September 2007

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It would be hard not to have noticed all the publicity surrounding Columbia University’s decision to invite Iran’s president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to campus earlier this week. Well, he came, spoke, and went, but the controversy continues.

At the center of the storm, of course, is the issue of “free speech” on a college/university campus on the one hand, and whether there are any constraints to such freedom, on the other. These issues are not as black and white as they might appear. Columbia’s president Lee Bollinger has both come under fire for providing Ahmadinejad with a platform after he has spewed such hate and an understanding of history that is seriously flawed, and been praised for upholding the principles of academic freedom and freedom of speech.

Bollinger’s position was not unanimously shared by all his administrators at Columbia. Here is the statement released by the Dean of Columbia’s Law School:

STATEMENT BY COLUMBIA LAW SCHOOL
DEAN DAVID M.SCHIZER, REGARDING SIPA INVITATION
TO MAHMOUD AHMADINEJAD

(Sept. 23, 2007) — A controversy has developed about the invitation extended to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran by the Columbia School of International and Public Affairs.  Although Columbia Law School was not involved in arranging this invitation, we have received many inquiries about it.

This event raises deep and complicated issues about how best to express our commitment to intellectual freedom, and to our free way of life. Although we believe in free and open debate at Columbia and should never suppress points of view, we are also committed to academic standards. A high-quality academic discussion depends on intellectual honesty but, unfortunately, Mr. Ahmadinejad has proven himself, time and again, to be uninterested in whether his words are true. Therefore, my personal opinion is that he should not be invited to speak.  Mr. Ahmadinejad is a reprehensible and dangerous figure who presides over a repressive regime, is responsible for the death of American soldiers, denies the Holocaust, and calls for the destruction of Israel. It would be deeply regrettable if some misread this invitation as lending prestige or legitimacy to his views. Our university is a pluralistic place, and I recognize that others within our community take a different view in good faith, and that they have the right to extend invitations that I personally would not extend. I know that we will learn from each other in discussing the difficult questions prompted by this invitation.

David M. Schizer
Dean and the Lucy G. Moses Professor of Law
Columbia Law School

I happen to agree with Dean Schizer. I am a great proponent of free speech and intellectual freedom. I also believe these rights come with responsibilities. The dean put it well, emphasizing “intellectual honesty” and “academic standards” as important considerations when weighing whether someone should have the right to exercise free speech.

What are your views? Interested to know.

Dean Tim Spears mentions on his blog a proposal to amend our Commons residential system. The so-called 4/2 system would involve four years of membership in the same Commons, regardless of where one lives, and two years’ residency in the housing associated with one’s commons. In other words, first years and sophomores would live in their Commons, and juniors and seniors would be free to draw rooms anywhere on campus. But all students would be affiliated with one Commons and retain their Commons Head and Dean for their four years at Middlebury.

Here is the outline for a 4/2 Commons system in draft form, but there are many things to address and issues to resolve. Feedback — especially from students — will determine the final shape of the plan.

Why change? During my first year as president, I recommended to the Board of Trustees that we should delay the further development of the Commons infrastructure until extensive discussion of College priorities with the community had taken place. At that point, the infrastructure of two of the five commons — Ross and Atwater — were largely completed. But we needed time to rebuild our financial capacity if we wanted to add what would be three to five new residence halls, three dining halls, and at least one new house for a Commons head in order to “complete” the system. You’ll find a detailed detailed history and description of the enhanced Commons plan on the College’s web site. 

As a result of the strategic planning process, plus dozens of discussion with students and faculty over the past three years, my thinking on the Commons has evolved and led to the 4/2 Commons concept. These factors, articulated largely by students, influenced my thinking:

1) student study and enrollment patterns: one of the three main cornerstones of the system is building “continuing” communities for a student’s four years, yet 60% of juniors spend at least a semester abroad. This fact makes it impossible for the system to achieve one of its major goals for more than ½ of our students. And how can the system accommodate our “Feb program”? A significant number of first-years do not experience the Commons as the community is supposed to provide until their second year.

2) the increasing independence of students during their four years at Middlebury: our residential life system should mirror our expectations for the increasing independence of our students as they move from their first year to graduation. Most who support the Commons believe it is most valuable during a student’s first and second year. After that, students should be given greater independence while having the opportunity to remain active within their Commons.

3) the opportunity cost of completing the original vision: we estimate the cost of completing the Commons infrastructure to be $100 million. Moreover, the incremental cost of operating the new infrastructure, including staff for the new dining halls, would add at least $6 million to our budget every year. If we pursued the original Commons plan, we would not be able to improve financial aid, increase the size of the faculty to ensure small classes, or enrich our existing academic and co-curricular programs.

4) the impact of our location and size: students have argued since the introduction of the enhanced Commons system in 1998 that we are a small institution and that limiting where they live and with whom, for four years, would be quite stifling. In their words: we are a small place, not one with 5,000 or 6,000 undergraduate students or a large number of graduate students, and we are not located in a city. Many students say they need every one of the 2,350 students who are on campus over the course of four years in order to have a satisfying social and intellectual experience, and dividing the campus into smaller communities makes that more difficult.

Reactions and Ideas

Dean Spears and I will be hosting some open forums at which we will seek your reactions, suggestions, and input to the ultimate plan we will pursue. We look forward to seeing you at one of the meetings as well as hearing from those of you who will not be able to make to those gatherings. In the meantime, post your reactions and suggestions right here.

Welcome!

It was a very busy summer here on campus with convocation and commencement exercises for the Language Schools and the Bread Loaf School of English, not to mention the infamous leaf-logo, but it is hard not to feel energized with the beginning of a new academic year upon us.

I am launching this blog to communicate directly with you, to get feedback from you on specific issues, and to hear what might be on your mind.

The topics I am working on and want to share in the early weeks of the semester include:

(1) student work load: This issue came up during some of my lunches with students last year, and I shared the concern with my faculty colleagues at the opening faculty meeting last week. I will be working with provost Alison Byerly and Dean of Faculty Susan Campbell to figure out the best way to hear the concerns of students on this matter and get faculty reaction to those concerns. I look forward to hearing the views from students, especially, on this topic.

(2) plans for amending the Commons system, the so-called “4/2 system” that Dean Spears and I outlined for the residential life staff at their orientation session last week. We will be announcing some open meetings to present the plans and get some feedback. Will look forward to read your reactions here as well after I post the outline of the changes we are contemplating.

(3) student social life: The apparent lack of options for students is both a concern and challenge to me and my administrative colleagues. I will provide updates on how we are responding to the proposals made in the special student task force on social life report, and how the space down town (the former Eat Good Food restaurant space) might figure into increasing social options for students.

(4) the College’s upcoming “Initiative,” which is our home-grown term for the large fundraising campaign we will launch in October to secure resources to support the major goals in the College’s strategic plan. I hope to convince many students to get involved in this effort, which will include a number of on-campus opportunities over the next five years for them to meet and engage supporters of the College who we hope will see the great things our students, the faculty, and staff are doing and, as a result, will want to support the College in the coming years. And

(5) the Monterey affiliation, a subject I recently addressed with a (long) memo to the community, but will, in the coming weeks, provide more specific thoughts about how this initiative relates to current students at Middlebury.

This year will be a very busy one, which means I plan to post things here about once a week. I welcome responses, and will read every one of them, but I can’t promise I can respond to all posts I receive. And while I may not be able to respond to all of your comments and questions, I will benefit greatly by learning what is on your mind. And that is really the purpose of this foray into the blogosphere: to hear more from you and know better what you are thinking to help me and my administrative colleagues make the Middlebury educational experience the best it could be.

As with most things new, this blog is a work in-progress, and I suspect it will evolve over time. That said, since one never ends one’s education, I will be learning from writing and participating in this new medium.

Ron

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