Chemistry Test Question at Middlebury Creates Controversy About Satirical Humor

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Monday, April 29, 2019


Middlebury College experienced a thought-provoking controversy that ended in one professor, Jeff Byers, taking a leave of absence.

The incident started with a question from a chemistry midterm asking students to figure out how much poisonous gas it would take for it to be a “lethal dose for humans.” The question specifically references that it is the same gas “Nazi Germany used to horrific ends in the gas chambers during The Holocaust.” The question was then published by the school’s satire newspaper, The Local Noodle, which tried to make light of the incident. This became a controversy in and of itself.

Multiple students brought this to the attention of the Dean of Faculty, Andi Lloyd, and the school administration approached Byers to clarify the issue. Lloyd stated in his response, “My reaction was that the question was completely inappropriate and deeply problematic, and that follow-up was needed.”

Byers issued an apology stating, “I apologize and take full responsibility for my actions in administering two examinations in the last year containing questions that were clearly offensive, hurtful, and injurious to our students.”

Middlebury President Laurie Patton made a comment stating, “This inexplicable failure of judgment trivializes one of the most horrific events in world history, violates core institutional values, and simply has no place on our campus. We expect our faculty to teach and lead with thoughtfulness, good judgment, and maturity. To say we have fallen short in this instance is an understatement.”

This incident was spread on social media and eventually garnered the attention of the Community Bias Response Team (CBRT), a group that responds to acts of intolerance involving students on campus.

This team took issue with the sequence of events and made a public announcement for everyone who attended Millbury College. They stated that, “The use of this exam question failed to provide any critical engagement with the historical contexts and atrocities of the Holocaust. It asked students to engage in problem solving that mirrors calculations used to implement systematic genocide. Our students should never have been put in this position. We are aware that The Local Noodle published a satirical article about this incident. While satire can be an effective form of social critique, the article’s light handed references to and engagement with the Holocaust have caused additional harm.”

Since CBRT called out the satirical newspaper in their email, this resulted in a counter response from the staff of The Local Noodle. They saw the email as a hit piece and stated, “To denounce a satirical publication in a school-wide email like this is a form of public shaming designed to close off a complex and sensitive issue to any meaningful discussion, which is what would actually be productive. If administrative bodies can publicly shame student publications who bring to light things they’ve kept quiet, that sets a dangerous precedent for our campus.”

This escalated into a follow-up article addressing the email, criticizing the CBRT and saying they “lazily equated its satirical article with the real issue at hand.”

Many students and members of the school administration agreed that The Local Noodle’s article was offensive and ultimately became the biggest concern out of the entire incident. Some openly condemned their attempt to try and make jokes about a serious issue and felt that it caused more harm than good. Several Jewish students contributed to the conversation including Talia Raisel who said, “Satire can be wonderful and effective when used properly, but there’s still a line where satire loses its efficacy and just becomes a series of inappropriate puns, and I feel that this line has been majorly crossed.”

The co-president of Middlebury Hillel, Jenny Moss, said the incident was a learning experience for the students to be exposed to issues like anti-semitism. Renee Wells, the director of education for equity and inclusion and a member of the CBRT, saw this as a great opportunity to involve students in meaningful dialogue using a new program beginning sometime in the fall.

“The program will provide a framework for faculty and staff to access resources, engage in critical conversations, practice inclusive strategies, and be part of a community working to integrate what they learn in the context of their everyday work. It is important to create space to engage in open and honest conversations about our campus climate and to be thoughtful and intentional about ways we can make Middlebury a community that everyone feels included in and wants to be a part of.”

Middlebury College has also experienced other notable controversies preventing conservatives from speaking on campus including Polish politician Ryszard Legutko and author Charles Murray. Patton announced that these recent incidents of bias were “causing pain and anger in our community.”

Aaron Cummings graduated from Clovis East High School in 2017. He is a communications major transferring to Fresno State University. He has a strong passion for politics in California, a state that desperately needs conservative voices to be heard.

The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Lone Conservative staff.


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About Aaron Cummings

Fresno State University

Aaron Cummings graduated from Clovis East High School in 2017. He is a communications major transferring to Fresno State University. He has a strong passion for politics in California, a state that desperately needs conservative voices to be heard.

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