Academic Freedom

Subdued Reception for Controversial Scholar Shows Just How Fluky Free-Speech Flashpoints Can Be

March 24, 2017

Yasmine Akki, Columbia Daily Spectator
Charles Murray speaks on Thursday night at Columbia U. to a quiet audience. His talk three weeks ago at Middlebury College resulted in violence and roiled higher ed. What does it say that the reaction hasn’t recurred?
Charles Murray, the controversial political scientist whose presence inflamed Middlebury College earlier this month, seems aware both of his reputation as a firebrand and his likelihood to disappoint on that front.

"We can all relax now, nothing exciting is going to happen," Mr. Murray said at the opening of a talk here Thursday night at Columbia University that was devoid of the conflict that made his Middlebury visit national news.

His roughly 90-minute speech touched on class divisions and his argument that much of America was living in a bubble. A few protesters greeted Mr. Murray at the university, but he spoke without disruption — just as he did on Tuesday at Duke University, his first campus stop since Middlebury.

An informal survey of the campus before the speech on Thursday revealed that many had heard about the Middlebury fracas, but not the man at the center of it.

That raises a critical and slippery question for colleges: Mr. Murray, white-haired and even-tempered, is no Milo Yiannopoulos, the flashy provocateur, and the last campus speaker whose presence whipped campuses into a frenzy nationwide. But in an age of charged politics and social-media overexposure, every speaker has the potential to go viral in a way that might be detrimental to colleges. How can they tell one from the other? Should they try?

'Murray Is a Racist'

Mr. Murray is best known for the 1994 book The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life, in which he and Richard J. Herrnstein argue that genetics may be partly responsible for the achievement gap between white and black students. But he came to Columbia to talk about his 2012 book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960—2010. Mr. Murray is currently a scholar with the American Enterprise Institute, a right-leaning think tank focused on public policy.

Chronicle photo by Chris Quintana
Protesters at Columbia U. speak out against an appearance on Thursday by the political scientist Charles Murray, whose 1994 book "The Bell Curve" asserts that genetics partly account for the achievement gap between white and black students.
To many of his critics, like the protesters at Columbia on a cold Thursday afternoon, Mr. Murray and his ideas are deeply offensive. "Charles Murray is a racist," declared one sign.

The Middlebury College violence on March 2 left a professor injured in the scrum. The ripples of that incident have elevated Mr. Murray's prominence in recent days.

His visits to Duke and Columbia were his first speaking engagements since Middlebury. He will speak on Friday at New York University and next week at the University of Notre Dame and Villanova University.

A spokeswoman for AEI said Mr. Murray was not available for an interview with The Chronicle, and the political scientist slipped away from the stage quickly after Thursday's event concluded.

Jonathan Schatz-Mizrahi, a student organizer, arranged the Columbia lecture before the incident at Middlebury. Since then, he said, organizers have thought more about security and free-speech issues. But the attempt to silence speech at Middlebury, he said, actually emboldened his decision to bring Mr. Murray to Columbia.

Mr. Schatz-Mizrahi, a self-described conservative, said before the talk that he didn't think a protest would be a problem. And he was largely right. A group had announced plans to walk out of the talk at 8 p.m., but a large-scale departure didn't materialize. Rather people filed out one-by-one from the hot basement where the lecture was held. Dozens attended, and security was tight.

Mr. Schatz-Mizrahi was pleased with the turnout. "I don't think what he said was very controversial, but I think it was valuable," he said.

Weaponized Dissent

Some faculty members had urged in an open letter to the Columbia Daily Spectator that Mr. Murray be permitted to give his speech free of interruption. "Any attempt to obstruct Murray will be instantly weaponized by supporters of President Donald Trump into yet another reason to hate 'elitists' and to divert from the damage his regime intends," the letter stated.

In a separate statement on the Columbia Law School website, faculty members criticized the validity of Mr. Murray's arguments while defending his right to present his work.

"Although his writings carry the rhetorical patina of science, Murray is largely regarded in academic circles as a rank apologist for racial eugenics and racial inequality in the United States," they wrote. "Murray has every right to publicize his ideas, but we have a duty to object when he does so by assaulting foundational norms of sound scholarship and intellectual integrity."

An op-ed published Wednesday in the Spectator and signed by "Barnard Columbia Socialists" criticized Mr. Murray and urged that his ideas be confronted. "This is a moment that calls for us to use our right to free speech to challenge the widely discredited, racist, and profoundly elitist ideas of Charles Murray," they wrote.

Some activists created Facebook pages announcing plans to protest Mr. Murray at Columbia and inviting others to join them. Early this month at the affiliated Barnard College, someone defaced posters announcing the scholar's visit.

Mr. Murray largely avoided discussing race in his lecture on Thursday and instead focused on class division. The thrust of his argument was that the elites should live away from communities of their rich peers.

"I am just saying, get out of this claustrophobic class that you live in because maybe you'll love it and in the process learn to love America in the way which has been sadly reduced in recent years," Mr. Murray said.

Donald J. Trump, the elephant in the room during every campus political discussion, did not go unmentioned. Citing accusations of unpaid subcontractors on Mr. Trump's business projects, Mr. Murray offered his blunt opinion of the president. "I think he's a despicable man."

Chris Quintana is a breaking-news reporter. Follow him on Twitter @cquintanadc or email him at chris.quintana@chronicle.com.