Each academic year at Middlebury is slightly different from the previous one. While the College could not run without the hard work of faculty, staff and administrators, it is the student body that ultimately sets the agenda and tone for each year. In other words, students define Middlebury.
At liberal arts institutions like ours, students have the unique opportunity to influence the content and style of their learning experience by expressing their interests both inside and outside of the classroom. Over the course of this year, we have seen student initiative shape the discourse on campus to a meaningful degree.
When used responsibly, the power of students can be a strong and beneficial force for the community, as was often the case this year. For example, it is thanks to the hard and persistent work of many students that conversations surrounding divestment have become much more informed over the course of the year. In the past eight months, we have seen divestment transform from a small movement pushed forward by self-proclaimed activists in a manner that has, at times, detracted from the message to an issue that has been discussed widely and constructively and, according to the SGA survey, is now supported by the majority of the student body. Whether you are in support of divestment or not, it is clear that the issue has remained in the forefront of dialogue throughout the year, due in large part to overwhelming student initiative.
Another issue that students have pushed to the forefront of the agenda this year is local food. Programs like Eat Real have worked hard to ensure that this remains on the minds of both students and administrators.
Other students have used their agenda-setting power to highlight some harsh realities that are important to address on campus. The organizers of this year’s It Happens Here event, for example, worked tirelessly to ensure that addressing sexual assault remains a priority for the college community. In a similar vein, Student Wellness Leaders worked tirelessly to ensure students’ wellbeing was not forgotten in the absence of an administrative health and wellness director.
It is clear that many students have set a positive tone for this year by exercising their power responsibly. However, we have also seen instances when such power has been used in the wrong way — when it is taken for granted as a privilege.
Some of these cases can be considered as forms of “negative activism,” in which students make choices that negatively affect campus life. For example, recent weeks have seen a renewed attention to a form of destruction that has plagued our campus for years — tree vandalism. And it is not just trees that are being vandalized. Although students are given four years of high-quality housing, dorm damage remains a large problem on campus. Community Council recommended Delta’s disbandment due to the thousands of dollars worth of damage Prescott House incurred.
The damage was compounded by Delta’s stubborn refusal to work within the system to repair damage and train their members. At Middlebury, we are also lucky to have a flexible dining plan that allows students much freedom. Students are even allowed to take dishes out of the dining halls. However, students often take this privilege for granted. Dishes are left in dorm rooms and classrooms. They can even be found in the trash.
Actions such as these demonstrate that we still have work to do in terms of respecting our surroundings and holding ourselves accountable. We have the power to define the school and to influence what students learn here, but we must ensure that we are doing so in a positive way.
As the school year comes to a close, we must look to the future. How will Middlebury students characterize the 2013-2014 academic year? Will we continue working to engage the student body on issues that matter to us, as so many students have done this year? Or will next year be defined by exorbitant amounts of dorm damage, dining halls without dishes and an increasing number of honor code violations? Ultimately, the answer lies with us — it is up to the students to decide.