College holds mandatory ‘Effective Protest’ workshops for incoming Febs; sees low attendance at optional all-student workshops

By RACHEL LU

Renee Wells, the college’s director of education for equity and inclusion, hosted workshops to review the school’s new protest policy. Workshops were mandatory for new members of the class of 2023.5 during their orientation, and available last Thursday and Friday to interested students.

Last week’s workshops were titled “Informed Activism: Understanding and Navigating Open Expression and Demonstration Policies on Campus.” The Feb orientation version of the workshop was titled “Free Speech: Effective Protests & Demonstrations.”

The workshops come three years after Charles Murray’s last talk on campus, less than a year after Ryszard Legutko’s controversial canceled lecture and six weeks in advance of Murray’s impending revisit. The workshop specifically aimed to provide explanations about the new Policy on Open Expression, which came into effect this past November, and to answer specific questions for students planning advocacy events.

Wells has extensive experience workshopping with students, staff and faculty, and a primary component of her role is to assess campus climate concerns and identify ways to address them. Last spring, she observed a nervousness surrounding students’ approach to planning protests in response to Legutko.

“I realized that there were a lot of students who wanted to participate in the protest, but were concerned about possibly being sanctioned.” Wells said, noting that the college sanctioned 74 students for their roles in the protests against Charles Murray.

Wells does not want students to feel discouraged from engaging in activism, as she believes it is an important component to the non-academic development of higher education.

“Preparing students to critically think about what’s going on around them and to respond and advocate for things they believe in actually prepares them for the greater context we live in.” she said.

This is the first year a workshop about activism has been mandatory for an incoming class. Wells believes this is part of the college’s effort to provide more transparency on what activism can look like at Middlebury.

“Returning students would know that we passed a new open expression policy, but that title would not mean anything for the Febs,” Wells said in regard to the differences in the titles of the workshop, and its mandatory attendance. “My idea behind the workshop is that I want students to feel like they can protest if they want to.”

The Feb workshop focused heavily on curiosity surrounding Charles Murray’s impending arrival. Wells had expected this to happen and was prepared to answer Febs’ questions, while being informative about campus activism in general.

Tim Hua ’23.5, who attended the workshop during Feb orientation, said he is open to participating in protests during his time at Middlebury. Hua said that the workshop did not change his general impression of activism at the college.

“I thought it was super helpful when Wells clearly laid out what’s allowed, what’s not allowed, and what the punishments are for actions taken during an activism event,” said Hua.

The Campus reporter was the only student who attended last Thursday’s workshop.

“When I read the description of the event, I initially thought it would be from an administrative perspective, so it might be trying to teach students why not to protest, or how to protest solely in a peaceful manner,” said Lily Jones ’23. “But after learning what the workshop actually was, I think I should have looked into it more because that wasn’t the intent of the workshop.”