Middlebury Refuses to Commit to Full Inclusion

By Guest Contributor

Our Trustees’ response to the petition asking Middlebury to change the design of the new residence halls west of Adirondack View is profoundly disappointing.  On the one hand, our VP for Communications and Marketing, Bill Burger, and the Editorial Board of the Campus make a very important point: There were two open meetings held on February 10 and 11 for students and for folks in res life.  I, like many others who signed the petition, did not attend those February meetings.  At the time, I had no strong objections.  I understood the need for the housing and the location made sense.  It never occurred to me that we would take a minimalist approach to accessibility. I made the foolish mistake of assuming that, knowing how inaccessible our 100-200 year-old buildings are, we would ensure that our new buildings would be fully inclusive.

Thanks to the efforts of students and faculty colleagues, I learned that we did not take a fully inclusive approach. Instead, we chose to comply with minimal standards. When we intentionally build structures that are inaccessible, we explicitly send a message to anyone with any disability that you are not welcome here. It is not enough to say we are sorry that there is no elevator. By staying with our current design we are saying to many possible future students that we cannot imagine some of you here. And, by the way, those of us who are here, now, disabled whether temporarily or permanently, this is another building that is not for you. Brick and mortar structures, like our curriculum, generate profound meanings and statements about who we are. Is explicit, intentional exclusion the message that our Trustees want to have newly bricked into our campus? I thought the commitment was to move in the opposite direction! Surely, we can do better.

When the petition challenged this decision, the response from our Trustees was that the possible cost of $5-8 million is too much (see Trustee response in November 5 Campus). Instead, we will commit to a “minimal level of accessibility.”  How is it possible that Middlebury can celebrate a $135 million, single-year growth to our endowment, an endowment that now tops $1billion, and cry poor at the same moment?  The wealthiest institution in the history of Vermont is explicitly, knowingly, refusing to ensure that its new residence halls will be fully inclusive to all students and their families.

This fall semester, we held a Clifford Symposium on “the good body” that highlighted many of these very issues. The speakers and conversations that were made possible by that event represented a profound invitation for us to wake up. I am not asking the trustees to be cavalier about their fiduciary responsibilities. I am grateful for the care and concern the trustees continue to give Middlebury. Their responsibility is to ensure the dynamic preservation of the institution—a commitment that includes the availability of financial aid. But, for whom? With a billion dollar endowment, will we really not invest less than 1% of it to make this right?

We have just completed construction of a beautiful, stunning, new athletic complex.  The complex was made possible through energetic fundraising and a deep-pocketed commitment by alumni to ensure that athletics has a strong place on campus. Why not do the same here?  What if we took this opportunity to start a capital campaign to “Build A New Middlebury,” one that was based on the principles of Universal Design in both architecture and curriculum? We stop the Ridgeline project right now and do whatever it takes to ensure these buildings are built to the principles of Universal Design.  We make this commitment as one essential step in our efforts to make curriculum and physical structures cohere around an inclusive ethic.  But, to allow the completion of the Ridgeline project in its current design and to use this moment to say, “from now on we will do better,” lets us off far too easily.  It is frustrating enough to see old, inaccessible buildings not upgraded.  But, for us to construct a new building, in 2015, in which 64 of the 158 rooms will not be fully accessible is an appalling ethical breach of our mission as an educational institution. We all should have been there on February 10 and 11 raising this issue. I was not there as a member of this community, then, but, we can all be here, now.

Jonathon Miller-Lane is an Associate Professor of Education Studies.