Setting Things Straight


This op-ed is in response to The Campus’s story on Jonathan Rauch’s recent lecture at Middlebury, entitled “Why Free Speech is the Only Safe Space for Minorities.” The article focused on the Open Campus Initiative’s (OCI) funding for the event.

First, I am surprised that The Campus chose to focus on the Institute for Humane Studies’ (IHS) contribution rather than any other aspect of the event. OCI (for which I serve as treasurer) has been very transparent in advertising IHS’ sponsorship — this was noted front and center on our posters publicizing the lecture. The Campus could have noted the solid attendance (65 people) at our event, or the free-flowing Q&A that followed. A headline referencing “Koch money” certainly has shock value, but the fact remains that OCI made this known to the community weeks before the lecture.

Similarly, the article’s implication that OCI is a right-wing front group is rather misinformed. If anything, liberal viewpoints are overrepresented among OCI’s leadership. For example, OCI’s President, Sam Zieve-Cohen ‘19.5, and I both identify as political moderates who enthusiastically voted for Hillary Clinton. Sam spent his Febmester interning for the Clinton campaign. Our beliefs are radically different from those of the Koch brothers — if they were seeking operatives to infiltrate Middlebury, I doubt we would be high on their list.

I have rejected funding offers from other organizations, as the offers in question came with political conditions attached. In dealing with external organizations, OCI makes clear that students — and no one else — must have full control over our events. As stated in our constitution (Article IX), we will always remain a non-partisan and fully independent organization.

Speculation that OCI is linked to a similarly named organization at Harvard has no basis in reality. Clubs with similar names and purposes exist at many colleges and universities, such as UChicago’s Students for Free Expression. Unlike groups such as AEI, the Middlebury OCI is not a chapter of any national organization. I believe our speaker choice — a nationally acclaimed gay rights activist and Brookings Institution scholar — says more about our club than events elsewhere.

As a club we seek to foster a non-partisan space for meaningful dialogue across differences, and promote respectful debate and viewpoint diversity on campus. Our members range from Bernie Sanders supporters to Christian conservatives. We have no ideological conditions for membership — we only seek a willingness to interact with alternate or opposing viewpoints. I am convinced that it is only by engaging with other points of view that we come to truly understand our own.

It is understandable that some members of our community wish to understand why OCI accepted funding from a libertarian organization. I will clarify our decision. In making plans for our club’s programming, Sam and I agreed that Jonathan Rauch would be a particularly compelling speaker. However, OCI has only modest funds on hand, so further fundraising was necessary for the event to take place. Campus-based funding sources were limited, and we were (and still are) unwilling to take funds from sources with broader strings attached.

When informed of our financial constraints, Rauch mentioned to us that IHS had helped cover his speaking expenses in the past. In light of this, we solicited funding from the Institute, with the explicit understanding that our relationship was limited to this event. At no point did IHS attempt to influence the content of our speaker’s remarks. Likewise, IHS never attempted to influence OCI’s future programming. Had they attempted to do so, we would never have accepted their funding.

I must correct two other claims in The Campus’s article. Contrary to Ms. Singh’s claims, OCI is a fully approved student organization. College administrators have already informed the Student Organization Oversight Committee (SOOC) that there is no provision for an “approval with reservations” in the committee’s bylaws and established processes.

Likewise, Singh’s claims about our members’ ideology — in addition to being beyond her committee’s purview — fail to match up with the diverse viewpoints represented in OCI. Our treasurer for the upcoming year is a Christian conservative — a viewpoint radically different from Sam’s and mine. It is unfortunate that Singh is spreading false information about our organization.

Following the event, Rauch noted how impressed he was by the audience and the substantive conversation that followed his remarks — a conversation that went well into the evening. In the future, I hope The Campus will assess guest speakers on the strength of their arguments rather than simply according to their sponsors. Doing so will only further the newspaper’s contribution to building a truly robust public sphere on campus and beyond.

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Setting Things Straight