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Last week, the College held a panel discussion about affirmative action and the case currently before the Supreme Court, Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, which could overturn affirmative action in higher education. We hoped that the discussion would be sincere and honest—and that people would feel comfortable enough to express themselves, even if that meant saying something unpopular. We also hoped that the audience would remain open-minded and give consideration to the diverse views surely to be expressed.

I think that is exactly what happened. Audience members voiced many differing opinions, sometimes disagreeing with one another, sometimes heatedly so. Yet, for the most part, the audience, panel, and moderators navigated a difficult, deeply personal topic with civility and tolerance. I want to thank those who were challenged by this frank conversation for coming and participating.

Here are some of the questions that were raised:

  • How does the number of students of color compare to other groups on campus?
  • Once students of color have come to Middlebury, is the College doing enough to help them stay at Middlebury?
  • If the Supreme Court overturns affirmative action, how will Admissions be able to achieve a diverse student body?
  • Should admissions decisions be colorblind?
  • What other types of identity groups (e.g., athletes, legacies, cellists, etc.) are targeted in the admissions process?
  • Can admissions decisions be more transparent?
  • How important is Posse to Middlebury?
  • When do we stop taking race into account?
  • What is the fairest way to handle college admissions decisions?
  • What is the collective impact of affirmative action on campuses?
  • Does Middlebury have a standard for diversifying faculty?
  • Is there a conflict between two goals of action: repairing past segregation and discrimination through affirmative action and taking steps to create a diverse campus?
  • By choosing someone based on their race, could they be less qualified?
  • What is the true definition of a Middkid?

For those who were unable to attend, you can view the panel discussion here.  It is clear that more listening, learning, and engaging needs to take place on our campus.  We have work to do, so let’s keep communicating honestly, openly, and respectfully.

I wrote about this topic in an earlier post, and encourage you to read the brief that Middlebury filed along with 32 other colleges, in support of affirmative action, diversity, and inclusion in higher education.

Please add your voice to the conversation. I’d love to hear from you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

6 Responses to “A Roomful of People, Thinking and Talking”

  1. Sid says:

    Dean Collado, I think it is wonderful that faculty and administration organized this discussion about the issues of affirmative action and diversity. However, I was disheartened by the quality of the discussion, particularly the apparent inability of professor Affolter to engage in a rational debate with professor Dry, who presented his positions with logic and facts. Even if I personally do not subscribe to professor Dry’s views I think rational argument should be met with rational argument and not invective and ad hominem attacks.

    I was surprised to hear professor Dry accused of “inserting his pedagogical power,”–a meaningless expression that parrots jargon out of context to insinuate that professor Dry was somehow engaging in a phallocentric oppressive act–especially when the accuser was herself brazenly using speech as a form of bullying rather than an expression of rational thought. If professors cannot themselves model proper logical argumentation, I do not blame the students who, as in this video, cheer for sophistry and sloganeering over reasoned discussion.

    As a young alumni, I have many fond memories of my years at Middlebury, and I continue to recommend to anyone who will listen that they should attend Middlebury College to experience one of the best educations the world has to offer. I hope that Middlebury remains a place where reasoned discussion can be protected and nurtured.

  2. Jay Saper says:

    Much ado has been made lately concerning the concept of disruption. The destruction it causes to a well “reasoned discussion.” How it constitutes “invective” ad hominem attacks. While I appreciate the tremendous concern for positive exchange, I implore us to ponder whether such comments constitute an advocation to its detriment.

    It seems that such assertions emerge out of a regard for standards. Professor Dry himself built his argument on such a claim. So let us examine what those standards are. While I believe we do have differing experiences with and understandings of our social world, I am sure there are principles we can commonly accept. Perhaps, say, that we would not like to stand for the many faces of oppression.

    We are led to follow rules, because, well, we want to believe that abiding by them will lead to the carrying out of our common objectives. I admire those with such commitments and beliefs. However, as I seek to do every day, I think it is healthy for us to reexamine and rigorously test our beliefs. Does following rules imply a concerted effort to alleviate oppression? Perhaps we should oblige the rules when it does. Equally compelling would be to disrupt them when it does not.

    When we accept the principle that we do not like to stand for the many faces of oppression, we are then appealing beyond merely the defense of diversity of thought. While I certainly work to fiercely defend the right to free speech, having recently encouraged national headlines to bring scrutiny to the way in which Middlebury infringes upon student voice, when we accept honoring the dignity of every human being, we must not use the veil of diversity of thought and guise of tenure to defend blatant racism.

    Professor Affolter has conducted extensive research examining the marginalization of students of color in classrooms in liberal arts colleges. The words of students. The lives of students. These realities inform her compassion. These stories inform her commitment to practice love in a way to ensure people are being fully honored. Too many times students’ realities are denied and misconstrued. This is why Professor Affolter could not obey the rules. She was morally compelled, as though we all must, to disrupt order when that worked to entrench oppression.

    Professor Dry urges us not to think of why we got here and to simply be grateful of the fact we made it in. However, he goes on to quote historical figures. I applaud his use of her/history. It is not a mere recollection of dead facts, but rather a live way in which our lives are given meaning today. Our history lives on through us, by furthering its study we can illuminate greater potential for working to honor the principle of striving to eliminate oppression.

    Professor Dry quotes Du Bois. I think Du Bois has some particularly interesting insight in this regard: “The chief problem in any community cursed with crime is not the punishment of the criminals, but the preventing of the young from being trained to crime.”

    A call has been made against Professor Affolter. A call against an inability to “engage in rational debate.” What itself is more reasonable than punishing a criminal for a crime? They broke the rule right? Du Bois pushes us further though. At what level is the crime defined? Whom does it subjugate?

    Instead of complaining about disruption, let us craft a new order, so that we do not need to break order, which we must when it is broken.
    If obeying all rules is the definition of logic, then Professor Affolter is certainly unreasonable. When the rules are designed to oppress, we must decipher how to disrupt them in accord with justice, something Professor Affolter courageously pursues with humility.

  3. Sid says:

    Jay,

    If you do not accept logic as a standard then there is nothing to discuss. I’m sorry, but this is the sine qua non of a debate. Rational discussion must be deeply offensive to you if you require a “new order” to accommodate irrationality.

    Do you think professor Dry was inserting his pedagogical power anywhere? Is that accusation even coherent?

    I am not here to criticize the content of Professor Dry’s claims, but only to note that they had content that was there to criticize. Professor Affolter’s comments had no discernible rational content. They consisted merely of ill placed ad hominem attacks. You mention her research but fail to mention that she cited no research or facts and merely engaged in accusations.

    I do not know Professor Affolter nor do I bear her any animus. She is no doubt a scholar who is perfectly capable of meeting an argument with an argument. She is not in danger of becoming anti-intellectual. However, students observing her exchange cannot be faulted for thinking that rational debate consists of attacking the speaker and jeering at ideas. They are there to be educated, and are being shown a poor model of logical argument. Sadly, many of them will never do the research professor Affolter has done, but will only learn from her that ad hominem attacks are an appropriate response to an idea they do not care to understand or examine.

    You are engaging in sophistry by using words like “subjugate” and “oppression” to make objectionable behavior seem praiseworthy. You openly aspire for a new order in which brazen bullying is the norm rather than a discussion founded on facts and logic. Irrational and abusive behavior should not be cultivated on a college campus, but should be condemned for what it is.

    Professor Dry showed class in the way he responded to unfounded accusations, unlike the students who cheered on the accuser.

    I think Middlebury College can do better than this.

  4. SB says:

    Dear All,

    I’m glad that conversations from the panel about affirmative action have continued. This is vitally important. I offer the following reflections as my own, and in an effort to open some more space for this dialogue to travel.

    I agree with Sid that we should separate our critiques of ideas from critiques of human beings and that we should model our ideals through our actions. I experienced the exchange between colleagues at this panel session very differently, however. For me, Professor Affolter’s expressed concerns, as well as many of the other thoughtful reflections on race and racism, modeled many of the values central to our liberal arts training. There’s much to be gained by asking hard questions about how cultural assumptions and values shape our interactions and ways of learning, for example. We also must contend with how broad societal, economic, and political forces influence even what constitutes knowledge. In the spirit of keeping our focus on ideas rather than on personal critiques, I invite us to consider some additional key issues raised in this public event.

    Contending with complex issues like Affirmative Action, and a constellation of related issues, including histories of racism, sexism, ableism, and classism, demands ongoing consideration of what we (as individuals and as a College community) consider ‘valid’ and meaningful sources of information. Among the important contributions I witnessed at this gathering was the value of lived experiences at Middlebury. Various individuals reminded me that our identities (in all of their beautiful complexity) always travel with us—into classrooms, faculty and staff meetings, and public presentations, as well as across and beyond our campus. Contending with this reality, as well as with how identities are understood and judged (and by whom) is central to our work to understand the broader world in which we live. It is central to Middlebury’s goal of fostering independent and global thinkers.

    Exchanges at this session also illustrated that liberal arts training invites us to question rigorously what constitutes ‘facts’ and how facts are used. What questions we ask and how we ask them fundamentally shapes the answers we receive. For example, underlying some of our discussion about Affirmative Action included the question of who tends to have higher achievement in educational settings. This is an important question, but as critical thinkers we also need to engage with key concepts embedded in this line of inquiry. For instance: what does “achievement” fully mean and who decides this? Context plays a central role in all of this. Take, for example, an assertion that a survey may show that one particular racial or ethic group performs differently than others. On the surface this may appear to be an objective kind of study. However, it’s not. Carefully interrogating what race or ethnicity means, and considering more fully how context (such as historic structural and systemic inequalities) inform experiences, understandings, and status reveals considerable subjectivity and complexity rather than simple or objective truths, as would other studies that have produced starkly different results.

    We all are enriched by intentionally engaging with perspectives, interpretations, and experiences that complicate and challenge “norms.” This important practice compels us to authentically critique our own biases and privileges, as well as the rich and meaningful experiences we bring to Middlebury. I hope we’ll avail ourselves of the many resources at Middlebury—including our academic centers and our informal and formal groups—to continue interrogating the meaning of affirmative action, of systems of power and privilege, and of identities, as well as our curriculum, and ways of teaching and learning.

  5. Matt says:

    Sid, you mentioned twice some confusion surrounding Affolter’s assertion of “pedagogical choice that inserts [Dry’s] power”, so I thought I’d offer some thoughts as to how I see her using this language. Maybe it will help, maybe it wont.

    Pedagogy is the science of education, and as a professor this should concern, (at least) a portion of Dry’s duties in his service to the college. He says it himself when he pleads to the student to “let us faculty help you”. Good.

    Teaching, or good teaching at least, is cognizant of the fact that education happens in more than just classrooms and books (or polite conversation). What I mean by this is that Dry, for better or for worse, cannot step out of his Professor title and role (a distinguished one at that) while he is a panelist. He is still the Charles A Dana Professor of Political Science. Even though this was in McCullough, and not Munroe, or Johnson, etc. pedagogy still applies.

    Within that pedagogy, and the way that classes (and the education system as a whole) there is an embedded power dynamic between professor and student. (If you’re interested in reading some stuff to learn more, Lisa Delpit is a good place to start, or walk into most any American classroom).

    Affolter takes issue with Dry’s request of the student to stand, and says that he “undressed” her. Again, being a professor already places Dry in a position of power–this is a factor of teaching that all educators must be readily aware of, and often use to their own advantage. Asking a student to stand while the professor delivers his counter argument (which seemed to misinterpret the student’s original question, but I see that you’re not necessarily defending the content of his argument) could be seen as a brazen abuse of that pedagogical power. Affolter sees it this way. You, obviously, do not.

    But to write this off as an empty, meaningless term is a mistake. This is not sophistry, nor does she “parrot jargon out of context”. Given the nature of the student’s question, which I see as concerning actual, flesh and blood students who enter classrooms at the college every day, I think Affolter’s redirection of the debate towards teaching and education (which is, after all, the end goal of affirmative action–students in classrooms) provides both context and perspective for the exchange.

    I am sorry to see that you are uncomfortable with the “irrational and abusive behavior” Affolter displayed. I read it in another light–with urgency and passion–but also as the perfect counter example to Dry’s response. His was academic and included citations, hers (while also rich in academic content) cited an experience. I think there’s room–a need even–for both in a setting and conversation like this.

    Again, I hope this helps. “Pedagogical power” is not a “meaningless expression”, not even in this situation. It is a lived experience and dynamic that is too often left unexplored.

  6. Sid says:

    SB and Matt,

    I appreciate your responses. You both seem very sincere in your belief that nothing inappropriate occurred here. I am not a college professor, and do not know the subtle ways in which a professor may appear to be trying to humiliate her colleague while actually having a collegial exchange with him.

    What I heard was professor Affolter publicly stating that she resented the way professor Dry treated a student, accusing him of dressing down the student, lambasting his pedagogical choice as oppressive, and imputing an evil motive to that choice when a perfectly benign motive was also consistent with events. In context, I interpreted this as an attempt to humiliate professor Dry out of anger at his statements. Normally such behavior is exhibited by playground bullies, and I was puzzled that it garnered cheers rather than condemnation. Of course, not being a professor, and being many years out of college myself, I likely did not understand what occurred here.

    Please understand that I have no motive here beyond wanting to advocate for rational debate at my alma mater. Moreover, I am sure professor Dry is perfectly capable of defending himself from bullying, perceived or otherwise, without my assistance.

    I have little else to contribute and will leave you to what I hope is a productive and educational discussion.

    Best,

    Sid

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