What Shirley Taught Us

By Guest Contributor

I first met Dean of the College Shirley Collado at an event about hardships low-income students face at Middlebury. I was moderating the event, and Dean Collado was getting grilled by students asking for more financial transparency. Dean Collado repeatedly reminded students that because Middlebury is a 501(c)(3), a great deal of information about the institution’s finances (executive compensation, for instance) can be found online.

As Dean of the College, Shirley Collado often finds herself defending Middlebury against the charges of uninformed, self-righteous students. Yet she never ignores them because, whether students knew it or not, she shares their concerns. A lesser Dean would not have even attended that Money at Middlebury event. Thus has she performed the difficult balancing act of both supporting students and unhesitatingly challenging us.

I have had the privilege of getting to know Dean Collado very well over these past few years. She was an early supporter of Middlebury Foods, and our team has had dinner with her several times. With each meal, we’d open up a bit more about our personal lives, and she would too. Through these and many other conversations, I have come to see that Shirley represents and fights for something that Middlebury sorely needs and often lacks.

Shirley is a Hispanic woman with a noticeable Brooklyn accent. Parents visiting her office occasionally assume she is the Dean’s secretary. In most administrative and Board meetings, she is the only woman of color in the room. For enduring this alone she deserves great credit. Changing the racial makeup of the College has always been Shirley’s priority, and she has spearheaded a number of diversity initiatives that many people have already called brave and impressive. But the contribution I wish to highlight is one that is less visible. In my interactions with Shirley, I have known her to be a fierce advocate for and practitioner of candid conversation. Such commitment to meaningful communication is, alas, too rare at Middlebury (and, to be sure, in the world outside). Too often, we look to administrators to take action for us and thus miss an opportunity for real intellectual growth. Social life is unsatisfactory? Tell Ron and Shirley to do something. Students or speakers are racist or homophobic? Demand that they be formally reprimanded or prohibited from speaking. When I went to Shirley with a concern about an anti-Semitic speaker, she heard me out, expressed sympathy, but refused to take action herself. Contact those bringing the speaker to campus, she told me.

When I argue that offensive statements should go unpunished at Middlebury, I’m often met with the retort, “That’s easy to say if you’re white and straight and male.” Fair enough. Shirley, I know, would agree; she has basically told me the same thing. But she has also taught me that administrative fixes are rarely the best responses to student complaints. We do much better when we call each other out, maybe in the pages of this very paper. Speaking up takes bravery, but it does much more good than hiding behind the Dean. Shirley never lets anyone hide behind her. As a community, we should hope that her successor will take a similar approach.

Middlebury was never the obvious home for Shirley Collado. It was brave for the College to hire her, and it was brave for her to take the job. Whether you agree with everything Shirley believes or not (as Shirley can tell you, I disagree with her plenty), we can all follow her example. MiddKids could afford to take some more risks.

HARRY ZIEVE-COHEN ’15 is from Brooklyn, N.Y.