Column 50

I spent most of my life wanting to be more alone: wanting to leave neighborhood pickup whiffle ball games early so that I could instead go read a book, wanting my own bedroom at home instead of sharing with my brother, wanting to leave home for college and, once here, waiting anxiously to have a single. No roommate for me; I just wanted to be alone.

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That fantasy of seclusion is deeply carved into the American psyche, built into the narratives of every successful politician and every movie superhero. Even the Bible sends its protagonist to the wilderness for rebirth. We aspire to retreat into the backwoods when all else fails, and then to wall ourselves off in gated houses ringed by hedges when we succeed. While we work towards that lofty vision, we make do with white wires that plug music into our heads and lounges that have been converted into dorms because we don’t value the space that we provide as much as we value the contributions of a few more paying customers.

Even in our romantic efforts, such as they are at this place, we tend towards the solitary. There is no lonelier moment than the long walk home the day after a meaningless encounter, no deeper connection in a single drunken rendezvous with a stranger, where the conversation is scattered, not remembered, or entirely absent. We say that we would like to fix this, but we never take action to change.

We have become far too skilled at being alone together.

This is my fiftieth and final column for the Campus. While turning in my thesis last week might have seemed a more momentous occasion, these pieces stacked on top of each other would make a taller pile. In a little over a week I will ski down the Snow Bowl, pack my possessions into my car, and hope that it doesn’t break down on my way out of the state. I will finally have the option to be completely alone. I could call it soul-searching, or recharging, tell everyone that I need some space. But at long last, perhaps later than I might have hoped, I know that is not what I want.

We blaze trails not so that we might escape the world, but so that others might follow. Life is better with companionship. We are not born alone nor do we die that way; we are born into the embrace of our families and when we die they gather around to recount the happy moments of our lives, and the moments in between where we steal solitude from company are the moments most likely to later bear the tinge of regret.

As I move on into the next chapter, I do not regret the excesses of my time in college: the times that the night ended and the sun rose over the Green Mountains while my friends and I sat and talked about everything and nothing, the hours spent in Proctor over many tiny courses, or the morning classes that I blew off to head to make fresh tracks at the Snow Bowl. What I do regret are the times that I held back. I regret waiting until junior year to try out the sailing and debate teams. I regret waiting to join my social house and the Campus editorial staff until my senior spring, content for too long to contribute only this column. I regret valuing solitude and down time over team spirit and hard work.

The best friends that I have made here have been when I have taken a chance and given other people the chance to reject me flat out or welcome me into their circle. That may seem like an incredibly obvious point for a final column, but it is one that we only think about at orientation and I know too many people here with that same problem. Instead of complaining about hookup culture, ask somebody out the dinner, drinks or skiing. A shocking number of my male and female friends complain about the lack of dating at Middlebury. Too many seem to fear that the sheer act of asking reeks of desperation, but the regret of not acting far outlasts whatever embarrassment it might cause (especially if you don’t write about it in the Campus). Middlebury only changes when we do.

Some last shout-outs from my bully pulpit: Hannah — I was convinced that we would be at each other’s throats, but I have really looked forward to working with you every week to put this section together.  Kyle and Alex — you have done an amazing job this semester. Middlebury — fossil fuel divestment makes financial sense. Rachel and the SGA — please reconsider the community education requirement. Dining services — more taco days! To everyone who read “Apply Liberally” over the past four years — it’s been a pleasure. I leave you with the words of President Josiah Bartlett (D-Sorkinland):

What’s next? 

Illustration by Nolan Ellsworth

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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.

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.

9/11 Memorial Vandal Amanda Lickers Tied to Pipeline Opposition Organization Rising Tide Vermont

Amanda Lickers, leader of the protest that led to the uprooting of nearly 3,000 American flags planted to memorialize the victims of the September 11 attacks on the Middlebury Campus has worked with Vermont environmental organizations in the past familiar with her radical beliefs and tactics.

Amanda Lickers

Amanda Lickers

In an interview with the Addison Independent on Friday, Lickers claimed that she had been invited to the school by Associate Dean of Students for Student Activities & Orientation J.J. Boggs to lead a discussion on settler responsibility. But according to a former college official with knowledge of the protocol for bringing speakers to campus, this was not the case. That official says that “the Student Activities office assist student organizations in bringing speakers to campus, the staff do not initiate or invite speakers. The general procedure is that a student organization submits a request to the Middlebury College Activities Board (MCAB) Speakers Committee for review, and if approved it moves to Student Activities for a final review and contracting.”

Although Lickers is from Canada, she has worked in the past with environmental groups in Vermont. On August 2, Rising Tide Vermont, a grassroots organizations that claims to confront “the root causes of climate change”  and which has led the charge against the Vermont Gas Addison Natural Gas Project to build a pipeline between Burlington and Rutland posted a call on their Facebook page asking for help raising $1500 to bring Lickers to a rally held on August 17th and 18th. Continue reading