MIDDLEBURY — As Middlebury College wraps up its academic year, a contingent of student protesters is feeling anxious about more than just looming finals.
The college’s disciplinary process for some students involved in a March protest of an appearance by controversial author Charles Murray grinds on with little transparency as to what sanctions students are facing.
Protesters shouted Murray down and continued to disrupt his visit after his lecture was moved to another location to be livestreamed. Some protesters, whom college officials said they believe to be outside agitators, injured professor Allison Stenger as she tried to escort Murray to a car after his talk.
The college identified more than 70 students who could face disciplinary action, and 41 of those students “accepted disciplinary sanctions” for their involvement, according to a Friday news release from the college. The release doesn’t spell out those sanctions.
The release says more students could receive letters calling them in for judicial hearings in the coming days.
Sarah Ray, director of media relations for Middlebury College, said Monday that the school won’t comment on the nature of the sanctions until the process is complete.
“We hope to have this process complete by the end of the academic year,” which is later this month, Ray said. “We’ll have further comment later when the process is complete.”
In addition to the 41 already sanctioned, 19 students had a group hearing Thursday before a college judicial affairs board. Middlebury students described the group as campus activists who were among the organizers of the Murray protest.
More than 75 students gathered in solidarity with their peers Thursday outside the building where the hearing was to be held.
One of the students in that hearing, Samantha Lamont, said last week that she was unclear whether the college had placed her on academic probation after an initial meeting with officials from judicial affairs.
Academic probation would mean students had violated policies in the school’s student handbook. If they were to do so again, they could be issued a letter of official college discipline, which would go on their transcript.
Lamont could not be reached Monday to comment on the outcome of Thursday’s hearing.
The college indicated it would come down harder on students who continued to protest during the livestreaming of Murray’s speech. In its Friday statement, college officials said the judicial board has decided “the second stage of the protest behaviors merited stronger sanctions.”
Ray declined to comment on the college’s reasoning, and because the college won’t comment on the nature of the sanctions generally, it’s unclear what those stronger sanctions amount to.
Students said this group faced academic probation, a move they characterized as arbitrary.
Lamont said that during her initial meeting with officials from judicial affairs, she was shown cellphone video of herself at the protest but that it merely showed her walking around. A school official asked her what she was doing, and she said she couldn’t remember.
Other students said their friends who are being disciplined were also shown video of themselves from the protest.
On Twitter Thursday, Murray said he hasn’t commented on the student discipline process in hopes the college would have a “strong” response, adding that he’s no longer optimistic that will be the case.
I kept quiet to make it as easy as possible for Middlebury to take a strong stand. And because of Allison and Bill. Wasn't ever optimistic. https://t.co/2KYnhGoxvL
— Charles Murray (@charlesmurray) May 4, 2017
School officials were taking no chances Thursday, with campus security blocking off an area roughly the size of a tennis court, reportedly to ensure the entrance to the hearing site was not blocked.
Campus security and Middlebury police were on hand to observe the gathering, which was peaceful. The supporters cheered for the students as they arrived with a small group of faculty who were reportedly there to serve as character witnesses during the hearing.
Students said Thursday that the weeks following the protest have been an anxious time, as many wait to see if they will be called in for disciplinary hearings.
“It’s been a horrible two months,” said Aliza Cohen, a 21-year-old senior philosophy major. “I think the student protesters feel totally unsupported by the administration.”
Several students said they felt the national media coverage ignored the campus-specific context of the Murray protests, instead opting for a convenient narrative of angry students trampling a controversial speaker’s right to free speech. Murray is best known for the 1994 book “The Bell Curve,” in which he and a co-author wrote about racial differences in intelligence. His newer book “Coming Apart” is about class division in the United States.
Lamont said tensions over racial and social justice issues on campus were simmering long before Murray arrived. Muslim students found their doors defaced in the wake of President Donald Trump’s executive order banning travel to the U.S. by citizens of several Muslim-majority countries, and similar incidents had left many on edge.
Murray had also visited Middlebury in 2007. That time, a number of students gathered in the front row to engage Murray during the question-and-answer portion of the event, according to Lamont.
Far from engaging in a debate with them, Lamont said, Murray was dismissive and made derisive comments suggesting some of the students would be better served at community college rather than Middlebury.
Given that history, and a sense that minority voices on campus were being ignored, the protest organizers had decided they would shut down Murray’s talk after efforts to have his invitation withdrawn were unsuccessful, she said.
“We did try to talk with administrators asking for negotiations (before Murray arrived) and didn’t get a very receptive response. It was met with defensiveness,” Lamont said.
“A shutdown seemed like the only way to make our voice heard,” she added.
Students said the administration had done nothing to provide the context to news outlets. While some faculty have supported the student protesters, others have thrown them under the bus in national media interviews, students said.
Lamont said last week she was feeling exhausted by the national news coverage and the confusing and protracted disciplinary process. Several other students echoed that sentiment, saying the fallout has dominated campus life for many of them.
“It’s been an inescapable issue at school and at home,” said Jeremy Alben, a 22-year-old junior majoring in gender, sexuality and feminist studies. Alben said many students had to field questions from friends and family over the college’s recent spring break.