MIDDLEBURY - "What's the reaction? People taking action!" "What's the solution? A campus revolution!"
Last Friday's demonstration outside Middlebury College President Ronald Liebowitz's office didn't quite constitute the campus revolution urged by 40 chanting students and half a dozen faculty members. But the protest against the establishment of a Justice William H. Rehnquist Professorship of American History and Culture did highlight the ongoing makeover of the elite college's student body.
"Middlebury has traditionally been a very civil place where people don't like to get on one another," Liebowitz observed after the outdoor rally had ended. In the past few years, however, students have become more outspoken, he noted, and despite being a prime target of this and several other recent protests, he says he's "delighted" by the change.
Liebowitz, the college's first Jewish president, attributes the surging activism partly to the growing diversity among those attending the 206-year-old institution. As recently as a few years ago, only 5 percent of students were members of American minority groups, Liebowitz pointed out. With the figure now at 32 percent, "different perspectives are being brought to the campus," he said.
Alexandra Garcia, a senior psychology major from Southern California, offered a dissenting perspective on the Rehnquist professorship. "Rehnquist supported school segregation. He was against women's rights and gay rights," she declared. "That's not consistent with the values contained in the college's mission statement." Garcia pumped her fists and stamped her feet as she led the protest's call-and-response.
Liebowitz announced on the occasion of a campus speech last month by Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts that the college had received an anonymous donation to create a professorship honoring Roberts' predecessor. Rehnquist, who served on the nation's highest court for 33 years, was a strict conservative who died last year at age 80.
"When a man fights against desegregating schools, that isn't a conservative viewpoint - it's immoral," senior Louis Lobel shouted as he stood beside a bed sheet painted with the words "Rehnquist Does Not Represent Us." Lobel added, "When a man prohibits anyone of 'the Hebrew race' from buying his house, that's not conservative - it's immoral."
The first reference is to Rehnquist's 1952 defense of the separate-but-equal doctrine long used to justify racial inequality in U.S. public schooling. Lobel was also referring to Rehnquist's 1974 purchase of a summer home in Greensboro, Vermont, which had a deed prohibiting its sale or lease to "any member of the Hebrew race."
"Rehnquist voted against gay rights in every case that came before him," added professor Kevin Moss, chairman of Middlebury's Russian department. Moss said he had joined the protest because "as a member of the gay and lesbian community at the college, I felt that naming a professorship for Rehnquist was not a good signal for the college to be sending."
Middlebury trumpeted that move, Moss continued, "but whenever we do something for gay rights as an institution, it's done quietly. Nobody tells."
In addition to denouncing their school's formal association with Rehnquist, the demonstrators were calling for creation of a professorship in the name of some figure who, they said, would be more emblematic of Middlebury's stated commitment to diversity and critical analysis.
Noting that Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., had been among those suggested as an apt honoree, Liebowitz said he would solicit donations for such a professorship. "One of our goals is to add posts to the faculty, so of course I'd be willing to do that," the president said.
Liebowitz also challenged the claim that naming a professorship for Rehnquist contradicts the college's values, saying, "I question whether on a campus of 250 faculty members and 2450 students it's possible to speak of a single set of values." While noting, "I myself don't share Mr. Rehnquist's politics," Liebowitz insisted that the late justice is worthy of the honor the school has conferred on him. The president cited Rehnquist's standing as a scholar of the U.S. Constitution as well as his importance in American culture and politics.
Others suggest that the donation establishing the professorship has a personal dimension. Tim Spears, dean of the college, is Rehnquist's son-in-law.
It's not clear what impact, if any, the name attached to the professorship will have on the college's academic life. Some faculty members see irony in the decision to appoint Middlebury history professor James Ralph as the first holder of a Rehnquist professorship. Ralph's research is focused on the civil-rights movement.