvement in someone’s delivery,” Yeaton says (rather giddily).

“But my greatest pleasure comes from the writing, when someone finally shrinks their argument to its essence. When at last they tailor their style to an actual audience. That’s when our forays into Aristotle and Cicero start to make sense.”

In other words, the thinking part, known as rhetoric. Harvard wasn’t the first institution to try and kill the art. The invaders of ancient Rome did a good job at it, along with a faction of early Christians—among them Saint Augustine, who renounced his profession as a rhetorician. Rhetoric managed to survive in desiccated form throughout the Middle Ages and finally underwent a vigorous revival during the Enlightenment. Rhetorical thinking permeates the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Every one of the Founding Fathers received a rhetorical education in some form. Thomas Jefferson absorbed John Locke, an Oxford lecturer in rhetoric whose modern theories of the state were deeply influenced by the art. James Madison studied at the feet of Princeton rhetoric professor (and Declaration signer) John Witherspoon.

The art rebounded yet again during the 1960s, when the literary critic Kenneth Burke published a brilliant set of books applying Freudian and Marxist theories to classical rhetoric. More recently, Middlebury’s own President Laurie Patton employed the metonymy—a trope first described by the ancient Sophists—in her published analysis of Indian mantras.

Meanwhile, the art never died among the land-grant universities, which remained relatively uninfluenced by the academic fashions emanating from Harvard. A student can major in rhetoric at UC-Berkeley, Iowa State, Indiana University, and dozens of other schools. Still, not a single Ivy League university or NESCAC school offers a formal major in the subject. Dana Yeaton’s ambition goes beyond reviving a contest, or helping students overcome their public speaking jitters; he’d like the liberal art of persuasion to be back at the center of a Middlebury education.

But tonight he has an event to run.


Of the original 24 contestants, only a half dozen have advanced to deliver short versions of their speeches to a panel of three faculty judges and a packed Abernethy Room audience. Tonight, the six finalists will give a six-minute speech; and then we, “the esteemed alumni judges,” will pick the winner.

First, the musical. Dana has earned himself the reputation of a campus impresario, directing blockbuster celebrations like the New England Review Out Loud performance, and he can’t resist doing a takeoff on Broadway’s Hamilton for this evening’s opener. Oratory Now students gamely rap Dana’s lyrics, bringing us up to speed on Parker Merrill history.

And then the speeches. Like a lot of you, I’ve suffered through many a presentation delivered by a student reading from a text at supersonic speed and sotto voce volume. Tonight, though, notes are forbidden; some of the contestants have clearly memorized their texts, while others daringly ad lib. All of them look nervous.

The talks themselves pay varying attention to the official theme, “True North: A Principle to Guide Us Through Troubled Times.” But the real topic of the evening, for most of the speakers, seems to cover the tribal tensions infesting elite campuses. August Hutchinson, a senior Feb, is the first contestant, and he offers great sound bites while describing his meeting with a group of anti-Semites. “When was the last time you were silenced into agreement?” he asks, somewhat rhetorically. He’s wearing a jacket and tie, and his parents sit in the audience. He gets big applause; but then they all do. Most of the audience consists of students, all of whom provide a healthy dose of support.

Next, Tabitha Mueller, a sophomore Feb, talks movingly about her father dying when she was a little girl. She livens her story with a fine comedic delivery and delivers a moral: “Listening to myself . . . isn’t selfish.”

Then up comes Briana Garrett, a first-year student, who seems much less rehearsed than the others. Offering a look of comic terror at the audience, she begins, “Guess it’s too late to leave now.” She stands shyly at the back of the stage and unnecessarily tells us, “I’m black. I’m female.” And yet she wins over the audience with a beautiful voice and perfectly timed dramatic pauses. She speaks of compassion as a kind of action—one that “could get my brother out of prison.” Leaving the stage in tears, she ends up winning the audience’s choice award.

The contrast is striking, especially when sophomore Peter Dykeman-Bermingham follows her. He begins with a physics joke and speaks confidently about emotions being “physical events, grounded in their tangibility.” (Extra points for him: The ancient Greeks believed the same thing, which is why “pathetic” and “pathology” have the same root.)

“My path through true north runs through the south,” says the next speaker, Dominick Tanoh, a slim African American sophomore from Chicago. By “south,” it turns out, he means “South Side,” a place that contrasts starkly with his experience growing up on the North Side, but where recently he began to uncover a deepening sense of faith.

Last up: Nia Robinson, another African American, who talks about discovering the Torah while visiting a Jewish temple. Her writing is beautiful, and she delivers it crisply, with authority. Her theme comes from Jewish scripture: We’re not obligated to complete the righteous work, but we must not stop doing it. “The work that saves the world,” she says, “is doing what we can.”

I whisper to fellow judge Dena Simmons, “We’ll all be working for her someday.” Simmons whispers back: “She’s a freshman.”

We judges get escorted to an empty room while students and faculty play PowerPoint Roulette, speaking to slides they’ve never seen before. We sit around a table wondering exactly how we’re supposed to pick a winner. I suggest we use Cicero’s five canons of oratory: Invention, Arrangement, Style, Memory, and Delivery. We end up winnowing them down to three:

Delivery, or the way the speaker performed the words.

Invention, or the ideas behind the speech.

Arrangement, or the order and timing of the words.

Which help us only a little. The speakers were all so good, but so different. In the end, after much scoring and discussion, we decide on Nia Robinson, the last contestant. (For more on Robinson, see the spring 2016 cover story, “Let’s Talk About Race.”) Honestly, any one of the six could have won. All of them performed beautifully; none of them expressed a truly revolutionary thought. (But how many TED speakers do, really?) “I was hoping for a little more invention,” Dana Yeaton says to me later.

Which itself counts as a victory, I think. After all, when was the last time a Middlebury professor used the word “invention” to mean the thought behind a speech?

Clearly, Middlebury oratory is beginning to find its voice.

Jay Heinrichs ’77 is the author of Thank You for Arguing, published in seven languages and used in more than 3,000 college courses nationwide. He wrote “Felix Against the Barbarians” for the spring 2013 issue of the magazine.

The Secret to the Success of Seven Days


How Paula Routly ’82 and her band of journalists have flourished in a field where so many others have floundered.

There’s a saying in the literary world: If you want your book to get a bad notice, have a friend review it. Under the guise of bending over backward to be fair, some spite and envy will leak in.

So I am here to say about my old friend Paula Routly ’82, the publisher, cofounder, and coeditor of the Burlington-based weekly newspaper Seven Days, the most vibrant and envied publication in New England journalism: She drives like a little old lady. She cannot keep a secret. She dislikes children, even those that belong to her friends. (When my two kids were very young, they placed a fake pint of spilled ice cream on her white futon sofa. To remark that she was not amused would be an understatement.) She has lost all but her most devoted friends—of which there are still many, I should add—because she is obsessed with her work and will cancel long-made social plans at the last instant to improve the first paragraph of a not-earthshattering news story that arrived a bit late. A former ballet dancer, she is a control freak with steely resolve. She can pinch a penny until it yodels.

About this mild roasting, what can I say? I’ve known Routly for years.  We’re competitive. But I’m happy to have a chance to speak about her. She’s one of the least boring people I know, one who has no tolerance for small talk, and one who—now we’re truly entering the land of full disclosure—was the best “man,” 22 years ago, at my wedding. Routly’s story is a good one. In fact, it’s among the best and most optimistic stories that beleaguered American journalism currently has to tell.

It’s a story about how Routly and her friend Pamela Polston, who was once the lead singer in a well-regarded Burlington punk band called the Decentz, borrowed $68,000 in 1995 to start a scrappy little arts weekly. (Yes, Pamela is an old friend of mine, too.) These two had no business experience, and their timing could not have been worse: The Internet was about to start doing to print publications what strip-mining does to the tops of mountains. They were warned by the owners of a well-funded but hapless rival weekly (more about them later, but imagine them twisting the ends of their mustaches), “We are going to bury you.” This became a David versus Goliath story in Vermont media circles, and David buried Goliath. Over two decades Seven Days has morphed into a $5.7 million multimedia company. At a time when most of America’s alternative weekly newspapers are dead (the Boston Phoenix, the San Francisco Bay Guardian) or a pale shadow of their former selves (the Village Voice, the Chicago Reader), Seven Days is fat as a tick with advertising, and fatter with news its readers actually use.

Seven Days is a free newspaper. Most weeks it is a ripe-to-bursting 112 pages or more, a number unheard of for most weeklies even during the holiday shopping season. Each issue is filled with news about everything from, say, the afterlife of Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign and the plight of Syrian refugees in Rutland to rowdy new Burlington bands and the city’s even rowdier food scene. Seven Days takes an almost Talmudic interest in Vermont microbreweries, and copies of its annual sex and pot surveys—these are gritty, kinky, strange, and hilarious—are snapped up as soon as they hit the streets. Each week more than a dozen drivers deliver the paper to some 1,100 locations all over the state and across the lake in New York, two hours in each direction. The paper has grown from a handful of employees to more than 65. More than a few Middlebury graduates have cycled through Seven Days. Some are happily still there. These include Don Eggert ’98, the weekly’s creative director and associate publisher, who has worked there for 18 years. Nothing really seems to happen in Vermont unless Seven Days has covered it.

Dan Eggert '98, Creative Director and Associate Publisher

Dan Eggert ’98, Creative Director and Associate Publisher

The journalism world is paying attention. In 2013 the industry magazine Editor & Publisher named Seven Days one of its “10 Newspapers That Do It Right.” It was the only weekly to make the list. The same year, writing for the Atlantic, James Fallows studied the paper’s attainments in a piece titled “Strange Tales from the North Country: A Profitable (Print) Newspaper.” Fallows and others are curious about many aspects of Seven Days’ success. How did it fight off the powerful Internet businesses (Yelp, Monster, Craigslist, Match.com, CareerBuilder, Cars.com, LivingSocial, Groupon) that have drained the plasma from most print publications? How did it steal so much authority from the Burlington Free Press, the city’s once-powerful daily, hiring away some of its best news reporters? How did it become so multitentacled and multiplatform?

To understand the reach of Seven Days, you have to look beyond its print product. It runs annual tech expos that are attended by thousands of people. It hosts singles events, restaurant weeks, and beloved first-time homebuyer tutorials. It publishes student, dining, and tourist guides. (The last, because of Vermont’s close relationship with Canada, is printed in French and English.) It operates a publication for kids and one about home design. It has two mobile apps, one that lets you read the entire paper on your phone, the other a business directory. It made a video game! It is so avid about keeping its many pages of employment advertising that every time a new ad comes in, the paper tweets it.

“Paula is one of the most forward-thinking publishers in America,” Mark Zusman tells me. He’s the editor and publisher of Willamette Week, a media company based in Portland, Oregon, and the former president of the Association of Alternative Newsmedia. He fondly recalls the time, a few years ago, when he and a few other weekly newspaper publishers were visiting Vermont. Routly had them to her house for a cocktail party, and Bernie Sanders, to their happy astonishment, dropped by for a meet-and-greet. “He sort of grumbled and grunted,” Zusman says, “and told us all what a bad job we were doing. Then he left.”

Zusman adds: “Paula’s newspaper is serious and speaks truth to power. She also knows her market, is frugal, and is interested in building community. In our industry, when we learn that she’s trying something, we pay attention. We’d be fools not to.”


 “Do you remember your first semester at Middlebury?” Routly asks me. It’s a warm afternoon in late June and we’re sitting in Adirondack chairs in the backyard of her house in Burlington’s Old North End. The house’s exterior is modest, but in the rear it has a wraparound IMAX view of Lake Champlain. She bought it in 2009, in a rare splurge on something other than her newspaper. Routly is wiry—she’s a relentless swimmer and a StairMaster obsessive—with hazel eyes and dark brown hair that she piles into a wave above her forehead. In a sitcom, she’d be played by “Seinfeld”-era Julia Louis-Dreyfus. We’re talking about how Middlebury shocked the hell out of both of us when we arrived there, her in 1978 and me in 1984. We are bonding over social class. Neither of us was prepared for preppies and, in fact, barely knew then what a prep school was. How do all these people know each other already? Why do they have names like “Winky”?

“I remember thinking, How are they so relaxed and confident?” she tells me. “And they could be so nice. They’d take you home at Thanksgiving. You’d get off the highway and then drive for a long time until you’d start to think to yourself, Wait, we’re still driving. Then gates would open. It was like Downton Abbey.” She obsessed over status in part because, at Middlebury, she had so little money. Her parents gave her a strict allowance of $40 a month, not always enough to buy Tampax, much less burgers and beers downtown at the Alibi. She hated to so often be, to use her term, a mooch.

They say the best way for parents to teach children about money is not to have any. Routly’s parents were not poor, but they were meticulous and they were scrimpers. Her father, Paul Routly, was an astrophysicist with a PhD from Princeton. (He liked to tell the story of how he once almost ran over a distracted Albert Einstein.) Routly and her older sister, Pam, grew up largely in Princeton, where their father was the executive director of the American Astronomical Society. Later they moved to the suburbs of Washington, D.C., where he worked at the U.S. Naval Observatory. She remembers him as a frustrated and remote man (“he probably shouldn’t have had children”) who worked with enough geniuses to know he wasn’t one. His work ethic appealed to her, however. He cowrote a book called Galactic Astronomy, writing at night after coming home from work. “That image of him working over the dining room table late at night, being driven to do something beyond what he had to do, made an impression on me,” she says. He’d order a pizza at 1 a.m. and Routly would come down from bed and help him eat it.

During high school, Routly fell deeply into the ballet world, so much so that she barely got to know her classmates and did not go on dates. This was Soviet-style ballet, heavy on theory and so immersive that she left school every day at noon to attend practice. This felt like her new family, and she had talent. She was accepted to the New York City feeder school for the Joffrey Ballet but gradually realized she didn’t have what it took to go further. In distress she fled to a summer camp she knew about in the Adirondacks. There she gained 30 pounds, made a lot of friends, got her first period, became a camp counselor, and learned how to hug. “This was big,” she says. “We didn’t hug in my family.”

At Middlebury she graduated with a joint major that her father liked to jokingly refer to as “14th-century Italian cinema.” In reality, it was in Russian and Italian. She didn’t write any journalism at Middlebury, but she did take semesters off to do exotic things like walk the Pacific Crest Trail and bicycle in New Zealand. (She earned money for her adventures by waitressing at Mister Up’s.) Often there was a boy involved in these trips. She met her first husband, Theo Miller ’81, at the Italian table in the Château. They married in Vermont in 1983—at Cate Farm in Plainfeld, an organic operation run by Middlebury graduates—after he’d worked in the Peace Corps in Benin, West Africa. (When Paula visited him there, she got hepatitis. He left the corps early to escort her home.) Neither was ready for a commitment; the marriage lasted nine months.

Single and back in Vermont, Routly got a job at Burlington’s Flynn Theater, the city’s defining performing arts space, doing public relations and marketing. She felt like she was back in a world she loved and understood. She also began writing freelance dance reviews for the Vanguard Press, then a thriving alternative weekly in Burlington. She was soon offered a position at the daily Burlington Free Press, a Gannett newspaper, where she founded its standalone weekend arts section.

In 1988 she met the man who would become her second husband. Routly and Roger Clapp, a hunky fellow with an Abe Lincoln-like chinstrap beard, had a whirlwind romance. Early in their relationship, he was offered a job doing resettlement work in Uganda, and she decided to go with him. They impulsively married and jumped on a plane. They were in Uganda for two years. Paula taught English there and did some serious photography, but was eager to come home. The locals called her “Mrs. Roger,” and she felt she’d lost her identity. (The couple divorced in 2000. He wanted children; she did not.)

We are nearing the spot where I make a small but stylish cameo appearance in this story. While Routly was in Africa, the Vanguard Press closed and reopened as a more straitlaced newsweekly called Vermont Times. In 1990, I became its first arts editor. When Paula returned from Uganda, she began to write dance criticism for me. I remember her first piece, a review of Mark Morris’s company at the Flynn, because she called me afterward to complain about the dumb headline (“Happy Feet”) I’d put on it. She was right. Headline writing-wise, that was a low point. We finally met a few weeks later and instantly became friends. I helped her get hired as a staff writer at Vermont Times. When I moved with my fiancée (Cree LeFavour ’88) to New York City in 1993, Routly took my job as arts editor.

Vermont Times was never very successful. In 1994, in an attempt to save it, its publishers decided to turn it into two separate publications, one for arts and one for news. Routly brought in Polston, the former punk rocker and also the former arts editor of the Vanguard Press, and together they started an arts publication called Vox. It was more successful than its sister news spinoff, but not successful enough to save the company.

“We realized about three months in that the whole company was for sale,” Routly says. “The buyer was a publisher of penny savers in the Adirondacks. They had one editor overseeing eight newspapers. We could see the writing on the wall. We knew they would never keep Vox going as it was. They would gut it.”

Routly and Polston tried to purchase their baby outright, but the new owners asked for $100,000 and demanded an onerous noncompete clause. When Routly and Polston walked away from the talks and decided to start their own publication, one of the penny saver’s owners said to Routly, “We don’t know if your parents are paying for this, or if Pamela’s parents are, but we are going to bury you.”

Those words were all the motivation Routly and Polston needed. Three months later, on September 6, 1995, the first issue of Seven Days was on the streets of Burlington.


The bathroom at the Seven Days office is, strange to say, one of my favorite places in all of Vermont. Its walls are pink and covered top to bottom with kitschy religious and other memorabilia that staffers have dragged back from all over the planet. The place is a shrine, a truck stop instead of St. Peter’s, in REM terms. The last time I visited, there was also a roll of toilet paper with Donald Trump’s face on each square, along with sayings like, “We Shall Overcomb.”


The entirety of the sprawling Seven Days office, located not far from Burlington’s waterfront, is just as strange, warm and inviting. To enter it is to enter a combination record store, dorm room, bookshop, coffeehouse, and den. Posters and original art choke the walls. Dogs snooze under people’s desks. The director Cameron Crowe could set a sweet romantic drama here. (Two Seven Days reporters met their spouses through the paper’s personal ads.) There is a lactation lounge for new mothers. A wall along one long hallway, which a typical visitor would never see, is filled entirely with the dozens of awards the paper has won. These range from a prestigious Pushcart Prize, won in 1995 for Tom Paine’s short story “From Basra to Bethlehem,” through the paper’s seven general excellence awards from the Vermont Press Association over the years to Routly and Polston’s induction into the New England Newspaper Hall of Fame in 2015. There are so many of these awards that there is not space for them all. They overspill onto a table in a separate room, where they await TLC.

To walk though this office with Routly is to see her glow. She purposefully didn’t have children—“I could not have done this if I had had kids,” she says—but this is her family. Her employees tend to have similar feelings about her. Samantha Hunt, a University of Vermont graduate, was the paper’s first designer. She’s gone on to become an acclaimed fiction writer. Her first novel, The Seas, won a National Book Award for writers under 35. Hunt told me, “Paula is a thrilling storyteller, a loyal mama bear/cheerleader to many, a great journalist, and a great, great friend. We knew within moments of meeting we’d be lifelong colleagues and friends.”

The Vermont-based cartoonist Alison Bechdel, the author of the graphic memoir Fun Home and the now-defunct comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out For,” which ran in Seven Days, told me: “It’s easy to see the tangible stuff, the way Seven Days is growing and financially successful at a time when newspapers everywhere are struggling. But the way Seven Days has created a Vermont community—that’s harder to see because the paper has become such a backdrop, such an integral part of life here. Paula is like Clark Kent—everyone knows she’s a successful, mild-mannered alternative weekly publisher. But I’m not sure everyone knows that she’s also a superhero.”

Andrea Suozzo '09, Digital Content Editor

Andrea Suozzo ’09, Digital Content Editor

So how did Seven Days pull it off? How did it manage to create a thriving weekly newspaper at a time when publications all around it were crumbling? On some meta level, it’s a mystery—an only-in-Vermont anomaly. On another level, it’s no mystery at all. Routly’s frugality has played a big part. The paper has never been in debt, and it paid off its original investors—two were friends from Middlebury, Charlie and Mima Tipper, both ’81—within three years. Routly and Polston also had the good sense to give their publishing company a name (Da Capo Publishing) that was bigger and scarier than they are.

They made other canny moves. Early on, when Seven Days was known primarily as an arts paper, they hired the Falstaffian political columnist Peter Freyne, a barstool sage who was Vermont’s Mike Royko. This gave the political crowd in Montpelier a reason to pick up the paper. (Freyne died in 2009 after a battle with non-Hodgkins lymphoma. Polston keeps some of his ashes in a box on the bookshelf behind her desk.) Seven Days has never run editorials. “At first Pamela and I were too busy to research and write them, and then we realized we also disagreed about some things,” Routly says. Even though the paper leans to the left politically and temperamentally, Routly thought, “Why give anyone a reason to write us off because they think we are predictable?”

The smartest thing Seven Days has done is to capitalize on the floundering fortunes of the Burlington Free Press. Seven Days has become a serious general interest news source, moving away from its alternative press roots. The paper has kept its classified ads strong because of its demographics. Businesses in Burlington want to reach Seven Days’ educated and interested readers.

It is attracting some of America’s best young journalists. One recent hire, straight from Columbia Journalism School, is Kymelya Sari. She is from Singapore and is likely Vermont’s first Muslim reporter. Among other things, she helps cover the state’s refugee community. She has written for the paper, among other topics, on what it is like to wear a hijab while reporting.

There have been some potholes in Routly’s path. In 2007, at the start of the recession, Craigslist appeared on the horizon. Here is Routly’s self-effacing description of how she responded: “I got a debilitating case of shingles and I thought it was over.” She was in a lot of pain—“I couldn’t leave the oatmeal bath for three months”—but the paper survived.

One work-related headache these days is her 14-year relationship with Tim Ashe, 39, a rising political star in Vermont. He’s 16 years younger than Routly, and the chair of Vermont’s senate finance committee. When he ran (and lost) for Burlington mayor in 2012, Routly’s news editors sometimes made her step out of meetings when coverage of him was discussed. Each time Ashe’s name appears in Seven Days, it is tagged with a disclaimer that reads, “Tim Ashe is the domestic partner of Seven Days publisher and coeditor Paula Routly.” Such are the problems of Vermont’s power couples.

One of the best things about Seven Days has always been its smart but unpretentious tone. When the paper issued its 20th-anniversary issue last year, it published a list called “Twenty Reasons We’re Still Here.” I like it, so I am going to print it here. (Note: “ISpys” are dating ads. Lola, Mistress Maeve, and Athena have been among the paper’s sex columnists. “Daysies” are the paper’s popular readers’ choice awards.)

Twenty Reasons We’re Still Here

Seven Days was “locavore” before there was a precious term for it.

It’s free—you can thank our advertisers for that.

In Vermont, our circulation drivers are more reliable than the Internet.

You can’t wrap presents, make mulch, or start a fire with Facebook.

ISpys. Maybe this week, right?

We actually live here.

You can’t do the Seven Days crossword online.

Unlike other local news outlets, we get to drop the F-bomb.
Fuck yeah.

We really, really try to eliminate typos.

Who else would you nervously ask about your penis size if not for
     Lola, Mistress Maeve, and Athena?

It’s nice lookin’. Admit it—you even read the ads.

For Seven Days, serious word play is not an oxymoron.

Vermont is far more sophisticated than our rinky-dink population
     would suggest.

Two words: job ads.

The fearless Peter Freyne launched our news section.

You need something to read in the bathroom.

How else would you know what to do this weekend?

We bust our asses—no squat machine required.

It’s not all work: Think Mardi Gras, Art Hop, and Big Lebowski.

YOU. Thanks for picking up the paper, buying ads, sending letters,
   pet photos, suggesting stories, voting for the Daysies and giving us so
    much to write about over the years.

The next afternoon, we’re again sitting out behind Routly’s house, talking. The view is astonishing, but she can’t totally give in to it. Her mind is where it always is, back in the Seven Days office. Pretty soon she’ll drive back there, like a little old lady, think about canceling some dinner plans, and put out another terrific issue.

Editor’s Note: Hear Here


What does summer sound like to you? In Middlebury, the soundscape is as distinct as the season itself; it’s as if the entire ecosystem has awoken from its long winter’s nap.

The day’s symphony begins as the sun rises, with open windows serving as speakers for the awakening world. I hear the songbirds long before I open my eyes; their melodies become as much a part of dawn’s auditory background as a beeping delivery truck is in a Brooklyn alleyway.

I don’t know much about birds. I can admire the martial bearing and precision of a hawk—
nature’s predator drone—conducting surveillance, and I delight at the sight of an oriole or a cardinal or any other brightly colored feathered creature. And sure, I know a jay or a bobwhite when I hear one; but for years I had no idea what was singing to me each summer morning. “Robins. Warblers. Hermit thrush,” a friend told me. I turned to Google and quickly identified the hermit thrush as one of my frequent serenaders. The state bird of Vermont, the hermit thrush has been called the “Mozart of the bird world.” Refined taste I have in birdsong.

The notes of the hermit thrush give way to the peals emanating from Mead Chapel’s bell tower each Friday afternoon. This summer marks the 31st season of the College’s annual carillon series, an event that brings musicians from around the world to perform on Middlebury’s carillon—one of only two in Vermont. George Matthew Jr., the College’s carillonneur for the past 30-plus years, has the August schedule to himself, and his performances are not to be missed.

Of course, if I’m honest, the sounds of summer are not always kind to the ear. As I write next to an open window on a pleasant June afternoon, a jackhammer does battle with some concrete down the street. And soon, the mowers will arrive for their weekly incursion, the growl of their engines linking up with the dat-dat-dat-dat of the jackhammer to form a particularly noxious duet. But no matter, evening will quiet things down, and then the hermit thrush will return to start the day anew.        

Editor’s Note: The Conversation

ed note_CMYKuIt was nearly a year ago when I reached out to Dena Simmons ’05—a beautiful writer and fiercely intelligent young woman who works at the Center for Emotional Intelligence at Yale—to see if she would be interested in writing a feature essay on what it means to confront racism in America today.

For our fall 2015 issue, I wanted Dena to draw on both her own life experiences and those experiences lived by the students, teachers, and activists she’s encountered in her career. “I want this essay to speak to every reader,” I said, “and to be clear that this is an issue that involves all of us.”

The resulting work was her brilliant “We Cannot Afford to Walk Away,” whose title is drawn from this passage in the essay: We cannot afford to walk away, to turn off our screens, and to carry on with our comfortable lives. None of us, especially those in power, have the right to be comfortable. It’s through discomfort we learn and transform most. Questioning, challenging, and curbing racial injustices is everyone’s job.

A few weeks after we published Dena’s essay, Middlebury held the first of three campus gatherings in which issues of race, inclusivity, institutional history, free speech, and cultural appropriation were talked about, wrestled with, and argued over; tears of anguish and tears of frustration were shed. And while the catalyst for the meetings was one incident, it became clear to all that we were talking about more than an isolated occurrence. Questioning, challenging, and curbing racial injustices is everyone’s job.

For this issue’s cover story, we hired a dear friend, the Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer John H. White, to help us continue the conversation that began with Dena’s essay. While on campus he spoke to a crowded Wilson Hall, and among his inspirational words of wisdom was the affirmation that we all strive to “recognize the somebody-ness of everybody.” It is what we must do if we are to learn and transform and become a community where, as Laurie Patton has so eloquently stated, inclusivity is not a problem to solve but an everyday ethic.

Let’s Talk About Race


(Front Row) Shuba Maniram ’17, (Second Row) Molly McShane ’16, Nia Robinson ’19, Charles Rainey ’19, (Back Row) Debanjan Roychoudhury ’16, Claudia Huerta ’18

As racial conflict unfolds on college campuses across the country, Middlebury wrestles with tensions of its own.

Last fall, the Black Student Union at Middlebury organized a solidarity blackout in support of Black students at Middlebury and on other campuses around the United States. A photograph taken in front of Carr Hall shows hundreds of Middlebury students gathered on an unseasonably warm November evening. By designed necessity (“It is essential we center Black bodies and experiences in this movement,” the BSU wrote on its Facebook page), persons identifying as Black stood in the front; behind them stood white students, faculty, staff.

Two weeks later, the Middlebury community would be looking inward after an incident in a College dining hall. A white first-year student had worn a sombrero to dinner and when asked by a fellow student, a Latino senior, why she had chosen to wear it, her frivolous answer was too difficult for him to ignore. His attempt to explain how her actions were hurtful to him—that within the current context she was appropriating a culture, his culture—were met, those present say, with indifference. The resulting argument spilled over and ignited on social media, particularly the anonymous forum Yik Yak, and though students were leaving the following week for Thanksgiving break, the College administration arranged a pair of town hall-style forums—immediately before and immediately after the break—to discuss the issues of cultural appropriation, community standards, freedom of expression, and what it means to be an inclusive community. By the second forum—a capacity event in Dana

Auditorium, with scores of people turned away—it was clear that while the dining hall incident may have been the spark that ignited the discussions, there were broader, deeper, and far more entrenched issues to deal with. On December 11, a third forum was held in Mead Chapel. And while the gathering opened with a tearful apology from the first-year student who had worn the sombrero, the rest of the 90-minute conversation moved beyond any one incident and spoke to those broader, deeper, and more entrenched issues, feelings, and states of mind and being.

For some people in attendance at any of the events, hearing about racial (and sexist, homophobic, and ethnic) offenses, both explicit and implicit, on the campus was a revelation, as was the pain, frustration, and anger expressed by students of color. No less palpable were the exhausted, at times defiant, statements from students of color that it should not be their sole responsibility to educate their classmates (or professors) on why they were hurt, why they were angry, why they were aggrieved.

Claudia Huerta, a sophomore from Manhattan, says that the town hall gatherings frightened her. “They opened my eyes to the realization that a lot of people on this campus had not been having these conversations. And it scares me because I think I took it for granted that people were talking about these things.”

An academic year that began with Middlebury’s new president expressing the fervent desire that the community consider diversity and inclusivity not as problems to be solved but as an everyday ethic, a way of living our lives, had found the College entering 2016 with a renewed focus on what it would take to turn that aspiration into reality.


The racial tensions that exist at Middlebury are not occurring in a vacuum. Across the country, college and university campuses are home to protests, sit-ins, and demands for change led by students of color. For every situation that has captured the nation’s attention—Missouri, Yale, Princeton—many more unfold weekly.

To better understand what is happening at Middlebury, I spoke to dozens of people—students, faculty, administrators, staff. The students of color I interviewed expressed varying degrees of satisfaction with the College, but to a person they spoke to the difficulties, the challenges of being a minority in a very white state and at a largely homogenous institution. (While the percentage of American students of color at Middlebury has steadily increased over the years to 24 percent of the student body, that still means that for these students more than three-quarters of their peers—and a far greater percentage of the faculty—don’t look like them, haven’t experienced life as they have, and often are unaware of what this can mean.)

Shuba Maniram, a junior at Middlebury, grew up in the South Bronx, the child of immigrants from Trinidad. Neither of her parents went to college, so the idea of going away to school wasn’t on her radar growing up, but when she was in sixth grade her teacher outfitted the entire class with T-shirts that read “College Student” on the front and “Class of 2017” on the back.

This teacher was Dena Simmons ’05 (see p. 11), and the following year, Simmons brought Maniram and the rest of the class to visit Middlebury. (“Without Dena I wouldn’t be here,” Maniram says. “And by here I mean college as much as I mean Middlebury.”) Simmons continued to mentor Maniram throughout high school. They shared similar upbringings, and Simmons constantly challenged Maniram to push herself, to imagine a place beyond what was comfortable. When she was accepted to Middlebury, Maniram says the demographics of Vermont and Middlebury worried her, but she idolized Simmons and felt that she had her example to live up to.

But she wasn’t prepared for what awaited her. It wasn’t just the terminology and mechanics of higher education that baffled her (see p. 44); she couldn’t relate to many of her new classmates, nor they to her.

“I vividly remember a moment early in my freshman year when a couple of white girls came up to me and another student of color in the dorms and asked us to show them how to twerk. We said no, so they proceeded to twerk and laugh in front of us. And that was my introduction to what I would come to face at Middlebury.

“And I feel like that moment is symbolic. I didn’t know what microaggressions were—I had never heard the term and wouldn’t have understood the concept then—but that was the first of many times when people made assumptions about me because of what I looked like.”

Maniram and all of the students of color I spoke to say that these assumptions are insulting and invalidating and have not been limited to the dorms, dining halls, or social spaces; for many, the worst microaggressions come in the classroom, when peers or faculty have turned to the one Black person in the room when topics such as slavery, poverty, or urban blight are being discussed. Sometimes the person is explicitly asked to explain a culture; often it’s just a look, a sideways glance that is subtle but no less implicit.   

“Differences in race and class can reinforce alienation, not just here, but anywhere,” says Roberto Lint Sagarena, an associate professor of American studies and director of the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity. “But race can compound this feeling, because often it’s a visual difference; it almost becomes exponential in terms of feelings of alienation. And this sets a tone so that students are sensitized to microaggressions. You’re already feeling out of place, like you might not belong, so these slights become magnified. And that increases that sense of pain. A look that might or might not have been something racist or problematic can be interpreted that way.”        

First-year student Nia Robinson came to Middlebury because she wanted to be around students who had experienced life differently than she had. A Posse scholar from Chicago, Robinson attended a high school with twice as many students as Middlebury. She has two younger half-siblings, and she says that when she would go places with them in Chicago, she’d often be mistaken for a nanny; her stepfather is white. So, she says, she was under no illusions that going to a school in rural Vermont wouldn’t be a challenge; yet she says now she can’t think of a day when she hasn’t questioned why she’s here. “I’m having such a disconnect because I feel like people aren’t willing to work to understand other people. There are a lot of people here who don’t understand me, and it’s not because I’m a complicated person,” she says. “It’s because we don’t have those conversations. I care a lot about Middlebury, and some days it feels like most people don’t care enough to at least try and understand why a segment of this student body is unhappy. 

“But at the same time, I understand that not everyone is having my experience, and for some people, Middlebury is perfect. They think, ‘We don’t have to make it better. It’s great.’”


At the conclusion of the third town hall meeting in December, President Laurie Patton stood at the front of Mead Chapel and addressed the community. “I have seen remarkable intentionality and thoughtfulness in this conversation—and I have also seen ways in which we could improve both in our mindfulness of each other, as well as our hopes for the future.”

She then stated five guiding principles that she hoped would help the community to move forward. “We must make sure that no single group bears the burden of difference, but that we all aspire to inclusivity—those of us who are not part of historically underrepresented groups need to stand in alliance with those who are; we need to not be afraid to make mistakes and engage with others; I want us to have an open and complex understanding of free speech—free speech is not the opposite of inclusivity; the very way we create a more inclusive community is by exercising free speech and continuing to create understanding even in the midst of tension-filled conversations; [there needs to be] on-going reflection about structural bias. We have been talking about structural issues in which racism and other forms of exclusivity are built into our systems. I think this is the biggest challenge for all of us.”

When Patton talks about inclusivity, she’s addressing a very important distinction with diversity. Roberto Lint Sagarena says, “Diversifying our student bodies doesn’t necessarily do away with issues of difference and the challenges that come with them—being on campus doesn’t automatically make you feel like you’re a part of campus. So how does campus culture change to reflect a pluralism in the student body? Is it a matter of simple assimilation and everybody becomes a part of the same? Or is it an acceptance of difference and a respect for difference, where one can have an affinity group and be with one’s own, but also move beyond that and be accepted by all?”

Leslie Harris, an associate professor of history and African American studies at Emory University, says that these issues are not new, and that she’s struck by the similarities in student demands today and the demands at the dawn of higher education integration 50 years ago.

She points out that many segments of society in the United States have aggressively resegregated and that when students arrive at college they are coming to live in a community that, by design, is just as aggressive in its integration. And there are more students—approximately 14 million 18-24 year olds are in baccalaureate programs now, compared to 2 million in 1949—which means more students from diverse backgrounds. “And you can’t just add and stir,” she says. “It’s the work of institutions to think through what it means for all of these people to come together. You have to be flexible—flexible but strong.” 

Katy Smith Abbott, the dean of the College, agrees. Throughout last summer and into the fall, she worked with Miguel Fernandez, Middlebury’s chief diversity officer, and Andi Lloyd, vice president for academic affairs, on an initiative that would help students become more resilient, and she says that it’s dawned on her that these same lessons can be applied to the institution.

“We should hold ourselves institutionally to the same standard,” she says. “What does it mean to be an excellent institution with a deep history and many traditions, some of which are not that great, and to say, ‘You know what? We can be excellent and we can still move from our original shape to something new.’”

“Racism in this country has been very creative,” says senior Debanjan Roychoudhury. “It’s been very willing to change and adapt, so we need to be similarly willing to adapt and be very creative in how we address these issues. That’s who we are! Let’s use our creativity to fundamentally shape the way we think about inclusion.”

Already this year, Patton and the administration have implemented a number of programs and initiatives that she feels will make Middlebury a more inclusive place. She’s engaged a pair of consultant groups to lead diversity workshops with offices that interact most closely with students and to assist in recruiting a diverse faculty applicant pool; she’s facilitated discussions between the Board of Trustees and African American studies scholars (including Leslie Harris), who specialize in structural bias; she’s directed the Athletics Department and the Department of Public Safety to examine inclusive practices in their respective areas; she’s approved the hiring of two full-time counseling fellows for the health center; and she created a new organization (Alliance for an Inclusive Middlebury) of faculty, students, and staff, who are charged with proposing policies and creating spaces across campus to “make sure we are as inclusive as possible in all facets of our lives together.” And Patton and other administrators and faculty  have been spending many hours meeting with students individually and in groups.

During a conversation with Katy Smith Abbott, I remark that the College has begun to address these issues in a far more rapid manner than is typical in higher education, when institutional change is often tracked in geologic time.

She pauses.

“I think it depends on who you’re talking to. I would say yes, that’s the way it feels to me. I think that’s the way it feels for others who work in student life and work in administrative roles where we’re focusing, daily, on tangible programmatic or policy or institutional change,” she says.

“The tension for me is that I’ve heard very consistently from students —all different voices—saying that the College isn’t doing enough. That’s the piece I struggle with. It’s very real for them. Their experience is absolutely genuine and authentic. And what we’re doing is not visible. Somehow it doesn’t feel like change.”


Tiff Chang is one student who feels that Middlebury is neither moving fast enough—nor far enough. Chang, a junior Feb from Marin County, California, says that during most of her first year at Middlebury, she was one of those students who thrived. But then, she says, she began to understand that other students were having very different experiences. She points to a collision of events that affected her thinking—national news coverage of Ferguson and her subsequent participation in the Middlebury Ferguson Action Group; friends leaving the College, citing structural oppression; her experience “with queer marginalization on campus and existing as a queer woman of color in student government.” She adds, “And, basically, finding out how deeply imbedded these systems are in all of us.”

She found the town hall meetings to be not only unproductive but a perpetuation of the racism and alienation that students of color were already experiencing on campus. She says there needed to be apologies on both the institutional and personal level, and that the meetings, as constructed, created a space that did not recognize that students of color have different needs than white students. 

She quickly acknowledges that the efforts of Patton and the College are sincere, that Patton cares deeply about the issues, and that people are working really hard to implement change. But to her, the efforts are inadequate. She urges Middlebury to think beyond “one-off items like panels and lectures that serve a self-selected audience, and consider systems-based change.” For instance, she wants the College to hold a mandatory annual retreat for faculty and staff that addresses issues of social justice, cultural competency, new teaching pedagogy, slow learning, and more.

Chang, who has been a co-chair of Middlebury’s Community Council this year, has spoken passionately and publicly about these issues that are clearly very important to her, and she says that if the College embraced “a really deep, committed understanding of inclusivity” it could distinguish itself from its peers. “Inclusivity is the new sustainability,” she says. “Let’s employ forward-thinking policies and practices around inclusivity and lead by example.”

It’s hard to argue with the goal, but some whom I’ve talked to worry that there’s not room to disagree about how to set that example, and that rhetoric on campus has quickly moved into a binary “us vs. them” construct. Said one student of color whom I talked to: “I am so relieved that we are moving beyond any one incident and are addressing bigger issues, but I worry that too often experiences are becoming generalized, that people are being put into categories—‘all of you’ or ‘all of us.’ I recognize that a lot of the entrenched problems on this campus are the legacy of systemic oppression, but one of the things I struggle with is how to express solidarity with a group of people, my people, while still expressing myself as an individual.”

This student added: “I think a lot of what’s troubling to a number of students of color is that we’re afraid to throw each other under the bus by saying something wrong because you want to stand in solidarity. But the truth is, it’s impossible to agree on all of these things.” 


Fear is a word that has come up again and again in my conversations. There’s the fear of being subjected to further racist insults, be they implicit or explicit. (Nia Robinson speaks of returning to her hall one night to find the word “Negroes” written multiple times on a dry-erase board attached to a friend’s door.) And if you’re white there is the fear of saying the wrong thing, of being branded a racist. “Being called a racist is so powerful,” says Miguel Fernandez. “It shuts everything down, the conversation stops. All of a sudden you’re not talking about whatever offended the person of color. You’re arguing about whether someone is or isn’t a racist.”

One white student I spoke to says that she has put herself out there, and she’s been burned; burned to the point she was hesitant to talk to me for this story; she says she’s unlikely to engage with these issues publicly anymore—at least not at Middlebury.

“I recognize that the pain of people in this community is very real, I recognize that the anger is real,” she says. “The sentiments are honest and heartfelt, but I’ve found that it’s too difficult to have constructive conversations because the passion is too great, the anger is too great. I’ve found that too often we each focus on the righteousness of our side of the argument, and then we’re not focusing on the argument itself.”

As an example she points to a series of episodes involving the student newspaper, the Middlebury Campus. In February, a collection of cultural organizations sent an email to the student body calling on the Campus to make amends for “continuously publish[ing] articles that have both subtly and explicitly reinforced the marginalization of several groups” at Middlebury. The letter specifically condemned the decision to publish several op-eds, which contained views that the letter writers felt “actively harm[ed] and systematically silenc[ed] minority groups at the College.”

In response, the Campus editors penned a pair of op-eds (“A Paper for the People” and “A More Inclusive Campus”) in which they defended their decision (and right) to publish opinion pieces—in these cases contributed pieces—that run the risk of offending readers as long as standard journalistic guidelines were enforced. The editors also acknowledged that the paper “suffers acutely from a lack of racially diverse voices” and vowed to find ways to make the newspaper more reflective of the entire community. (Full disclosure: I serve as an advisor to the Campus.)

This issue with the Campus does seem to illustrate a troubling point, perhaps the one opinion shared by most: students are feeling pushed toward silence. There’s the young woman and others who fear the consequences of expressing challenging opinions, and there are the organizations who believe such expression, as it was conducted, systematically silences minority groups.

One student suggests—and others agree—that 90 percent of the student body is not engaging in substantive conversations about race. She says that about 10 percent of the student body could be described as activists when it comes to racial discourse. About 30 percent don’t think about the issue at all. And then there’s 60 percent who are very aware of the tension on campus, but are loathe to speak, at least on any meaningful level; the risk is too great.

So a result can be silence that is just as uncomfortable and perhaps just as damaging. And this worries Nia Robinson. “I know that there are a lot of people who either have good intentions or they empathize with students of color, but they’re not being vocal about it,” she says. “And I so badly want them to speak up because I’m sure they have thoughts and ideas that are completely different from mine, ideas that will challenge me, and that’s a good thing. I come back to a quote from the writer Audre Lorde—‘Your silence will never save you.’”

Shuba Maniram says that she’s found she can have better conversations if she starts by expressing how a statement made her feel, “because somebody may know what it means to be hurt.” (Or at least that’s the hope: See Debanjan Roychoudhury on p. 40) “If I can get you to focus more on how you’ve made me feel instead of characterizing you in a certain way, then our conversation has a relational aspect. If it goes the other way, that’s when people silence themselves.” But sometimes—often, for many—the burden of these conversations is too great. It’s what Patton referred to when she said, “We must make sure that no single group bears the burden of difference.”

“Yeah, there are times when I have to step back,” admits Maniram. “Ultimately, I’m not here to teach people how to be a better person in the world. I’m here to learn. I’m here to get an education; it shouldn’t be on me to always be educating others.”

Anna Iglitzin agrees. A junior Feb from Seattle, Iglitzin is part of a cohort of white students who have formed an allyship group. They’ve struggled to come up with a name for their effort—“Whites Against Racism” had been mentioned, but some disliked the militarism of the acronym so they’ve settled on “Wonderbread: White Students for Racial Justice.” They write op-eds for the Campus, addressing issues of “white privilege, written by white students, predominately for white students,” and they hold regular gatherings, where they attempt to engage previously reticent people in uncomfortable conversations. The thinking is that white students will feel less vulnerable expressing their feelings, their confusion, to their white peers; they’ll be more apt to ask questions if they’re not consumed by fear of upsetting someone.

Iglitzin readily admits it’s an imperfect solution. She worries that she’s helped create a homogenous group on campus attempting to educate others in the homogeny about issues she’s never experienced. She’s also worried that she’ll get something wrong, that she’ll incorrectly interpret something that has been told to her by a student of color, that she’ll inadvertently perpetuate stereotypes. But she and others in the group also understand that if this is what it takes to get conversations started and if this effort helps people who are exhausted, who can no longer bear the burden of explanation alone, then it has to be done.

“But success,” says Iglitzin, “is when those people who do talk to us then venture outside of our circle to engage people who don’t look like us.”

Roberto Lint Sagarena shares a similar sentiment when talking about Middlebury’s new multicultural center. On a blustery April day I sat in Sagarena’s office in Carr Hall, home to both the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity and the Anderson Freeman Resource Center (AFC). The latter, which Sagarena also directs, was proposed by students who felt that the College was lacking a venue that specifically supported students from historically underrepresented or marginalized communities; it opened this year, an occurrence Sagarena wryly calls “fortuitous.”

Sagarena says, and students concur, that the AFC has helped demystify the collegiate process by bringing in writing tutors, counselors from the health center, and counselors from the Center for Careers and Internships to meet with students in Carr Hall; not as a substitute for, say, visiting a writing tutor in the Center for Teaching, Learning, and Research, but as a way of letting students know these resources exist.

And the AFC is a space where alienated students can be themselves. “And that’s great,” says Sagarena. “But it needs to build up to something. I want the Center to serve as a home base for previously alienated students who can then take ownership of the rest of the campus. There needs to be a circulation to the Center; we need to be able to help students expand beyond the AFC, and we need to be able to bring in students who would have never thought about what it means to come from a historically underrepresented community.”

Not long after I talked to Sagarena, the College announced that a popular student-run program called JusTalks would become mandatory for incoming first-year students, beginning next year. I spent a good deal of time talking with Molly McShane, a senior, about JusTalks, which was founded four years ago to provide students with the tools and opportunities to hold conversations about difficult topics.

McShane, who is white, attended the National Cathedral School, an all-girls school in Washington, D.C. She discovered JusTalks as a sophomore at Middlebury, a time when she was struggling to connect with other students who found value and community in conversations about identity and power. JusTalks was her answer—she was able to give voice to her experiences (and learned from listening to others’); she also found a community who shared her interest in talking about difficult subjects. She says that the small group settings build up trust and help foster deeper, more challenging—and also more affirming— conversations over time.      

Next year, every first-year student will participate in a JusTalks daylong event during either winter term or spring semester. “Setting the framework in a student’s first year builds a foundation,” says McShane. “It’s a way of saying to every new student, ‘These are the conversations we have and this is the way we treat each other.’”

Adds Smith Abbott: “It can be a space where people don’t have to fear saying the wrong thing as they ask questions and sort through their feelings.”

On this point, I press her about how Middlebury’s faculty can be brought into these discussions. She agrees with the sentiment that for many students of color, the “single most urgent place where they need to see change is in the classroom.” Diversifying the faculty is a work-in-progress, but it’s also the change that will happen the most slowly. So the challenge becomes this: How do you have an impact now?

“As an institution, we need to provide our faculty with opportunities to have the conversation—Why is this important? What kind of discomfort is acceptable and what is not?” she says. “We need to make the resources available for people to have those conversations and, ultimately, to learn, to deepen their skills as classroom facilitators.

“Because they weren’t trained for this,” she adds “and being vulnerable, allowing oneself to be wrong in a space where they are supposed to be the educator is really, really hard.” (More faculty training in this area is another of Patton’s initiatives.)

A year ago, Miguel Fernandez met with department chairs to talk about diversifying the faculty, and he says he was largely met with push back, specifically with how he was defining diversity. The professors asked about expanding the definition to include diversity of religion, diversity of thought. All important, Fernandez told them. But he specifically wanted to talk about the urgent need to increase racial diversity.

“It was different this year,” he says. “I think a large percentage of faculty have found themselves in uncomfortable situations, and they’re looking for the tools to help them navigate this new terrain.”

I have had faculty describe this feeling as being “unmoored,” that at any moment, in teaching their material, they could be treading into quicksand. And many of these faculty members express confusion and dismay about the situation—they say they were once activists themselves and are empathetic to the students’ feelings, yet they find themselves being described as part of the problem.    

Smith Abbott is not surprised to hear this. “People care, they’re curious, they’re worried.” She notes the increase in attendance at voluntary workshops and discussion groups, but she also points out that “students rightly say, ‘It’s not everyone yet.’ And we’re trying to figure that out.”


On a sunny Friday afternoon, I met Charles Rainey for lunch at a Thai restaurant in town. It was a few days before elections for the 2016–17 Student Government Association (SGA), and Rainey was one of four students running for president—the only rising sophomore. As a first-year senator, Rainey has been a presence on the SGA (see p. 43), and he was running on a platform—“a movement,” he calls it—that could upend the very role of student government at Middlebury.

The oldest of five children, Rainey grew up in suburban Atlanta. He attended predominately Black schools and says there was a lot of empowerment in his community, but also a lot of prejudice that existed just beyond his neighborhood. He says that being Black is not monolithic—“there’s not one Black experience”—but his life experience has helped him understand what it’s like to be marginalized.

At lunch, he’s in campaign mode, even though I have no vote and this story will be published after the election. “But this is a movement,” he reminds me with a smile. “Not just an election.”

He says the SGA can’t afford “for another year to go by where conversations are not centered on issues concerning inclusivity.” The SGA must represent all students, not just some, and he believes that not everyone is being represented. But he’s encountered resistance, both as a senator and in his campaign, primarily by people who feel that it’s not the role of student government to debate these issues. And this deeply troubles him. (He describes the focus on issues such as dining hall hours as “inconsequential.”)

To our lunch he wore a T-shirt that bears a Desmond Tutu quote: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice then you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” To Rainey, “the SGA has been largely neutral on matters of inclusion and social justice; people have taken a stance that the SGA shouldn’t get involved in these issues. You know what I think about that.”

He has an extensive list of policy proposals—better integrating JusTalks into the first-year experience; the creation of a peer-mentoring program called MiddSibs, in which juniors and seniors are paired up with sophomores and freshmen to form a support network based on shared interests, identities, or backgrounds; mandatory inclusivity training for residential life staff and faculty. While some of the ideas hold more practical promise than others, the point is that Rainey wants to keep the campus’s focus on these issues, wants to keep the pressure on decision makers, and he thinks it should be SGA’s responsibility to do so. 

Katy Smith Abbott says that Rainey’s campaign is pushing the student body to question what their government should be. “Are students eager for somebody who really wants to use that office and that student body to push for change in an activist spirit, or do they want it to continue as it has—as a more traditional, if you will, governing body?”

Rainey lost the election, coming in third place. Karina Toy—an Asian American who touted support for a student leadership retreat, more parking spaces for students, and greater SGA transparency—won. During her campaign she agreed with Rainey that inclusivity was an important issue. She said she was supportive of efforts to build a more inclusive community, but she expressed skepticism at how influential the SGA could be.


At the photo shoot for this story, Debanjan Roychoudhury gazed out the large floor-to-ceiling windows in the Axinn Center and watched Rainey jog across the quad, a late arrival to the shoot. To nobody in particular, he said, “Man, he’s gonna burn out.” Roychoudhury would know better than anyone; a few years ago, he was in the same place.

“My sophomore year, I raged against everything,” the senior from Queens tells me one morning while we sat at a table in Crossroads Café. He arrived at Middlebury as an enthusiastic first-year, excited about being in a new place among new people and eager to be involved in as many activities as he could handle. He threw himself into his classwork, joined a number of cultural organizations, and volunteered in the community. He was optimistic, he says, convinced that Middlebury was a place where he could grow and become part of a community that was already becoming special to him. Those feelings didn’t last.

He describes a wave of events that buffeted his optimism. There was the hateful, misogynistic, homophobic letter mailed to a student on campus; there was the time he was at a Halloween party and asked if he was dressed as a basketball player (the six foot four Roychoudhury wasn’t wearing a costume, “though I felt like I had one put on me right then”); there was the time a white student assumed he must love the rapper Jay-Z, presumably because Roychoudhury has dark skin and was wearing a knit Yankees cap, attire favored by the artist; there was the time he attended a campus discussion centered on the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold a Michigan law banning the use of racial criteria in college admissions, and he heard a faculty member say that now Black students at Michigan would know they deserved to be there.

“So it became my job to prove to people that I was smart enough to be here, that I was earning my scholarship, that I had earned my place,” he says. “And I fought like hell to prove that.” What felled him, he says, was intransigence. He felt as though he and others were pushing and pushing to talk about these issues and no one was listening; the AFC was two years away from opening, and Roychoudhury felt like he was drifting away. Burnout followed, the burnout he worries about for Charles Rainey. He focused on getting by—getting by and getting out.

Now, though, he feels differently. “I woke up one day and realized that none of this has defeated me. As a student of color, I belong here just as much as anyone else; this is my school just as much as it’s anyone else’s.”

I asked him what prompted this realization, and he thought for a minute. “Maybe it’s as simple as honoring people like Martin Henry Freeman and Marianne Anderson,” he says, gesturing to his backpack which features button pins with the likenesses of the two Middlebury alums, students of color who graduated in the late 1800s and went on to exemplary careers in education.

“Nothing gives me more pride than thinking about what they accomplished. And they are Middlebury,” he says. “Now think about what life was like for them, think about their norm. My grandparents lived under colonial rule. Compare their norm to mine; compare Freeman’s and Anderson’s norm to mine. It’s different, right? It’s better, right? Change is happening if we keep working, if we come together. Sometimes it’s hard to see, but it is.”

Roychoudhury stands up from the table and says he needs to get to class, but he has one last thing he wants to tell me.

“Did you know that when Martin Henry Freeman walked at graduation, the other students held back? They wouldn’t walk with him. And then one guy stepped forward and linked arms with him, and they walked side-by-side in the procession. When we look back on this moment—and I believe it’s a big chapter in our story, and we will be looking back on it—who is going to stand and link arms and walk with their brothers and sisters?”  

Stand and Deliver


Rana Abdelhamid ’15 has learned to stare down bigotry and xenophobia. And now she’s teaching a generation of American women to do the same.

In an elementary school classroom on the third floor of the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center, Rana Abdelhamid ’15 is teaching a group of women how to yell. It’s not an easy task. Abdelhamid demonstrates the self-defense move again. She settles into a fighting stance, her right foot back, her left leg bent slightly. She raises her fists in front of her face, which is framed with a royal blue headscarf. Twisting at the waist, she launches a powerful punch with a loud, sharp “KI-YAH!”

“On my count,” she says, urging the nine women in front of her to try. The women are part of a daylong workshop hosted by WISE—the Women’s Initiative for Self-Empowerment—an organization Abdelhamid founded six years ago, when she was just 17 years old. WISE teaches self-defense, leadership, and social entrepreneurship skills to Muslim women, a task that has grown even more urgent for Abdelhamid, now 23, in the face of a spike in hate crimes against Muslims and increasingly strident anti-Muslim rhetoric.

“One,” Abdelhamid shouts, and the room dissolves into embarrassed giggles. Only one student yells without any self-consciousness: six-year-old Kenza, in her heart-print dress and pink-and-white-striped headscarf, who is attending the workshop with her mother.

“This is important,” Abdelhamid says, gathering the women around her. They range in age from teens to 40-somethings. Some wear hijabs, the traditional Muslim headscarf; others don’t. “As women, we’re told not to be loud,” she says. “We are programmed to be respectful, to be nice, to smile. We giggle, even when we are threatened. I needed to use these self-defense skills once,” she tells the class. “But I didn’t have the confidence to use them.”


“I felt a tug at my hijab,” Abdelhamid begins. She has told this story many times in the last seven years; it has lost none of its power in the retelling. Abdelhamid’s animated features still as she recalls walking alone down a New York City street. A man approached her from behind and tried to rip off her hijab. “I remember the hate in his eyes. I felt very vulnerable and very alone,” she says.

The physical fear came first. Her attacker was enormous in the eyes of the petite 16-year-old. She ran. When she was safe, she locked herself in a bathroom and cried. Then came another, bigger fear, an uncertainty about her place in American society: “Why do people see Muslims in this light? Does everyone see me this way? Why does this happen?”

Abdelhamid knew such discrimination and hatred existed. She had been an eight-year-old Muslim-American New Yorker on 9/11 and had seen the attacks and suspicion the Muslim community endured in its wake. At 16, she had just begun wearing the hijab, a personal expression of her culture and religion that also made her a visible target for those who misunderstood her faith. She did not know how to counteract that hate, but she did know how to defend herself.

From the age of seven, Abdelhamid had studied Shotokan karate. Her parents had enrolled their shy daughter in the class to give her the confidence she needed to stand up for herself in the sometimes-chaotic environment of her New York City public school. In the aftermath of her attack, Abdelhamid embraced karate as a tool of self-empowerment and of self-defense; today she holds a black belt.

Karate made Abdelhamid feel less vulnerable, but she still felt alone. She wondered: were other Muslim girls facing the same issues? As a teenager, Abdelhamid was preternaturally attuned to the importance of community. Her mother is a human rights activist and from a young age, Abdelhamid had seen the impact of domestic violence in her community in New York, where she was born, and in Alexandria, Egypt, where her parents grew up. When she was attacked, Abdelhamid had been walking to her volunteer job at a domestic violence shelter.

Those two pieces—self-defense and community building—formed the foundation blocks of WISE, an organization that began with a very personal goal: to help one teenage girl heal.

The idea of a 16-year-old girl teaching self-defense to her peers was not well received at first. Abdelhamid remembers pitching the project to an imam at a Queens community center: “He laughed.” He explained that the center already had classes for Muslim women; they were all religious education classes. “I learned later that after I left he actually ripped up my poster,” she says. The rejection only emboldened her—that “activist spark,” she says now. She was determined to strengthen her argument. She began researching other organizations, gathering data, and seeking out mentors and allies.

Her perseverance paid off. The first WISE course was held the summer of 2010 in Brooklyn. Abdelhamid was nervous as her father drove her to the class; she had never done anything like this before. More than a dozen teenaged girls attended, and Abdelhamid says, “it was that sisterhood that I have always wanted to find.”

That first eight-week workshop combined self-defense training with conversation; the girls had a safe space to share their experiences of being Muslim women in New York. For Abdelhamid, the self-defense portion of the class is key. It attracts a wide variety of women—those who wear the hijab and those who do not; those who have identified as Muslims throughout their lives and those new to the faith; those who consider themselves feminist and those who do not—which makes the conversations among the women richer. “We have debates in the class and opportunity for learning,” Abdelhamid says. “It has definitely challenged my assumptions and my beliefs.”

At the end of the workshop, Abdelhamid thought that she was done—“I felt better,” she recalls thinking. Then she got a phone call from one of the girls in the class. The girl was in tears. She had been on a New York City bus. “Why don’t you go back to where you came from?” the bus driver had demanded as she fumbled with her Metro Card. “Because of the class, I knew how to respond,” the girl told Abdelhamid. She recorded the bus number and knew there were people she could ask for help. “How do we keep this going?” she asked.

“That was the moment for me,” says Abdelhamid. “This is not about me. It’s not about me at all.’”



Google ‘images of Muslim women,’” Abdelhamid says. “I can actually do it for you right now.” She reaches for her smartphone and quickly scans through a dozen or so text messages before entering the search term. Of the first 20 pictures that appear, only three show women in hair-covering hijabs. The other 17 photos are of women in black niqabs, a face-covering veil, or black burqas, a full-body veil.

On this day in late March, Abdelhamid sits in a coffee shop in Cambridge. She is dressed stylishly in a long, bell-shaped black skirt, brown boots, and a patterned shawl, which she gathers in her lap. Her personal style is on display in every detail, from her chunky rings and her penciled eyebrows to her hijab. Today it’s a burgundy scarf—a complement to her lipstick—tied closely to her head in a style she likes to call “the urban turban.” “This is not what I look like,” she says, gesturing to the dominant image of Muslim women displayed on her phone. “We are trying to diversify and elevate the narrative.”

WISE began as a self-empowerment effort—first for Abdelhamid and then for the 500 women who have participated in WISE’s programs to date. The organization now has volunteer-staffed chapters in six cities in the U.S. and Europe; some workshops last a couple of hours, while some last months. The media has embraced WISE—at the recent Boston workshop, two camera crews filmed the self-defense class—and slowly, so have Muslim organizations that formerly laughed at the concept. Once a premed student turned international politics and economics major, Abdelhamid is now pursuing a master’s in public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School and hopes to turn WISE into a full-time job upon graduation.

As WISE’s profile has grown, it has also become a platform for educating the public about Muslim women. It’s a path Abdelhamid treads cautiously; she does not want to be seen as a spokeswoman for some 800 million Muslim women. But neither can she stay silent.

When Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump called for a ban on Muslims entering the United States; when his Republican rival Ted Cruz suggested patrolling Muslim neighborhoods; when ISIS was connected to attacks in Paris, Brussels, and San Bernardino, Abdelhamid’s phone rang. “I get messages all the time, after every attack, from Muslim girls who want to know: I am wearing the hijab. Should I take it off?”

Abdelhamid tells the callers that taking the hijab off is as personal a decision as putting it on, that each woman must make a decision with regard to her safety and stress levels. Abdelhamid has made her choice: “I am defiant. I am going to wear it and I am going to be proud.”


As she works to expand WISE, Abdelhamid has introduced a new project: Hijabis of New York. Inspired by the popular Humans of New York blog, Hijabis of New York documents the experiences of women who wear the hijab—in New York and in cities around the world—with a portrait and a one-question interview.

For Abdelhamid, the Hijabis of New York is a digital version of what she calls the “hijabi nod,” that brief moment of recognition and connection between two women wearing hijabs as they pass each other on the street. The project showcases the diversity of women who choose to wear the hijab, even as it builds a virtual community among them.

The questions Abdelhamid and the project’s other photographers pose to these women on the street are thought provoking. She blanches at answering one herself: “What are you struggling with at the moment?”

On the blog, struggle is a common theme. “With staying true to myself and being who I want to be,” says one woman in a hijab painted with watercolor pastels. “Lately, I’ve been struggling with my faith,” admits another in a royal purple hijab.

Abdelhamid pauses, starts, stops. She’s struggling with the same things her classmates are: balancing her class work with her social life; finding her own identity in her 20s; realizing her big ambitions.

She starts again: “I’m really struggling with the hateful rhetoric. It’s hard. I really, really feel American. I feel very proud to be American, and then when I read these things…it makes you feel very vulnerable. It makes you feel like a second-class citizen. These are things that I’m grappling with and that’s hard because I’m leading an organization that is teaching people not to feel that way.”