Black at Middlebury: Students criticize President Patton’s email, demand action

By Tony Sjodin

An email sent from the Office of the President to the Middlebury community on May 31 concerning the death of George Floyd sparked criticism from students at the college, who expressed discontent with its tone and content in the context of nationwide protests against police brutality and race-based violence.

Students wrote a letter responding to the president’s email and shared it with the college community in a document titled “Black At Midd: 06/3/20 Email to Laurie Patton,” which was distributed widely on social media platforms and among student organizations. While the letter is signed by “Concerned Students of Middlebury College,” the organizers’ Instagram account later announced that Myles Maxie ’22, Gifty Atanga ’23, Charice Lawrence ’23, Andrés Oyaga ’23, Daleelah Saleh ’23, Jarlenys Mendez ’23 and Kaitlyn Velazquez ’23 were its co-authors.

In the letter, students criticized several offenses in the President’s message, including the conflation of the coronavirus and racism, the hypocrisy of “verbal allegiance to racial equity but lack of action” and the use of “gasping for air” as a metaphor to bridge discussions about Covid-19 and police brutality.

The letter also highlighted past events when “Middlebury College has been complicit in allowing pervasive racism to exist on our campus.” These instances included a lack of action following insensitive comments at the Martin Luther King Today event in 2016, the invitation of Charles Murray in 2017 and 2020 and the invitation of Ryszard Legutko in 2019.

The students concluded the letter with a series of actions, immediate and for the coming academic year, that would help build a “more equitable and aware community.”

After sending the email to President Patton, the group turned the letter into a petition and asked college students, faculty, organizations and alumni for their endorsement through a Google Form. As of June 15, the petition had 1781 endorsements, including the signatures of over 950 students, 650 alumni and 55 student organizations, as well as numerous faculty, staff and other community members.

Myles Maxie ’22, an organizer of the petition, said that the number of alumni who signed onto the petition — despite not having received the president’s email — illustrated the college’s history on race and support for change.

“There are some people who complained about this who went to school here in 2003, and it still hasn’t changed,” Maxie said. “I think it’s also important for the faculty members who signed it to voice their concerns. There was an abundance of faculty who signed and had interesting things to say about the way that staff of color and of marginalized communities are treated at Middlebury, so that makes it not just a student issue.”

The president’s message was also posted on college social media accounts but was taken down on June 4 in response to the criticism. The president sent a second email on June 5 addressing systemic racism against Black people and expressing eagerness to implement the petition’s proposals.

“Our initial goals were to make sure Middlebury understood how hypocritical they were being and how performative this letter was. We got an apology, sort of,” said Andrés Oyaga ’23, another organizer of the petition. “But a big part of going beyond performative activism is to really learn from your mistakes and to think about what happened.” The way that Middlebury can learn, according to Oyaga, is to go through its own letter and address every sentence that may have been offensive.

“I don’t want this to be a thing where it’s over. We see that very often with different types of activism. People tend to be upset for a few weeks and then quickly move on from it. This is an important conversation we need to continue having as a campus community,” Maxie said. 

Through their Instagram page, @blackatmidd, organizers invited students to apply to join their team. According to Maxie, the group plans to charter as a club — Concerned Students of Middlebury College — in the fall, working to realize the changes outlined in the petition and improve the culture at the college.

The Chief Diversity Officer, Miguel Fernández, also sent two emails addressing the petition’s request that the college provide resources to support Black community members and to empower non-Black community members to become better allies for their peers.

Although Oyaga and Maxie both expressed optimism about the response email, they said that a greater level of specificity is needed to demonstrate learning, that students of color are often unfairly burdened with having to educate others and that change will be an ongoing process.

“We think it’s really important to make sure that students and faculty of color have some representation in decision-making bodies, specifically in the board of trustees and with the senior leadership group,” Oyaga said. He hopes that the college will embrace the petition’s call to include the voices of students of color on campus to demonstrate action beyond performance.

“This is another instance of having to point out problematic-ness, and students who are at school to be students having to become teachers,” Maxie said. “For me, it’s fine. But it’s also not really my job as a person of color to have to consistently teach others how to properly address the concerns of students of color and of marginalized communities.”

Editor’s Note: Author Tony Sjodin ’23 signed the petition mentioned in the article. Daleelah Saleh ’23, one of the authors of the letter, is an Opinion Editor for The Campus. Saleh played no role in the reporting. Any questions may be directed to [email protected]