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Middlebury’s President on the ‘Value of Discomfort’

At Middlebury College’s commencement last week, President Ronald D. Liebowitz delivered the 2007 Baccalaureate Address to the school’s graduating seniors, as is customary around this time of year in central Vermont. Rather than reciting the all-too-common collage of clichés reprised in so many graduation speeches, however, President Liebowitz used his bully pulpit to focus on what he terms the “value of discomfort” in a modern liberal arts education.

Specifically, in observing that “[d]iversity sure can be messy,” Liebowitz argues that “well-educated individuals like yourselves, who have been made to feel uncomfortable and understand difference, are more likely than others to figure out how to discern right from wrong, acceptable from unacceptable behavior, and know the difference between ethical and unethical conduct.” FIRE has made this precise point for years, and it’s refreshing to see a college president understand the value inherent in having students engage ideas they may find difficult, disagreeable, offensive, or unwanted. A college that allowed only popular and agreeable speech on campus would be either violating the First Amendment (at a public school) or wasting students’ money (at a private school).

While it’s worth reading Liebowitz’s speech in full, here are a few particularly on-point passages:

But greater diversity means change, and change on college campuses is almost always difficult. Few 18 to 22 year olds are skilled in inviting or tolerating perspectives that are vastly different from than their own. Frankly, the same goes for 30-, 40-, and 50-something-year-old academics. Even though a campus may become more diverse in terms of the numbers of underrepresented groups present, the level of engagement can still be inconsequential if those representing different viewpoints are not encouraged and supported to express them. If an institution is not prepared to make space, figuratively speaking, for previously excluded groups, and support their presence on campus, its diversity efforts cannot succeed. And if the wariness about discomfort is stronger than the desire to hear different viewpoints because engaging difference is uncomfortable, then the quest for diversity is hollow no matter what the demographic statistics on a campus reflect.

In order for the pursuit of diversity to be intellectually defensible and valuable to those seeking a first-rate education at places like Middlebury, it needs to result in deliberation. It cannot simply facilitate the exchange of one orthodoxy or point of view for another. The best liberal arts education requires all voices, those of the old order as much as those of the new, and even those in between, to be subjected to the critical analysis that is supposed to make the academy a distinctive institution in society.

What emerged from our discussions of the homophobic incidents, at least thus far, is hardly what one might call neat and tidy. There was, however, much learned beginning with a far greater awareness of the bigotry that exists here as it does in society at-large, and that we have considerable work to do if we truly aspire to be a community that welcomes diversity and wishes to learn from it. We also witnessed how easy it can be for some members of an aggrieved group to fall into the same kind of stereotyping from which they themselves have suffered. Diversity sure can be messy.

The controversy surrounding the acceptance by the College of an endowed professorship in American history and culture in honor of William Rehnquist is one more example of the complexities that come with an increasingly diverse community.

Because the former chief justice was conservative, and was on the side of several court decisions that ran counter to the positions held by several underrepresented groups on campus, there was a genuine feeling on the part of some that honoring Mr. Rehnquist was a repudiation of their presence on campus and a sign that the College did not value diversity. They felt, in their words, “invisible and disrespected” as a result of the College accepting the professorship. Though one can understand this perspective, especially given the history of underrepresented groups here and on other campuses, it is unfortunate that the Chief Justice’s accomplishments and reputation as a brilliant jurist by liberal and conservative constitutional scholars alike were lost in the opposition to his politics.

Ironically, the stance taken by those who believed it was wrong to honor the Chief Justice because of his position on particular court cases undermines the very thing the protestors support most passionately—diversity. Some couched their protests in the name of the goals of liberal education, arguing that the ultimate goal should be about “advancing” social change. I do not share in that narrow definition of liberal education, especially liberal education in and for the 21st century. Rather, liberal education must be first and foremost about ensuring a broad range of views and opinions in the classroom and across campus so that our students can question routinely both their preconceived and newly developed positions on important matters. Such deliberation will serve as the best foundation for enabling our graduates to contribute to the betterment of society.

In writing on the College’s alumni online listserv about the Rehnquist controversy and the reported opposition of some to President Clinton speaking at tomorrow’s Commencement ceremony, an alumnus from the Class of 2001 offered this perspective:

“I always thought that the benefit of a place like Middlebury was that it opened your mind and helped you become more informed by allowing (or, forcing) you to interact with, listen to, and learn from people [with] different opinions — even if that meant welcoming those you disagree with onto your own turf.”

I hope those of you in the audience who are graduating tomorrow have given, and will continue to give, this topic some thought. For sure, diversity is intellectually and socially challenging; it forces you to engage issues more broadly than you might otherwise. It often creates unintended consequences; and it surely can make one uncomfortable. But some discomfort, amidst all that is comfortable about Middlebury, is the best preparation for a successful entry into our increasingly complex global world.

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