Steps Colleges Can Take to Avoid What Happened at Middlebury

To the Editor:

I enjoyed your even-handed article “What Could Middlebury Have Done to Avoid a Free-Speech Fracas?” (The Chronicle, March 7). Middlebury faculty and administrators seem genuinely perplexed by what to do about the protests that erupted in violence over a presentation by Charles Murray.

The answer to their puzzlement isn’t hard, though it will take a good measure of self-discipline by university faculty and administrators.

Step 1. You have to prohibit non-university personnel from attending lectures, unfortunately, because the university has no contractual relationship with them and would find it very difficult to impose any sanction on them. Such attendees are kept out of classrooms, presumably, so this isn’t a major concession or problem.

Step 2. You have to develop a code of civility for all university personnel. Some universities may want a loose code, perhaps one that permits audience shouting or mass turning-of-backs on a speaker. Others may want to confine the audience to polite listening and the asking of questions. Notwithstanding Professor Moss’s comment, a university is entirely within its rights, should it choose to do so, to insist that audiences must indeed “sit down and shut up.” Having to listen to controversial or obnoxious views isn’t the end of the world, especially when questions are possible afterwards, and attendance is optional.

Step 3. When students violate the code of civility, you either expel them, or give them a warning and expel them the next time. Granted, it’s harder to discipline faculty or administrators who violate the code, because it will be next to impossible for the latter group to ever permit a system of sanctions to be imposed on themselves in the first place. But perhaps a sufficiently determined administration, with backing from the board of trustees, could write something into faculty contracts that express the university’s sense that civility is essential to learning and to teaching. Ideally, this would entail some sort of sanction for faculty violation, in much the same way that universities are not powerless in the face of faculty members who, for instance, refuse to teach their classes.

That’s it. It’s not a mystery.

Trotter Hardy
Professor Emeritus
William & Mary Law School

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