Middlebury Reckons With a Protest Gone Wrong

Professors and students—many of whom emphatically disagree with Charles Murray—are concerned about attacks on his right to speak on their campus.

Lisa Rathke / AP

Last week, Middlebury College, a Vermont liberal arts school with about 2,500 students, became the latest campus to make national headlines due to protesters who so detested a speaker that they tried to prevent their classmates from hearing him speak. Some cast the clash as pitting conservatives against liberals. But that isn’t right.

The social scientist Charles Murray arrived on campus at the invitation of a student group to speak about his book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960–2010. Two students who extended the invitation, Alexander Khan and  Philip Hoxie, had been trying to understand the election of Donald Trump, although neither supported him. Intrigued by Coming Apart’s analysis of the growing cultural gulf between the white elite (from which Middlebury draws many of its students) and the white working class, they felt their campus would benefit from engaging with its author.

Many students and alumni and some faculty members disagreed.

Though the would-be censors varied widely in their familiarity with Murray and his beliefs, their objections flowed mostly from the content of his 1994 book The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life, and its most controversial argument: that the persistence of a black underclass in America is attributable partly to racial differences in intelligence, measured by IQ, that are partly genetic. (Like many of the protesters, I’ve never read the bestselling book, which was published when I was 14. Later, reading up on the debates that followed its publication, I thought the smartest critics of the two controversial chapters that focused on racial differences were more persuasive than their defenders.)

Few nonfiction books have generated such sustained controversy, due largely to the horrific evils justified in bygone decades by pseudoscience positing white superiority and the fear that Murray’s words could be exploited by white supremacists.

The New York Times Magazine put its author on the cover along with a profile by reporter Jason Deparl titled “Daring Research or Social Science Pornography?” The New Republic, then edited by Andrew Sullivan, dedicated most of an issue to debating the book. Sullivan defended that decision two years ago, during one of the controversy’s periodic resurgences, after my colleague Ta-Nehisi Coates, who was attending Howard University when The Bell Curve was published,  wrote, “TNR's much celebrated ‘heterodoxy’ was built on a strain of erudite neo-Dixiecratism. When The Bell Curve excerpt was published, one of my professors handed out the issue to every interested student. This was not a compliment. This was knowing your enemy.”

Protesters at Middlebury felt they knew their enemy well enough to justify denying classmates the chance to hear about his new book—one that was treated seriously by most major publications that review books on its way to becoming an influential bestseller. Coming Apart focuses on white people of different classes, and appeared on many lists of books to read to understand Trump. I once took its “How thick is your bubble?” quiz and found it a valuable exercise. After lining up early for seats outside a campus venue that holds 400 people, alongside students who wanted to hear the speech, protesters listened politely as senior Ivan Valladares spoke about how the campus AEI club, the event’s sponsor, helped him transition from a diverse New York City arts high school to a rural college by offering a setting “where diversity of expression could thrive.”

“Not only have my predispositions been challenged and tested—I have also found myself wanting to delve deeper into unknown subjects and opinions,” he said. “Our aim is not to convince someone of any particular ideology. It is to come together as a community of students to deliberate and learn outside of the classroom.”

The protesters kept listening, if less politely, as Middlebury President Laurie L. Patton noted the school’s commitment to unlocking the potential in every student regardless of identity; reminded students that college policy allows everyone “to examine and discuss all questions of interest to them, and to express opinions publicly and privately;” warned that they would be in violation of college rules if they prevented anyone from speaking; noted that she disagrees profoundly with some of Charles Murray’s views; and exhorted students, “if there ever was a time for Americans to take on arguments that offend us, it is now. If there ever was a time for us to challenge influential public views with better reason, better research, better logic, and better data, it is now. If there ever was a time when we need to argue back, to declare ourselves committed to arguing for a better society, it is now.”

As Charles Murray was introduced, some protesters felt justified in disparaging the student who introduced him and shouting from the audience as that student made a brief case for the liberal-arts tradition and the benefits of free speech. Then, moments after Murray began to speak, the protesters imposed their will. Large swaths of the audience stood, turned their backs to the stage, and shouted a speech of their own that commences at about the 19-minute mark in this video:

Eventually, they began to chant, “Your message is hatred—we will not tolerate it,”  and “Charles Murray go away—racist, sexist, anti-gay.” Some held signs that said, “No eugenics here.” One sign said, “Fuck rhetorical resilience,” objecting to a value many, including the administration and numerous faculty members, hold dear.

Murray stood silently at the podium through about 20 minutes of denunciations. Eventually, he was ushered aside by an administrator, who said, “I apologize for the disruption of the event, to Mr. Murray, and to those of you who’ve been approaching us and asking when you will be able to hear him. Mr. Murray has just told me in the clearest terms that he would like to stay here for a long time … we believe that it is a deeply held value at his institution for people to be able to hear and listen to a variety of views, and for speakers to be able to visit our campus and to communicate their own views. I’ll leave the choice with you.” The protesters chose to reject that final plea. So the administrator announced that they would move to a secure room, set up a livestream, and go forward with the event, broadcasting it to back to the original room and to anyone on campus with a device. Even during the livestream, protesters tried to disrupt the event from outside the secure room, chanting, banging on windows, and even pulling fire alarms.

And that’s all before Allison Stanger, the professor who spoke with Charles Murray on the livestream, pressing him on many of his controversial views, was made to fear for her life. That’s how she put it in a public Facebook post that described events that ended with her at a hospital with a neck injury.

Her words:

I agreed to participate in the event with Charles Murray, because several of my students asked me to do so. They are smart and good people, all of them, and this was their big event of the year. I actually welcomed the opportunity to be involved, because while my students may know I am a Democrat, all of my courses are nonpartisan, and this was a chance to demonstrate publicly my commitment to a free and fair exchange of views in my classroom. As the campus uproar about his visit built, I was genuinely surprised and troubled to learn that some of my faculty colleagues had rendered judgement on Dr. Murray’s work and character, while openly admitting that they had not read anything he had written. With the best of intentions, they offered their leadership to enraged students, and we all now know what the results were.

I want you to know what it feels like to look out at a sea of students yelling obscenities at other members of my beloved community. There were students and faculty who wanted to hear the exchange, but were unable to do so, either because of the screaming and chanting and chair-pounding in the room, or because their seats were occupied by those who refused to listen, and they were stranded outside the doors. I saw some of my faculty colleagues who had publicly acknowledged that they had not read anything Dr. Murray had written join the effort to shut down the lecture. All of this was deeply unsettling to me. What alarmed me most, however, was what I saw in student eyes from up on that stage.  Those who wanted the event to take place made eye contact with me.  Those intent on disrupting it steadfastly refused to do so. It was clear to me that they had effectively dehumanized me. They couldn’t look me in the eye, because if they had, they would have seen another human being. There is a lot to be angry about in America today, but nothing good ever comes from demonizing our brothers and sisters.

Things deteriorated from there as we went to another location in an attempt to salvage the event via live-stream for those who were still interested in engaging. I want you to know how hard it was for us to continue with fire alarms going off and enraged students banging on the windows.  I thought they were going to break through, and I then wondered what would happen next.  It is hard to think and listen in such an environment.  I am proud that we somehow continued the conversation.  Listen to the video and judge for yourself whether this was an event that should take place on a college campus.

When the event ended, and it was time to leave the building, I breathed a sigh of relief. We had made it. I was ready for dinner and conversation with faculty and students in a tranquil setting. What transpired instead felt like a Baghdad scene from Homeland rather than an evening at an institution of higher learning.  We confronted an angry mob as we tried to exit the building. Most of the hatred was focused on Dr. Murray, but when I took his right arm both to shield him from attack and to make sure we stayed together so I could reach the car too, that’s when the hatred turned on me.  One thug grabbed me by the hair and another shoved me in a different direction.  I noticed signs with expletives and my name on them. There was also an angry human on crutches, and I remember thinking to myself, “What are you doing? That’s so dangerous!”

For those of you who marched in Washington the day after the inauguration, imagine being in a crowd like that, only being surrounded by hatred rather than love.

I feared for my life.

Once we got into the car, the intimidation escalated.  That story has already been told well.  What I want you to know is how it felt to land safely at Kirk Alumni Center after taking a decoy route. I was so happy to see my students there to greet me. I took off my coat and realized I was hungry. I told a colleague in my department that I felt proud of myself for not having slugged someone. Then Bill Burger charged back into the room (he is my hero) and told Dr. Murray and I to get our coats and leave—NOW.  The protestors knew where the dinner was. We raced back to the car, driving over the curb and sidewalk to escape quickly.

It was then we decided that it was probably best to leave town.

After the adrenaline and a martini (full disclosure; you would have needed a martini too) wore off, I realized that there was something wrong with my neck. My husband took me to the ER, and President Patton, God bless her, showed up there, despite my insistence that it was unnecessary. I have a soft brace that allowed me, after cancelling my Friday class, resting up all day, and taking painkillers, to attend our son’s district jazz festival. He’s a high school senior who plays tenor sax, and I cried when I was realized that these events had not prevented me from hearing him play his last district concert.

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, and on that, Charles Murray and I would agree. This was the saddest day of my life. We have got to do better by those who feel and are marginalized. Our 230-year constitutional democracy depends on it, especially when our current President is blind to the evils he has unleashed. We must all realize the precious inheritance we have as fellow Americans and defend the Constitution against all its enemies, both foreign and domestic.

That is why I do not regret my involvement in the event with Dr. Murray. But as we find a way to move forward, we should also hold fast to the wisdom of James Baldwin, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

Your fellow citizen and Middlebury community member,

Allison Stanger

While only Middlebury students were permitted inside the lecture hall, it appears that some of the protesters outside of the event were not students enrolled at the college. Inside Higher Ed reports that “a small group of six to 12 people who appeared not to be students were involved in the attack on the car and Stanger. These people were dressed in black and wore masks. Earlier some of them tried to enter the lecture hall and were turned away.” Some of the people banging on the car were students, according to the article; the masked unknowns, who looked older, got away.

During the November 2015 protests at the University of Missouri, I wrote about Tim Tai, a student journalist who was trying to document the event, and what happened to him:

In the video, I see the most vivid example yet of activists twisting the concept of “safe space” in a most confounding way. They have one lone student surrounded. They’re forcibly preventing him from exercising a civil right. At various points, they intimidate him. Ultimately, they physically push him. But all the while, they are operating on the premise, or carrying on the pretense, that he is making them unsafe.

It is as if they’ve weaponized the concept of “safe spaces.”

“I support people creating ‘safe spaces’ as a shield by exercising their freedom of association to organize themselves into mutually supporting communities,” Ken White wrote prior to this controversy. “But not everyone imagines ‘safe spaces’ like that. Some use the concept of ‘safe spaces’ as a sword, wielded to annex public spaces and demand that people within those spaces conform to their private norms.”

You can see video here of protesters pushing forward into him, even as they surreally accuse him of pushing them. At Middlebury, some of the students who mobbed Murray and Stanger as they left the event—surrounding their car as some banged on its hood and windows—then portrayed themselves as the party that was physically endangered. They published this statement anonymously in a student publication.

It reads, in part:

In recounting the events of Thursday night, it is essential to emphasize that protesters did not escalate violence and had no plan of violent physical confrontation. We do not know of any students who hurt Professor Stanger; however, we deeply regret that she was injured during the event. We are also deeply disturbed that Public Safety, private security officers and Burger incited and continually used violent and abusive force towards students and community members. Burger, Stanger, and Murray left McCullough around 7:00 p.m., surrounded by security personnel. Community members and students lined the path to their car, chanting and holding signs as the group left the building.

One person blocked the sidewalk, holding a large sign in front of Murray. In the first of a series of disproportional and escalating acts of violence, security personnel immediately and without warning began pushing and pulling protesters out of the way as soon as they were within arm’s reach. Some people were thrown to the ground by security personnel, and one person was struck hard in the chest. 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.

Protesters then surrounded the parked car, with some pushing on the sides of the car. Several people stood behind the car, yet Burger attempted to back out of the parking spot. He managed to back out by inching through a throng of security personnel and protesters. He proceeded to drive through the crowd. At times Burger accelerated forward into protesters. Security personnel pushed, grabbed and dragged students and community members to the asphalt to clear the area around the car. Security personnel inflicted bruises and other physical harm on many people. One observer states that they saw Public Safety Telecom Manager and Tech Support Specialist, Solon Coburn, put his body between outside security personnel and protesters, mitigating security personnel’s unacceptable over-reactions.

A traffic sign with a concrete base was knocked over in the path of the car. Burger was warned to stop by hand gestures and verbal warnings from multiple officers and protesters standing directly in front of the car. Instead, he accelerated into them and the concrete base, wedging a student between the car and the sign post, pushing both for a couple seconds and generating sparks and loud screeching. Burger showed no signs of stopping the car so people attempted to slow the car down to ensure the safety of the pinned student. Fortunately, someone was able to yank the student up from between the car and the sign post before the student was injured or killed. The sign was righted and Burger continued attempting to build up speed, at times running into protesters at around 5 miles per hour, sending people onto the hood of the car.

The crowd began to disperse as Burger turned onto VT Route 30/South Main Street. A person was still on the hood of the car. Consistent with security personnel’s shouts to “go faster,” Burger accelerated to approximately 25 miles per hour, at which point the person, fearing for their safety, rolled off the hood and into the middle of the road across from Meeker House. Burger did not stop, and drove away from the person lying in the road. The actions of Vice President for Communications Bill Burger and Public Safety officers threatened students and community members for Murray’s benefit. We 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.

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… peaceful protest was met with escalating levels of violence by the administration and Public Safety, who continually asserted their support of a dangerous racist over the well-being of students. Burger and Public Safety personnel should be held accountable for these acts through appropriate disciplinary channels.

To review, allowing Murray to stand on a stage and speak about Coming Apart was “an intense act of aggression,” while mobbing a speaker and faculty member, surrounding their car, banging on its windows, and jumping on its hood was “peaceful protest.”

There is a double-standard here.

A very different post-mortem was penned by Ata Anzali, a professor who attended university in Iran during a crackdown on free speech, and immigrated to the United States in large part because he knew that his freedom of speech would be protected.

“As I sat in McCullough Student Center on Thursday, unsuccessfully trying to watch the live stream of Charles Murray’s speech in the middle of student protests, fire alarms going on and off, and the live stream being cut off, I saw the frozen face of a man with whom I deeply and fundamentally disagreed,” he wrote. “As events unfolded, however, I could think less and less about my disagreements with him and more and more about how much the student protestors — who could afford to ignore Middlebury College President Laurie Patton and Professor Allison Stanger’s open and strong invitation for civic engagement and rhetorical resilience — took the tremendous amount of freedom that they had for granted. A freedom that, even after the loss of thousands of precious lives in its pursuit, still looks like an elusive dream in many countries across the globe.”

In an echo of those sentiments, Martin Naunov, a Middlebury student who grew up in Macedonia, told me that he favored protesting Charles Murray’s appearance but vehemently disagreed with hijacking the event and preventing him from speaking.

He emailed me this:

I am saddened and concerned by the intolerance and disrespect for liberal values—especially freedom of speech—that a minority (a sufficiently large minority however) of Middlebury College students displayed yesterday. Growing up in a non-democratic country has instilled in me a deep appreciation of the right to free speech, even of ideas that offend, shock, or disturb me. I have actually talked to other Middlebury students and faculty who are originally from non-democratic countries and we are all kind of blown away by the ideological intolerance that some protestors displayed yesterday—it honestly reminds us of the intolerance we see in our countries of origin.

I want to be clear that I supported the protests. Protesting racial prejudices is noble and admirable. An extension of free speech in its own right. But protest is one thing and hijacking a speech is something else. In a few weeks, Middlebury is hosting another controversial speaker: Edward Snowden. Should some who are convinced that he is a traitor slam chairs or pull the fire alarm throughout the whole event, preventing others from considering or challenging Snowden’s ideas? Today it's Murray they are shouting down with the Heckler's veto but at other, more conservative, campuses it could be a pro-choice or pro-LGBT speaker. It could easily go the opposite way. Middlebury, an institution I am so proud to attend, has admirably committed to both the principle of equality and the principles of free speech and civil, intellectual discourse. The disrupting and vulgar nature of the protests yesterday goes against the traditions and policies of Middlebury College and is the antithesis of what liberal arts education should stand for.

The student went on to observe, correctly, that “a lot of media presented this as an issue between liberals and conservatives, but I think that this is inaccurate and misleading. Although the talk was organized by conservatives,” he wrote––the two student organizers I spoke to actually described themselves as libertarians, and said that the AEI club has leadership that is ideologically mixed––“the vast majority of those who profoundly opposed the disruptive nature of the protests, myself included, identify as liberals. Liberals and conservatives are together in this against a small but arrogant and vocal group that seems to be questioning the very value of free speech and civil discourse.”

In the national media, the fallout from this incident has been bad press for Middlebury, much of it undeserved, insofar as the institution has, so far, done everything that a champion of free speech, academic inquiry, or liberal values could ask when confronted with protesters who feel justified in forcibly stopping an event. I expect this isn’t the last time we will see a livestream used as a backup technique.

Regular readers know that I am a frequent proponent of free speech, the burdens that marginalized students disproportionately face when it is threatened, and the value of debate. For that reason, I want to avoid the course many publications have taken of denouncing the protesters who shut down the Charles Murray event through stigma, without ever addressing their arguments and explaining why I believe they are wrong. It is a minority of undergraduates who support no-platforming speakers. But that minority will grow even bigger if the rationale that they offer for their actions is not aired and addressed in detail. As I explain here, stigma is self-defeating. So I ask defenders of shutting down the Charles Murray event, or those with other perspectives: email your most persuasive arguments to conor@theatlantic.com.

Others will be responding to these events by trying to teach, rather than debate. Among them is Matt Dickinson, a Middlebury professor who published a blog post lamenting the way that last week’s event unfolded.

He wrote:

Two days before Murray’s talk I spent my entire weekly politics luncheon discussing Murray’s research in the Bell Curve, and acquainting students with many of the critiques of his findings.  My presentation was attended by a packed audience of students and local residents, and many of the students went away primed to do battle with Murray.  A few of them, drawing in part on my slide presentation, put together a pamphlet outlining five criticisms of Murray’s argument in the Bell Curve, which they placed on every seat in Wilson Hall.  Unfortunately, due to the actions of protesters, my students never had the opportunity to engage Murray beyond a few questions directed at him via Twitter.  

What’s worse, they now find themselves inaccurately characterized in media outlets as coddled, immature “snowflakes” and “liberal fascists” bent on promoting intolerance and hate. The ability of a vocal minority of students to impose their will on the majority of their peers – and evidently to feel no compunction in doing so – raises some important questions regarding Middlebury College’s central mission and whether and to what degree it is in danger of slipping away.

He added that it is easy to blame those Middlebury students for not fully understanding the importance of the free expression of ideas and the need to tolerate opposing views.

“However,” he wrote, “I wonder whether we, as faculty, should shoulder some – most – of the blame for their ignorance?  Are we teaching students why we hold so strongly to these ideals?  Perhaps if we spent as much time discussing the reason why even speech they view as hurtful should not be suppressed as we do explaining the College honor code, Thursday’s event might not have happened.  If we do not explain to students what underlies the College’s rules regarding speech, how are they expected to understand why their actions last Thursday are viewed by so many, including almost every Middlebury student with whom I have talked, as abhorrent and unacceptable, and why some may face disciplinary action?”

To teaching all this, he concluded, “I am committed to trying.”