In May 2016, Commonweal published an essay by Nicholas Clifford about Simon Leys, a scholar of Chinese art, history, and politics who had died in 2014. Nick, himself an accomplished scholar of Chinese history, described Leys as a “North Star to intellectuals of all kinds, combining qualities rarely found in a single writer: tact, good taste…generosity…and a sometimes astringent honesty.” I think this is a pretty good description of Nick Clifford himself. The title of the essay on Leys was “Uncommon Decency,” and this too describes Nick.
Today decency appears uncommon at the highest levels of government and, at times, even in the halls of the academy. Go back to an earlier time of indecency—May 1970. The United States was deeply engaged in a war conceived in myth and pursued in lies. On May 4 at Kent State University, a student protest against the war resulted in the killing of four students by National Guard troops. The next day, Middlebury College suspended classes as part of a national student strike to protest the shootings. In the early hours of Thursday, May 7, an abandoned building on the Middlebury campus was set on fire. Later that morning there was a mass meeting of students and faculty at Mead Chapel. It was proposed that the college cancel classes for the remainder of the year in light of the grave political crisis. Shortly before noon, Nick Clifford rose to speak for the faculty council. With clarity and conviction, he argued that canceling classes for the year would suggest that the college was a political actor. That was not the college’s mandate. In a time of lies, nothing could be more important than a continual conversation toward truth. Nick’s remarks expressed with “stringent honesty” his own deep commitment to the ideals of academic life. Middlebury finished the academic year.
Another date: September 14, 1991: the college’s president unexpectedly resigns. Two days later another mass meeting in Mead Chapel, where it was announced that provost John McCardell had been named acting president and Nicholas Clifford would be the new provost, a position he held for eight years. Part of Nick’s uncommon decency was that he did not crave position. But when he was needed, he would serve, whether this meant serving on the boards of Porter Hospital, Commonweal, Connecticut College, and Middlebury, or, later, running the film series at EastView retirement community.