On Feb. 22, the Middlebury College American Enterprise Institute Club published a group op-ed in The Campus that extended an “invitation” to the Middlebury College community “to encourage robust discussion and expose the Middlebury Community to diverse thoughts, opinions and understandings on the important topics of today,” according to the authors. The event was a lecture by political scientist and American Enterprise Institute (AEI) WH Brady Scholar, Charles Murray.
Soon after the announcement of Murray’s talk, both students and faculty began organizing in opposition. The reasons why Charles Murray sparked such passionate resistance and controversy are complicated and diverse, and motivations among those opposed to him were varied. Murray is considered one of the leading libertarian academics in the United States and has had significant influence on both political science and policymaking; for example, his work influenced the welfare debate during the 1990s.
Although he was invited to the College to speak on his most recent book, Coming Apart, which attempts to track and explain a growing divide between white “intellectual elite” and white working class people, Murray is best known for his work, “The Bell Curve.” This book has been fiercely debated since its publication in 1994, as it posits links between intelligence and race based on differences in average IQ scores between races.
Parts of his methodology have been challenged, especially his use of certain data to arrive at more general conclusions on the nature versus nurture debate. “The Bell Curve” and some of Murray’s later comments have resulted in his classification as a “white nationalist” by many, including the Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit legal advocacy organization “dedicated to fighting hate and bigotry,” as stated on their website.
An Invitation to Speak
Murray has spoken at Middlebury before, once in April 2007, on “The Bell Curve.” The event sparked controversy but not to the same extent of last Thursday; it was not covered in The Campus. Last semester, the College chapter of AEI gathered to discuss an invitation for an expert from the organization to deliver a guest lecture. They made a list of academics associated with AEI and submitted it to the national organization.
AEI told the College chapter that Murray had accepted the invitation partly because of his close relationship with the College: he is the parent of a Middlebury graduate. The College chapter was provided funding by the national organization to host Murray and facilitate the talk. “Our goal … was to create a discussion on campus. We thought that his work on “Coming Apart” was really prescient,” AEI Vice President Alexander Khan ’17 said.
In the AEI chapter on campus, the executive board — which made the final decision to bring Murray to campus — disagreed on the best format for his planned lecture. Violet Low-Beinart ’19, a member of the board and a democrat, floated the possibility of treating this event differently than other academic lectures and offered the idea of a moderated panel format.
“We are a diverse group who hold a range of opinions and political ideologies,” she said of the board’s final decision not to pursue a panel format.
Addressing the internal debate, Phil Hoxie ’17.5, president and chair of the AEI executive council, determined that disagreement among board members was due to expectations of social ramifications. “I think the concerns were more of how this would be perceived [by] other people and not wanting to deal with what we’re dealing with right now,” he said.
By evening on Feb. 24, several months after the AEI had scheduled Murray’s talk, the decision to bring Murray to the College had escalated into a campus-wide controversy. Over the weekend of Feb. 25-26, Middlebury Resistance, College Democrats, Wonderbread, other clubs and ad-hoc organizations were already beginning substantive organization efforts. Some of the first goals that emerged were to get the Department of Political Science to rescind its co-sponsorship in the event, to urge President of Middlebury Laurie L. Patton to not appear at the event and to pressure either the College or AEI to retract the invitation altogether.
On Monday, Feb. 27. Professors and students together led organizing efforts, which soon divided into two different groups: those who wished to carry out non-disruptive protests, and those who wished to shut down the event and prevent Murray from speaking.
Arianna Reyes ’18 and Sami Lamont ’17 helped solidify and structure the protests. Both students saw the event as an opportunity to take action and support values they care deeply about. “I was thinking a lot about what’s been going on in the world and how I’ve been really passive before right now in terms of actually organizing,” Reyes said.
Lamont explained that she took a de facto leadership role in the opposition when she realized the opposition energy could use additional direction and structure.
“It was seeing all the ideas floating around just on Facebook and then realizing that we needed a place to consolidate that if anything was going to happen,” she said, commenting on her decision to get involved.
However, both Reyes and Lamont quickly recognized that the protest efforts could never be completely uniform. Reyes focused on the group of students who wished to disrupt the speech, while Lamont instead helped run meetings that brainstormed non-disruptive methods of resistance.
“I was always definitely supportive of a diversity of tactics,” Reyes said. “I wasn’t trying to go against anyone and what they were doing.”
On Wednesday, March 1, the political science department held a community meeting for the purpose of providing a forum to ask questions about the department’s cosponsorship and to discuss the event more generally. In the course of the meeting, political science faculty also revealed internal divisions. Department Chair and Associate Professor of Political Science Bertram Johnson had previously sent an email around that provided insight into the department’s own debate over the sponsorship.
Associate Professor of Political Science Sarah Stroup offered an opening statement that presented her own mixed feelings about the lecture, as well as her thoughts on what made this event so unusual for the department.
“I think that it’s a trope in higher education that we are supposed to make [students] uncomfortable, and I will be honest that most of the time, we do not join you as faculty in that endeavor,” she said. “This is different because we are uncomfortable. Because I am uncomfortable. Because we are asked to be with you and think about what our responsibilities are when we navigate between the free exchange of ideas and our commitment to the community.”
Over an hour, the political science department offered different viewpoints of the controversy, from steadfast defenses of the decision to invite him to campus, to expressions of revulsion at Murray’s views and to encouragements of protest.
A Contentious Afternoon
On March 2, the day of the event, organizers made final efforts to assemble their response with signs, emails and brochures. The Middlebury AEI and the College Republicans clubs, which have partly shared leadership, called for members to arrive at the event as early as possible.
“This has become, for Alexander [Khan] and I, a battle for free speech and liberalism. We do not believe that Dr. Murray is what others claim him to be,” Hoxie wrote in an email.
More than an hour before the talk was penned to begin at 4:30 p.m., students, faculty and community members began lining up outside of McCullough Student Center.
The earliest arrivals were predominantly protesters. Many held signs with declarations like “Respect Resistance,” “F*ck White Supremacy,” “F*ck Eugenics,” and “Charles Murray Is Fake News.” On the lawn nearby, non-student activists gathered, and the flag of the Anti-Fascist movement flapped in the breeze. These activists, and anyone else not part of the college community, were not allowed inside the event.
Finally, the doors to the lecture opened and students went inside — but, due to capacity issues, only a fraction of those outside got seats.
Vice President for Communications and Chief Marketing Officer Bill Burger took the stage and stated the Middlebury guidelines on guest speakers, protests and demonstrations. His short speech incited several responses from the protesters.
“Middlebury College does not allow disruptive behavior at a community event or on campus. Disruptions may include purposefully blocking the view of others,” Burger said. To this, an unidentified student in the crowd said, “And inviting white supremacists.”
Burger continued, “Banners or items that block the audience’s view,” and the crowd immediately raised their signs high in response.
“You’re going to love this next part,” he said. “Noise or action that disrupts the ability of the audience to hear.” At that, the audience burst into cheers, drowning out the rest of Burger’s sentence.
Crowd outbursts and jeers continued through the opening speeches of Khan and Middlebury AEI Executive Council Member Ivan Valladares ’17. When President Patton took stage, she was met with a combination of boos and applause. However, after delivering her remarks, the crowd responded only with applause.
“We are an intellectual community, and part of a job of an intellectual community is to argue. If there ever was a time for Americans to take on arguments that affect us, it is now,” she said.
Murray finally walked on stage, and the crowd erupted into boos and chants. “This is going to be a real anti-climax,” he said. At that point, protesters stood up, turned around and together began reciting a pre-written speech.
“This is not respectful discourse or a debate about free speech,” they said. “These are not ideas that can be fairly debated. It is not ‘representative’ of the other side to give a platform to such dangerous ideologies. There is not a potential for an equal exchange of ideas.”
The speech then transformed into chants. These included: “Who is the enemy? White supremacy!” “Your message is hatred; we cannot tolerate it!” “Charles Murray, go away; Middlebury says ‘no way!’”
After ten minutes, Burger walked on stage again to announce that the format of the talk would transform into an interactive, livestreamed discussion between Murray and moderator Allison Stanger, the Russell J. Leng ’60 professor of international politics and economics. The two moved to an undisclosed location to film their conversation, a backup prepared in advance.
Over the course of Murray and Stanger’s discussion that lasted more than an hour (now available on the Middlebury News Room) some members in the crowd dispersed. But many protesters remained in the auditorium and continued chanting. The protests continued outside, as well, where some spoke into megaphones and sounded off sirens and drums. They had discovered the location of the live stream and made noise outside its window — in the video, their efforts can be heard clearly.
Back inside the auditorium, as administrators attempted to get the livestream projected onto the screen, tensions between protesters and attendees escalated. Students yelled at each other across Wilson Hall. “Respect free speech!” was shouted to some protesters. One protester yelled, “F*ck white supremacy!” to a group of students attempting to view the livestream. In response, one of those viewers shouted, “F*ck censorship!” The altercation ended when the protester yelled back, “F*ck free speech!”
Protesters and attendees alike dispersed as time went on, but a sizeable group of around 20 students continued to chant over Murray’s talk. Many students left to view the speech elsewhere. Outside the McCullough Student Center, a majority of protesters had left by 6 p.m.
About 15 protesters remained standing one entrance to McCullough, still yelling at the window of the room in which Murray was speaking. Among this group were non-student activists. Some protesters wore face masks to conceal their identities. Two masked protesters unfurled a banner that read, “Choke on your silver spoon, you f*cking Nazi.”
As Murray’s talk neared its end, the protesters dispersed around McCullough to cover all the entrances, waiting for his exit.
The events that followed caused the protests to draw attention from national news outlets, but the details and nuances of that day remain uncertain. What is agreed upon by Burger’s statements to the media, Stanger’s public Facebook post, Murray’s statement on AEI’s website and President Patton’s statements to the community is the following claim: When Murray exited the building, escorted by Burger and Stanger, the group was approached by protesters, several with their faces covered and some of whom were non-students. As Stanger and Murray attempted to get inside a car, protesters allegedly placed themselves in their path.
Murray was not physically harmed in the ensuing confrontation, but Stanger suffered from a neck injury following a physical altercation that transpired after she attempted to shield Murray and usher him to their vehicle. Stanger experienced whiplash that evening. On the following Sunday, she was diagnosed with a concussion. She was taken to Porter Hospital on both days.
Beyond this series of events, the nature of the confrontation and its many facets remain disputed. An article on the student-run blog Middbeat, unaffiliated with the administration, shared the perspective of anonymous students who claimed to be present at the conflict. Other recollections have provided contradictory details and viewpoints, and the questions of what happened, who initiated what and who exactly is at fault have ignited widespread and contentious debate, both on and off campus.
Following the day’s events, two seperate investigations are being launched; one an independent investigation by the College, the other an investigation into the confrontation that took place outside of McCullough to be done by the Middlebury Police Department, said President Patton in an email to the community last Monday.
“There is hard work ahead for all of us,” Patton wrote in her email. “Learning to be accountable to one another, and learning to stand in community with one another.”
By Friday, March 3, Murray had departed, and students, faculty and staff awoke to a world suddenly focused on their college. The first reports of Stanger’s injury appeared in VTDigger and the Addison Independent, but national news outlets soon began running the story.
Within the College community, many have been asking, “What do these events mean?” In an email sent on Friday, Patton spoke of the event as a disappointing display of a deep divide in College culture.
“Last night we failed to live up to our core values,” she said in the message. “But I remain hopeful.”
“This was the saddest day of my life,” Stanger posted publicly to Facebook on Saturday, March 4. “We have got to do better by those who feel and are marginalized … We must all realize the precious inheritance we have as fellow Americans and defend the Constitution against all its enemies, both foreign and domestic.”
For Khan and Hoxie, the disruptions and confrontation took them by surprise and seemed to confirm their fears about the state of freedom of speech on campus.
“If we’re not willing to listen to each other and we’re not willing to listen to what we have to say because we feel that that person might say something that we find offensive, or even hateful, we’re going to be in real trouble,” Hoxie said. “I firmly believe that freedom is one generation away from being extinct. We’re going to vote it away.”
Many students who participated in the protests expressed disappointment at the violent conclusion to events, but they also felt some satisfaction with the effectiveness of the protests within Wilson Hall and a determination to continue pushing these issues in the future.
“[The initial protest] was incredibly successful because we coordinated all of these people to turn around and that was a really powerful statement,” Reyes said. “It was successful because we did get [Murray and Professor Stanger] to leave Wilson Hall.”
Lamont and Reyes do not view the division as one that pits proponents of free speech against those who are willing to restrict free speech in pursuit of some other goal.
“That’s one thing [President Patton] mentions a lot in [her statements on] rhetorical resilience — confidence in debate — and I think one big reason why we were not into talking to Murray is that he’s shown that he’s pretty confident in his ideas and he’s not really about talking to them and engaging and reconsidering,” Lamont said.
For other students, however, the disruption of Murray’s talk and subsequent violence brought to the forefront a significant problem engrained in the community.
“The manner in which he was shut down lacked civility and, in my opinion, did not respect the rights of those students (many who disagree with him ideologically) but who, nevertheless, wanted to hear him speak and/or engage with him at an intellectual level,” said Abdi Mohamed ’18.5.
As of this writing, it is unclear exactly how the community will respond to these events. As Johnson said, “I think one of the more powerful things we can say in this moment is ‘I don’t know’. I don’t really know what’s next.”
Many see the events as having unleashed a deep and possibly irreconcilable gulf between students, while others see them as a way to come together, hash out differences and determine a path to progress. According to Lamont, preperations are already being made for meetings and discussions in the coming weeks.
Khan viewed the events as an opportunity for the community to reassess its values and culture, and to push back against attempts to stifle opposing views. “I don’t want the moral of this story to be that Middlebury couldn’t handle a viewpoint that wasn’t consistent with their own. I think that it’s so necessary and important that we try to change the culture on campus and create one of intellectual diversity.”
In an email sent out on Monday, March 6, President Patton reinforced this call for community building and discussion.
“This week, we will mark the beginning of opportunities for reflection and engagement,” she said. “We have much to discuss — our differences on the question of free speech and on the role of protest being two of the most pressing examples. In addition, I am extending an invitation to everyone to submit community-building ideas for consideration.”
“I’m committed to working on whatever’s next, and I’m grateful for those people on various sides of this who have reached out to have conversations,” Johnson said. “That’s how we’re going to proceed — through having conversations.”
Additional reporting by Christian Jambora and Will DiGravio.