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.
As a result of outsourcing, however, the college has dispensed with total endowment transparency. While the Middlebury Investment Committee and Board remain involved in the decision-making process regarding asset allocation, guidelines, and strategy, the new structure places the day-to-day investment decisions in the hands of Investure’s money managers. Under this model, it’s very difficult to accurately screen for investments in arms manufacturers, military contractors, or fossil fuel companies.
Koplinka-Loehr, one of the students charged, believes it’s nearly certain that the College is invested in such companies. “Military contractors are the most profitable companies on the market,” he explained. “Without screens, it is without doubt that we are invested in them.”
The College has chosen not to specifically address this claim.
Though not directly affiliated with any outside movement, the students’ actions have come at a time when groups at approximately thirty colleges across the country are participating in the Divest for our Future campaign, a movement that calls for academic institutions to divest their direct or indirect ownership of fossil fuel stocks and bonds within five years.
“We feel that the call to divestment is urgent,” the five students stated in a joint opening statement at the hearing. “We believe that our method was successful in nonviolently and constructively creating a situation in which the nature of our endowment can no longer be ignored.”
The College disagreed, drawing a distinction between appropriate and inappropriate forms of activism on campus. “This case is about whether or not the College policies and our community standards were violated in the way in which the students chose to disseminate their views,” said Shirley Collado, Dean of the College in her opening statement. “We deeply support reasonable activism and critical discourse on campus. That free exchange needs to be done with integrity, honesty, and openness, and should not be cloaked in deception and dishonesty.”
The students, however, argued that they had been pushed to pursue more radical tactics as a result of the college’s unwillingness to move on divestment over the past half-decade. Saper and Koplinka-Loehr cited their work with the Socially Responsible Investment club (SRI), a student organization that has dialogued at length with the administration over the issue of endowment transparency. They explained that they had little to show after three years of work with the administration through SRI, and believed that the issue of divestment was essentially “off the table.”
Following the dissemination of the press release, faculty responses were mixed with regard to the actions taken by the students. During the hearing, the board heard from Peter Hamlin, a Professor of Music and one of the seventeen faculty members who co-signed an op-ed praising the students’ activism.
Hamlin described the administration’s initial response to the students’ press release as a “baffling kind of overreaction,” and warned that a strict sanction at the hearing might further stifle conversation and free expression on campus. He explained that he believed the students’ action to be an effective use of “political satire,” but cautioned that such tactics must be used sparingly.
Murray Dry, a Professor of Political Science, flatly disagreed, questioning the level of “critical thinking” that went into the dissemination of the fake press release. He wondered about the very presence of activism on college campuses. “Activism [has] two problems with it,” he explained. “First, it limits the practical questions, which are the important ‘what is to be done?’ questions, to the immediate needs or perceived needs of the relevant community. Second, liberal education should include books that seriously raise the theoretical or speculative question, ‘what is the case?’” He concluded that “an ‘activist’ orientation to liberal education provides no place for such inquiry.”
Students on campus shared similarly polarized perspectives. In an op-ed in the student-run paper, The Campus, Harry Zieve-Cohen called the students’ actions “childish” and “destructive,” and cited fears that the fake press release might derail the conversation between the more moderate SRI group and the college administration.
The students pushed back on this critique, however, arguing that the progress made by SRI has been nominal, amounting only to the appointment of a student liaison to the finance committee for the tri-annual board of trustees meetings.
While no formal justification was publicly announced for the guilty verdict ultimately levied, it was suggested that the members of the CJB made their decision based on the belief that the students had intentionally sought to impersonate the College. Upon finding guilt, the board opted for the most lenient sanction, dolling out an official College reprimand—little more than a slap on the wrist.
Moving forward, representatives from SRI, students from Middlebury’s Divest for our Future group, and the five of the self-titled, “Dalai Lama Welcoming Committee” will continue to push the College towards divestment. “I think it’s going to be a multidimensional approach,” said Molly Stuart, one of the students charged. “We've noticed that creativity is essential for drawing attention to urgent issues. So we’re sticking with a creative focus in order to keep the message alive.”