Revisiting speech and inclusion

Dear Middlebury faculty, students and staff,

As the faculty members of the Committee on Speech and Inclusion, we write to the community to offer an initial response to the news that Charles Murray has been invited back to Middlebury. After Murray’s visit in spring 2017, the Middlebury College administration convened our committee, consisting of staff, faculty and students. We came to this committee with different viewpoints on speech and inclusion, and were charged with engaging in dialogue about the complex and divisive issues concerning the relationship between these two values. Despite our diverse perspectives, we were nevertheless able to make recommendations about how the community might deal with similar events in the future. Overall, we hold that both of those values — open discussion of ideas and inclusion of diverse people — are essential to the healthy functioning of the college. Our deliberations informed our January 2018 report, available here.

The freedom to explore and discuss any question or topic — no matter where it leads — is a cornerstone of academic inquiry and freedom. Having said that, such questions are never explored in an abstract intellectual space but in specific social settings. Although the motivation to explore may be absolutely innocent, the effects on some members of our community, and especially on marginalized groups, are sometimes far from benign, and may lead to dignitary harm. We do not support policies that prevent sponsors from bringing whomever they wish to campus, or that shut down speakers once they are invited. Nonetheless, we encourage hosts and potential sponsors to think seriously about how issues of power and privilege complicate arguments about free speech. For marginalized groups, the ideal of a public sphere as a level playing field where all can freely express themselves is far from the reality of their experience.

In the coming weeks, we invite all members of the Middlebury community — hosts and audience members — to be conscientious about the choices they make in relation to events they organize or attend.  First and foremost, we encourage hosts to consider formats and venues that facilitate audience engagement with the speaker and create space for the expression of multiple viewpoints within their event. By the same token, we remind students, staff and faculty that when productive dialogue and exchange of ideas are not feasible, creating alternative events in which opposing views can be heard may be an effective response.  For those who have already dedicated substantial time and energy to the consideration of Murray’s ideas, we understand and support them if they decide not to attend or engage.

While we do not need or wish to play a leadership role in this moment, we have been talking about divisive ideas like Murray’s for years, and we hope to continue to do so in a way that will strengthen our relationships and improve our understanding about how to balance speech and inclusivity on our campus.

Sincerely,

Ata Anzali, Associate Professor, Department of Religion

Kemi Fuentes-George, Associate Professor, Department of Political Science

Sarah Stroup, Associate Professor, Department of Political Science

Marion Wells, Professor, Department of English and American Literatures

Editor’s note: The above faculty are the four faculty members of the Committee on Speech and Inclusion, a committee that was created in the aftermath of Charles Murray’s 2017 visit to campus. The committee dissolved after releasing its 2018 report. Learn more about that committee and its work here.