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.

Signed, 

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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