In September, the Middlebury College Republicans set in motion plans to invite Charles Murray back to campus for a third visit, requiring hours of meetings with administrators and lengthy discussions about logistics. This week, those plans have ground to a halt.
All spring semester courses will be moved online beginning March 30 in light of the spreading global Covid-19 outbreak, the college announced Tuesday. Murray’s talk, which was scheduled for March 31, will likely be cancelled as a result of the new steps, according to College Republicans Co-President Brendan Philbin ’21.
Philbin says he has not yet conferred with members of the College Republicans as to whether they’ll reschedule.
“From what we’ve seen, it doesn’t seem like we’ll even be back at school for March 31,” he said. “If we do end up deciding we want to reschedule, it would be for the fall.”
Murray, a controversial conservative writer who garnered national attention from works such as “The Bell Curve,” visited the college in 2007 and 2017. The protests of his 2017 visit led to the injury of political science professor Allison Stanger, and catalyzed conversations about free speech on college campuses. Since the College Republicans announced Murray’s planned return in a January op-ed, many of those conversations have been reignited. Before this week, students and faculty were planning to strike and hold teach-ins on the day of his talk.
Philbin said that Murray was notified promptly of the college’s decision to move courses online and that the talk would likely be cancelled. He said that Murray wasn’t surprised. In an interview with The Campus earlier this week, Murray expressed the expectation that the talk might be pushed, as colleges around the country took steps to protect students from the spreading virus.
“The Middlebury thing is way up in the air given the coronavirus situation,” he said. “Given the number of things that are being cancelled—and we’re only talking three weeks away? I’d say, that’s pretty iffy right there.”
With the College Republicans’ meager budget of $415, financing Murray’s talk proved a preliminary obstacle.
According to Murray, his speaker fee is usually $10,000 for colleges like Middlebury. Yet when College Republican co-presidents Philbin and Dominic Aiello ’22.5 and former Vermont governor and College Republicans adviser Jim Douglas reached out to him to gauge his interest in coming back, he immediately waived the fee.
“I’m not charging the college because I thought it was important — still think it’s important — for me to come back to Middlebury,” Murray said in an interview with The Campus.
Next came the meetings. Philbin estimates that he, Aiello and Douglas met with the administration at least seven times since the initial proposal in mid-November.
Philbin said that originally the administration proposed that the talk take place mid-day, at 1 p.m. Philbin insisted on a typical talk time of 4:30 p.m., so that students weren’t confronted with the choice between attending classes and the talk.
“They also proposed another event time that was the Friday of spring break,” Philbin said. “So, spring break starts at 4:15 and the event would have been at 4:30. We eventually ended up getting March 31 — but that took several meetings.”
Throughout this entire process, Murray has not had contact with the administration. “I haven’t talked to anybody from Middlebury’s administration about anything,” he said.
The visit would have been Murray’s first visit to a college campus in the wake of the release of his new book, “Human Diversity: The Biology of Race, Gender, and Class.”
Organizing day-of logistics for Murray’s visit resembled something between an obstacle course and a jigsaw puzzle. Like last time, the talk was slated to take place in Wilson Hall. There were 140 seats designated for the event.
According to Philbin, a private security consulting group, Blue Moon Consulting, was involved in the planning process. The firm’s website says it deals in “proactive reputational risk and crisis management.”
Philbin, Aiello and Douglas planned on divvying up tickets with a lottery system. The College Republicans reserved 60 of the tickets for their own club members, various faculty and members of Open Campus Initiative — the co-sponsor of the event. Philbin said the College Republicans do not have an official roster, but that 8 to 20 members are usually in attendance at each meeting.
Of the original 140 tickets, 80 remain for Middlebury College ID-holders.
McCullough Student Center — the building in which Wilson Hall is situated — was to be closed for the entirety of the day. “We’ve been told from the administration that they’ll have McCullough closed down and cleared in the morning,” Philbin said.
After the college announced plans to upgrade its security plans last fall, McCullough has been one of the first sites to receive ramped-up security measures in recent months. The plan has cost the college around $200,000, according to Executive Vice President for Finance and Administration David Provost. Components of the plan include the implementation of security cameras and additional key-card access.
Provost said the costs for additional security for the Murray event, through Green Mountain Security, would have totaled between $5,000 and $10,000. They were to be funded by the college. There were no planned costs for the local and state police services that the college had requested be in attendance.
“Some will say that we will have spent up to $200,000 this year and we will use some of those improvements on the Murray event,” Provost told The Campus. “What would we have spent this year on those investments if Murray wasn’t coming? Close to $200,000. What are we spending now that Murray is coming? $200,000. Was it accelerated? Some could say yes.”
There is currently no official confirmation from the administration that Murray’s talk will be cancelled. In a phone interview late Tuesday, Philbin said that “the current status is that the event doesn’t seem like it’s happening.”
After the many meetings and preparations, Philbin sees the cancellation as an upset. “It’s disappointing,” he said. “We put in six months of work. I committed social suicide for this event and now it seems like it’s not going to happen. Things are totally up in the air right now.”
Correction March 12, 2020: A previous version of this article stated that Philbin was present at meetings with Blue Moon Consulting Group. Although they were involved in the process, they were never at a meeting where he was present.