Academic Freedom

A Scuffle and a Professor's Injury Make Middlebury a Free-Speech Flashpoint

March 05, 2017

Lisa Rathke, AP Images
Protesters turned their backs and shouted as Charles Murray, the controversial political scientist best known for “The Bell Curve,” tried to speak at Middlebury College on Thursday. The confrontation became violent later as protesters swarmed Mr. Murray and the professor who moderated the event as they tried to leave.

In the wake of protests that disrupted a controversial speaker’s appearance and left a professor injured, Middlebury College has become the latest flashpoint in a national battle over campus speech and safety.

In a statement to the campus on Friday, Laurie L. Patton, the college’s president, described “a violent incident with a lot of pushing and shoving” as protesters swarmed Charles Murray, the speaker, and Allison Stanger, a professor who served as moderator, after the event. Ms. Patton apologized to Mr. Murray, Ms. Stanger, who was injured during the encounter, and “everyone who came in good faith to participate in a serious discussion.”

“We believe that many of these protesters were outside agitators, but there are indications that Middlebury College students were involved as well.”
“Last night,” the president wrote, “we failed to live up to our core values.”

Even before it happened, Mr. Murray’s appearance had put those values on trial. Now the incident has stoked new debate — about whether the protesters were suppressing or exercising free speech, and about who was responsible for escalating the disruption into a fracas that sent Ms. Stanger to the hospital for treatment of an injury to her neck.

At the center of the incident was a familiar figure: Mr. Murray, the polarizing political scientist best known for his 1994 book The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life. The book, co-written with the psychologist Richard J. Herrnstein, argues that the gap in academic achievement between black and white students can be at least partially explained by genetics. The book has been widely criticized for both its sociological methods and its racial implications.

A conservative student organization invited Mr. Murray to Middlebury; the college’s political-science department then sponsored the invitation.

On Wednesday, a day before the event, the student newspaper published a letter from a group of nearly 500 alumni and students who condemned Mr. Murray’s visit, calling it “a decision that directly endangers members of the community and stains Middlebury’s reputation by jeopardizing the institution’s claims to intellectual rigor and compassionate inclusivity.”

The following day, The New York Times reported, most of the over 400 students at Mr. Murray’s speech turned their backs to the speaker and shouted him down. Middlebury officials moved Mr. Murray to a new room, where Ms. Stanger, a professor of international politics and economics, completed an interview — streamed on video — despite further disruptions.

In an essay published Sunday, Mr. Murray — no stranger to campus protests — argued that, due to its length and intensity, the Middlebury disruption "could become an inflection point."

"Until last Thursday, all of the ones involving me have been as carefully scripted as kabuki: The college administration meets with the organizers of the protest and ground rules are agreed upon," he wrote. "If this becomes the new normal, the number of colleges willing to let themselves in for an experience like Middlebury’s will plunge to near zero."

‘The Mob at Middlebury’

After the event, as protests continued outside, a group including Mr. Murray and Ms. Stanger left the venue. There, according to Ms. Patton, a “violent incident” occurred, culminating in “an attack on the car in which they were leaving campus.”

Bill Burger, a college spokesman who was part of the group escorting Mr. Murray, told the Times that masked protesters accosted Ms. Stanger. “Someone grabbed Allison’s hair and twisted her neck,” he told the newspaper.

Ms. Stanger was treated and fitted with a neck brace at a nearby hospital, according to the Addison Independent.

A group of student protesters published a conflicting account of the incident, arguing that Middlebury officials had exacerbated the incident and that Ms. Stanger’s hair “was not intentionally pulled but was inadvertently caught in the chaos that Public Safety incited.”

On Twitter, Mr. Murray applauded both Mr. Burger and Ms. Stanger:

“We believe that many of these protesters were outside agitators,” wrote Ms. Patton in her note to the campus, “but there are indications that Middlebury College students were involved as well.”

Whatever the mix of students and outsiders, many commentators from across the political spectrum were quick to portray the incident as an example of students’ intolerance of uncomfortable speech.

In an editorial assailing “The Mob at Middlebury,” The Wall Street Journal urged Ms. Patton to “follow through with discipline to scare these students straight.” And Suzanne Nossel, executive director of PEN America, an association of writers and editors, condemned a “lawless and criminal attack” that “marks a new low in this challenged era for campus speech.”

Amid the fiery off-campus response, Middlebury students and faculty took stock. Some expressed dismay at the disruption of Mr. Murray’s speech and the chaos that ensued.

“It is understandable why some students may find Murray’s research findings offensive,” wrote Matthew Dickinson, a professor of political science at Middlebury. “It is less clear, however, why so many believe that the appropriate response was not to simply skip his talk, but instead to prevent others from hearing him and, in so doing, inadvertently give him the platform and national exposure they purportedly opposed.”

But the view that student protesters erred in shouting down Mr. Murray is far from unanimous. “I am angry that free speech is conflated with civil discourse,” wrote Linus Owens, an associate professor of sociology. Mr. Owens argued that Middlebury legitimized Mr. Murray by giving him a stage and deciding that “only then we can ask smart and devastating questions in return.”

“That’s one model, sure,” he wrote, “but it’s not the only one.”

In a Facebook post, Ms. Stanger described Thursday as "the saddest day of my life." By turning away from the stage during Mr. Murray's speech, the professor wrote, the protesting students had "effectively dehumanized me." Still, she argued against a common criticism of the disruption as an example of ivory-tower excess.

"To people who wish to spin this story as one about what's wrong with elite colleges and universities, you are wrong," she wrote. "Please instead consider this as a metaphor for what's wrong with our country, and on that, Charles Murray and I would agree."

Update (3/5/2017, 8:47 p.m.): This article has been updated to add statements from Mr. Murray and Ms. Stanger.

Brock Read is assistant managing editor for daily news at The Chronicle. He directs a team of editors and reporters who cover policy, research, labor, and academic trends, among other things. Follow him on Twitter @bhread, or drop him a line at brock.read@chronicle.com.