Seniors at Middlebury will remember President Laurie Patton’s inaugural campaign to promote “rhetorical resilience,” whereby she urged students to engage with viewpoints they might find foreign, discomforting, or even outright repulsive. Joining the College in 2015, a year rife with controversy around “safe spaces,” Patton was quick to lay down her vision of free speech on campus, arguing, as she said in her inaugural address, that we should “have more and better arguments, with greater respect, stronger resilience, and deeper wisdom.”
The Charles Murray incident in March, 2017 offered President Patton a chance to solidify her stance on campus speech. In an op-ed submitted to the Wall Street Journal, Patton urged schools like Middlebury to “embrace freedom of expression and inquiry as an educational value for everyone, regardless of their background or political views.” In an even more poignant note, she urged students to “move beyond the false dichotomy between free speech and inclusiveness.”
Since then, President Patton has been largely silent on the issue. Perhaps she was discouraged when she saw that students had adopted her term—resilience—and turned it on its head. Soon after her campaign, campus leaflets urged students to be “resilient” in their politics; in other words, to concretize their dogmatic political beliefs in defiance of the administration’s rhetoric around openness. Students didn’t need to be resilient to ideas; they only had to be resilient to the “oppressions” of the administration.
Patton might have hoped that students would be more accommodating to diverse viewpoints after a steady diet of pro-discourse ideas. Last Thursday, MCAB hosted Rukmini Callimachi, a New York Times journalist with a unique interest in engaging with current and former members of the so-called Islamic State. In her speech, Callimachi’s words are striking for their radical embrace of discourse: “I firmly believe in speaking to the enemy, in listening to them, which is different than believing them, in trying to understand them, which is different than giving them a platform… In short, I do this in the interest of truth.” Students of all political beliefs rightly applauded Callimachi for her work.
In light of Callimachi’s message, the student-run protest of Polish academic and diplomat Ryszard Legutko is nothing but ironic. Students applauded a journalist’s effort to publish the personal accounts of some of the most evil people on the planet. Yet when given the option to discourse with (or, if they wished, to ignore) a controversial and highly influential member of the European Parliament, they extended no such courtesy. While students did not seek to disrupt the event, their act of protesting his presence sent a clear message: that they have no desire to listen to the enemy.
For an academic as serious and dedicated to truth as President Patton, it must be excruciating to witness such hypocrisy on her campus. Unfortunately, it appears that Patton feels she cannot change student opinion and deed. Patton seems resigned to let civil protest, rather than civil discourse, be the primary means of dissent at this institution.
I urge President Patton to reconsider such an attitude of resignation. To avoid irreparable reputational harm, the College must quickly recommit itself to the tradition of academic seriousness that defined it for most of the 20th century. We must follow the lead of Princeton and the University of Chicago, both of which passed official statements reaffirming their commitment to free expression. To do so, Patton must make clear to all students that the college quad is different from and independent of the arena of brass-knuckle politics. The goal at college is not to defeat and shame the “wrong views,” but to learn. Middlebury students are free and powerful thinkers who have the capacity to make great change through ideas. While students have every right to protest on campus, mob gatherings should not be their first line of action against an idea they find objectionable. Patton must urge students instead to express dissent through rational argument. If students were to follow her lead, they would allow the administration to resume its role as a body promoting academics, rather than one charged with the laughable task of maintaining physical security at a Political Science lecture.
Student support of civil discourse is not as scarce as it may appear. Take, for example, a group of political science students’ defiant choice to extend an impromptu invitation to Mr. Legutko, asking him to speak in their “American Presidency” seminar. This is a powerful indicator that, should Patton make a more sustained, bold stand for open and reasoned discourse on campus, many of us are ready to follow her lead. But we do need someone to lead.