If a Tree Falls

A recent open letter (see below) from four area college presidents reminded me of the philosophical thought experiment, “If a tree falls in the forest, and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”

Racial incidents and communications have prompted unrest at numerous colleges, including the University of Missouri (president and chancellor resignation), University of Oklahoma (racist video), Claremont McKenna (dean resignation) and Yale University (students demand answers from dean and master). The Burlington community has not been immune from racial tensions, with protests against the distribution of a KKK flier.

These incidents prompted the presidents of the four-year colleges in the Burlington area to come together to reiterate our condemnation of racist acts. We issued the letter on November 13, the same day students at UVM rallied against racism. The Burlington Free Press printed the letter in its online coverage of a protest at UVM, but the print edition did not. I can find no other coverage of the letter. As best anyone can recollect, this is the first time the four area presidents have come together to make a statement on any issue of national significance. And yet, that fact did not seem to merit much attention.

Each of us has also issued statements to our own colleges. At Champlain College, we also hosted a Champlain Futures Initiative Spyglass Session on Diversity and Inclusion on November 10. The session generated a number of ideas on what we need to do to create a more inclusive community. Our meeting also showed that one discussion isn’t sufficient. We need to foster an ongoing conversation so that we can do the hard work of increasing tolerance and acceptance.

One letter from area presidents won’t fix the issue, either. But issuing it does matter. Each college occupies a different niche in the Vermont higher ed landscape. Yet the four of us came together on a topic of common concern and spoke with one voice. My hope is that there are enough people around to hear it, and to join us in this cause.


As the leaders of four local higher education institutions, we have an obligation to confront the disgraceful incidents of racism, bias, discrimination and intolerance that plague so many of our communities across the nation.

We feel compelled to come together to voice our condemnation of these deeply troubling acts, which are tearing at the very fabric of our society. We stand together in our commitment to do all we can to eradicate hurtful and destructive behavior from our campuses, and from our wider communities.

Despite our collective efforts, the mounting tally of incidents demonstrates the need to take a harder look; to re-examine and redouble our efforts; to remain vigilant; to engage more people; and to raise our voices to denounce these incidents whenever and wherever they happen.

We owe it to our students and members of our communities to do everything in our power to establish and maintain caring, supportive, civil, safe and healthy learning and living environments.

Reversing recurring racism and intolerance is not easy work. It will require more of us getting involved and standing together. All of us must pay close attention to these issues, and work even harder to find effective ways to confront and eliminate such detestable and entrenched attitudes.

Those who are actively engaged in this struggle deserve our full support, respect, and commitment to assist in this important effort. We join them in their resolve to address these destructive behaviors at our institutions and in our community.

Donald J. Laackman

President, Champlain College

Carol Moore

Interim President, Burlington College

John J. Neuhauser

President, St. Michael’s College

E. Thomas Sullivan

President, University of Vermont

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