Community by Another Name

On Friday, a week into “new member education” — “pledge” for those not versed in doublespeak — the leadership of Kappa Delta Rho received a letter from Dean of Students Katy Smith Abbott stating that in response to “an allegation of potential hazing,” all functions of the house would be suspended for an indeterminate amount of time to allow for an investigation. Each new member — who at a less absurdly Orwellian institution might be accurately referred to as a “pledge” — was interviewed individually. In some cases, the interviews were conducted by officers from the Department of Public Safety. In most, however, they were run by an external private investigator, Nancy Stevens, at a cost to the student body that likely ran into the thousands of dollars. The investigation, unsurprisingly, found nothing; there was nothing to find. A similar investigation in the fall of 2011 also found that no hazing. It seems unlikely that an apology is forthcoming for either unnecessary investigation. It seems equally unlikely that actual guilt matters.

Various members of the college administration often wax eloquent about the need to foster a greater sense of community on this campus. Yet social houses provide one of the strongest and enduring sources of community on an otherwise transitory campus. Even the most fervent haters of Delta cannot argue that filling Prescott house with first-years and turning its party space into a classroom has somehow improved the Middlebury social scene. Super blocks are not an adequate substitute; a super block moves into an on-campus house for a single year and then vanishes, its members joined by friendship or convenience rather than an interest in being a part of something larger. The administration has attempted to remedy this problem by giving the Super Blocks a theme, but the dearth of actual programming along those lines shows that effort has largely failed.

When students join a social house, they become part of traditions and culture that have endured for decades. Attempting to make it impossible for the current members to pass these along to new initiates is to try and create a Middlebury with no institutional memory — where students come and go with no knowledge or interest in what came before and what will follow, where the stories of a house’s previous tenants vanish down the memory hole.

Social houses are not the repositories of white, male, conservative privilege often associated with Greek life on other campuses. Instead, these houses are some of the only institutions on a campus otherwise fiercely divided by race, class, and gender politics that bring a diverse membership together with a common interest in a space and a set of traditions. In this they have been much more successful again than the other block housing options, which are often composed by students who come from similar backgrounds.

By contrast, KDR is arguably the most diverse organization on campus in both race and socioeconomic status, rivaling interest clubs whose specific purpose is to promote cultural understanding. That breadth of cultural exposure isn’t found elsewhere on campus in a structured setting. If you don’t believe me, take a look at the composites next time you visit. A coeducational membership also creates a unique dynamic in social houses that can provide an example for Greek life across the country. The Middlebury chapter of Kappa Delta Rho was recently readmitted into the national fraternity as a full and equal chapter, where it serves a model for the future.

The social houses of Middlebury College are institutions of which we should be proud. Their existence should be a selling point to prospective students — part of a trend that began here. But instead of trumpeting the diversity and progressiveness of the houses here, tour guides barely mention their existence unless prompted. Instead, the administration throws a series of strict anti-hazing regulations of the social houses that hardly make sense. Scavenger hunts and walks through the woods suddenly become dangerous and illegal. If my friends were to blindfold me on the way to a surprise birthday party, I would presumably have a strong anti-hazing case against them. The administration claims to use a “reasonable person standard” and suggests the type of alternative activities that might be appropriate for a middle school slumber party. One of their recommendations was to make a scrapbook. If mandated scrapbooking is not hazing, then I do not know what is.

This is not to make light of actual hazing. Hazing is a dangerous crime. But in the social houses here at Middlebury — at least in those that are not underground – it simply does not happen. It is long pastime for the administration to cease using absurd allegations of hazing as an excuse to strain, malign, and ultimately destroy one of the best sources of the community on this campus.

Popping the Carbon Bubble

Last week in Oslo, Marius Holm of the ZERO Foundation presented a report that I co-wrote this summer along with a number of environmental and financial professionals making the case for fossil fuel divestment in Norway’s government pension fund, a portfolio so large that it dwarfs the size of all American university endowments combined. Many of the arguments were specific to Norway, which, as one of the largest producers of oil and gas in the world, is ill-advised to double down on its exposure to shifts within the fossil energy industry. As a fund that already has in place the type of Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) criteria for investment missing from Middlebury’s endowment, the debate in Norway is not over whether divestment is an appropriate tool for creating change, but rather how far that tool should be extended. While Middlebury would be well advised to lead the way by creating similar investment screens, even in the absence of concerns about endowment ethics the arguments for divestment in Norway can inform the ongoing debate on this campus.

- Art by Amr Thameen

– Art by Amr Thameen

Over the past six months, many market analysts have revised their predictions for future oil prices from around $110 per barrel to down into the $80 to $90 range. A number of factors are driving this downward trend — increased efficiency of automobiles, uncertainty over future regulations and a Chinese economy far more overleveraged than that of the United States prior to the financial crisis. All of these factors contribute to falling oil demand, which in a world of abundant oil supply means that prices must soon begin to fall.

At lower prices, many of the types of tar sands, ultra-deepwater and shale oil projects currently under development would fail to earn back their investment capital. Any regulatory action that limits carbon dioxide emissions will inevitably require some of these reserves — which have already been factored into the share value of oil companies — to remain in the ground. Expectations about reserves have a significant effect on the share price of fossil fuel companies. When Shell reduced its estimated reserves by 20 percent in January 2004, its share price plunged by 10 percent in a single week. These concerns recently led a large group of investors representing over $100 billion in assets managed by companies that include Boston Common Asset Management and Storebrand Asset Management to issue a call that Norwegian Oil Company Statoil withdraw from tar sands extraction.

World Financial Markets – and, by proxy, the Middlebury College Endowment – are being inflated by a looming Carbon bubble. If you accept that there is a scant one-in-four chance that the world will meet the IEA’s targets to limit global warming to two degrees Celsius, the expected value of the endowment’s position in fossil energy equities is already ten percent inflated.  The loss of value if climate change is defeated would be forty percent, which would affect the College’s ability to pay employees, undergo capital projects and award financial aid to deserving students.

The College Administration and Trustees no doubt have faith that, as professional investment managers, Investure will be able to anticipate the shift in fossil energy share prices before they actually arrive. But that poses a significant risk to the endowment – a risk that we would do well to avoid. When financial markets adjust to reflect the changing reality of fossil fuel use, the adjustment will not be smooth or gradual. It will come suddenly and leave those too slow to act with heavy losses. For some of the market, it already has. After an energy speech by President Obama that pledged increased regulation of power plants and an end to international development aid for non-Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) coal plants, the shares of coal companies including Peabody Energy and Walter Energy took dives of 3.4 and 10.4 percent respectively, adding to a year in which Peabody Energy has lost half its value and Walter Energy has lost three quarters. The Stowe Global Coal index, which lists coal-producing companies, fell the same day to its lowest level since the 2009 financial crisis. Utilities across Europe have similarly plunged unexpectedly in response to competition from renewable energy.

To be bullish on the future of the fossil fuel industry is the rough equivalent of a bullish outlook on the nuclear industry sometime after the alarm bells went off at Three Mile Island or after the wave headed for Fukushima. It is comparable to a bet on CFC-producing companies sometime between the discovery of the massive hole in the Ozone layer and the ratification of the Montreal protocol, or a bet on fax machines after the invention of the Internet. Coal and oil powered the 19th and 20th centuries. Their glory days are past. To bet on their future is to bet either against the future of humanity or against the overwhelming judgment of science.

The Sky Falling is a Bad Thing

All across America, Conservative commentators are jumping up and down, waving their hands in the air, pointing at glitches in the month-old roll-out of Obamacare and yelling “I told you so!” Republicans are so eager to turn attention away from their destructive shenanigans in the budget and debt ceiling debate that more column inches have been devoted to the launch of a website than at any other time in human history. None of them, of course, go so far as to suggest an alternative to fix the actual problem: the 50 million uninsured Americans who could go bankrupt at the first appearance of major illness.

One such offender was fellow columnist Ben Kinney ’15. His column of last week contained a number of the troubling factual errors that have characterized the entire debate. First was the assertion that he lost faith in the workability of the Affordable Care Act while watching Kathleen Sebelius flub an interview on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart just weeks ago. I understand as well as anyone the temptation to use a recent statement to jump into a column (case in point) but I suspect that Kinney belongs firmly in the camp of the Republicans rooting against the program — and doing their best to sabotage its success — from its inception.

More troubling was Kinney’s claim that “The Obama Administration has already spent half-a-billion dollars creating an unusable website…how can we trust it to effectively manage the complex and varied health care needs of 400 million Americans?” This would be a reasonable criticism, if it were in any way correct. Kinney overestimated the number of Americans by 83 million and the cost of the website by roughly $400 million according to the fact-checking website Media Matters. To be fair, he was not alone in this error; much like the $200 million-per-day India trip in 2010, the myth of the absurdly expensive website has flown through a gleeful conservative media looking for any shred of evidence to pin the President as an old-school tax-and-spend liberal.

Kinney’s later claims are less defective in their veracity than deceptive in their scope. He says that health insurance premiums under Obamacare are significantly higher than current premiums. This ignores the vast majority of owners of health insurance plans, who get their coverage through their employers, Medicaid, or Medicare. Those who will see their rates increase are the five percent of Americans who purchase their insurance as individuals and an additional five percent who previously had no health insurance. Some of those people were young, healthy and had previously opted not to purchase insurance. Unsurprisingly, buying health insurance instead of playing a literal game of Russian roulette with fatal illness represents a rate increase for those individuals. A quarter of people who previously did not buy health insurance were unable to do so due to a preexisting illness. For them, the coverage they will gain from the law represents the difference between a nonzero monthly cost and complete medical bankruptcy, or death.

Many of the cheaper plans purchased by consumers in this individual marketplace prior to the law cost less for a reason — they were the insurance equivalent of a shot of whisky and a prayer. They wouldn’t cover the cost of an ambulance or a night in the hospital, and they could be cancelled during treatment due to costs. Obamacare will subsidize the increased cost of health insurance for people making less than 400 percent above the poverty line, but that cannot get around the fact that owning usable health insurance will always cost more than useless or absent insurance — until disaster strikes.

Health insurance, plain and simple, saves lives. When Conservatives point to website glitches and the states across the nation who have refused to expand Medicaid to bring coverage to the uninsured and call Obamacare a failure, they’re ignoring the greater tragedy. The website will eventually be fixed. The states refusing to expand coverage have done so out of ideological spite. And in the richest nation in the world, Americans continue to die because they cannot afford to buy health insurance. Instead of pointing at these failings as a sign that the twice-elected President isn’t so great after all, how about working on a solution?

End the Middlebury College Feb Program

“What did you do over your Febmester?”

I looked around the room full of new acquaintances. One had traveled to Africa. Another had ridden on horseback across part of Patagonia. A third had trekked through Nepal. How could I match that? I’d simply enrolled in another college for the fall semester. Like many of my friends and classmates, I had never wanted to be a Feb. But I’d wanted to go to Middlebury since I first skied at the Snow Bowl. The stories you never hear are about the Febs who spent the fall working retail or starting college elsewhere, or who eagerly applied early decision and then sat at home while the rest of their friends left for their schools of choice. You hear about the Febs who went off to save the world; for many Febs, for many reasons, world travel is not an option. Although I later took a semester off to “follow my passions,” I simply wasn’t ready at 18. I had never left home on my own, and I wasn’t comfortable asking my parents for the money for such a trip.

When new Febs arrive at Middlebury, the initial exuberance quickly clashes with the reality of the situation. Regular first-years have a hall of peers, an FYC and a Commons system for support. New Febs do not. They are scattered in whatever space is available, often a long way away from potential new friends and sometimes with upperclassmen with whom they have little in common. Whatever integration they get into the Commons system feels like an afterthought at best. Middlebury, of course, has a way to spin this. Febs, they say, are independent-spirited leaders. What they really are, though, are first-year college students dealing with the same struggles as any other new student – sudden freedom, course loads, the omnipresence of alcohol – but with a lot less official support.

Febs are different than typical first-years in at least one way. We are almost exclusively white. There is a simple reason for this: the College only reports the diversity statistics of fall admits. Former Director of Admissions Bob Clagget said in a Campus article published in March 2010 that “we tend not to offer February admission to American students of color unless they specifically ask for it.” By taking in a lily-white February class, Middlebury looks much more diverse than we actually are. And in a time when Middlebury is straining to put forward a more diverse face, the Feb program is shockingly, publicly, unabashedly racist. There are country clubs in Mississippi with more minority members than the Feb classes.

Middlebury College is renowned for its language programs. February admission makes it difficult for students to take full advantage of these programs. Most introductory language classes start in the fall, and intermediate classes take place over J-term. By the time Febs arrive, they must either wait until their second semester to start a new language or take an accelerated option. For many Febs, this makes going abroad in language programs difficult, as they cannot achieve the required level of mastery by the spring of their junior year.

Although Febs tend to form a more tight-knit class than do the fall classes, this is out of necessity. By the time they come in midway through the year, the fall class has solidified their social circles, often centered around a common hallway or team experience. Many Febs also experience a sense of inferiority, as though they must overcompensate for whatever quality they lacked to allow them to come to Middlebury in the fall. These factors create an unnecessary distance between Febs and the rest of their classmates that often persists throughout the college experience, especially in the final semester when the rest of the class with which they identify has moved on.

The original public justification of the Feb program makes little sense. It is difficult to buy the argument that Febs are necessary to fill the beds of students abroad in the spring when the incoming classes merely serve to replace the outgoing Febs.

This is not to say that I am not grateful for my experience at Middlebury. I love this community, and the people who make it special. If I were to go through the college experience again, I would do nothing differently. Obviously, we should not prevent students from taking gap semesters or gap years if they so choose. But unless the only issue that Middlebury cares about is appearing more diverse on paper than in reality, the Feb program creates far more problems than it solves. It is time to phase out the program in favor of more integrated classes.

Roll the Windows Up on Cruz

Ted Cruz really does not want you to get health insurance.

Through a combination of snark and the type of false bravado that might trick his constituents into thinking that the Canadian-born Texas Senator actually was at the Alamo, Cruz, Utah Senator Mike Lee, and the Tea Party were able to convince the House of Representatives to pass a resolution to continue funding for the government but deny the necessary funding for the implementation of the Affordable Care Act – Obamacare. This represents the last chance for the wave of teabaggers who came into Washington promising to oppose the legislation at all costs to accomplish their goal and kill the bill.

Eric Cantor, previously my least favorite member of Congress, had initially suggested that the House pass and send to the Senate a stand-alone bill defunding Obamacare. This would have been a tough vote for red-state Democrats up for reelection and an easy vote for most Republicans. But that wasn’t high-stakes enough for Cruz: it would have easily been vetoed by the President and wouldn’t have gotten him a full calendar of talk show appearances. So instead he suggested that the measure be tied to the resolution funding the government. Failure to pass a funding resolution means the first government shut down since 1996. The House of Representatives passed that resolution last Friday.

Cruz has made a career of denying health care to those whose parents couldn’t pull quite as hard on their bootstraps as his did. His father began his political life as a supporter of Fidel Castro. After fleeing to college in the United States and making his fortune starting an oil company, he swung hard to the right to become a Tea Party hero and the father of the worse Senator since McCarthy. If that comparison sounds dramatic, you should know that it came from Senator John McCain, who, according to an aide, “f***ing hates Cruz.” By all accounts, he is not alone in his dislike for the Texan who wandered the hallways of his Princeton dorm room in a paisley bathrobe and who at Harvard Law refused to study with anyone who hadn’t attended Harvard, Princeton, or Yale (Sorry, Middlebury Republicans hoping to someday work with him. You should have gone to a better school). Continue reading