On the heels of a visit by His Holiness the Dalai Lama to Middlebury College in Vermont, the institution charged five students with violating its handbook policies by disseminating a satirical press release—a radical form of activism that has challenged the values of the progressive liberal arts school.
In the fake release, sent by email to over 150 local and national media outlets, Tim Schornak, a nonexistent administrator invented by the students, claimed that the College had decided to divest from the arms and fossil fuel industries. “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 document read.
After the Vice President for Academic Affairs alerted the campus community that the document was a “hoax” and that an investigation would be undertaken to determine how it came to be circulated, the five students—Molly Stuart, Jay Saper, Sam Koplinka-Loehr, Amitai Ben-Abba and Jenny Marks—posted a “coming clean” letter at various locations across campus and on their blog, identifying themselves by name and class year. They explained that the fake press release and the letter were crafted together, and were intended as two parts of one large action.
Days later, the students were charged with having failed to act with “honesty and integrity” according to the College’s “General Conduct” policy, and committing three separate violations to the college’s “Responsible Use of Computing and Network Service and Faculties” policy. During the six-hour public hearing that followed, the first such open judicial process in half a decade, the five accused spoke before the Community Judicial Board (CJB) and a capacity crowd in the College’s largest auditorium. Upon a finding of guilt, the CJB would have the power to deliver a wide range of sanctions, from written reprimand to immediate expulsion. The students defended themselves against the charges, noting that the hoax was designed to call attention to the “hypocrisy” of the College’s position on sustainability.
Middlebury is widely considered to be one of the most environmentally friendly colleges in the country, using energy generated by an on-campus biomass treatment facility, sourcing 20 percent of all food locally, and marketing a goal of carbon neutrality by 2016. Such initiatives and goals, the students argued, are undermined by the college’s investments.
In May 2005, Middlebury outsourced the management of its endowment to Investure LLC, an investment management company with an aggregate portfolio of approximately $9.1 billion, as of February 2012. By relying on Investure, the college allows a team of professionals to manage and pool its investments, enabling the college to realize investment opportunities usually afforded only to larger institutions with more sizable endowments.