Alumni Stand Behind Jeff Byers

As alumni of the Middlebury Chemistry Department and former students of Professor Byers, we are truly disheartened by the recent events that transpired as a result of an insensitive Chemistry exam question. Some of us worked closely with Professor Byers in his research group; others have been his students for multiple chemistry classes. We are of different races and ethnicities, different nationalities and from diverse backgrounds. In Jeff Byers, we saw nothing but a dedicated educator with compassion, a sense of humor and genuine care and concern for all of his students, whether you were performing research with him or simply taking chemistry courses.

While the exam question concerning HCN was insensitive and misguided, there was nothing in that question that suggests Professor Byers is anti-Semitic, racist, biased or discriminatory. Nonetheless, President Laurie Patton said in a statement, which is published in Newsweek, that “Middlebury has, and always will, condemn any actions that are anti-Semitic or racist in intent or effect, just as we will any other acts of bias or discrimination.” In the current political climate and the ease of news dissemination on social media and otherwise, the school was swift and harsh in its condemnation of Professor Byers in order to protect its image. The quick condemnation and categorization of the professor’s exam question as “anti-Semintic” was a knee-jerk reaction that does not serve the long-term interests of a college dedicated to respect, open dialogue and personal growth of all members of its community.

One must not underestimate the chilling effect the school’s “zero-tolerance” policy has on educators. Even though Middlebury prides itself on being a residential campus where faculty interact with students inside and outside the classroom (far beyond their call of duty), faculty are expected to have no lapse in judgment. Furthermore, all educational materials must be sanitized. Under such a policy, decades of dedication to students, recognized and appreciated by the students and alumni, are dismissed, despite Professor Byers having owned up to his mistake and apologized repeatedly. We have decided to come to Professor Byers’ defense – to speak out against political correctness at the expense of a faculty member’s lifelong dedication to the College and generations of students.

Professor Byers has paid dearly for his insensitivity – not only is he now on leave and being investigated for faculty misconduct, this incident is published in many major news outlets, in the U.S. and abroad. His name is forever tarnished because of a momentary lapse in judgment and the school’s overreaction. We urge the school to reinstate Professor Byers, so that students can continue to benefit from his teaching and the College can continue to be a venue for open, respectful exchange of political and social views.

In sum, by choosing the “safe” path, the administration is giving into fear of being “trampled” by the loud mob of the vehemently politically correct, who are so easily triggered by keywords and see all in black and white, without the ability to recognize nuances and context. Of all places, an educational institution should grant that to err is human and should thus unequivocally stand behind Professor Byers, who has owned up to his mistake, rather than behind a faceless ideology that shouts tolerance and sensitivity without a shred of either.


David S. Shuman ’93

Maciej Ceglowski ’97

Bonnie Lee ’03

Adelina Voutchkova-Kostal ’04

Jakub Kostal ’04

Kyle S. Knight ’88

Nathan R. Neale ’98

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4 Responses to “Alumni Stand Behind Jeff Byers”

  1. '14 Alum on May 9th, 2019 11:34 am

    As a Jewish alum who had a side of their family almost completely wiped out in the Shoah, (and who never took a chemistry class at Midd) its good to see a sense of proportion, reasonableness, and forgiveness instead of blanket outrage and condemnation. I am a hundred percent against anti-semitism and making light of the Holocaust, but I really don’t think that is what happened here.

    Further, one must ask if there is no longer a possibility for redemption? Are we all so perfect that we want a zero-strike policy when it comes to clumsy mistakes such as this exam question? Uprooting lives over this seems harsh and unnecessary. If we want to be a real community we must realize we are a community of fallible imperfect humans. As that most recent of testaments once put it – judge not, that be ye be not judged.

  2. Judy Olinick on May 13th, 2019 10:27 am

    Thank you, alums, for this eloquent and very important letter. I hope you have sent it separately to President Patton and the Board of Trustees.

    You are exactly right about the knee-jerk reactions and zero tolerance of the “vehemently politically correct” and the dangerous extent to which the administration and some of the faculty have capitulated to their demands or actually joined their ranks.

    It is no exaggeration to say that free speech and academic freedom are threatened at Middlebury (and of course many other academic institutions.) The attack on Prof. Byers, who has indeed apologized as profusely as humanly possible for a real but ultimately very small mistake, is unconscionable and, I would say, incomprehensible to any reasonable person examining the facts. At this point a much larger apology is owed to him by the president and the institution.

  3. Student on May 14th, 2019 10:37 am

    Although I don’t disagree with the general argument you’ve put forth, is a question about Nazi gas really a good example of “open, respectful exchange of political and social views.”? Perhaps you are turning an otherwise valuable discussion about consequences of ham-handed actions into a “black-and-white” debate between free speech and social awareness.

  4. judy olinick on May 15th, 2019 6:41 am

    To the previous comment:

    No, the exam question was not an expression of political views at all. It was just a chemistry question with a poorly-chosen example. No one is arguing that it was a good question. But the wildly overblown response caused far more harm to the instructor than the question itself could possibly have caused anyone by attributing non-existent anti-Semitic/Nazi-sympathetic/Holocaust-trivializing intent or motivation to him.

    This incident is a case in point of political-correctness vigilance carried to extremes. The issue itself is much larger than the chemistry question of course. The readiness to pounce without reasonable cause, exemplified here, is merely one aspect of the political-correctness problem. A full discussion is very much needed, but the urgency is to right the wrong done to Professor Byers as soon as possible.

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Alumni Stand Behind Jeff Byers