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Middlebury College Protests: Closed-Mindedness And Violence Go Hand-In-Hand

Thursday evening, protests turned to violent riots on the Middlebury College campus in Middlebury, Vermont after American Enterprise Institute Fellow Dr. Charles Murray attempted to deliver a speech on his latest book, Coming Apart. Dr. Murray’s invitation sparked outrage from various students and protesters who had labeled Murray a “white nationalist” for his contentious 1994 hallmark tome The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure. In this work, he and his colleague Richard Hernstein argue through statistical evidence that human intelligence is a powerful predictor of social outcomes, such as income and involvement in crime.

Though the 800-page book references several variables that may contribute to one’s IQ measurement, the 18-page chapter, which elicits controversy, explores the causes of racial variation in IQ tests. Concluding that both environment and genetic differences between races likely play a role in accounting for disparities in average IQs, Murray and Hernstein remain deliberately undecided as to how much each factor impacts human intelligence. The chapter has earned Murray and Hernstein considerable criticism. Nevertheless, with the sponsorship of the Middlebury Political Science Department, the AEI Chapter at Middlebury invited Dr. Murray hoping to spark campus-wide discussion about liberal bubbles, a central part of Murray’s recent thesis in Coming Apart.

The Executive Council Chair of Middlebury’s AEI Chapter, Phil Hoxie, and Executive Council member Alexander Khan, agreed to provide more detail regarding the “preparations” that went into the protesting of Dr. Murray’s speech. Three professors in particular assisted in heating up the response from students: Associate Professor of Anthropology, Michael Sheridan; Associate Professor of Sociology, Jamie McCallum; and Assistant Professor of Education, Tara Affolter. Identifying themselves as leaders of the Middlebury “Resistance,” they proceeded to transform Dr. Murray’s visit into what some professors labeled the proverbial “boogeyman,” arranging numerous meetings with students in separate locations on campus throughout the days preceding Murray’s arrival.

A significant portion of the meetings was devoted not only to deprecating Dr. Murray but also to discussing the various types of protests in which the students felt most inclined to engage. The protest methods were categorized as “simultaneous dialogue”—a rather Orwellian term to describe silencing the speaker by speaking over him—and simply “other,” understood to mean shutting the event down entirely. The professors then had the students sort themselves into their preferred method of resistance. In one such meeting, someone labeled the AEI Chapter, which had invited Dr. Murray, as a “Right-wing insurgency group,” a grossly inaccurate characterization which no one bothered to challenge. For reference, the American Enterprise Institute, from where Dr. Murray hails, is a highly-esteemed bi-partisan think tank based in Washington D.C. where scholars from across the world engage in political and economic research.

What Hoxie and Khan did stress is that despite such rioting, the administration, in an act of prudent foresight, handled the situation superbly, taking several different measures prior to the event in order to limit possible damages. As Hoxie reiterated, “If they [the Middlebury administration] hadn’t acted as they did, it would have been a lot worse.”

Hoxie and Khan provided concrete details regarding the Middlebury Administration’s preparations for Dr. Murray’s arrival in anticipation of student pushback. Once the opinion editorial of the AEI members was published in the student newspaper, The Campus, disclosing Dr. Murray’s invitation, Middlebury’s Vice President of Communications Bill Burger, Middlebury’s Head of Public Safety, and the two administrators in the Student Activities Office met in order to discuss the parameters and logistics of the event. They agreed to move the location to a larger space, to bring in a third-party security service; and to alert the Middlebury Police Department about the event’s occurrence.

Hoxie highlighted Middlebury’s relatively new president, Dr. Laurie Patton, proclaiming, “President Patton was the one positive thing of the night.” Indeed, once the event began, Middlebury College President Laurie Patton delivered opening remarks assuring her confidence in the Middlebury community’s capacity to engage thoughtfully with opposing viewpoints. While she admitted Dr. Murray’s work to be “deeply controversial” and that she “profoundly disagreed” with his work, she believed his research to be influential in his field and closed by emphasizing the college’s policy toward disruption at college-sponsored events. Despite Dr. Murray’s later relocation to an alternative room to deliver his speech away from the rioting crowds, Laurie Patton remained seated on stage, watching intently the livestream of Dr. Murray’s lecture amidst the chaos of screaming agitators. Ironically, the three professors who had organized said protests did not attend the lecture.

While the protests during Dr. Murray’s speech were strikingly insolent, what unfolded as Dr. Murray exited the lecture hall with moderator Professor Stanger was nothing short of disturbing. One of Vermont’s independent papers Seven Days recounts Bill Burger’s description of the events:

About half an hour after the event ended, Burger said, the two [Murray and Stanger], accompanied by a college administrator and two public safety officers, tried to leave the building via a back entrance and hurry to a car. But protesters had surrounded various entrances and swarmed to the fleeing Murray and Stanger as they exited, he said.

Once Murray and Stanger were inside the car — and after Stanger had been assaulted — the crowd began jumping on the hood and banging on the windows, according to Burger. The driver tried to inch out of the parking space but the angry crowd surrounded the vehicle and tried to keep it from leaving.

Burger said someone threw a stop sign attached to a heavy cement base in front of the car. It finally got free of the crowd and then left campus…

“It was a very, very dangerous situation,” Burger said.

Directly after the event, President Patton held a spontaneous meeting with a group of ten to fifteen students and professors in order to discuss how to move forward from such a spectacle. Hoxie and Khan, as members of this informal coalition, emphasized the thoughtful and clear-headed nature of the conversation that unfolded following one of the most disruptive events the campus had witnessed in years, citing, “Laurie Patton deserves a lot of credit…Administration top-to-bottom did everything right.”

In response to the events, President Patton sent a letter to the Middlebury College community Friday afternoon, condemning the attacks against Dr. Murray and Professor Stanger and promising a response to the violations of the Middlebury College policy that occurred during Dr. Murray’s visit. She also noted rightfully that the protesters’ response to Dr. Murray’s visit was indicative of growing contentions on campus and antithetical to the Middlebury value of intellectual freedom:

Today our community begins the process of addressing the deep and troubling divisions that were on display last night. I am grateful to those who share this goal and have offered to help. We must find a path to establishing a climate of open discourse as a core Middlebury value, while also recognizing critical matters of race, inclusion, class, sexual and gender identity, and the other factors that too often divide us. That work will take time, and I will have more to say about that in the days ahead.

Yet, what makes the rioting against Dr. Murray’s speech so particularly strange is that such controversial figures have arrived on campus in the past, but have been largely shielded from criticism due to their Leftist views and the Left-leaning culture prevalent on most college campuses. An employee of the college was kind enough to provide me with a few recent speakers who have visited campus free from harassment, despite peddling inflammatory rhetoric.

In January of 2014, radical activist Angela Davis spoke at Mead Chapel as the Martin Luther King Jr. Keynote speaker. Campus publications such as MiddBeat declared Davis to be “one of the most historically important people” to have visited campus in recent years as “a high profile activist and educator associated with the Communist Party and the Black Panthers.” But such profiles are a grossly-subdued and quite frankly, inaccurate, portrayal of someone who has advocated openly for violence and repression. Davis is a flagrant apologist for the Soviet Union and has dismissed claims of violence committed by the Soviet regime. When visiting Middlebury College, Davis was pointedly asked a question regarding her support for Soviet policies by a professor whose homeland had been brutally occupied by the Soviet regime, and Davis’ direct response to the professor was nothing short of disturbing and grotesque: she refused to recant her support for the Soviet invasion of his country.

But Davis’ accomplishments do not end there. She is an outspoken supporter of the “Boycott Divestment Sanction” Movement waged against Israel and speaks routinely on college campuses regarding the “Israeli apartheid state.” Indeed, her anti-Zionist rhetoric, peddled as truths, has resulted in her openly justifying Palestinian terror attacks against Israelis. In 2013, the American Studies Association, at the urging of members of the BDS movement, agreed to an academic boycott of Israel. Nearly 100 college presidents, including Middlebury’s then-president Ron Liebowitz, expressed outrage over the ASA’s decision, citing the “extreme and hateful ideology” of those supporting the boycott and its attempts to stifle intellectual freedom. Yet despite President Liebowitz’s response, BDS-er Angela Davis still was provided with an ample platform to speak at Middlebury College—and copious compensation to do so.

Unlike Murray, Davis was not asked initially to sit on a panel instead of delivering her own lecture. Davis was given a keynote slot in honor of a national holiday, and according to sources at the college, Middebury awarded her an enormous honorarium. She was sponsored by several different college departments, such as the Office of the Dean of the College; the Center for the Comparative Study of Race and Ethnicity; Chellis House-Women’s Resource Center; MCAB Speakers Committee, Gender, Sexuality and Feminist Studies; Departments of History, Religion, and Sociology/Anthropology; Brainerd Commons; and Cook Commons. In short, departments seemingly lined up in order to condone a woman whose perspectives justified and condoned bloodshed.

Angela Davis is only one of many controversial speakers. Middlebury is slated to host a live webcast in which Edward Snowden—the former government contractor who deliberately leaked classified information from the National Security Administration—will be given the opportunity to address students. Similarly, radical Kimberle Crenshaw is scheduled to speak at the opening of Anderson Freeman Resource Center, a center devoted to promoting inclusivity and the creation of a welcoming environment for students traditionally underrepresented in higher education. Crenshaw’s pieces have received both criticism and praise as they identify issues within the feminism movement as being too narrowly focused on the plight of just “white women.”

As an alumna of Middlebury College and a former board member of the Middlebury AEI Chapter, I am deeply disturbed and disheartened by the events unfolding at my alma mater. We have approached a dark time in our society where disagreement with the mere words of another somehow merits the use of violence or in the very least, renders such use to be understandable. Alan Bloom published his hallmark piece The Closing of the American Mind exactly thirty years ago, in which he described how modern academia’s perpetual quest for “openness” was resulting in a supreme close-mindedness. If protesting Murray were simply about inflammatory ideas, then individuals such as Angela Davis would not have been permitted to speak. But it is decidedly not. It is about preserving the purity of Leftist thought on academic campuses.

The irony of Dr. Murray’s speech is that he discussed the very danger associated with liberal bubbles on college campuses. Nothing could more clearly show such danger than the events which transpired at the college. Large numbers of Millenials occupy spaces in which they never interact with opposing viewpoints, and thus, some may be apt to reject the notion of civil discourse, instead resorting to violence in order to engage with opposing ideas.

If Middlebury College and other campuses hope to improve the open-mindedness of their students, it should start by redefining diversity to include diversity of thought. Currently, professors who are registered Democrats outnumber professors who are registered Republicans by a margin of 11.5 to 1. If there is any hope of raising a generation with the ability to approach complex ideas in a thoughtful and well-rounded manner, such efforts should begin with the hiring of conservative thinkers on college campuses. For too long, liberal academia has stewed in its own echo chamber—and the consequences of such a luxury came to roost yesterday evening in a horrible fashion.

Despite my dismal assessment, I remain hopeful that the behavior of the Middlebury administration—and of those students who did not protest—will set a precedent for other universities which may struggle to bring opposing viewpoints to campus. I spoke with an employee of Middlebury who informed me that despite the violence of the rioters, there were many students—both liberal and conservative—who had arrived at Dr. Murray’s presentation, prepared to engage in intellectual debate. Some of these students were international students who had witnessed the results of speech repression in their homelands and were eager for it not to be mimicked here. Others were Bernie Sanders supporters who had agreed to listen to a more conservative viewpoint spoken on the nature of thought bubbles.

There were many who had every right to disagree with Dr. Murray but were prepared to listen to him and to challenge him in an intellectual space. Such students give me hope that the intellectual bubbles on college campuses will no longer be sources of violence—but rather, that such bubbles can be popped in the quest for the legitimate and real “openness” necessary for critical thinking.

A generous thank you to my fellow Executive Council members at the Middlebury chapter of AEI—Phil Hoxie, Alexander Khan, and Hayden Dublois—for their kind offer of input in the construction of this article. Follow Erielle Davidson on Twitter at @politicalelle.

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