Midd’s Instagram folly is not an anomaly


Middlebury’s official Instagram account recently shared a photo of me protesting an invited lecture from the racist pseudoscientist Charles Murray in 2017, accompanied by the caption “At Middlebury, we don’t just talk about social justice; we also act on it.” The caption did not mention how Middlebury reacted to social justice. 

 I was among the students punished for participating in these protests. The same photo and others like it were used as evidence in hearings that resulted in discipline for student protesters. Three years later, the college marketed the incident to prospective and current students, recasting their reaction as evidence of a commitment to social justice (the Instagram story was later deleted).

Murray’s visit to Middlebury caused a stir, you may remember. The college hired private security in anticipation of student opposition. My peers and I made signs that read, “F**k White Supremacy” and “No Eugenics.” 

President Laurie Patton provided introductory remarks. When Murray took the stage, I was among the hundred or so students who stood up, turned our backs and recited a collective statement rejecting the white supremacist ideas that he holds and seeks to popularize. While I had attended a few coordinating meetings prior to the protest, much of the action that sprung up in response to Murray’s invitation was spontaneous and decentralized.

Middlebury reacted decisively against its dissident students.

The college originally tried to hold individual hearings for student protestors, a well-worn tactic to divide groups acting in solidarity, while a private investigator interviewed professors who had expressed sympathy toward the protests. After much effort, 16 of us who were accused of the same infractions convinced the Community Judicial Board to try us collectively. The college held that this group of protesters was especially delinquent for having remained in the venue to disrupt the video live stream of Murray’s talk after the live lecture became impossible. Middlebury ultimately put me on probation until I graduated in February 2018.

 To potential donors, though, the official message remains non-committal. Shortly after student dissidents attempted to de-platform Murray, administrators of Middlebury’s alumni and parent programs trained student employees to talk politely and neutrally about Murray to mostly white, wealthy alumni. I would know. I was one of those employees.

As a reunion host in 2017, several months after the incident, I received instruction on how to handle Charles Murray-related comments from alumni: “Do not give your own opinion.” They supplied us with some token responses to pacify anticipated outrage such as, “Thank you for letting me know that” and “I appreciate that this is upsetting.”

A fundraiser employed by the college during the same alumni reunion told a coworker and me, “The reaction to all that Murray business was very generational, you know. We had some of these old donors saying, ‘Hang ’em up by one of the trees over there’ you know, ‘Expel ’em all.’”  

Charles Murray was scheduled to return to campus this spring before the Covid-19 pandemic disrupted the semester. Despite the progressive image Middlebury seems so eager to project, white supremacists continue to enjoy a platform there.

Now Middlebury is showcasing the demonstration it denounced in order to promote the college’s supposed dedication to justice. As Film Professor David Miranda Hardy expressed in a comment on my Facebook post on Midd’s hypocrisy, “The speed at which neoliberalism co-opts protests to regurgitate them as marketing props is becoming mind-numbing.”

Defending a wealthy white man’s right to express a hateful ideology has real consequences for the student population. Black students who come to Middlebury to learn should not have to reject through collective action the patently false notion that they are lesser humans.

 The college has recommitted itself to a free marketplace of ideas, where the “good” ones supposedly rise to the forefront of public discourse and the “bad” ones are discarded. This parallels the ideology underpinning our free market economy, which holds that most black people occupy a lower rung of the socio-economic hierarchy in the U.S. because of their supposedly inferior capacity to lift themselves up by their bootstraps. This system projects the self-image of a meritocracy when really the interests of those in power win out, regardless of merit and often in opposition to it. 

Middlebury’s ambivalence toward Murray’s racism is not an anomaly. 

 Middlebury is far more embedded in the socioeconomic and racial status quo than their opportunistic marketing tactics might suggest. The college serves as a recruiting ground for some of the world’s foremost neoliberal and neocolonial institutions, sending many grads to work at companies like Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs, which were largely responsible for the financial devastation of black, brown and poor communities during the 2008 housing crisis. Others climb ladders at the U.S. State Department and the Central Intelligence Agency, institutions with a well-documented history of orchestrating coup d’états across the globe in order to prop up regimes favorable to U.S. business interests in Iran, Chile, Guatemala and elsewhere. 

These are trends, not rules, and the Middlebury student population has expressed resistance and collective power. In an incident last fall, students studying Arabic at Middlebury Language Schools voiced criticism at a CIA recruitment session and denounced the agency’s record of foreign interventions and state-sponsored torture programs. 

Middlebury’s marketers want to appropriate anti-racist actions organized by dissident students to advertise the college’s commitment to justice. Simultaneously, Middlebury’s fundraisers and administration have avoided taking a “political” stance in order to maximize fundraising capacity and avoid stepping on donors’ toes. But there is no escaping the political. Justice requires opposition. Revisionism necessitates truth-telling. 

Austin Kahn is a member of the class of 2017.5.