How Middlebury College Enabled The Student Riot During Charles Murray’s Visit

How Middlebury College Enabled The Student Riot During Charles Murray’s Visit

School administrators must stop abasing themselves to student outrage. Colleges should foster intellectual community—not progressive appeasement.
Peter W. Wood
By

The fracas at Middlebury College on March 2 has been widely reported. Both the New York Times and The Wall Street Journal covered it, though perhaps no report improved on the local Addison County Independent: Middlebury College professor injured by protesters as she escorted controversial speaker.” Web coverage and commentary has also been ample. The American Interest was among the first to post.

This is an ongoing story with important details to come. The links above provide concise versions. What follows is a zoomed-in look at the events that preceded the apparent effort by a protester to inflict serious harm on a Middlebury professor, a professor who herself played an ambiguous part in the disturbance.

The Middlebury Students Who Invited Charles Murray

A Middlebury College student group, the American Enterprise Institute Club, invited Charles Murray to speak on campus. Murray, a well-known social scientist of generally libertarian views, is the W.H. Brady Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. He has been demonized by many on the left since the publication of his book, “The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life,” in 1994, co-authored with Richard J. Herrnstein.

“The Bell Curve” has very little to say about race. But it argues that a considerable portion of intelligence—40 to 80 percent—is heritable; and it also argues that intelligence tests are generally reliable. Those ideas irritate people who have a deep investment in three beliefs: extreme human plasticity; the social origins of inequality; and the possibility of engineering our institutions to create complete social justice.

Murray’s 1994 argument that intelligence is mostly fixed at birth runs afoul of the hope or the belief that children who have significant intellectual deficits can overcome them with the right kinds of teaching.

Murray’s argument can be interpreted to mean that social and economic inequality are rooted mostly in biological inheritance—though Murray never says this, and to the contrary has often argued for social changes that have nothing to do with biological inheritance.

Murray is broadly on the side of pragmatic steps to ameliorate social ills and is skeptical of utopian proposals.

Why Many On The Left Have Dismissed Murray

Murray has written many books since “The Bell Curve,” but for many on the left, it is still 1994 and they still have not read the original book, let alone Murray’s more recent work, including his 2013 best-seller “Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010.” Any familiarity with that book—a sustained lament for “The Selective Collapse of American Community,” as he titles one chapter—would render it impossible to sustain the cartoon image of Murray as a racist bigot who wants to keep in place the inequities of American life. Murray has ably answered these kinds of attacks before, not that any of his opponents actually care about the accuracy of their accusations.

It testifies to the shallowness of elite liberal arts education today—and not just Middlebury—that significant numbers of students and faculty members can repeat the old slurs against Murray. And not just repeat them, but intoxicate themselves with hatred towards a man whose ideas they know only third- or fourth-hand through individuals who have a strong ideological motive to distort them.

But when the AEI Club at Middlebury invited Murray to speak, they knew that he is regarded by the campus left as the embodiment of a certain kind of evil. And they may also have anticipated that, in the wake of campus protests in the last few years culminating in the Berkeley riot of February 1, Middlebury’s own campus leftists would probably seize the occasion to act up.

What Happened Before Murray’s Intended Speech

Middlebury’s administration, including President Laurie Patton, also knew that. And the college had plenty of opportunity to consider how best to handle Murray’s public lecture. President Patton’s preparations were, to say the least, ineffective.

By the time Wilson Hall in the McCullough Student Center had filled up with students for the Murray lecture, it was abundantly clear that the audience was primed for a boisterous and disruptive protest. Well before Murray took the stage, students were screaming, waving vulgar signs, and shouting at the preliminary speakers who were trying to introduce the event. We know this not just through eye-witnesses but because, of course, some present filmed it with their cellphones.

This YouTube video commences when one of the Middlebury officials, Vice President for Communications and Chief Marketing Officer Bill Burger, has gone to the podium and in good-humor (“You’re going to love this part”) attempts to instruct the audience on respecting the right of a speaker to speak. As audience members scream over Burger, he dutifully responds “I get the point,” and then reads a prepared statement: “If an event is disrupted by a group or individual, a representative of the college may request the action to stop or ask the person or group to leave the event.”

Burger is momentarily drowned out by the audience, then he resumes, “Individuals or groups who disrupt an event or who fail to leave when asked are in violation of college policy. Violations of college policy may result in college discipline up to and including suspension.”

Middlebury Was Not Prepared To Control Students

Burger’s prepared statement, which was surely something that President Patton approved, exemplified the under-preparation of the college. The students were plainly ready to take their protest to the limit, or perhaps a little beyond the limit, of what Middlebury would tolerate. But what would that limit be?

What the students received was a pro forma reminder of the rules delivered in a tone that suggested those rules would not be upheld. While we cannot know exactly what Burger was thinking, his public tone was amused resignation.

And the rules themselves amounted to nothing more than a warning that a college official may ask you to stop, and if you don’t stop, you may face college discipline. In fact, we now know from Charles Murray himself that the college officials, anticipating a crowd that would ignore the rules, planned to let the protest unfold without interruption in the hope that the crowd would eventually settle down. There was no plan at all to enforce decorum.

Burger’s lines were excerpted from Middlebury’s official statement on “Demonstrations and Protests,” but curiously omitted a few key points including this: “Disruption may also result in arrest and criminal charges such as disorderly conduct or trespass.”

No one in that audience took the warning as presented seriously because Middlebury gave the participants no reason to. Just the opposite: those who were planning to disrupt Murray had just been handed a permission slip, a smiling indulgence from the college administration.

The Speech President Patton Gave To Students

If there were any uncertainty about that, President Patton soon put it to rest. At seven minutes into the video, she took the stage and spoke for six and a half minutes. Let’s put this in present tense. Patton speaks in a somber tone, and is at pains to get across her own extreme reluctance to have Charles Murray on campus. Her points are:

  • Inclusiveness. “Thank you all—every single one of you—for being here.” Several times over the course of the next six minutes, Patton repeats a pledge of allegiance to diversity: “Middlebury is committed to unlocking the potential and brilliance of every student no matter their race, their class, their sexual orientation, their religious orientation, their disabled status, or any other demographic marker.”
  • Regret. “I’m here because if my schedule is free I always respond to the student requests.” Patton allows that college policy permits students and faculty freedom “to examine and discuss all questions of interest to them.” She sounds not one bit enthusiastic about this policy.
  • Repugnance. “I would regret it terribly if my presence here today, which is an expression of support I give to all students who are genuinely seeking to engage in a very tough public sphere, is read to be something which it is not: an endorsement of Mr. Murray’s research and writings. I will state here that I profoundly disagree with many of Mr. Murray’s views.”

Is every Middlebury student a repository of brilliance waiting to be unlocked? Presumably the Charles Murray of “The Bell Curve” would have doubts about that, as would anyone who takes the trouble to watch the 44-minute video, which serves as a pretty good illustration of what not-very-intelligent people look like when they succumb to a mob mentality. Patton’s list of the “demographic markers” she is eager to defend does not include political orientation. Indeed, she began her remarks by declaring, “Allow me to state the obvious. We are a left-leaning campus…

Patton Didn’t Defend Free Expression—She Took Sides

Nowhere in her remarks was there any defense of the ideal of free expression on campus. She acknowledged that “college policy” left the door open to the American Enterprise Institute Club to invite Charles Murray, but Patton had nothing to say about why it was a good idea to let Murray or others not on the left speak.

Nowhere in her remarks was there any defense of the ideal of free expression on campus.

Patton’s explicit and emphatic avowals of her disagreement with Murray were gratuitous. She cited none of his views and gave no reasons why she disagreed with those views. She merely took sides: siding with the protesters in their uninformed distaste for Murray, though not in their willingness to deny him a platform.

The underlying message to the students who showed up to protest was that President Patton felt the justice of their cause, but was determined to stick with college policy allowing controversial speakers to speak. Patton positioned herself almost identically to how Chancellor Nicholas Dirks at UC Berkeley had positioned himself prior to the Milo Yiannopoulos event. Dirks had likewise empathized his extreme dislike of the speaker’s views and his temperate allegiance to free speech.

But perhaps the most striking precedent for what happened at Middlebury is the May 2013 takeover of a Swarthmore College board meeting by a mob of student activists. The president of Swarthmore at the time, Rebecca Chopp, sat in the audience and did nothing, even after students who were not part of the protest appealed to her to restore order. That event too was caught on video, and Chopp persisted afterwards in defending her inaction in the face of tactics of intimidation and lawlessness.

Ultimately, Loudness Won At Middlebury

Following President Patton’s remarks, a student, AEI Co-President Alexander Khan, adroitly introduced Murray, working for six minutes though a bustle of jeers. But when Murray at last reaches the podium (19:03 on the YouTube video), the audience kicks into what the protest organizers had planned all along. They stand up and turn their backs. Somewhere a woman’s voice begins to recite a manifesto; other voices join in. The content is mostly unintelligible, but it is loud enough to prevent Murray from saying anything. (Murray later reported that the manifesto was supposedly a James Baldwin text.) The choral reading continues for three and a half minutes, with most of the students—those without the written script—standing silent. After that begins more than 20 minutes of uninterrupted chanting of slogans:

22:29 “Who is the Enemy? White Supremacy.”

24:10 “Racist, sexist, anti-gay, Charles Murray go away.”

24:48, 33:03 “Your message is hatred. We cannot tol-er-ate it.”

25:59 “Middlebury says no way. Charles Murray go away.”

29:08 “Hey hey, ho, ho, Charles Murray has got to go.”

33:14 “Black Lives Matter.”

All the while, signs are waving, including peculiar sexual prescriptions such as “Fuck Rhetorical Resilience.” Presumably some Middlebury students have encountered the idea that hearing views contrary to their own is not all that much of calamity—and they firmly reject that recommended “resilience.”

As far as one can tell from the video, Middlebury officials made no effort at all to regain control of the event. They let the student protesters continue uninterrupted for more than 20 minutes, and then simply announced that Charles Murray and the faculty member who would question him would move to a different room with no audience and that his talk would be live-streamed from there. The protesters had won. Many of them lingered in the auditorium to jeer at the screen as Murray spoke. Some, however, attempted to follow Murray and to further disrupt the event by pulling fire alarms.

As for Middlebury’s official statement on “Demonstrations and Protests,” that was a dead letter, as were the milder strictures of the good-humored Middlebury official at the beginning, and President Patton’s faintly-stated hope that the event would illustrate the college’s openness to expressions of unpopular views.

Stranger Things Happened After The Protest

The Middlebury fracas would have been plenty bad enough if it ended there. But what made headlines came later. When Murray was being escorted to his car, the group he was with was assaulted by students, and Professor Allison Stanger was injured after someone pulled her hair and twisted her neck. She had to go to an emergency room and was fitted with a neck brace.

For those who don’t speak yoga, ‘Namaste’ literally means ‘I bow to you.’

Stanger had played a key role in the event before this. She was supposed to be a moderator and someone who would ask Murray questions. At the tail-end of the video (41:20-42:05) she addressed the audience, beginning, “Please listen for one minute.” Like President Patton, Stanger is eager to tell the protesters that she is no fan of Murray. She claims the ability, however, to ask the penetrating questions that need to be asked. The students are unimpressed and continue their chants. And Stanger ends, “Brothers and sisters, Namaste.”

For those who don’t speak yoga, “Namaste” (NAM-as-tay) literally means “I bow to you,” and is the closing prayer-like declaration at the tail-end of a yoga class. The idea is that the divine spark in the soul of each participant reaches out to all the other little sparks. What exactly Stanger meant by it, of course, is a mystery. The word functions something like “Peace, man,” did among hippies in the 1960s, as a kind of in-group identifier. Stanger was more or less saying to the crowd, “I’m one of you.”

Apparently not everyone in the crowd believed it.

Stanger Participated in the Protest

But there are deeper layers of irony here. If you examine the video carefully, Stanger makes several appearances before she goes on stage. At one point (29:08), Stanger is to be found grinning at the chant, “Hey hey, ho, ho, Charles Murray has got to go.” At another (30:05) Stanger is broadly smiling as the crowd chants, “Racist, sexist, anti-gay, Charles Murray go away.” Still later, as the crowd chants, “Black Lives Matter,” Stanger raises her hands above her head (33:20) and claps along. Soon after, the camera pans across her again (33:34) and she is chanting the slogan as well as clapping.

In other words, Stanger was not just present at the protest, but participated in it.

That his assigned interlocutor would publicly participate in an effort to prevent him from speaking at all is, I guess, part of the postmodern academy.

That his assigned interlocutor would publicly participate in an effort to prevent him from speaking at all is, I guess, part of the postmodern academy. Murray tweeted after the event, “Allison Stanger. She’s on the left. And fearless, funny, smart as can be, and as devoted to academic freedom as anyone I’ve ever met.”

Stanger is the Russell J. Leng ’60 Professor of International Politics and Economics at Middlebury, and a figure to be reckoned with: Harvard Ph.D., a graduate diploma in economics from London School of Economics, author of some important scholarly works, including “One Nation Under Contract: The Outsourcing of American Power and the Future of Foreign Policy” (Yale University Press).

To this, we can add outpatient at Porter Hospital and martyr to President Patton’s commitment to non-interference in the right of Middlebury students to enforce their prohibition on free speech in their own creative way.

President Patton, however, was “deeply disappointed by the events that [she] witnessed.” She issued a letter to the community expressing her displeasure.

Murray Looks Back On The Events

Charles Murray has told his own story about the event. Vice President Burger had warned Murray a day in advance that “the size and potential ferocity of the planned protests had escalated.” The agreed plan was to let the protesters have their noisy protest for a “reasonable period,” and if they persisted beyond that, to adjourn to a different room “to live-stream the lecture and take questions via Twitter.”

‘Absent an adequate disciplinary response, I fear that the Middlebury episode could become an inflection point.’

Murray says that, when he heard the uproar, he was willing to wait it out until midnight if necessary. But he acceded to Burger’s prompting to move the event to the studio. By the end of the evening, Murray had bonded with Stanger and Bulger (“I saw them as dear friends and still do”). Murray has no rancor towards the college authorities, despite the manhandling his little group received at the hands of the mob that injured Stanger when they were trying to leave campus. Murray sympathizes with “President Patton’s task” in dealing with so many violations committed by so many students. “Absent an adequate disciplinary response, I fear that the Middlebury episode could become an inflection point.”

A similar worry is expressed in an important statement from Middlebury professor of Political Science Matthew Dickinson, “Murray and Middlebury: What Happened, and What Should Be Done?” Dickinson writes, “The student riot has left an ugly stain on Middlebury’s reputation, although it is too early to say how indelible it might be.” He see the college’s “central mission” as “in danger of slipping away.” But like Murray, Dickinson does not blame President Patton for taking too soft an approach: “For understandable reasons the administration decided beforehand not to respond to the student protest with a heavy show of force, for fear of escalating the violence.”

Roger Kimball seconds Murray’s idea that the event might be an inflection point in the history of liberal arts education in the U.S., but he shares none of Murray’s or Dickinson’s confidence in President Patton’s good will and commitment to free expression. Kimball refers to Patton’s opening remarks as “an emetic specimen of self-congratulatory virtue signaling” that did nothing to protect Murray’s right to speak.

Students No Longer Believe In Intellectual Discussion

The student protesters have taken to heart an idea that has floated around in radical left circles for decades and that has recently gained traction on American campuses: the idea that some ideas are so illegitimate, it is right and proper to prevent their expression.

It is useful to see such views spelled out since they are, in effect, a no-trespassing sign erected on the border of simple-minded ignorance.

According to this conceit, permitting the expression of such pernicious ideas lends them credibility, and even mounting arguments against the validity of such ideas elevates them to a status they do not deserve. The sustainability movement began to use this tactic to bar the expression of dissent from its favored postulates, and the tactic has spread to others on the radical left.

A Middlebury student named Nic Valenti provided a near-perfect example of this twisted logic in a letter published in the Middlebury student newspaper, “Why I’m Declining AEI’s ‘Invitation to Argue.’” Murray’s ideas, in Valenti’s judgment, are “dangerous.” Debating those ideas suggests “false equivalence” with better ideas. Allowing those ideas to be expressed on campus is “grossly disrespectful,” “a waste of time,” and an insult to “young people with the perceptiveness of realizing that this whole situation is fucking bullshit and the integrity to be enraged by it.”

Valenti’s words are our best glimpse into the heads of college students who reject the principles of academic and intellectual freedom. It is useful to see such views spelled out since they are, in effect, a no-trespassing sign erected on the border of simple-minded ignorance. No ideas contrary to those approved by leftist groupthink are permitted beyond that border.

How Students Are Trying To Excuse Their Actions

Similar views are on display in a statement posted anonymously by some Middlebury students after the protest and assault. They manage to blame the attack on unnamed outsiders, as well as on Vice President Burger and security personnel who “without warning began pushing and pulling protesters out of the way.” They also explain:

A student reports that Professor Stanger’s hair was not intentionally pulled but was inadvertently caught in the chaos that Public Safety incited. It is irresponsible to imply that a protester aggressively and intentionally pulled her hair.

The statement also fixes the blame for the whole affair on the Middlebury administration: These students “condemn the administration and Public Safety’s actions on Thursday night and since then — especially their attempts to discredit the protesters inside and outside McCullough.”

This actually sounds as if the protesters, having disgraced themselves in the public eye, now would like some kind of debate over what happened. Not really, of course. But they are eager to escape any responsibility for their actions.

Middlebury Is In Trouble—But It’s Not Alone

Some things go without saying, but should be said anyway. Middlebury is in trouble. It is not alone. Many colleges and universities are in similar trouble. They have lost the key to open intellectual debate. They can no longer distinguish between tolerating dissent that respects open discourse, and licensing mob action aimed at preventing the free exchange of ideas. They respond with timidity and cowardice at the first mention of racial sensitivities, and flee in panic from their public responsibility to free speech when leftist bullies unleash their projectile accusations.

Middlebury is in trouble. It is not alone.

Race in America is a fraught topic. But allowing the epithet “racist” to silence any and every view not currently in vogue with Black Lives Matter is cringing. What kind of progress can we make as a nation if our college presidents, entrusted with the integrity of higher education, respond to such demagoguery with abject submission? The same more or less applies to such epithets as “sexist” and “anti-gay,” as well as other imputations that anyone who disagrees with a progressive formulation of who is oppressing whom is therefore a bigot.

Murray doesn’t fit the jacket that the Middlebury protesters tried to hang on him. Anyone who has read his books knows that. Shame on President Patton and others in the Middlebury community who could have spoken up and didn’t. But shame on a hundred other college presidents—at least a hundred—who have similarly taken the easy path of capitulation to know-nothing name-callers over the last year or two.

College boards of trustees, are you listening? Why do you appoint people whose only talent is to appease bullies? Why do you sit back and let them do what President Patton just did? Do you think Middlebury just purchased “peace in our time”? I think Middlebury purchased a long lasting scar on its reputation. It will be known as a place more concerned about political posturing than education.

Colleges Need To Foster ‘Rhetorical Resilience’

I assume the students who physically assaulted Stanger will be met with some kind of punishment, though it is hard to see that anything other than permanent expulsion would convey the right message. Be that as it may, the problem remains with the hundreds of students who gleefully ignored the college’s strictures on demonstrations and protests. The number is so large as to make the imposition of significant sanctions impossible. The better course is probably to impose that sanction on the administrator or administrators who allowed the situation to veer out of control. The next time a Middlebury president is faced with such a situation, he or she might have greater presence of mind.

But, again, Middlebury is only one of many colleges and universities caught in this situation. Higher education today recruits college presidents in part by ascertaining their willingness not to get in the way of whatever progressive causes are currently fashionable. We hire college presidents who are all-in on diversity, sustainability, world-citizenship, and so on. Boards of trustees, charged with making these decisions, generally recline into accepting the advice of “stakeholder” committees in which each ideological faction wields a veto. We then wind up with college presidents whose superpower is appeasement.

Professor, the students are not your friends. They are your students.

And that devolves, in due time, to the situation at hand. We have a generation of college students who reframe any idea they disagree with as “hate,” and declare that “Your message is hatred. We cannot tol-er-ate it.”

They need, let’s say, some “rhetorical resilience.” And they need some teachers who are willing to challenge this pernicious form of self-indulgence. Arguments must be listened to. If they are unconvincing, they must be met with better arguments and good evidence. Silencing one’s opponents is what we do in the boxing ring, not the college lecture hall.

Professor, the students are not your friends. They are your students. You owe them your intellectual and moral authority, not your eagerness to win approval.

Administrator, students deserve a college that exemplifies the ideals of an intellectual community—not the dynamics of a political rally.

Is that clear? Namaste.

Murray’s title at AEI has been corrected. 

UPDATE: Burger, the university’s top communications official, claims Patton did not approve his statement and that he generally performs his duties without detailed oversight. To date, Burger’s statement has neither been retracted nor contradicted by the university’s president. 

Peter W. Wood is the president of the National Association of Scholars.

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