Another visible reaction came from Robert George, a conservative professor from Princeton, and Cornel West, the liberal professor at Harvard, who issued a joint statement championing free speech. The statement, which received thousands of signatures from fellow educators, reads as a direct response to the Middlebury incident. “All of us should seek respectfully to engage with people who challenge our views,” the authors write. “And we should oppose efforts to silence those with whom we disagree—especially on college and university campuses.”
A day earlier, Allison Stanger—the Middlebury professor who was asked to debate Murray, and wound with a concussion after being attacked by a protester—published an op-ed in The New York Times that recognized students’ concerns, while supporting the free exchange of ideas. Her words are worth a read:
Political life and discourse in the United States is at a boiling point, and nowhere is the reaction to that more heightened than on college campuses. Throughout an ugly campaign and into his presidency, President Trump has demonized Muslims as terrorists and dehumanized many groups of marginalized people. … College students have seen this, and have taken note: Speech can become action.
But there was a direct line between the fighting words on campus, the suppression of speech, and the angry mob that gave me a concussion. All violence is a breakdown of communication.
It seemed the academic community had spoken: Students were right to protest on behalf of their beliefs, but wrong to violate the principles of free speech that promote tolerance and effective communication. That is, until a string of op-eds surfaced from professors and college faculty who weren’t so convinced.
“I believe in free inquiry. But not exactly in these terms,” wrote Barbara Fister, an academic librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota, in an essay for Inside Higher Ed. “Not all wisdom is gained through reasoning. Conflict doesn’t make all ideas stronger.”
This sentiment was echoed in an essay, published Friday, by Linus Owens, an associate professor of sociology at Middlebury College, and two former students. “This situation is more complex than just being an issue of free speech or diversity of ideas,” they write. “To suggest that [minority and working-class students] needed a visit from Murray to expose them to ‘controversial’ ideas is laughable and offensive.”
What once seemed like a divide among students has now created a fault line in the academic community, in what is perhaps a fitting example of the constructive dialogue that should have occurred on the Middlebury campus. Even so, it raises the question: How can students strike the appropriate balance between protest and tolerance when their educators disagree on which is most important?