A False Account of a Real Issue

by / editorial (0) in Opinions /

Change at an institutional level can be frustratingly slow. Recent actions taken by a small group of Middlebury students prove that when such change takes too long, more drastic measures may effectively pique awareness of an issue. In an email sent on Oct 12 to a majority of students, staff and faculty, a fake press release announced that the College was divesting its endowment from war in light of the recent visit of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama. The email, sent from the account middofficeofcommunications@gmail.com, stated that the College finds this divestment to be “the most fitting way to welcome the Dalai Lama and to align its money with its mission.” After returning from fall break, a group of five students revealed themselves as true authors of the email and called on the College community to take action to live up to its proclaimed values. The letter divulging the students’ names hung in posters around campus and stated that “a growing contingent” supported the demands.

While we do not believe that a false press release is an appropriate means of expressing concern about the nature of the College’s endowment, we do think that this group of students was successful in raising awareness about a complex, multi-dimensional issue that has long been a dominant force in the dialogue between student activists and the College administration.

For years, the Socially Responsible Investment club (SRI) has worked to increase transparency and responsibility regarding the College’s investments. The group made history last weekend when its president sat in on a meeting of the Board of Trustees Finance Committee, the first time a student has had the opportunity to done so. SRI has made other notable gains collaborating with the administration; as a result of their recent efforts, Toronto-Dominion (TD) Bank, which invests some of the College’s endowment, will no longer be able to leverage Middlebury’s holdings in the same way it used to, by investing in fossil fuel companies.

Despite these advancements, progress remains slow. After a meeting last year with Investure, the firm managing the College’s endowment, students had good reason to believe that a portion of the College’s funds are invested in arms manufacturers and fossil fuel companies.

But who is to say that the recent actions taken by these five students will result in more meaningful progress? The College’s Academic Judicial Board will try members of this group for violating college policy; if these proceedings result in severe disciplinary action, some of the most prominent voices of social activism on campus may find themselves silenced. What then?

In a way, the actions taken by this group of students exemplify the proactive, critical approach espoused in Middlebury’s mission statement, which states that the College strives “to engage students’ capacity for rigorous analysis and independent thought within a wide range of disciplines and endeavors.” Yet how students confront issues they are passionate about is equally important. While frustrations with the somewhat sluggish pace of progress regarding divestment are warranted, false emails are not.

We do not deny that the issues this group of students raised are worthy of attention or that the group’s method of shedding light on the topic succeeded in generating needed discussion and educating the college community. We too believe it is important for the College to align its actions with its proclaimed values, and we applaud the students for refusing to passively accept the status quo, one in which the College acts hypocritically. In this light, the false press release was an effective, if controversial, means towards challenging hypocrisy.

Yet it is not a sustainable method. The scope of divestment requires dialogues with, not against, those who ultimately make the College’s financial decisions. When the glow surrounding this incident fades, what will be left to assure progress is made on this front? Student groups and structures that embrace collaboration with the administration, such as SRI, will prove more effective in the long run. In line with such a mindset, the Student Government Administration (SGA) recently passed an “Ethical Endowment Resolution,” encouraging the College “to invest its endowment in a manner consistent with its principles and mission statement.” Though the resolution has no binding power, it demonstrates that many on campus see this issue as increasingly significant.

While the administration may justly discipline the group of five students if they are found to have violated college policy, it must also understand the context in which the students took action. This incident did not occur in a bubble. Divestment from war reflects the larger issue of aligning the College’s own actions with the values it champions and challenges its students to embrace. Ironically, in sending out a false press release, these students demonstrated the same lack of transparency associated with the way much of the College’s policy and decisions are made. In an interesting twist, it is the students who have come clean. We are still waiting on the administration to do the same.