Facing the Covid-19 crisis

We are living through one of the worst crises anyone can remember. The Covid-19 pandemic is taking a horrible toll on life, health and resources every day, and there seems to be no clear end in sight. Despite all its specificities, the current crisis is proving unoriginal in an important respect: it will affect us all unequally. While some claim that we are “all in the same boat,” the truth is that this pandemic is revealing and amplifying the structural inequities that have long existed. Even worse, if yesterday is the best predictor of tomorrow, the response will more likely exacerbate said inequities, as countries, states, towns and institutions will rush to adopt policies that undermine social resilience. These measures will no doubt include proposals to adopt strict austerity measures, justifying them around narratives of scarcity and shared sacrifice.

Middlebury College is already suffering many of the consequences of the current pandemic. Most students have already been sent back home. Administrators, faculty and staff are working remotely, doing their best to provide academic continuity to our students and develop their research, while planning all possible scenarios for an uncertain future. As the largest employer in Addison County, the college’s economic health is inextricably linked to the wellbeing of a community that has grown anxious by the lack of clarity about employment continuity. Rumors of imminent across-the-board salary cuts, benefit reductions and furloughs — combined with the decision to reduce the salary of the Senior Leadership Group — have only exacerbated this unease.

While the economic crisis is a reality out of our control, our reaction to it and its outcomes are not. In the weeks and months ahead, we have the opportunity to anchor our decision-making processes around a clear set of principles aligned with our institutional mission. This should be, and will be, a work-in-progress, but as the Committee for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, we want to offer a few suggestions to guide this essential conversation.

We believe that a robust, deliberative process about our future must be:

Democratic. We must place value on the full inclusion of the voices of faculty, staff and students. The existing elected committees (and newly ad-hoc ones), the Staff Council and the Student Government Association can offer essential input as they carry valuable institutional knowledge. But they should be more than sounding boards: if their constituencies are asked to share the sacrifices and responsibilities, they should share decision-making power, too. Furthermore, we encourage the administration to remain neutral in the event that faculty and/or staff choose to unionize. Unions are better suited than committees and councils to represent workers in labor and contractual negotiations, and to elevate the voices of the least powerful amongst us.

Transparent. The decision-making process should be as open to our community as possible, through shared meeting minutes, virtual town halls and clear, frequent messaging from and to the administration and trustees, reducing the umbrella of confidentiality to its minimum legal expression. Transparency can improve accountability, enhance buy-in from the community in our decision-making process and increase opportunities for democratic interventions, when needed.

Solidaristic. We believe all efforts must be made to protect the most vulnerable among us from the harshest effects of the crisis. Our institution can commit to continuity of employment, wages and benefits, with special emphasis on our low-income staff and part-time non-tenured faculty; we must also protect academic programs, particularly the ones serving underrepresented communities; and finally, we must commit to student financial assistance and support, including issues of accessibility that might be exacerbated by the pandemic and distance learning. These priorities should be placed over considerations of temporary budget deficits, infrastructure development and endowment protection.

We don’t pretend to ignore the magnitude of the tasks at hand, nor the enormous difficulties of pursuing a more democratic, transparent and solidaristic reaction to this crisis. But we strongly believe that if we rise to the challenge, our institution will recover faster and we will become a stronger, more cohesive community. Our future is not set in stone, but it will be defined by our actions in the present. We have an opportunity to reflect on structures that have failed us in the past and focus on alternatives that better suit our needs. We must ensure not only our survival, but a chance to thrive for all of us.

The Committee on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

Erin Eggleston, Biology
Kemi Fuentes-George, Political Science
Laurel Jenkins, Dance
David Miranda Hardy, Film and Media Culture
Shawna Shapiro, Writing and Rhetoric, Linguistics
Daniel Silva, Luso-Hispanic Studies
Trinh Tran, Anthropology and Education Studies

Editor’s note: The above faculty members comprise the entirety of the Committee on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. Learn more here.