There is a discussion underway on campus about whether we should create a multicultural center, and if we do, what it would be like. This is an important discussion for several reasons. First, those who think a multicultural center is necessary are explaining why and sharing their concerns with us, sharing what it is like for them to be here on campus. Second this discussion is forcing the institution to look at itself through a different lens than it normally does. And third, it is obliging us to consider the daily realities of our students as we evaluate our institutional priorities.
As I have been listening to students and thinking about this topic, questions have come to mind that I’d like to share with you.
Can a multicultural center fulfill the need for the “safe inclusion” that students desire? The fact that some individuals struggle to feel at ease here or to feel affirmed and included is something we should all be concerned about. Sometimes these feelings improve when students are able to find a little slice of home somewhere on campus or in town, or a group of like-minded souls to hang with, or people who will listen. I wonder if a multicultural center will allow that to happen more easily.
As an institution, we aspire to honor and engage issues of difference, and we’ve created spaces dedicated to various aspects of identity (intellectual, social, political, cultural, etc.)—from the Rohaytn Center, PALANA, and Chellis House, to the Center for the Comparative Study of Race and Ethnicity, the Scott Center, and the Queer Studies House. I’d like to understand in what way these resources and spaces, taken in totality, are not working for everyone.
Let’s assume for a moment that Middlebury commits to creating a new space that is safe and inclusive, that welcomes the intersections of multiple identities. In my opinion, that space must embody and address the future of Middlebury. It must be consistent with the College’s long-term goals, and therefore, it would have to be inclusive for everyone. So the big question is, how do we create more welcoming and engaging spaces for everyone?
I believe that the college experience cannot and should not be “comfortable” all the time. But I also believe that we must afford everyone an opportunity to be fully engaged and to thrive.
Some argue that many existing spaces on campus fulfill the purpose of creating “comfortable” or “safe” environments for the majority of students; yet, there are students who feel completely “outside their skin” in those same spaces. And some argue that by definition, a multicultural center would become an exclusive space.
A big part of the discussion about a multicultural center includes stories (some have been published in beyond the green) from students who describe toxic, unpleasant experiences they’ve had here. Yet, I wonder if their expectations—that a multicultural center would make a difference in these instances—can be fulfilled.
Some students, colleagues, and I will soon be visiting multicultural centers at other colleges and universities to see what we can learn from them. My colleagues around the country have already shared that each space has its own challenges and successes—that no one has gotten it completely right yet.
If Middlebury should decide to develop a multicultural center, it will be important to define its mission carefully and keep that clearly in mind so that the center stays relevant and meaningful—and does not become just another building on campus.
Let’s keep the conversation going.