Social critic and author Charles Murray’s own vivid account of what recently happened at Middlebury College should be required reading for any serious student of higher education. It gives a chilling picture of what today’s campus Jacobinism looks like, up-close and ugly.
Last week, at bucolic Middlebury, a well-regarded school in the center of Vermont, Murray was shouted down, and political science professor Allison Stanger, roughed up, during a protest and subsequent riot. The episode is the latest attempt at major colleges and universities to crush open discourse and intimidate free expression.
Murray is best known for his 1994 book, The Bell Curve, co-written with the late Richard Herrnstein, which linked social inequality to genetics and intelligence. His earlier book, Losing Ground, argued that welfare programs immiserated the very people they were designed to help. Murray himself has long led a high-style life as a celebrity Washington intellectual, not shrinking from the spotlight and applause. In the past, he has showed courage and wit amid vicious ad hominem attacks, and he did so again at Middlebury.
Murray’s latest book Coming Apart, published in 2014, charts the widening split between the white professional elite and working class. Although uneven, it got to the core of an increasingly despairing, demoralized white working class and prefigured the rise of Donald Trump. It is an important book on an important social trend.
Murray was invited by Middlebury students to discuss the book’s themes in an event co-sponsored by the political science department. Murray is also a recent Middlebury parent. When Murray could not speak because of the protesters, he was taken to a video studio to broadcast the event online. Some protesters began pulling fire alarms, temporarily shutting off power, continuing to yell and bang walls. Things soon got worse, as Murray reports.
Professor Stanger later said: “To people who wish to spin this story as one about what’s wrong with elite colleges and universities, you are mistaken. Please instead consider this as a metaphor for what is wrong with our country.” Stanger seems to embody some of the best qualities of today’s professoriate, but here she is only half right.
Yes, there’s plenty wrong with the country. But what happened at Middlebury is very much about what’s wrong with American colleges. Bizarre indictments of Western civilization and a lengthening list of proscribed points of view meet administrative uncertainty. Professors themselves are frequently ideological agitators on company time. Anyone who wants an academic career must pledge allegiance to the diversity catechism. Once axiomatic principles of reasoned exchange, facts and free speech are suffocating. An unrepentant Middlebury student website claimed after the fact:
The administration’s support of a platform for white nationalist speech was an intense act of aggression towards the most marginalized members of the Middlebury community. Though President Laurie Patton stated her disagreement with many of Murray’s views, by sharing a stage with him and designating his non-peer reviewed work as academically valuable, she effectively legitimized him.
There is no way to reason with this outlook. Such a coercive line of thought is taking a toll on the reputation of some august, still-magnificent institutions. It is destroying entire academic fields, turning them into ideological sanctuaries.
Campus radicals call for conversations and dialogue. In fact, they seek an audience and news cameras for their one-sided public harangues. In every corner or lecture hall, it seems, obsessives and crazies now lay in wait, scowling, ready to scream racist or Nazi. Trigglypuff shouting down speaker Christina Hoff Summers at the University of Massachusetts last year remains Exhibit A of the genre.
Social justice warriors flaunting diversity credentials claim an inherent, unilateral right to decide what is said and not said on campus. “Students are afraid to be truthful in the classroom,” said one Middlebury student to the Boston Globe after the incident.
Some professors are themselves partisans. Others avoid certain facts, ideas, or viewpoints, for fear they will be perceived as “hateful,” with subsequent student reviews, complaints, and academic leperdom. Tenure is supposed to protect them from this kind of intimidation, but in fact, it empowers the partisans and allows them to self-replicate.
Middlebury comes a month after a violent riot at the University of California, Berkeley, causing $100,000 worth of damage, after the school canceled a scheduled lecture by Breitbart’s Milo Yiannopoulos, who was then removed from campus out of concern for public safety. The university blamed mysterious “outside masked agitators” for the unrest. There were no arrests or high-profile investigations.
It has been suggested that Murray ask Middlebury through attorneys to preserve video and audio recordings. Threatening legal action, he could force the college to identify the guilty, finger those who broke school rules, suspend or expel rioters, punish complicit faculty, and turn criminal evidence over to authorities for investigation and prosecution. Or he could just sue the college up the wazoo. But everyone involved agrees that the college and its president acted honorably throughout the fracas, and Murray expresses his gratitude to the many members of the Middlebury community who saw him through this trial.
Closing down free expression and censoring acceptable thought challenge root principles of academic conduct. The worry is that Middlebury will say but not do the right thing. How will the school follow up on what happened? That’s what makes this case so important. As a small private college, Middlebury has autonomy that public universities do not. Who organized the protests? What faculty were complicit? The answers are there to be found, if Middlebury wants the answers and chooses not to play the so sorry, won’t happen again game.
Embarrassed and fearful for its public image, Middlebury will probably try to do its best to bury this dreadful event, but it can’t nor should it. Freedom of speech and civility on campuses nationwide are continuing to slide. More kid gloves and denial will only embolden violence in the future.