Murray visit raises questions for concerned faculty

The following letter was sent to President Laurie Patton and members of the Senior Leadership Group (SLG) on Thursday, Feb. 20, 2020. A list of SLG members is available here.

Parts of this letter have been lightly edited to comply with The Campus’ style guidelines.

An open letter to President Patton and her Senior Leadership Group: 

As a group of faculty who came together in the wake of Charles Murray’s last visit to Middlebury in 2017, we are truly saddened and baffled that we are facing his return to campus this spring. We believe that over the past three years, our campus has grown significantly in becoming a more inclusive, self-aware and responsive institution, that is open to frank conversations about racial and other inequities that structure our community and broader world. A lecture by an ultimately insignificant, debunked pseudo-scholar, arguing that race, class, and gender inequalities are a product of genetics rather than social systems and practices, would typically be a laughable and easy-to-ignore event. However, the presence of this particular insignificant, debunked pseudo-scholar reopens many wounds that we have worked hard to heal over the past three years.

We write to our administrative colleagues in Old Chapel seeking answers that we hope to receive in a public forum. The largest question that dogs us is, “How did you allow this to happen?” As stewards of Middlebury’s institutional culture, mission and reputation, you certainly recognize the many ways that this is a bad idea — no matter how events might play out on March 31, the event will cause many of us significant psychological distress, provoke in-fighting, generate bad publicity, potentially endanger members of our community, waste hours of time planning and stressing, and ultimately yield nothing beyond rekindled hostility. We believe you could — and should — have taken steps to stop this event from happening on the grounds that it was not in the best interest of the institution and goes directly against our core values of integrity, inclusivity and intellectual honesty. Murray’s talk seems predicated on the “pillar” of academic freedom, but also contradicts our other two pillars of integrity and respect.

Perhaps it is too late for an administrative action to save face from what will undoubtedly be another hit to our reputation. However, there are some crucial questions that remain unanswered as to how we got to this point that need to be explained:

1. Based on reporting in The Middlebury Campus, the decision to bring Murray was made by three people: College Republican co-presidents Dominic Aiello and Brendan Philbin, and the organization’s advisor, James Douglas. Not only were they the initiators of the event, but it appears that they were the only three members of the organization who knew about it at all. Philbin’s email to The Campus claims that the administration advised him to keep it secret from everyone else, including his fellow Republican students. Is this true? If so, what rationale was the administration following to encourage this unilateral action that placed other student members of the organization in such an unfair and uninformed position, given that many were quoted as disagreeing with the invitation? None of us who are advisors of organizations would ever encourage such secrecy and duplicity, so we are quite concerned that our administrative colleagues seem to have done so.

2. Douglas is the advisor for the College Republicans. However, our handbook policies for student organizations explicitly state that organizations are “required to have a current full-time faculty or staff member serve as the advisor.” Douglas is not a full-time faculty or staff member, but rather an “Executive in Residence” who occasionally teaches. This matters because we believe that full-time faculty and staff members, even those who may be Republicans or sympathetic to Murray, would better understand how this invitation would fracture our community and generate genuine harm to the institution. Douglas’s role within the college community does not afford him the deeper understanding of the impact of this decision, as he will not have to deal with the repercussions that this event might have among the student body, faculty and staff community, and broader institutional reputation. Thus we ask why the administration gave Douglas the power and responsibility to advise and encourage the two students who made this decision, rather than enforcing the rules that require the organization to have a full-time faculty or staff member for mentorship and oversight?

3. Obviously this event will require significant security and facilities staffing. According to our handbook, “Student organizations bear full responsibility for arranging and financing any Department of Public Safety services that may be necessary in connection with controversial speakers.” Are the College Republicans fully funding and arranging these services, and at what cost? If so, where are they getting this significant funding, which will cost more than their allocated organizational budget? Our community deserves to know the source of this funding, especially if it is coming from outside groups investing in an event designed to divide and generate controversy on our campus. What are the other projected costs to this event that Middlebury will be funding directly, including staff hours and damage control to our reputation?

We sincerely believe that our administrative colleagues wish they were not in this situation, being forced to risk so much because of a disingenuous event devised by just three people on a diverse campus of thousands. While we wish it had never come to this point, we ask President Patton and her administrative team to answer these questions in a public forum to provide transparency and clarity on their decision-making, knowing that it will be small solace in the wake of the turbulence and pain that March 31 has already caused.

Signed,

Middlebury Faculty for an Inclusive Community

Film and Media Culture Professor Jason Mittell and Sociology Professor Jamie McCallum co-authored this piece on behalf of the Middlebury Faculty for an Inclusive Community. A list of the group’s members can be found here.

Editor’s note: Jason Mittell is The Campus’ faculty adviser. Any questions may be directed to campus@middlebury.edu.