We still have questions for the Hamilton Forum

Last week, we worked with students from all over campus to stage a protest against the Alexander Hamilton Forum’s debate, “1619 or 1776: Was America Founded on Slavery?” We protested the event because we find the mission, funding and history of the AHF — as well as the topic and title of the event — purposefully inflammatory, harmful to our BIPOC peers and a continuation of the institutional and systemic racism that Middlebury upholds. This is not the opinion of just a few students. At the time of publishing this op-ed, our open letter addressed to the Senior Leadership Group received 649 student and 110 alumni signatures. Since none of us were called on during the question and answer section of the debate, we still have a few unanswered questions:

  1. A major financial contributor to the AHF is the Jack Miller Center, which was originally a part of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI). The ISI’s stated mission is to promote limited government, individual liberty, the free market economy and traditional values. The ISI also receives $8 million in funding from the Richard and Helen DeVos Foundation, and, while the Jack Miller Center became independent in 2007, it’s safe to say they are both very much part of the network of right-wing think tanks. The ISI is also an associate member of the State Policy Network, which is funded by the Koch Brothers and coordinates and supplies resources for its members to help promote a conservative policy agenda. How can we expect to have open and honest conversations about race when the organizations sponsoring them are so thoroughly implicated in the systems that perpetuate institutional racism? 
  2. Given that Professor Keegan Callanan, the director of the AHF, is a council member on the National Endowment for the Humanities — a committee that is part of the Trump Administration’s push for “pro-America” “patriotic” curricula through the 1776 Commission — doesn’t Callanan’s simultaneous involvement in this debate and the 1776 Commission present a conflict of interest?
  3. Middlebury has a well-documented history of inflammatory speakers, many of which have been met with fierce resistance from the student body. But this summer, Middlebury publicly committed to anti-racism. Is hosting a debate that questions the very role that slavery played in this country’s founding anti-racist? Will the college ever pay more than just lip service to its BIPOC community members, or will it continue to ride its liberal reputation as it repeatedly prioritizes “freedom of speech” over the safety of our BIPOC students?

 

Not only did our questions go unanswered, but our ability to protest was swiftly taken away from us. Out of respect for Leslie Harris and our decision to abide by the Policy on Open Expression, our protest plan was intentionally non-disruptive. Access to chat and audio was disabled from the start of the event, and every person who used their video had it shut off in a matter of seconds. Most notably, however, students were kicked off the Zoom call and permanently banned from the forum for various attempts at non-disruptive protest. Although digital protests are a new world for all of us, the AHF would have had no grounds for removing us from the room had this event been held in person and had we attended with the same intention to protest non-disruptively. How, then, is it acceptable that we were removed from this digital event? This blatant display of censorship — coming from a group of academics who pride themselves on being crusaders for free speech — was unacceptable and entirely antithetical to Middlebury’s purported values of open expression and “the right to assemble peacefully to evince dissent and to call on others to take action,” as stated in the Policy on Open Expression.

Furthermore, this is certainly not the first time that the AHF — with the influence of right-wing money and conservative agendas — has intentionally attempted to sow divisions in the Middlebury community. We see you, AHF, and we refuse to stand by as you platform white supremacist dialogue and harm members of our community in the process. We urge you to consider the dissonance between what you claim to stand for and your actions at last Thursday’s event — after all, your claims to free speech mean nothing if you deny others the right to dissent.

If we are to move forward on envisioning an inclusive community where our BIPOC students feel that they belong, then the student body and the administration need to critically reflect on the true intentions of the AHF and how their unchecked power to silence student voices contributes to a harmful campus culture. We echo the concerns of other BIPOC student advocacy groups and the demands listed by Kaila Thomas and Rodney Adams in their recent op-ed. We look forward to future conversations between students, professors and administrators that address the deep-seated racism on this campus, including the role that the AHF plays in perpetuating it. For now, we encourage students to bring your concerns to the Open Meeting on Anti-Racism, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion today at 7 p.m. on Zoom. We’ll see you there.

 

Claire Contreras ’22.5 and Divya Gudur ’21 are Co-Managers of Sunday Night Environmental Group. Madison Holland  ’21 is Co-Director of the SGA Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee.