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Category Archive for 'Social life'

Dear Readers,

I asked Natasha Chang to share with us part of her story, and to talk about why she decided to do her work as a faculty member and Commons dean. In this week’s post, Natasha shares her experience about finding a sense of identity and provides a very personal and enlightening viewpoint. As always, I welcome your comments and observations.

—Shirley M. Collado

This year, as I took up my new position as dean of Brainerd Commons, I was very aware of embarking on yet another hybrid endeavor in my life, that is assuming the dual roles of Commons dean and professor.

I’ve always defined myself in hybrid or multiple terms throughout my life. As a child I straddled three cultures simultaneously—Serbian, Korean, and American—experiencing them as an insider and an outsider, never fully being part of any world, yet never fully being able to disassociate myself. I’ve always expressed myself and found my identity reflected in a variety of languages: the accented and idiosyncratic English of my two first-generation immigrant parents; the American slang of the kids I grew up with; my mother’s Serbian that she passed down to me; my father’s Korean that still remains a mystery to me; and my passion, Italian, the language that became my love and my life’s work.

At one time, I desperately wanted to belong simply and fully to only one culture, to identify unequivocally with a single group, to feel like a full-fledged citizen rather than a masquerader, and to be able to respond to the question “Where are you from?” without embarking on a complex explanation. What I have learned over the years, however, is that multiplicity, hybridity, and difference are positions of unique strength and power. My background has taught me to be attuned to multiple perspectives, to be comfortable not “knowing it all,” to seek compromise between even the most divergent of positions, to reserve judgment based on appearance, and to have faith in my own values.

Returning to my current combined role of Commons dean and faculty member, I can say without a doubt that I’ve found my hybrid line of work personally satisfying since it allows me to advise students, give support, and provide guidance, while at the same time continuing to teach in the classroom and pursue my ongoing research projects. In other words, it allows me to productively dialogue with and bridge two campus cultures: the academic culture and the culture of residential life.

But there is a larger and more important point to be made here. In my eyes, the hybrid position I occupy represents but one example of the strength diversity can bring to our community. By diversity, I mean diversity broadly defined. I am speaking not only of class, race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, ability, religion, and—well, you fill in the blank—but of the many overlapping and complex ways in which we find our identity. Taking inspiration from the recent Midd OUT day, in which the organizers thoughtfully engaged the common phrase “coming out,” I’d like to suggest that we actively think about what diversity means here at Middlebury. As I see it, diversity is not an issue that belongs only to other people; it is an issue that is relevant to everyone, period. This year—my first in a new job—I’ve set a challenge for myself that I’d like to pass on to each of you: to identify events (talks, meetings, conferences, classes, groups, etc.) that are a bit out of my comfort zone, and then immerse myself. I’ve had a great year of learning so far, and I hope you do too.

—Natasha V. Chang
Dean of Brainerd Commons

The recent, very sad events at Rutgers University have lain heavily on my mind—and that of many others within our community.  For Rutgers freshman Tyler Clementi, the world should have been opening up with exciting, new possibilities; yet, soon after beginning college, he ended his own life.  He was beaten down by the unthinking cruelty of classmates and belittled publicly over the Internet.

This situation disturbs me because there are surely people among us, on our own campus, who need compassion and support. In fact, this could be any of us, given the right circumstances. But there is another aspect to Clementi’s experience that is alarming—the cavalier invasion of his privacy that seems to have become far too prevalent today.

Here at Middlebury, I hope we are taking stock of our own community, asking some tough questions: How do we, individually and collectively, look out for one another? How do we honor individual privacy and the right to exist in peace? What type of community do we wish to create and live in?

I sent the following letter to the campus last week. As always, I would welcome your thoughts.

Dear Members of the Middlebury Community,

Over the past month, there has been significant media coverage of homophobia-related suicides and deaths, bullying, and harassment among youth in the U.S., both teen and college age. It is saddening and has been weighing heavily on the hearts and minds of all of us here at Middlebury. Incidents like these affect us all, directly and indirectly, in a variety of ways. Any act of bias, hate, harassment, or violence has the capacity to diminish the quality of our lives personally and as a community.

Here at Middlebury, we continue to be committed to creating and maintaining a safe environment for all. We do not tolerate discriminatory behavior of any kind. We seek to encourage an inclusive, engaged, and welcoming community, in which everyone participates within an atmosphere of mutual respect. The College is fortunate to have an abundance of programs, centers, and resources that support diversity and community in many different ways.

If you have concerns or ideas related to the Middlebury community; how you fit in; issues related to disability, identity, campus climate, or respectful treatment; how we can help you explore and share your interests; or anything else that relates to our becoming a more open and engaged community, we’d like to hear from you. Our doors are open. Students may seek confidential support through your Commons deans and the Center for Counseling and Human Relations. Staff and faculty can find support through Human Resources and the Dean of the Faculty’s office. Students, faculty, and staff alike can seek assistance, as well, through the Human Relations Officer (HRO) and the Office of the Dean of the College and Chief Diversity Officer. The HRO provides support to anyone who suspects harassment.

I encourage each of us to consider what it means to be part of this community and recognize that we all play a part. There will be several events on campus over the course of the fall term connected to the awareness and education of issues facing LGBTQ students, staff, and faculty that we hope you will participate in. We believe that this kind of support enriches us as a community.

Sincerely,

Shirley M. Collado
Dean of the College
Chief
Diversity Officer

As the Class of 2014 and I start the school year together, we share a similar sense of excitement and anticipation of what life at Middlebury will be like. We may also share some concerns and questions. And as I step into my new role as the dean of the college, there is one question I find myself asking often: What should we ultimately be doing for Middlebury students?

Last week, the student life team gathered for a retreat to consider this question. We discussed our vision for student life and the core values that drive the vision. It was a wonderful meeting of the minds, in which we broke down some barriers and expanded our collective sense of our work with students.

The vision that emerged from our meeting is ambitious, global, dynamic, and broad. It requires a huge commitment from students—and to be successful, I believe it requires a similar commitment from faculty, staff, and administrators.

Our vision is derived from Middlebury College’s mission statement, in part: “We strive to engage students’ capacity for rigorous analysis and independent thought within a wide range of disciplines and endeavors, and to cultivate the intellectual, creative, physical, ethical, and social qualities essential for leadership in a rapidly changing global community.” To me, this means that we in student life must focus our efforts on helping develop global citizens.

It is no longer enough for students to come to Middlebury to get good grades, study abroad, and participate in student groups and athletics. While all of these are worthy pursuits, we are asking more of our students. We are asking our students to hold themselves accountable, to show respect for others, and to take risks to be leaders.

We wish to give degrees to young people who have a moral compass and who are using the skills acquired at Middlebury to advance humanity—to become responsible members of this world.

We are asking a lot. And I believe that faculty, staff, and administrators need to model the behavior and attitudes we wish for our students. We must walk the walk. We will need to push ourselves to collaborate across different functions and areas of responsibility, to take risks, to step outside of our own comfort zones, to reflect the culture we strive for.

While our efforts are student centered, we’re not here to provide just for students; we are here to create a complete community, a neighborhood that transcends the local area, moving ever outward, creating a ripple effect. I believe that if we do this, along with all of the other academic and cultural endeavors, we will benefit as a community—and ultimately as a world.

I’d love to hear from the faculty, staff, and administrators. Do you think I have this right—do you see creating global citizens as part our job? And if you do, how do you think it can be accomplished?

And students, I would love to hear from you. What do you think your responsibility as a Middlebury student should be? And how do you think we can help you achieve that end?

When you hear my Brooklyn accent, you know that I am not from Vermont. But I feel as if this is where I am meant to be. When I left Middlebury in 2008, after serving two years as vice president for institutional planning and diversity, I did not anticipate that I would be fortunate enough to return.

But life is always giving us blessings—and challenges—and it has been one of my blessings to return to campus to serve as dean of the college and chief diversity officer. This summer when I drove back into Middlebury, I knew I’d come home.

I am proud to be joining the Class of 2014—to be associated with the students, faculty, and staff who bring so much openness and enthusiasm to our community. And I am pleased to follow Tim Spears as author of this blog, which discusses issues important to student life.

By embracing my expanded role, President Liebowitz and the Board of Trustees have placed diversity at the center of the institution rather than at the margins. This is something we should all be very proud of.

During the course of the year, I hope this blog will open conversations about interesting and challenging topics related to student life and to being fully committed members of the Middlebury community. In addition to my own posts, I will be inviting guests to contribute. These individuals will have interesting views and intriguing things to say about life at Middlebury.

We will always want to know what you think and encourage you to comment here.  And hopefully, the conversations will flow from here throughout campus, and back, making this a lively place to exchange ideas, think critically, and participate in building the welcoming, learning community we envision.

Some of the topics that might be discussed include: How should the College help students become fully independent and yet provide support and structure? Are we responsible for one another? And what does that look like in practice? What is the value of studying abroad? What personal benefit is derived from the Honor Code?

While I have many ideas about who would be good guest bloggers and what issues to discuss, you may have others that I have not thought of. What are your ideas for topics and voices to include in this blog? I hope you will leave your suggestions in the comment section below.

The wires have been silent here since the holidays for reasons I will explain in my next post—in the next week or so.  But the point of this post is to engage the The Campus‘ ill-informed editorializing on the recent decision not to include the MiddView program in next year’s first-year Orientation.  To get a full read on the context for this post, you may want to read both the article and the editorial that The Campus ran last week.

This is a guest post, which is to say that the following take on the MiddView controversy comes from Katy Abbott, Doug Adams, Derek Doucet, and JJ Boggs.  They have written a letter to The Campus editors, which I have included here while the story is still fresh in peoples’ minds.

*******

To the editors of The Campus:

We write today to respond to the recent Campus article and editorial addressing the College Administration’s recent decisions regarding the MiddView program. As the staff members most intimately involved with the program, and most committed to working for its eventual revival, we are compelled to address crucial inaccuracies regarding the recent decision not to revive the program for Fall 2010. We hope also to reframe the discussion around these issues in a more collaborative, less confrontational tone than that chosen by the Campus thus far.

First, however, we wish to acknowledge the deep and wide support the program has among the student body. Rest assured that the College Administration is aware of the special place the program holds in the hearts and minds of generations of Middlebury students.

Given the intensity of this student support, it is not difficult to understand the frustrations recently expressed in the Campus. However simply understanding the source of these frustrations does not change the fact that the tone taken by the Campus is not helpful in bringing about the revival of MiddView, a goal we all share.

It is true that the unprecedented economic crisis from which we are only now emerging has rendered the program’s revival for Fall 2010 an unrealistic expectation. When the SGA senate heard testimony about possible program revival dates while debating their funding bill, it was made eminently clear that a 2010 revival might not be possible.  Despite the Campus’s erroneous statements to the contrary, however, possible reinstatement for Fall 2011 is still on the table, and will be reexamined as staffing levels and capacities stabilize through the spring and summer.

This issue of staffing levels may not appear compelling in light of the Campus’s assertion that the MiddView program requires few staff resources, but sadly that assertion too is an error. It has always been extremely challenging and labor intensive for Facilities Services to clean and prepare rooms for the early return of MiddView leaders and participants in the narrow window of time between the conclusion of summer language schools and the beginning of the MiddView program. The return of the leaders and trip participants has always required the early opening of an additional dinning hall, with all the attendant staffing. Residential Life staff have always been present in the residence halls when the leaders and participants arrive early on campus, however brief their initial stay. Even had the cost of all of these staff hours directly related to MiddView been included in the SGA funding bill as reported by the Campus (this too was erroneous; the cost was not included), the fact remains that the College’s capacity to meet program needs with dramatically reduced staffing levels in key departments is not a given. It is this issue of staff capacity, separate from, but related to staffing costs, that is at the heart of the recent decision to postpone the possible revival of the program.

Despite these factual errors, there is happily one thing the Campus got right: There is indeed still room for creative engagement of these issues. There are alternative program structures that can be considered. The SGA has made an enormously helpful financial commitment. There is still considerable reason for optimism. The Campus can play an essential role in the process by serving as a source for accurate and balanced information. It is our hope that as we move forward, we can do so in the spirit of collaboration rather than confrontation and acrimony. That is the only way we can hope to revive MiddView.

Sincerely,

Doug Adams, Director of CCAL, Assistant Dean of Students

JJ Boggs, Assistant Director of CCAL

Derek Doucet, Outdoor Programs Director

Katy Smith Abbott, Associate Dean of the College

Blog on Blogs

As everyone on campus should know, Middlebury will soon launch a new website.  The new site, designed by an outfit called White Whale, will support videos, slide shows, enhanced search features, and other bells and whistles.  I won’t try to explain the significance of these enhancements—why this build out will be better than our current web—since people who know far more about the design than I do have already done so (for instance, check out the web makeover discussion or MiddBlog).

But I do want to engage some of the assumptions that have guided the development of the new website, and ask some questions.

Assumption #1:  as we transfer more and more content from print to the web—an inevitability, given the ever-increasing importance of the internet—the ways in which we communicate as an institution may change.

Conventional wisdom has it that writing on the web should be more concise than writing in print since reading big chunks of prose on a screen is difficult and peoples’ attention spans are more limited.  On the other hand, the web is an ideal platform for video and audio, which means that much of the storytelling on the new site will take shape as pictures and sound.   This shift is already evident in the press releases that our Communications office sends to external news agencies.  While these news releases were once pure prose, and perhaps some pictures, they are now likely to include video.  For instance, check out the story that recently appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education; the video in this story was made by Stephen Diehl.

The implications of this shift are interesting to consider.   How would students like to receive an email from the President that contains a video message rather than a written memo?    To what extent should administrators and college offices experiment with multi-media in communicating with the campus?  As our web evolves to accommodate new forms of media, how should our internal forms of communication change?  This is a real question, but please, no Twitter.

Assumption #2: more interactivity is better, and everyone likes a blog.

Okay, I am exaggerating a little, but it is true that the new website will give more attention to blogs that currently exist and new blogs that have yet to emerge.  The idea here is that blogs are great forums for debate and discussion, and a more “authentic” (read “less institutional”) vehicle for enabling people (especially prospective students) to learn about the College.  And, yes, they can also be important forums for students, faculty, and staff.

A number of community members already run blogs, and some of them are very good.  For a partial survey of Middlebury blogs, see this list and follow the sidebar links on MiddBlog (MiddBlog, by the way, deserves kudos for leading the way on this front).   However, the College blogosphere is not especially thick; some would say we are not really a blogging community.   Is this a problem, a drawback, a good thing, or just the way it is?  I am not asking for a referendum on any particular blog—my own included—but wondering about the concept in general.  If blogging is a good thing for Middlebury, how should we foster its development?

Assumption #3: we can use the web to build community at Middlebury.

The word “community” is heavily loaded, and deserves more discussion than I can give it now, but one promise of the internet—often debated by specialists—is that the internet can foster democratic forms of communication and action (political and otherwise).   This promise is worth bearing in mind as we move forward with the new website.   While on the one hand, the content on the web, especially the front page, will be subject to editorial control, with the Communications office managing the main pages, on other hand, there will be more opportunities for people to upload and post content.  For instance, there is already a process in place for people to submit stories that might be posted on the site.  Theoretically, as this new website evolves, it could become more “wiki”-like in its function, and community members could play a significant role in building the site.  In order for this to happen, however, people will need to be committed to making the web a live and vital site.   Assuming this is a good thing—and maybe I shouldn’t make this assumption—how can the College foster this sort of involvement?

Comments, as always, are welcome.

I am confused by the CAMPUS these days.

Take, for instance, its recent editorial (in the Sept 24 issue) on the CORE survey that the office of Health Education and Wellness administered last year.  After questioning the validity of the survey data—suggesting that Middlebury students drink less than some might imagine—the editors say they are troubled that the administration is using the data to “shape” (does that mean “spin”?) “changing alcohol policies on campus.”  They continue in high dudgeon to declare that the “fact that Old Chapel seems to be making crucial decisions on the basis of such flimsy data is nothing if not irresponsible and illogical.”  Much depends here on the word “seems,” as it allows the editors to hypothesize a claim that they never substantiate—it MIGHT be a “fact,” right?—and then roundly condemn the administration’s alleged decision-making.

The news story on the subject treats this “fact” with more caution, noting that the CORE survey “supports an administrative position that while alcohol plays a major role in campus situations, a larger portion of the student body does not use it, or uses it in a limited quantity.”  That’s okay, but what’s troubling is that while the article begins on the front page with the headline “Survey questions drinking habits,” it continues on the third page under the heading, “Athletes face greater scrutiny after survey.”  The problem here is that the article says nothing about there being a link between the survey and the conduct of athletes; what’s more, the CORE survey, doesn’t even address the supposed connection.  But there is that headline, reinforcing the editorial’s conspiratorial claim that the CORE survey is being used to shape alcohol policy on campus.

The CAMPUS editors complain that administrators “cannot seem to make up their minds about whether or not Middlebury has an alcohol problem,” and accuse them—well, us—of cynically parsing the realities of campus life:  “Depending on what suits their particular agenda at a given time, our campus is alternately seen as either a buculoic haven for those seeking to break free from the traditional, alcohol-centric college setting or a cesspool or irresponsible, dangerous and immature binge drinking.”

What puzzles me about this critique is its assumption that only one reality can describe social life at Middlebury, and that we must be of a single mind about how students drink or don’t drink at the College.  The editors don’t explain why the characterizations mentioned above can’t coexist.  Stuck on their own agenda, they return to their obsession with the survey’s “ultmate impact” on College alcohol policies.  But it seems to me that their insistence on one truth denies both the complexity of student life and limits our ability to talk about problems on our campus, and the possible solutions.

Do we have problems with alcohol at Middlebury?  Yes, we do—as do many other colleges and universities—and President Liebowitz and I and Dean Jordan have spent much of the last two or three years talking with students about these problems and how we might address them (we’ve also blogged on these issues here and there).  One thing is clear from these discussions: policies and rules alone will not solve the problem.  Students must step up and take responsibility for looking after one another and governing their own social lives.  Which is why the CAMPUS’ latest effort to spin the CORE survey and politicize the alcohol issues is so misguided.  To make progress on this important issue, we really do need to be on the same page.

So how do we get there?

The responses to my post on the Phoenix prompted me to dig up additional information on the history of fraternities at Middlebury.

Perhaps the most substantive issue at play here concerns the right of free association, which is protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution. Why, the question goes, should Middlebury students be prohibited from associating with a particular group of people?  And at what point does such an association, if it is single-gendered, become recognizable as a fraternity or sorority?

Interestingly, this issue came up in the lawsuit that DKE brought against the College in 1993. In arguing for its right to exist on campus, the fraternity invoked First Amendment rights. The Addison Superior Court dismissed this claim, arguing the College is a private institution, rather than a “state actor,” and had made “a valid and permissible decision to create an academic environment that would eliminate gender based distinctions that have historically limited a woman’s opportunity to develop her individual talents and participate more fully in a free and open society.” The notion of a free and open society is important in this context, and I will return to it shortly. But first it’s worth noting that the Court also rejected the idea that the College had suppressed the plaintiffs’ free speech rights:

The actions of the college in developing its policy that campus social organizations cannot exclude women based on gender, and in enforcing that policy with respect to the fraternities, is not analogous to forbidding the expression of political or other thought.  Plaintiffs are free to debate issues including the wisdom of the current college policy, but they may not form a social organization, affiliated with the college, which excludes women because of their gender.

Several points to tease out:

  • Presumably, the same logic the court used to turn aside fraternities also applies to sororities.  There may be good reasons—based on political/historical factors—to allow women to form all-female social organizations, but the court opinion does not allow that entitlement.  Neither does the College Handbook.
  • The prohibition focuses on “social organizations,” not sports teams or singing groups, which have demonstrable educational purposes.  The argument here is that exclusionary social practices can damage the educational atmosphere at the College.
  • The last sentence suggests that a group does not need a house or visible resources to form an exclusionary, single-gender organization that would be at odds with College policy.  “Affiliation” with the College is enough.  As some fraternities took their activities underground in the early 90s, Community Council debated this issue, and concluded that fraternity members who used College resources (like the telephone system) to hold clandestine meetings were in violation of College rules.

Today, as in 1993, the College highly prizes its ability to educate students so they can participate fully in “a free and open society.”  Moreover, one could argue that freedom and openness are essential to a liberal arts education and that in eliminating fraternities, the College judged that their existence interfered with the institution’s mission.  The same argument could be brought to bear on underground fraternities and sororities—that is, social organizations that meet in secret, maintain an exclusive membership, initiate (perhaps haze) their members, and follow other practices associated with fraternities.

Six years ago, there was a flare-up at Williams College over the existence of secret fraternities.  With some students angry about the existence of these exclusive organizations and Handbook sanctions that included suspension and expulsion, the administration decided to go slow.  Instead of threatening discipline and pushing the organizations “more underground,” they asked the members to come forward so they could be given amnesty.

Despite efforts to treat a challenging problem in an upfront, pragmatic manner, this approach was not entirely successful, as some students accused the Williams administration of treating the offending fraternity with kid gloves.

How then should the College treat complaints about underground fraternities or sororities here at Middlebury?

Rumblings have reached the spires of Old Chapel that a secret sorority is afoot on campus.  Administrators have received anonymous tips from students, identifying the women associated with the sorority, and expressing unease with the group’s exclusive ways.  The sorority is reportedly called the Phoenix, named, apparently, for the mythological bird that rises from a bed of ashes to be reborn and fly again.  We know better than to treat such reports as truth, but where there is smoke there may be fire, and so we’re prepared, if necessary, to sound the alarm bell.

Middlebury’s thinking about such organizations is quite explicit.  According to the online Handbook, College policy “prohibits student participation in or affiliation with single-gender fraternities or sororities.”  There are any number of reasons for this policy, but the most concrete rationale may be found in the history of fraternities at the College.  This is a complicated subject, and I have only a sliver of personal experience with it since my first year at Middlebury—1990 to 1991—was the last year of the fraternity system, which had been abolished by a vote of the Board of Trustees shortly before I arrived.  The chief problem with the fraternities is that they gave men primary control of highly desirable social space at a time when the drinking age had just been elevated to twenty-one and access to alcohol-oriented parties was limited.  Sound familiar?   Anyway, the catalyzing event for the demise of the fraternities took place in front of DU—now Parton Health Center—when fraternity brothers dangled a female manikin from a window, with a nasty expression scrawled upon the body.  This episode seemed to epitomize the gender inequities associated with the fraternities, and paved the way to the co-ed social house system we have today.

All of which makes this so-called rebirth of sorority culture a bit ironic.  We hear talk from time to time about the underground movements of DKE, but the idea that a sorority may now be enforcing a code of social exclusivity is a bit disconcerting.

The complexity of this issue is suggested by the title of the Handbook section that prohibits students from affiliating with fraternities or sororities: “Freedom of Association.”   Needless to say, this phrase highlights the rights and principles that lie behind an individual’s choice to join an organization.  However, the College places limits on this freedom to choose, and the courts have generally stood behind the right of private educational institutions to do so.  For instance, in 1991, DKE took Middlebury to court, arguing—after the College outlawed fraternities—that they had a right to exist on campus.  Ultimately, the court ruled in the College’s favor.

Where all this concern about the Phoenix group is headed is unclear, but I would like to invite comments from students who have an opinion about whether or how this new group and others like it are affecting social life at Middlebury.

The ongoing search for budget savings and Ryan Kellett’s excellent post on MiddBlog prompt a question: at what point will student leaders consider tapping the funds that flow into SGA Finance coffers through the Student Activities Fee ($380 per student in 2008-2009) to help pay for programs that may be redlined out of the College’s operational budget?  I don’t have a particular suggestion in mind, but I do think that the fiscal crisis and the transition now taking place in SGA represent a good opportunity to discuss how student money gets allocated across campus. Current governance structures make it difficult for student representatives to shape funding decisions since, as Ryan suggests, those decisions are not made by SGA, but by the SGA Finance Committee. Given the economic situation, is now the time to create a merged organization that is better able to respond to the needs of the moment and give elected representatives more authority?

The other question lurking in Ryan’s post has to do with the role that students play in the budget-cutting process now taking place through the Budget Oversight Committee.  I will take up this issue in a subsequent post.

Oh, and by the way, the Association of Amherst Students is considering making a $100K contribution to Amherst to cover the cost of financial aid and student programming.    Should Middlebury students follow suit?

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