Few people would be surprised if Middlebury College professor Laurie Essig took the opportunity to say a few choice things about her employer.
After all, until recently, her teaching career was in ruins. A panel of peers had criticized her work in the classroom. Last month Middlebury reversed course, admitting to “procedural errors” in her evaluation, and Essig was put back on the tenure track, which has traditionally been a license to speak freely in academia.
Nonetheless, Essig, who teaches gender studies, will only admit that she was ”perplexed” by the situation. “I know I’m a very successful professor,” she said in an interview at her campus office. “The only reason I’m in academics is because I want to teach.”
It turns out that a lot of students wanted Essig to teach at Middlebury, too. Shortly after she was fired in December, about 165 students joined a Facebook group dedicated to appealing the school’s decision; more than 400 signed a petition to college President Ronald Leibowitz urging that her teaching status be re-examined.
Molli Freeman-Lynde, a senior sociology major, said she helped organize the student campaign to save Essig’s job because she and other students were shocked by the decision to terminate her contract. “We were, like, ‘My God, this can’t be happening,’” Freeman-Lynde recalled.
Essig is unwilling to attribute ulterior motives to faculty members who critiqued her classroom performance. Not Freeman-Lynde, who said that, given what Essig brings to the classroom, campus politics may have played a part in her evaluation. She noted, for example, that Essig’s views on gender identity — that it is not necessarily physical but a product of learned behavior — may not have been shared by older faculty in the sociology department.
“Her teaching style and the critical theory she uses are threatening to the status quo at Middlebury,” Freeman-Lynde said. “She’s questioning social norms, and she’s been involved in campaigns on political issues.
“Laurie also doesn’t look like other professors,” Freeman-Lynde added, “and Middlebury wants people to dress and act a certain way.”
Essig, who describes herself as “openly queer,” acknowledged that her uncombed, short red hair and casual dress “may be off-putting to some on the campus.” But, she declared, “I’m not going to show up in a dress and pantyhose. That’s just not going to happen.”
Before coming to Middlebury College, Essig, 42, taught at the University of Vermont, Yale and Columbia, where she earned her doctorate. She has written for Seven Days and Salon, an online magazine. An activist opposed to the war in Iraq, Essig is co-founder of Burlington’s Queer Liberation Army, a group that stages antiwar actions featuring “queerleaders.” At Middlebury, Essig was critical of the college’s decision in 2006 to establish a professorship in honor of former U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist, which Essig describes as “symbolic violence against people of color.”
Essig doubts her activism had anything to do with the school’s initial decision to deny her tenure. However, one former Middlebury faculty member isn’t so sure. For Marc Garcelon, who said he was denied tenure at Middlebury in 2006, Essig’s treatment is an example of how the college tries to intimidate “freethinkers” on the faculty.
Garcelon, who now teaches at Yeshiva University in Manhattan, said that, as in Essig’s case, a review committee had graded his teaching as unsatisfactory. He acknowledged that his teaching performance was not strong in 2004 and 2005. But he attributed it to a stroke he suffered in 2003 after taking Vioxx, a pain medication that was later withdrawn from the market over safety concerns.
Nevertheless, Garcelon said, the Middlebury administration is intent on enforcing political and cultural conformity. He contends he was denied tenure because he played a key role in hiring Essig in 2006 and had been an outspoken critic of the Bush administration’s policies. Another aim of the college administration, he said, is to “prevent any sort of unionization” on the part of professors.
“Middlebury has a policy of hiring docile people and then terrorizing them,” said Garcelon, who has complained about his treatment to the American Association of University Professors, which, among other things, monitors academic freedom issues. An AAUP spokeswoman in Washington said the group has not opened an investigation into any complaints at Middlebury College.
By 2006, when he was notified that he had been denied tenure, Garcelon said that his teaching had once again been rated “above average” by students and peers. He pointed out that six members of Middlebury’s sociology and anthropology departments signed a letter to administrators on his behalf. “Marc Garcelon is a superb scholar and inspiring teacher who is beloved by many of our students,” the professors wrote. “The college’s decision will be impossible to explain without embarrassment to the academic world outside Middlebury.”
College officials declined to comment on Garcelon’s charges. Neither administrators nor members of the teaching-review panel would discuss the particulars of Essig’s case, citing the confidentiality of faculty assessments. According to college spokeswoman Sarah Ray, “The end result of the review and appeal processes was that they worked as they are designed to and that Laurie Essig was reappointed.”
Essig said she doesn’t agree with Garcelon’s views about how Middlebury treats its faculty members. She suggested, however, that many younger faculty members at Middlebury feel “constrained about what they can say inside and outside the classroom.” That’s likely due to uncertainty over the degree to which campus culture tolerates free expression, she said.
Such insecurities were not as widespread or as acutely felt at other institutions where she has taught, Essig said. However, she added that she does not know whether the atmosphere at Middlebury is comparable to that of other small, elite private colleges.
Essig conceded that, while her student evaluations were “excellent” and the sociology department had unanimously recommended she be retained, her unorthodox teaching style could have accounted for her negative review. She recalled that she showed a video featuring rapper 50 Cent on the day review-panel members visited her class.
Ben Grimmnitz, a senior sociology major from Maine, said Essig presented the video as part of a lecture on the social, cultural and economic contexts of money. “Laurie used that and some videos from YouTube very effectively,” Grimmnitz said.
According to Grimmnitz, Essig’s classroom style reflects her belief that “students today, and probably a majority of our society, receive information differently than was the case 50 years ago when books were the main sources of information.
“It’s not that she’s abandoned texts,” Grimmnitz said. “We certainly read and discuss books in her classes. It’s that the YouTube stuff gives us a different perspective on what we’re reading.”
Any administration attempt to corral the intellectual freedom of Middlebury faculty “would not be obvious to students,” Grimmnitz said. But, he added, every college “is going to try to maintain the status quo to some degree or another. “
For Freeman-Lynde, the outpouring of support for Essig from a campus with just 2400 students is a reflection of the respect and enthusiasm the professor inspires in the classroom. She said Essig challenges students to think for themselves and to push the boundaries of conventional thought.
“People find her class really revolutionary for their world views,” Freeman-Lynde said.