Richard Sander Is Not Who We Need

By THE EDITORIAL BOARD

Note: This editorial was accompanied by a news report about Sander’s lecture, which two Campus reporters attended. The editorial was written before the lecture took place.

Once again, Middlebury finds itself at the center of a loud moral debate. Richard Sander, author of the contentious “mismatch theory,” visited Middlebury Tuesday afternoon to discuss his research, urging attendees to ask the following question: Does affirmative action hurt more than it helps?

At the heart of Sander’s work lies affirmative action, a process he claims hurts students of color by placing them in “overly competitive situations” without adequate skill sets to match. Implications of Sander’s theory aside, a number of questions arise surrounding the event itself: How are we supposed to read student-conservatives’ decision to invite Sander a year after Charles Murray? What do we actually stand to gain from speakers like Sander coming? Above all else, how are we supposed to reconcile an event like this with simultaneous goals of healing post-Murray and creating a platform for diverse and productive dialogue?

The invitation of Sander in the wake of Charles Murray reveals a troubling fixation with racial science on campus. To be clear, there are crucial differences between the events of Murray and Sander. For one, Murray was not invited to speak about “The Bell Curve,” a book which argued for the existence of fundamental differences between people of different races. But these controversial conversations remain inextricably tied to Murray’s figure, and occupy much of the limelight of the controversy surrounding his talk. In contrast, Sander was invited to talk about his well-known “mismatch theory.” Both speakers therefore serve as figureheads for contentious racial science, Sander arguably even more so.

As such, conservative groups on campus appear intensely preoccupied with the question of whether or not students of color belong at Middlebury, or any institution of higher learning. (Sander’s “mismatch theory” for instance, focuses on law school admissions.) This reads as oddly specific, even pointed; following the 2016 presidential election, a wide range of conservative issues have assumed the spotlight, including topics like LGBTQ rights, abortion and religion. Why not invite speakers whose specialty lies in these areas? Why the apparent obsession with race on a campus which makes ardent claims at inclusivity?

We do not protest the right of Sander or others like him to speak. We do, however, call into question the productivity of the event. Are there not greater questions about conservatism and the state of American politics? What does Middlebury stand to gain by repeatedly undermining the status of students of color on a campus where they already form a minority? 

Following the Charles Murray incident, calls echoed across campus, not to mention a number of national publications, for “diverse thought and dialogue.” Yet if our collective goal remains to facilitate dialogue alongside the process of healing, student organizers of the event must know that inviting Sander specifically was not the way to accomplish it.

Since Murray, Sander is the most highly-publicized conservative figure to come to Middlebury. In advance of the talk, students were not asking, “I wonder if affirmative action really does or does not help,” but instead or “Will Sander be the next installment in the Murray saga?”

Caitlyn Myers, who served as the moderator on Tuesday, identified her role as attempting to “engage in a substantive, rigorous, and critical dialogue.” Yet are students in attendance genuinely invested in the “substantive” dialogue in question, or simply interested in making a statement by either supporting or protesting the event? And so with an opportunity to move forward, student conservatives have apparently chosen instead to feed the fire, prioritizing their “right to free speech” over healing, or hosting a conversation in which students might actually engage with the topic at hand.

We are left wondering how we can encourage conservative speakers to come to Middlebury. Beyond that, how might students attend talks in a productive manner?

For one, there are various forms of conservatism that go beyond widely-refuted racial science. The AEI club has invited numerous speakers to campus since their founding. Yet for whatever reason, these are not as widely advertised. At best, there are fliers and a mention of free food. There should be more of a push for those events. Why is that the hot button or controversial topics are the events that are widely advertised? Murray and Sander belong to an emerging phenomenon of statement speakers, whose loudest proclamation ostensibly stems from their being on campus, rather than anything they may or may not have a chance to say onstage. If these are the only talks that receive advertisement, how can conservatives hope to have their side of the debate heard?

There is, of course, a painful irony at play here. Conservatives on campus complain of political oppression, forming a small minority relative to their liberal counterparts. And yet their response to such marginalization is to target students of color, a group which faces marginalization well beyond the confines of College Street.

If conservative students are genuinely interested in racial science or similar questions, more of an effort should be made to collaborate with cultural organizations in order to carry out these events in a thoughtful and enlightening rather than alienating manner. Just as conservatives deserve to have their voices heard, so too do cultural organizations or minority groups on campus. As it stands, cultural organizations like the Black Student Union received a mere email asking for permission. This is not collaboration; this is ticking a box, and — in light of the past year — this is inadequate.

We hope that moving forward, Middlebury student groups are more thoughtful about who we ask to come speak. We hope that those seeking to bring a speaker devote considerable time to the question of whether or not that person is what we need.  The issue is not any one group feeling attacked. The issue is what seems a deliberate furthering of troubling divisions which have arisen on campuses surrounding speakers, one which requires consideration on every point of the political spectrum in order to repair.

The invitation of speakers like Sander in Middlebury’s current context does not read as an opportunity for growth, but a deepening of painful divides. There is a difference between free speech and productive speech; if we truly desire to move forward, Middlebury must start to make attempts at the latter.

Hang on for a minute...we're trying to find some more stories you might like.


4 Comments

4 Responses to “Richard Sander Is Not Who We Need”

  1. Jigar Bhakta on April 5th, 2018 7:36 am

    If you are going to make comments in advance of the talk, at least have someone on your editorial board read his book “Mismatch” to avoid having to tarnish your legitimacy as budding journalists:

    (1) How are we supposed to read student-conservatives’ decision to invite Sander a year after Charles Murray?
    Easy: Read it as student-conservatives inviting Richard Sander. The speaker had nothing to do with Charles Murray. Don’t conflate visions with reality. I expect journalists to refrain from making personal assumptions in their reporting.

    (2) What do we actually stand to gain from speakers like Sander coming?
    Perhaps if the editorial board had thought to actually send a member to the event or thought to restrain its emotions before writing a piece on an event that had yet to occur, it would be able to answer this question. If the editorial board felt as compelled as it evidently did to publish an op-ed in the span of a few hours before the article was due for printing (presumably to boost journalistic effect), then perhaps it would at least present an informed op-ed based on a reading of “Mismatch.” Unfortunately, it did not.

    (3) How are we supposed to reconcile an event like this with simultaneous goals of healing post-Murray and creating a platform for diverse and productive dialogue?
    Simple: go to the event. You’d quickly realize that these two actually work in tandem and are not at all mutually exclusive. As President Patton writes in her WSJ op-ed, “[I suggest we] move beyond the false dichotomy between free speech and inclusiveness.” (https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-right-way-to-protect-free-speech-on-campus-1497019583)

    (4) Conservative groups on campus appear intensely preoccupied with the question of whether or not students of color belong at Middlebury, or any institution of higher learning.
    Sander: “First of all, I don’t know anything about Middlebury’s policies. But I think in any institution, all students who are at that institution belong at that institution. They are part of the institution; the institution is the sum total of its students and faculty and community. So, let me just be completely clear about that. This is not about who belongs and who doesn’t belong. This is about ‘how do we think about how to improve policy over the future.’ And it’s also about what responsibility do institutions have to their community. To me, the betrayal is if a school admits a student knowing that they have a very high chance of failing the Bar exam and conceals that information while the student spends 3 years and $200,000 of money getting the degree. That to me is an unconscionable betrayal.” (1:03:35 of http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f6J-4MnKXVE)

    (5) Why not invite speakers whose specialty lies in these areas (LGBTQ rights, abortion and religion)?
    It’s clear that affirmative action reform is more interesting than any of the topics you suggest. After all, there are 3 articles in this edition of The Campus alone that relate directly to our event. After all, our event inspired an entire counter-event. After all, our event filled Kirk Alumni Center to capacity despite its distance from campus and despite the rainy weather. Affirmative action reform undeniably piques the interest of the Middlebury community.

    (6) We do, however, call into question the productivity of the event.
    How can one call into question the productivity of an event if that event happens after the questioning itself?

    (7) Are there not greater questions about conservatism and the state of American politics?
    This is a great opportunity to plug the Middlebury College Republicans: those in our membership can attest to the fact that we have always had a local and state policy focus. In more recent years, College policy itself has undergone drastic change, and has thus become an interesting topic of discussion. Given that Vermont Republicans are essentially centrists on the broader national spectrum, we don’t focus much at all on party politics. It’s simply not as interesting to our membership.

    (8) What does Middlebury stand to gain by repeatedly undermining the status of students of color on a campus where they already form a minority?
    What does Middlebury stand to gain by repeatedly presenting rhetorical, baseless attacks on conservative students where they already form a minority?

    (9) Yet if our collective goal remains to facilitate dialogue alongside the process of healing, student organizers of the event must know that inviting Sander specifically was not the way to accomplish it.
    Well as a matter of fact, this was exactly the way to accomplish it. You would know if you had waited one day for the event to actually occur before racing to the printing press.

    (10) In advance of the talk, students were not asking, “I wonder if affirmative action really does or does not help,” but instead “Will Sander be the next installment in the Murray saga?”
    That was not my experience at all. Instead of generalizing from your narrow experiences, why not push the boundaries of the echo chamber you place yourselves in? A good start would have been to attend this event.

    (11) Yet are students in attendance genuinely invested in the “substantive” dialogue in question, or simply interested in making a statement by either supporting or protesting the event?
    Again, you would have the answer to this had you waited for the event to actually occur. I encourage you to watch the Q&A to learn that the former was the only outcome. You would be surprised to see that it was a robust conversation in which students were able to engage with the topic at hand. None of this aimless speculation would be needed by the editorial board if only it demonstrated patience.

    (12) We are left wondering how we can encourage conservative speakers to come to Middlebury.
    This sentence speaks volumes of the editorial board. Richard Sander is not a conservative. His work on mismatch is controversial, not conservative. The fact that they are one in the same to you is all that needs to be highlighted.

    (13) If these are the only talks that receive advertisement, how can conservatives hope to have their side of the debate heard?
    By packing Kirk to the brim. Reaching capacity was particularly impressive given that Kirk is far on the outskirts of campus coupled with the fact that it was raining. Since you weren’t able to make it, I can assure you that the debate was in fact heard. In terms of advertising, I think it’s a shame that (a) we submitted the event request on Jan. 9 and were approved only on Mar. 12 for publicity (https://middleburycampus.com/38111/news/mismatch-theory-creator-to-speak/) and (b) of the 78 posters we hung up over campus, only 2 were not torn down and replaced by posters of a similarly factually Mistaken counter-event.

    (14) And yet their response to such marginalization is to target students of color, a group which faces marginalization well beyond the confines of College Street.
    Our target audience was the entire campus. That was made very clear, in both outreach and publicity.

    (15) More of an effort should be made to collaborate with cultural organizations in order to carry out these events in a thoughtful and enlightening rather than alienating manner.
    We reached out to every student organization on MiddLink whose club description either mentioned underrepresented group or collegiate admissions to notify them that this event was happening (nowhere did we “ask for permission,” your sources aren’t being honest with you). We also reached out to Miguel Fernandez and Greg Buckles, both of whom responded positively to the event. We had an anonymous online form for those who wanted Professor Myers to weave certain questions into her moderated discussion with Professor Sander. Our outreach was unprecedented for an event like this and went far beyond what was recommended by the Committee on Speech & Inclusion in its January 2018 conclusions. We were proactive and very welcome to feedback and questions as well. Ethan Brady has a few of these emails in his inbox, I’m surprised he didn’t amend this part of the op-ed before signing his name to it.

    (16) We hope that moving forward, Middlebury student groups are more thoughtful about who we ask to come speak. We hope that those seeking to bring a speaker devote considerable time to the question of whether or not that person is what we need.
    Tell me, is 4 months of thought enough?

    After each of these responses above, I was tempted to write “But alas, I’m not surprised. This is the Middlebury editorial board after all…” Reporting on events before they actually occur reminds me an awful lot of the Chicago Daily Tribune headlining “Dewey Defeats Truman.” There is no need to rush into this, as there is literally zero competition from other newspaper outlets on campus. Just take a deep breath and follow the story. Don’t take up the reins and drum up a fiction.

    Some parting advice: try your hand at open-minded journalism, independent of the warped perception of the world around you. If not as a journalist, then at least as a member of a community.

  2. Charlie on April 6th, 2018 11:51 am

    Jigar, thank you for your advice to these “budding journalists”. It seems to me that you define a journalist as someone with no common sense, or at least, license to use that common sense. The campus has provided thorough and objective reporting from your event and took a column in their opinions section to, well, share their opinion, I think.

    The point-for-point evidence you provide against this opinion column displays little more than your insecurity; you fight bravely to defend this talk that just didn’t make sense, and didn’t help. You may have the quotes to back up your choice, but the Editorial Board speaks to a sentiment felt by people who belong to this community, and they are right: this talk wasn’t necessary or helpful, and your selection for a speaker was confusing and disappointing.

    Thanks, again, for offering your journalistic expertise to our Campus editors. I’m sure they appreciate your advice.

  3. Jigar Bhakta on April 6th, 2018 5:20 pm

    Hello Charlie,

    I’m curious to learn from where you found my definition of a journalist. You’ve put quite the creative spin on it!

    I’m not sure how you managed to do this, but don’t get me wrong: I am not denying the right of editorial board to publicly voice its opinion. Everyone has the freedom of speech. And as such, so do I in identifying the numerous flaws in its arguments. It’s a terribly misinformed op-ed, largely driven by the fact that the opinion was formulated before the event had even begun.

    There’s no need for me to respond to your second paragraph, seeing that there’s no meaningful content there. But, I do appreciate you admitting that I use evidence to justify my claims. Using evidence to prove points, it turns out, furthers discussion and is much more productive than the blog-style of journalism used so clumsily by the editorial board in crafting their opinion.

    Best,
    Jigar

  4. Lachlan Pinney on April 8th, 2018 4:00 pm

    Hiya Charlie,

    Jigar provided a thorough response to most of your comment, so I won’t rehash it. However, there’s one more point that deserves emphasis; in your second paragraph, you assert that the Editorial Board “speaks to a sentiment felt by people who belong to this community.”

    I’m a new Feb, but I’ve been here long enough to know that the “sentiment” on Middlebury campus is incredibly diverse, despite the reputation we get for being a “liberal” school. After Sander’s talk, I had excellent conversations with students on both sides of the isle who affirmed the importance of the event, whether they agreed with each of Sander’s assertions or not. The sentiment expressed in this op-ed, however, fits most snugly within the narrative offered by a fraction of the activist community. For an editorial board claiming to embody the values of the larger student population, that disturbs me.

    Is the Editorial Board merely a megaphone for a single viewpoint? Is it committed enough to meaningful academic discourse to actually read and listen to Richard Sander before proclaiming him unworthy of speaking to Middlebury students?

    All the best,

    Lachlan Pinney




Middlebury College's only student-run newspaper.
Richard Sander Is Not Who We Need