Divides and Deliberation: A Report and Invitation

Last spring, the Middlebury community became deeply divided over a campus visit by Charles Murray. We each felt these divides personally — Sarah Stroup is a member of the political science department, and Jin plays a leading role in student government. Our campus is not alone in struggling to construct open and inclusive dialogue, but the stakes have felt particularly high in our small rural community. The intimacy of our small environment does not guarantee that we connect with one another or engage in productive disagreements.

Student concerns about isolation, fragmentation and community are high. Last May, Stroup surveyed 50 students in her political science classes. Two-thirds of the respondents said their level of concern about the events surrounding Murray’s visit was still high or very high. Half the students reported that their biggest concern moving forward was community, closely followed by listening and inclusion. This heightened attention to community has continued through this year. Hundreds of students, staff and faculty came to a November conversation in Mead Chapel, and Wilson Hall was packed for a February faculty panel on white supremacy on campus. Meanwhile, according to research by professor of psychology Robert Moeller and his colleagues, students that feel most isolated have reported higher stress levels. 

In an attempt to address these divides, we designed a series of “deliberation cafés” to host this past year. We drew inspiration from a variety of models, including the world café method and the civil conversations  project. (See go/deliberation for more details.) The cafés have met three times a semester for roughly 90 minutes each. We provide food, introduce the topic and a set of ground rules for engagement, and then facilitate small-group discussions. We secured funding from the Middlebury Fund for Innovation (FFI) and included regular feedback mechanisms (follow-up surveys, focus group discussions) to improve the design of the cafés over time. The topics have included the role of religion on campus, tolerating the intolerant, the effect of social media on community and the relationship between freedom and inclusion.

The cafés are a small step towards reclaiming a climate in which students and faculty can explore new arguments, trusting that we may not share the same ideas but do share a commitment to making our ideas stronger. By working alongside many other great efforts on campus, these cafés aimed to shift the perspective from speaking to careful listening. If you are interested in continuing these cafés next year, please reach out to sstroup@middlebury.edu.

To finish the year, our last event is for seniors only: we invite you to a final café (and happy hour!) on Friday, May 11, at 5 p.m. at Kirk Alumni Center. This is a “plus-one” event — invite a faculty or staff member that you admire to join us (and please RSVP at go/plusonedialogues). The topic: how will you describe Middlebury to others once you leave this place? For those of us who aren’t leaving in May, this question might help us reflect on the community that we currently have — and the community that we want to build. Our conversations this year have been surprising and challenging, but have helped us better understand the many people that make up the Middlebury community.

Jin Sohn ’18 is president of the Student Government Association.

Sarah Stroup is a professor of Political Science.

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