Students reprimanded for prank urging college to divest
MIDDLEBURY — Dana Auditorium at Middlebury College overflowed last Thursday, as the college held its first judicial board hearing open to the broader college community in more than five years.
Five students defended their actions last month when they posed as the college’s communications office and distributed a mock press release under the guise of the “Dalai Lama Welcoming Committee.” The fake press release stated that the college would divest from weapons and fossil fuels in honor of the Dalai Lama’s October visit.
After a six-hour hearing, seniors Jay Saper and Sam Koplinka-Loehr, sophomores Molly Stuart and Amitai Ben-Abba and junior Jenny Marks were found guilty of violating community standards of respect and integrity outlined in the College Handbook, as well as a clause related to “ethical and law abiding behavior,” according to a statement released by the group after the hearing. They were issued a reprimand, which translates to unofficial college discipline.
Middlebury College officials had no comment on the outcome of the proceedings.
At the heart of the issue was the college’s endowment, which had a market value of $881 million in June; the college’s operating budget is $272 million annually. Out of the total endowment, $864 million is managed through a third party company, Investure, which does not disclose its portfolio. The students’ concern is that the college is investing in weapons and fossil fuels despite its stated values of environmental activism and global peace building.
Divestment is not without precedent — in the 1980s, at the peak of U.S. activism against apartheid in South Africa, colleges and universities across the country, including Middlebury, divested from South African companies as a protest.
While the mock press release was signed by “Tim Shornack” — a name that many people quickly realized did not exist in the Middlebury College directory — Stuart, Saper, Koplinka-Loehr, Ben-Abba and Marks came clean in an Oct. 16 public letter and claimed responsibility for the hoax.
“We apologize for creating an excitement that is not yet warranted, and call on the college community to take action,” the group wrote.
The college objected to the students’ method, calling it a “deceptive means to achieve a desired end” in an Oct. 17 statement.
During Thursday’s hearing, the students defended their action.
“Our method is inextricably bound to our message,” the group said in a shared opening statement, which they took turns reading. “We feel that the call to divestment is urgent. 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. Tension is necessary for growth. We have seen negotiation stalled for many years now. And so, we stand by our method, and we hope that it will provide the gust of wind necessary to open the doors to swift negotiation.”
Four faculty advisers attended to assist the students with their defense: Laurie Essig, associate professor of Sociology and Women and Gender Studies; Mike Olenick, professor of Mathematics; Tara Affolter, visiting assistant professor of Education Studies; and Sujata Moorti, professor of Women and Gender Studies.
While Essig, Olenick, Affolter and Moorti were not allowed to speak to the students during the proceedings, they were permitted to pass them notes and written materials.
The hearing began at 3 p.m. and continued until just past 9 p.m. with scheduled breaks every hour and a half. It was open to the Middlebury College community and had a high turnout. Dana Auditorium’s 272 seats were all occupied before 3 p.m.; students filled a line of couches in the lobby, while others milled around or leaned against their backpacks, waiting for the audience to thin out during an anticipated 4:30 p.m. break.
Cell phones and electronic devices were not permitted, preventing student publications from live-blogging the event.
“While this is a standard regulation for college judicial hearings, at yesterday’s hearing, this restriction was of particular importance,” said Sarah Ray, Middlebury’s director of public relations. “One of the students charged with handbook policy violations participated via Skype and speakerphone. Dana Auditorium’s wireless system cannot support the extensive usage of technology, and audience members’ use of electronic devices could have compromised the ability of this student to participate in the hearing.”
Additionally, Ray said, the hearing was “public” to the Middlebury College community, but not to the outside public. Allowing extensive blogging or tweeting could have “disrupted the hearing and in effect made it open to the public — not just faculty, staff, and students — which would not have been in accordance with the college’s handbook policy.”
Accordingly, reporters from Seven Days and the Addison Independent were not permitted inside.
Though reactions among students exiting the hearing were mixed in terms of support for the “DLWC” (which was how many continued to refer to the five students in the so-called Dalai Lama Welcoming Committee), it was clear that interest in the topic of divestment was high.
“(The DLWC) pointed out a very important irony,” said senior Wyatt Orme, referring to the apparent discrepancy between the college’s public commitments to peace and clean energy and its presumed investments in the weapons and fossil fuel industries. “But I was not all that interested in their opening statement. I thought it was emotional. It didn’t stick to any of the claims made against them, it gave a recapitulation of social history since the beginning of time, and I didn’t think that was necessary.”
Oscar, a senior who asked that his surname be withheld, said he thought what the DLWC had done was “wonderful.”
“We need to have more transparency,” he said. “They really needed to call attention to this issue. There are other ways, but they are less effective.”
As for the proceedings?
“I get the feeling that has more to do with the technicalities instead of the message that they wanted to send us,” Oscar said. “However, (the DLWC) have tried really hard to send the message … that we need to stick to our ideals and do what we believe is right in this college.”
Some students, including junior Ji Eun Lee, simply came out of curiosity.
“I just wanted to hear both sides, from the students and the schools, about this issue,” Lee said. “I got the email on the day when everyone got it. I was a little confused and I was wondering whether it was true or not.”
The DLWC was encouraged by the high level of interest.
“We were inspired by our community coming out to support this important cause,” Saper said.
The trial, for Saper, was “an opportunity to further educate people about our motivations, to articulate that what we did was because of the traditions of this school that we are inspired from, that we can build from.”
Moving forward, Saper said the students would hold a large assembly on Friday afternoon, for interested students and others at the college to discuss ways to continue to pressure the college to divest its endowment from war and the fossil fuel industry. He noted that the senior class was already being asked to donate to the college, but that some students had expressed unease with giving money when they had no way of knowing if the endowment would invest their donation in ethical companies.
On the whole, the college community seemed pleased with the outcome of the hearing, despite the guilty verdict.
“We told them we respect the experiences of all individuals who were offended by our actions, and that we are willing to validate their feelings in person. We also expressed that we found their decision ethically wrong because it disrespects the victims of our endowment, those who are dealing with war rather than a judicial board,” the DLWC wrote in a statement after the hearing.
“We are deeply moved by the many community members who supported us from the beginning, and to those who expressed a reversal in opinion post-trial that allowed them to question their fears and biases toward authority,” the group added.
“I am so very glad that the institutional response was not to suspend or expel these students since what they have done is force all of us to imagine a world where divestment is possible,” said Essig, one of the DLWC’s faculty advisers at the hearing. “I am inspired by their commitment to creating a better world and a better Middlebury.”
Students in the audience were also impressed by the energy generated by a public hearing itself.
“It was fascinating,” said senior Gabby Arca. “The energy was incredible, people were really into it. (The audience) was silent in there.”
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