At Middlebury, Embarrassing the Administration Has a Cost

By October 30, 2012

Middlebury College, a private institution in Vermont, has decided to teach its students a lesson about the cost of dissent and the danger of criticizing the powers that be. 

Here’s the story in a nutshell: Earlier this month, the Dalai Lama visited Middlebury, and in advance of his visit, local media outlets received a press release that appeared to be from Middlebury. The release, which contained Middlebury’s logo and purported to be from "Tim Schornak" of the "Dalai Lama Welcoming Committee," trumpeted eye-catching news:  "Middlebury College Divests from War in Honor of Dalai Lama Visit." The lead paragraphs, complete with a quote attributed to Middlebury President Ron Liebowitz, read as follows:

Middlebury, VT – Amidst excitement surrounding the visit of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, Middlebury College has chosen to demonstrate ethical leadership in fully divesting its endowment from war. The spiritual leader of Tibet, who won the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize for opposing the use of violence, is speaking at Middlebury this weekend on the topic of "Cultivating Hope, Wisdom and Compassion." The college finds this divestment to be the most fitting way to welcome the Dalai Lama and to align its money with its mission.

According to Middlebury College President Ron Liebowitz, the purpose of the talks is to help people explore resources for hope, optimism, and cooperation, while challenging them to lead lives of courage and engagement. "We are deeply honored that the Dalai Lama, a man of peace who embodies these qualities, is coming to Middlebury," said Liebowitz.

But the website MiddBlog reported that the college did not appear to employ a "Tim Schornak," nor was there any record of an official "Dalai Lama Welcoming Committee" at Middlebury. When contacted for comment, college officials quickly labeled the press release a hoax.

The next week, following the Dalai Lama’s visit, a group of five Middlebury students identified themselves as the "Dalai Lama Welcoming Committee" and took responsibility for the letter. In an October 16 blog post, the students "came clean," writing in part:

On Friday, October 12, 2012, Middlebury College welcomed His Holiness the Dalai Lama to campus.  An announcement was made that in honor of the visit from the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize Recipient, the College had chosen to demonstrate ethical leadership in divesting its endowment from war and environmental destruction. In reality, the satirical notice about Middlebury’s divestment was written by us, a group of students concerned that the College embraces practices inconsistent with its own proclaimed values. We apologize for creating an excitement that is not yet warranted, and call on the college community to take action.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama told the College, "Education is supposed to reduce the gap between appearance and reality." Our intent was to bring attention to the unsettling reality that Middlebury has millions of dollars invested in industries of violence, while we appear to stand for universal compassion and peace.

In response, Middlebury officials issued a statement of their own, announcing the launch of an investigation and warning of disciplinary action:

Middlebury College Statement
Oct. 17, 2012

Last week, a small group of students circulated a fake press release on Middlebury’s endowment practices, purportedly from the college’s Communications Office. The college appreciates that these students have now admitted to creating the fake release. We do not believe, however, that the Dalai Lama’s message about working toward a more peaceful world sanctioned the use of deceptive means to achieve desired ends.  Neither that release nor a statement sent to the media by the students on Tuesday, Oct. 16, came from the Middlebury College Office of Communications, and the students are not members of any official "Dalai Lama Welcoming Committee."    

The college takes seriously its community standards and policies related to communicating with honesty and integrity, respect for others, and the responsible and ethical use of library and information services and electronic messages.  The college is investigating this matter and whether those policies were violated in this instance, and will take disciplinary action if warranted.

As an institution of higher education, Middlebury College welcomes and encourages critical discourse and learning opportunities guided by mutual respect, including discussions of its endowment management policies. The college held an open session last year to talk about the endowment and investment strategy with students and other members of the college community. The gathering was spirited and informative and demonstrated how committed some students are to working with the administration to ensure that our financial health and goals are in line with the college’s mission. We plan to continue fostering open, well-informed discussions on this topic and other important issues facing the college. We do not sanction misuse of college resources, however, in whatever form that takes.

As signaled in the statement, Middlebury levied charges against the group. On October 19, the students were charged with violating seven different college policies, including "Communicating with Honesty and Integrity," "Responsible Use of Computing and Network Service and Facilities," "Ethical and Law-Abiding Behavior," "Respect for Others," and "Guidelines for Appropriate Use of All Campus Electronic Mail Messages." A hearing for the students is scheduled for this Thursday, November 1. 

Reviewing the litany of alleged policy violations reveals an uneven quality to Middlebury’s charges against the students. For example, the "Communicating with Honesty and Integrity" policy states that "providing information to any member of the College staff or faculty that an individual knows or reasonably should know is false or misleading is prohibited." If the press release was sent to college staff or faculty, Middlebury appears to have a fairly straightforward case to make.

But other charges are on shakier ground. For example, Middlebury’s "Ethical and Law-Abiding Behavior" policy prohibits "[i]nappropriate actions using computers," including "fraud," which the college defines as "misrepresenting yourself or falsifying your identity to gain use of computers, sending electronic messages under a false address, and using others’ accounts without permission." There’s little indication that the students’ press release ran afoul of these prohibitions. It does not appear that the students "misrepresented" themselves to "gain use" of college computers or used any account without permission. Middblog reports that the press release was sent from a Gmail account labeled "College Office of Communications," not a college address. And if an off-campus Gmail account’s label constitutes a "false address," Middlebury has empowered itself to punish a wide swath of satirical and/or anonymous student speech online.

Similarly, Middlebury’s broad "Respect for Others" policy requires that users "avoid libel, obscenity, undocumented allegations, attacks on personal integrity, and harassment," among other regulations, but the press release hoax doesn’t comfortably qualify as any of those violations. And while the college has charged the students with violating the "Guidelines for Appropriate Use of All Campus Electronic Mail Messages," which governs mass mailings to the campus community, the students claim that the email was not sent to all students, rendering the policy inapplicable.

Looking beyond the relative merit of each of the individual charges the students will face this week, one could argue that Middlebury has made a mistake in choosing to prosecute the students instead of taking the opportunity to spark a campus dialogue on the limits of parody, satire, and political activism. (Or more accurately, to engage with and participate in that conversation-which is occurring anyways, as Middblog‘s reporting makes clear.) The administration’s heavy hand sends a chilling message. In pursuing discipline instead of discussion in this instance, Middlebury has effectively chosen to teach its students a clear lesson about the dangers of criticizing the status quo. This is a surprising choice for an institution that cautions in its "Community Standards" that "[f]aculty and administrative officials should ensure that College authority is not used to inhibit that intellectual and personal growth of students, fostered by the exercise of the rights of citizenship, both on and off campus."

The "rights of citizenship" are not unlimited. Students who violate college policy, just or unjust, must expect to receive punishment, and I often remind students who wish to engage in direct action or civil disobedience that such efforts have moral power precisely because they signal a participant’s willingness to accept punishment for deliberately violating an unjust law or standing for a cause. But here, even Middlebury’s strongest charge, the violation of the "Communicating with Honest and Integrity" policy, could be sharply discounted in terms of moral culpability in light of the students’ subsequent claim of responsibility. Middlebury’s charges seem more appropriate for students who were promulgating a Ponzi scheme, rather than simply running up to (and potentially over) the boundary of protected political satire.

I suspect the choice to proceed with discipline is motivated in significant part by the administration’s likely embarrassment at being criticized by students prior to a high-profile visit from an international dignitary. FIRE’s case archives readily demonstrate that many campus administrators do not like being publicly criticized or questioned and will unjustly punish students for such speech. (Just ask Hayden Barnes, Roman Caple, or Southwestern College professors.) But Middlebury’s stated commitment to teaching its students about the rights of citizenship should counsel against a prosecution fueled by anger or embarrassment. As Middlebury considers the charges it has levied against the five students, it should remember the importance of protecting political speech on campus, seize the opportunity to teach students where lines separating protected satire from actionable fraud and impersonation might reasonably be drawn, and avoid the temptation of imposing punishment to assuage embarrassment. 

Schools: Middlebury College