Student Panel Discusses Next Steps After Legutko Drama


Michael Borenstein

Each of the five participants in a student panel in Dana Auditorium discussing the Legutko controversy was tied to the week’s events in some way.


A week after a lecture by Polish politician Ryszard Legutko was canceled by administrators, Quinn Boyle ’21 asked those gathered in Dana Auditorium for the “Moving Forward” panel discussion to turn to their neighbors and answer a question: What was at stake for you last week?

The question was meant to inspire students, faculty, staff and community members in the audience to reflect on the events of the previous week, which generated campus controversy and national news coverage that many decried as misrepresentative. Both the question and ensuing conversation preceded a panel discussion featuring five distinct student voices, which was advertised as “a conversation on how we challenge ideas with which we disagree, and how we engage with challenging ideas.” Boyle served as the panel’s moderator.

Each panelist was connected to the Legutko controversy in a unique way. Joey Lyons ’21 is a member of the Alexander Hamilton Forum, which brought Legutko to campus. Grace Vedock ’20 described herself as a “would-be protest organizer” and self-identified visibly gay student. Rebecca Duras ’19 offered her perspective on conservatism in Poland as a Croatian student, and as someone involved in the planned protest. Akhila Roy Chowdhury ’20 is a Political Science major who had been planning to attend the pre-planned dinner with Legutko following his lecture, and Ethan Cohen ’19 is another member of Dickinson’s seminar who voted to allow Legutko to speak in the class and who said he was hoping to attend the original lecture to ask challenging questions.

The panelists began by reflecting on the relationship between faculty and students during the Legutko controversy and aftermath. Vedock and Duras expressed disappointment with faculty accusations that quotes posted around campus prior to Legutko’s visit, which were drawn from the politician’s  book “The Demon in Democracy” and highlighted his views on homosexuality and gay marriage, were “doctored.”

“That was one of the ways that faculty behaved that directly impacted students, and I found that deeply troubling,” Vedock said. 

They also noted frustration about the false assertions by some faculty members that the protest was intended to be disruptive. However, Duras also acknowledged that many faculty members have been supportive of all students, including those associated with the protest.

Roy Chowdhury said that some faculty members called for Dickinson to be fired in light of his decision to bring Legutko into his seminar, which she found disappointing. She defended the idea that the classroom should expose students to a variety of views. 

“I feel like I grow most academically when I am exposed to ideas that challenge mine and not just when I’m debating subtleties within one side of an argument we all agree with,” she said. 

Because of her familiarity with Eastern European politics, Duras discussed how right-wing politicians from that area of the world utilize the platform of American college lectures to legitimize their views. “They come back to Eastern Europe and use [the lectures] as proof to say “See, I am legitimate in the eyes of the world, these views are legitimate even in America,” Duras explained. 

“It may seem like Middlebury is really far away from the rest of the world, but how our actions can affect people really far away,” she explained.

“It seems disingenuous to invite Legutko to talk about the demon in democracy when his party is the demon in Polish democracy. It’s like inviting a wolf to talk about the problems with the death of sheep.”

Roy Chowdhury offered a counterpoint, and expressed disbelief that Middlebury offers a larger platform than what Legutko already has as a prominent politician. “Assuming that a school of 2,600 hundred is a bigger platform than the European Parliament is over-inflating our value,” she argued.

Political Science professor Keegan Callanan, director of the Hamilton Forum, has already invited Legutko to return next year. In light of their discussion and the atmosphere surrounding Legutko’s first visit to campus, Boyle asked the panelists if they see academic value in Legutko’s return, or if they view it as an attempt to prove some sort of point.

“There is something valuable in a speaker being controversial because you see a campus get mobilized,” Lyons said of the invitation. “Most of us would have learned very little about this subject area on our own.”

He went on to talk about how infrequently he thinks Middlebury students encounter homophobia, particularly in academic contexts, and how the events of the past few weeks have contributed to his knowledge of gender politics in Eastern Europe. “My defense of gay marriage was not as well-founded last week as it is this week. I’ve developed it more because I’ve seen a countervailing force.”

Vedock pushed back against the suggestion that homophobia is not prevalent at Middlebury. She addressed the cost of mobilization, including threats against protesters and unwanted attention from right-wing media. She also mentioned personally experiencing homophobia and knowing of others who had, and disagreed with Lyons’ claim that academic spaces lack critical engagement with homophobia. 

“I think there are a lot of classroom environments where homophobia is engaged and critiqued and talked about as a social phenomenon — I’m thinking of the entire Gender, Sexuality and Feminist studies department,” Vedock said. 

Duras agreed, and called attention to the experiences of marginalized groups at Middlebury. “Just because you have not been present in these conversations up until now doesn’t mean they haven’t been happening,” she said. “People seem very secure in their view that Middlebury is a pleasant liberal bubble, but that is untrue for a lot of people on this campus.”

The format of the panel was modeled after the Engaged Listening Project, and panelists used techniques to engage in respectful debate across ideological differences. In an editorial in The Campus, director of the Project Sarah Stroup praised Boyle and the panelists. “Thanks for showing us how we can confront our differences while treating each other with respect,” she said.

Gary Winslett, an assistant professor of political science, was in the audience of the panel, and was impressed by the students and their discussion. 

“I thought the students on the panel were thoughtful, articulate and gracious. They reflected well on themselves and on Middlebury College,” he observed.

“There are some external media sources that seem to want to caricature Middlebury students as aggressively intolerant and uninterested in engaging with diverse viewpoints; I wish they had seen this panel,” he added. “If they had, they would have seen Middlebury College students engaging in the exact kind of vigorous but respectful disagreement that is one of the hallmarks of higher education.”