Beyond the Town Hall

By THE EDITORIAL BOARD

Last Thursday, Nov. 9, hundreds of members of the Middlebury community gathered in Mead Chapel for a town hall meeting. The event was originally planned by Women of Color and the Black Student Union with support from SGA and was subsequently co-opted by the administration, who claimed it had been already planned. While it was presented as a “community conversation,” it was more of a Q&A for students who wanted answers from the administration.

The unstructured nature of the forum allowed for administrators to dodge questions posed by students. Instead of one answer for one question, the microphone was passed around among students. Every few questions, an administrator would answer selectively. This was in part from the stream of questions and the inability to answer due to legal reasons. Either way, there was common theme of answering the least inflammatory part of questions posed. (Please look to the News section of this paper for a selected transcription of the event.)

The town hall meeting was an example of students’ qualms with administration coming to fruition — the primary issue in question being defensiveness. While the event was intended to be a conversation, flyers handed out listed the accomplishments of the administration. In an event framed to have a primary goal of listening, we find it specious to bring a planned response and hand out a rap sheet at the door. If there was in fact transparency, there would be no need to set up a line of defense before the conversation began.

Administrators’ primary response to stories shared and questions asked were to express how hurt they were, rather than asking why students felt that way or how they reached conclusions. This response stopped the conversation, making it about administrators’ feelings, rather than the issue that presumably brought us all there.

This town hall meeting clearly demonstrated the need for more transparency on the part of administrators. One of the most common responses from administration was, “we’re working on it, but we can’t share.” This frustrates us as students, deterring us from working to move forward because we don’t know how much progress is being made.

The need for transparency is not new; students have been asking for it long before the Charles Murray fiasco. We understand there are some questions that cannot be answered due to legal reasons. At the same time, leaving us in the dark forces students to make uninformed demands or actions that could be more complete if there was a better understanding of situations. Students should not have to visit deep corners of the Middlebury website or come to town halls to ascertain how the school is improving.

The administration also needs to match the vulnerability of the students who share their stories. At the meeting, speakers noted that this issue goes beyond what happened to Addis Fouche-Channer. Many students have been vulnerable in public and private arenas, without much resolve from the administration. Administrators say they appreciate the vulnerability of students who routinely share their stories, but fail to give them the same courtesy.

These “community conversations” then become spaces where students retelling stories of hardship and silence are met with sighs and shaking heads. This is not to say administrators need to match students’ stories with their own, but preplanned answers to complex questions are certainly not the answer.

While the town hall brought light to issues students have been talking about for years, it did not leave its attendees with a concrete understanding of where to go. If anything, it was cathartic and allowed students to give an uncensored and unobstructed message to the administration. But the work is not done there, especially since the administration is notorious for listening to students share their thoughts and stories without doing anything to follow it, other than make a committee.

Other than a need for increased vulnerability and transparency on the part of administration, we have suggestions for moving forward.

Administrators should not look to students to do their jobs. Students have done the work to provide frustrations, reasons and ideas to the administration on multiple occasions. The task is now to listen. If students are not presenting reasonable ideas, tell them. If there is information that would make students’ ideas better, tell them. 

Marginalized groups are putting down effort and showing why they’re uncomfortable, often with no return. Further, all members of the community should be informed of the feelings and sentiments that students at the town hall shared. We cannot move forward if some of us are ignorant of the problems a significant amount of our community face.

Whether we encourage cultural sensitivity training beyond the first year or invite students to bias training for faculty and staff, we need to all come to this conversation. We all need to continue to come because the work is not done. Instead of asking why people are sharing “negative” stories, ask why the stories exist. Ask what you can do to decrease the amount of stories or care for those who have been affected by oppression.

Everyone can see the administration is trying. We cannot call on the administration to fix racism. We can call on them to make concrete steps to combat institutional racism here, now, at Middlebury College. This is a difficult ask but not an unrealistic one, considering this is the work for which administrators are paid.

Students are paying and going into debt to be here. It is not the job of marginalized, or really any, students to fix the problems they did not cause. We’ve seen plenty of disingenuous promises and productive discourse; now let’s make some concrete plans.

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