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How—in a world that increasingly feels like it’s under unmanageable stress—can we maintain the sense of community, and the actual communities, that we need to both help alleviate and survive those stresses? It’s a question that our country has been asking at least since January 6, with no great answer. How, to give just one tiny instance from this week’s news, do you deal with a former president trying to intimidate his jurors? And it’s a question that many of the nation’s colleges have been asking these past few weeks, as one campus after another struggles to figure out how to handle the protests connected to the unbearable tide of news from Gaza.

One answer to that question came this week from a community I love and work in, Vermont’s Middlebury College.

About a week ago, in the wake of the skirmishes at Columbia, students here set up their own encampment on the leafy college quad—right in the place, in fact, where commencement was scheduled to be held in a few weeks’ time. (In a touch that may help you situate the kind of college we’re talking about, many of the tents were borrowed from Middlebury’s Outing Club on the not-incorrect pledge that they’d be used for a ‘camping trip.’) So far, so standard—much the same thing was happening the same day on many other campuses, including the University of Vermont an hour north in Burlington, and Dartmouth, just across the Vermont border in New Hampshire.

But things happily diverged from the norm too. The students were calm, and so was the administration, with no one issuing ultimatums. At Dartmouth, by contrast, the administration immediately called in the police, who managed to arrest not only student journalists but one well-known professor. “Part of choosing to engage in this way is not just acknowledging—but accepting—that actions have consequences,” the president said, the kind of gruff soundbite that, predictably, polarized the campus. Like the melees at Columbia or UCLA, the president’s actions helped ensure that no one actually talked about the horror in Gaza, but instead about American law enforcement—I would guess there’s been as much written in the last week about crackdowns by campus police as about Israel’s decision to flatten Rafah.

Which is why it was so interesting to see what students and administrators at Middlebury were discussing as they began negotiating over the course of the week. Instead of battling over the initial demand to simply condemn the invasion of Gaza—something that by this late date is a kind of boilerplate—they apparently began talking about how they might make that ceasefire call more meaningful. To judge from the joint letter they released on Monday, they hit on the idea that it made great sense to talk about how the war was destroying Gaza’s colleges and universities, many of which have been reduced to rubble. Here’s the language from the joint letter that went out at the same time the tents were coming down. Titled “A Commitment to Common Educational Values,” it reads in part:

We share the value that each person has a right to pursue an education peacefully and without harm.

We call for an immediate ceasefire and an end to the violence.

We condemn the destruction and debilitation of educational institutions in the region and the increasing lack of access to education because of the violence. At their best, institutions of higher learning offer societies the tools for resolving the politics of our lives through nonviolent means. Education is also our best means of transforming discriminatory beliefs. We are committed to working with our students, faculty, and staff to proactively confront antisemitism, Islamophobia, anti-Palestinian, anti-Israeli, and anti-Arab discrimination, and hatred on the basis of national or ethnic origin. 

We condemn unequivocally the killing of all innocent civilians in Gaza and Israel, where no civil society, including educational institutions, can continue in the midst of such destruction. Palestinians and Israelis cannot learn in an environment torn by war.

Such a declaration seems well within the competence of a college administration, and for that reason far more compelling than abstract pronouncements about foreign policy. It’s especially powerful since it includes a pledge to “together…explore avenues to host…students in the region displaced by war and violence,” a promise made real by the fact that Middlebury already figured out how to take in a number of young women forced to end studies in Afghanistan by the return of the Taliban.

One reason for the general level of maturity at the campus may have its roots in something sadder: In 2017, a right-wing provocateur, Charles Murray, came to campus; instead of ignoring him, or figuring out some useful way to protest (a mass walkout of his lecture, say), students and outside allies shouted him down and then assaulted his party in the parking lot. It was one of the early episodes in the campus culture wars of recent years, drawing widespread national attention (helping to renew Murray’s profile). It also bruised the campus in profound ways.

But its then-new president, a religions scholar and poet named Laurie Patton, made it a priority to nurse community back to health. The rubric of years since, thanks to plenty of courses and seminars, has been “conflict transformation,” where arguments aren’t avoided, but instead conducted with as much mutual regard as possible. The best example may be the college’s response to demands for fossil fuel divestment (a fight I’ve watched up close at institutions around the world). After initially rejecting the idea, the college—prodded by students who knew its importance—circled back and decided to sell its stocks, combined with a new effort at campus sustainability (Middlebury should be net zero by 2028) and a renewed emphasis on teaching the physics and politics of climate change. (In the case of Gaza, the college, which says it currently has no investments in weapons manufacturers, promises to consider making that official policy.)

Students tested the boundaries of that “conflict transformation” idea when they set up tents on the quad: The implicit threat to block commencement was in some sense coercive. But the war in Gaza is so inhumanly terrible that you have to do something, and so they did—and they were both firm in their resolve and scrupulous about avoiding anything that might have seemed like antisemitism (the final document they agreed on reminds readers of the hostages still held by Hamas, and includes a commitment to “proactively confront anti-semitism, Islamophobia, anti-Palestinian, anti-Israeli, and anti-Arab discrimination”).

The statement of shared values ended with this sentence: “We are committed to a safe and joyful graduation where everyone and their families can participate.” I just wandered down to the former encampment site, and the grass is a little blotchy where the tents were spread, but that will serve as a good reminder that in this case the community held, and that together that community imagined a world where someday everyone might share such joy.

And something else happened during the week of the encampment that means it might matter more. Quite unconnected with the kerfluffle, Patton announced that she had accepted a new job: At the end of the year she’ll take over the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, among the most venerable learned societies in the United States and a place where academe can take stock of itself. So perhaps the Middlebury mood fostered by both students and administrators can spread.

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LESS DREADING, MORE DOING

This is the rubber-meets-road moment: the early days in our first fundraising drive since we took a big swing and merged with CIR to bring fearless investigative reporting to the internet, radio, video, and everywhere else that people need an antidote to lies and propaganda.

Donations have started slow, and we hope that explaining, level-headedly, why your support really is everything for our reporting will make a difference. Learn more in “Less Dreading, More Doing,” or in this 2:28 video about our merger (that literally just won an award), and please pitch in if you can right now.

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