A Letter From a Professor on Leave

By Jon Isham, Middlebury Faculty

In “A Letter to the Well-Intentioned Liberal Professor” (April 12), Travis Sanderson states that Middlebury faculty whose “support of ‘free speech’ … does not include protection of shut-downs and other methods of expression” are “on the wrong side of history.” Comparing us to the white moderate whom Dr. King chastised in “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Sanderson concludes his letter with: “You are guilty.”

It’s a well-written letter, and Sanderson may be right. If shutdowns of selected speakers become the norm at Middlebury and other college campuses, the 114 faculty who signed the “Free Inquiry on Campus” statement will have been on the wrong side of history. And even if this is not the case — even if such shutdowns remain infrequent — Sanderson, along with many student, staff and faculty allies, may still say that we are guilty. Guilty, as he writes, of not “focusing on the actual concerns of marginalized students” and of doing “nothing to acknowledge the actual lived experiences that marginalized students articulated to argue for their free speech.”

Again, Sanderson may be right. It’s possible that we 114 Middlebury faculty (and faculty who signed a similar petition championed by Robert P. George and Cornel West) are not as focused as we should be on marginalized students. What’s in the hearts of professors Alvarez, Anzali, Gebarowski-Shafe, Kafumbe, Morsman and Yuen, just to list a few, who signed the statement? Are their actions on behalf of marginalized students enough?

More pointedly, can their actions ever be enough if they do not, as Sanderson insists they should, support the shutdown of some speakers? Is that the right criterion to judge the entirety of their commitment to social justice and marginalized students?

No one can say for sure. It’s possible that this particular stance — approving or disapproving of shutting down some speakers — is a perfect bellwether of such a commitment. But I hope that most members of our community will not come to this conclusion. For aren’t there many ways for us faculty to support students whom we admire with all of our hearts, even as we reserve the right to disagree with them on some contested issues? And can’t students challenge opinions of their faculty with vigor and insight, even as they honor their faculty’s lifelong (if imperfect) commitment to doing the right thing?

All told, let us hope that members of our community embrace the full spirit of Dr. King’s hallowed letter. For as angry as he was at his fellow clergymen in the spring of 1963, nowhere does he proclaim that they are “on the wrong side of history” or “guilty” of anything.  Rather, he ends his letter with a call for faith and love, a sentiment that — following Sanderson’s effective lead — I modify here to address these trying times at Middlebury:

“I hope this letter finds you strong in the faith. I also hope that circumstances will soon make it possible for us to meet each other, not as a pro-free-speech or anti-free-speech person but as a fellow community member and an empathetic sister or brother. Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our anger drenched community, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and sisterhood and brotherhood will shine over our great college with all their scintillating beauty.”

Jon Isham, Professor of Economics,  writes about free speech at Middlebury.

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