Richard Sander Is Not Who We Need


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.