When Arabic Middlebury Language student Amitai Ben-Abba '15 attended an informational session hosted by an organization with which he fundamentally disagreed, the question was not if he would voice his opinion, but how.
Ben-Abba attended the eight-week Arabic Middlebury Language School at Mills College in California this summer. During the seventh week of classes, on July 29, two recruiters from the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) held an information session for students. Students could subsequently sign up for individual interviews the next day if they wished to ask additional questions.
"I listened respectfully when the CIA officers spoke," Ben-Abba wrote in an open letter to the Dean of Middlebury Language Schools (MLS) on August 8. "I raised my hand during the Q&A section, awaited my turn, and when called upon, asked: 'If accepted to work for the CIA, would we also be involved in destabilizing regimes, kidnapping people, torturing them and sending them to secret prisons around the world?'"
The information session was scheduled to last two hours and to give a general overview of CIA operations, as well as possibilities for internships or employment. During the second hour of the presentation, a few students, including Ben-Abba, began criticizing the operations of the CIA, including its use of "enhanced interrogation techniques." Once other students with differing opinions joined the debate, creating heated student-to-student discussion, the CIA officials decided to cut the information session one hour short.
Several students who attended the event expressed to The Campus their disappointment that the session was cut short, which impeded their ability to learn more about job opportunities at the CIA. These students spoke to reporters under the condition that The Campus not publish direct quotes.
Ben-Abba does not feel that he or his colleagues deprived students of an opportunity to learn more about the CIA, noting that the CIA officials "stayed long after the session and answered questions to anyone who came up to them."
On Aug. 7, Ben-Abba was sent a notice of possible violation of Middlebury Demonstrations and Protests Policy and Respectful Behavior Policy by Dean of the Language Schools Stephen Snyder. The notice, which is posted on Ben-Abba's Facebook page, alleges that Ben-Abba and the other student asked about "torture, Guantanamo, and toppling regimes" and that they "told their peers in the audience they should be ashamed for being present at the session." The notice also mentioned that a CIA recruiter "[w]as heckled," and that "one student took a photo of the signup sheet and was escorted outside where Mills Public Safety asked [the student] to delete the picture."
The night before his Arabic final exam, on Aug. 8, Ben-Abba crafted a response to Snyder, posted on his Facebook page, in which he denies the latter three accusations.
"Some of the students who complained to you may disagree with the tone or content of my questions, but that is not cause to discipline me. In fact, to police my speech by threat of disciplinary action contradicts with the very policy I am accused of violating, which clearly states that students are 'free to examine and discuss all questions of interest to them,' both publicly and privately,'" Ben-Abba wrote, referencing Middlebury's Demonstrations and Protests Policy.
The next day, Ben-Abba heard from Snyder that he was found not responsible for violating college policy. While the news was a relief to Ben-Abba, he wrote in a Facebook post that he was also alarmed "that Middlebury [was] willing to charge at least one student with false allegations rather than address the issue at hand."
The damage to free speech, Ben-Abba wrote, was already done, potentially deterring students from voicing critical opinions in the future.
"I wish Middlebury took its own mission of ethical citizenship seriously," Ben-Abba said. "I wish it protected dissident students who are committed to this mission rather than rush to fulfill the demands of students who support and seek employment with US imperialism."
According to Snyder, the CIA information session is not unique in language school programming.
"Employers come to campus every summer as well as during the academic year to hold information sessions about employment opportunities for Middlebury students," Snyder said. "The CIA came to campus as one of those employers."
In the aftermath of Ben-Abba's disciplinary notice, which was shared widely on social media among members of the Middlebury community, a coalition of current and former Middlebury Language School students and faculty wrote a petition entitled "To Middlebury Language Schools: End CIA Partnership," demanding that MLS not renew its partnership with the CIA and make a commitment not to collaborate with the CIA in the future.
The petition reads, "Despite [its] mission, MLS has welcomed the CIA into our community for decades, allowing the Agency to conduct recruitment and information sessions at its programs at Mills College in Oakland, California and Middlebury College in Vermont. The CIA's presence undermines the spirit of MLS, and we unequivocally condemn this partnership. In pursuing its mission of collecting intelligence and conducting covert action, the CIA has a known record of human rights abuses and international law violations."
The petition states that the longstanding relationship between the CIA and MLS implies an "institutional endorsement" of the organization. The petition also states that the CIA information session has been the only "career oriented event for MLS students," a claim that Snyder refuted in an email to The Campus.
According to Snyder, the CIA has conducted information sessions at Middlebury "off and on since the 1980s, at both the college and the Language Schools, and consistently for the last ten years."
"Middlebury's Center for Careers and Internships arranges multiple employment sessions for Language School students, as it does at the college during the academic year," Snyder said.
After language schools ended, several of the students who had attended the information session had a teleconference with Snyder on this subject.
"We had a meeting with students interested in pursuing this issue of helping the college end its relationship with the CIA," Ben-Abba said. "It seems like [Snyder] took us seriously, and as soon as possible he's going to talk to the provost and other deans about this issue and take it forward."
However, Snyder said he is not planning to make changes to CIA-related programming.
"We are not considering changing Language School's relationship with the CIA or any other current employer that abides by Middlebury's recruiting policies and procedures," Snyder said. "This would hold for the college as well."
For Ben-Abba, his disciplinary record having escaped unscathed, the whole incident is an example of the power of student activism.
"Because disciplinary action is fundamentally political and arbitrary, student activists should be as wildly creative and imaginative as possible in achieving their goals," Ben-Abba said. "Students have a lot of power and a lot of agency. And they can use that agency to make Middlebury a better place and to make the world a little bit better as well."