In praise of a humbler, more human Middlebury

By EDITORIAL BOARD

Not many would characterize Middlebury’s student-administration relationship as “simple.” Mere weeks ago, the college faced intense, sustained outcry from students protesting Charles Murray’s third controversial invitation to speak on campus. On Murray and other issues, students have critiqued the administration for a lack of forums for accessible, inclusive dialogue, as well as a broader lack of transparency around decision processes. It’s tough to blame these critics: Communication relaying decisions made by the administration often assumes a distant, all-too institutional tone.

Like pretty much everything else in our lives, though, that tone — not to mention the broader student-administration relationship — shifted over the past few weeks.

Take the days leading up to students’ departure from campus. Per the college’s March 10 email, nearly all students were initially expected to vacate their rooms by the night of Friday, March 13. Responding to students’ stressed objections, though, the college extended that move-out date to late Sunday, allowing more time to book plane tickets or make arrangements to stay with friends. While students were unable to reap the benefits of this extension — like those who had already scrambled to purchase Friday plane tickets — we appreciate the flexibility and humility exhibited in this gesture, which recognized that the original timeline was neither practical nor sympathetic.

This same tone imbued administration communication throughout spring break, wending its way into regular emails, social media updates and resource pages from various college bodies. While these updates rarely claimed to have all the answers (many simply alluded to decisions under consideration), they went a long way toward making scattered students feel in the loop. These dispatches weren’t purely informative, either; they contained as much well-wishing and community-building as they did logistics, from photos of seniors at sunrises to poetry courtesy of President Laurie Patton. Plus, rather than silo updates into discrete emails to students, faculty and staff, information was compiled together onto a single, publicly-available page. We’re pleased by how many of these announcements read less like stiff, official college communications and more like the reflections of individuals likewise mourning the loss of our on-campus community. During a crisis which has quite literally stripped us of the comfort of others’ company, such virtual displays of humanity were and continue to be deeply appreciated.

Our appreciation extends beyond Facebook posts or emails, to initiatives like Student Emergency Funds and offers to compensate for lost work studies. And comparing Middlebury’s response to that of other schools has only reinforced our sense of pride. Rather than make an immediate decision on, say, commencement proceedings (some schools have cancelled them outright or else intend to stage virtual ceremonies), Middlebury has held off for the time being in order to consider all options — and, in an email sent over spring break, President Patton even asked for students’ help in coming up with those options. The school is also providing staff with a Covid-19 Pay Bank, which will allow them to take off 21 additional sick days without dipping into their regular banks of days. We are pleased by the continued reassurance that wage continuity is one of the college’s priorities, even amidst an uncertain financial situation.

This isn’t to say that the college’s response to our current crisis has been perfect. Many students find themselves frustrated or confused by unanswered questions — what, for instance, has Middlebury done with students’ possessions left on campus? Is the college planning to standardize the wide range of teaching approaches individual professors have adopted? Will the 120 students remaining on campus be asked to leave before the semester is over? Others are unsatisfied with current plans for the semester, as the debate around opt-in and universal pass/fail grading indicates. And the remote resumption of classes this week will inevitably be attended by its own fresh set of concerns.

While we recognize that confusion and ambiguity are unavoidable during such a sudden, unprecedented period, we ask that the college exercise the same striking flexibility and empathy in addressing these and future issues. As the spring semester carries on, we want the college to continue to value Middlebury’s off-campus community by maintaining a consistent openness to students’ feedback. We’d hope, too, that this accessible, human approach to administration extends beyond our current crisis and into future academic years. Setting inevitable fears and frustrations aside, the last few weeks have left students proud of the college which most of us have, for the moment, left behind. We trust we’ll be just as proud of the one we return to.