Middlebury Maelstrom

Looking back over the long history of controversial campus speakers, what might colleges do differently to avoid uncivil behavior and disruptions?

March 17, 2017
 
 
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Middlebury College students protest Charles Murray.

Earlier this month, Middlebury College was beset by what could fairly be termed the Academic Perfect Storm. Several hundred students on the Vermont campus shouted down Charles Murray, an author of the controversial The Bell Curve, apparently outraged by the visiting scholar’s claims that African-Americans are intellectually inferior to whites because of their genetic makeup. Murray’s talk was sponsored by a conservative student group affiliated with the American Enterprise Institute and was to be moderated by Middlebury professor Allison Stanger. Not only did the lecture never materialize because of shouting, shoving and other intrusions, but Stanger also was injured in the process.

Much has already been written, tweeted and posted about this event. The college has launched several levels of inquiry, while apologizing to the community, alumni and others. The administration has vowed “accountability” for students and others who engage in violence and thus thwarted the event.

Among the major players in this turbulent drama, Middlebury’s president, Laurie Patton, merits special deference. A New York Times editorial lauded her firm and visible commitment to free expression: “She did this admirably in defending Mr. Murray’s invitation and delivering a public apology to him that Middlebury’s thoughtless agitators should have delivered themselves.” Further background enhanced this encomium. Despite growing easiness about the imminent Murray lecture, Patton consistently reaffirmed her commitment to host the event. And just days before the gathering, she forcefully reminded Middlebury students of the college’s historic commitment to free expression, even for hateful views and words.

She also agreed to chair the event in person and courageously remained on stage throughout the turmoil. Beyond offering cordial hospitality, Patton had recently issued a two-page set of policies governing potentially contentious events, offering a model scenario that contains a firm warning that “disruption may also result in arrest and criminal charges.” One of the student organizers praised Patton’s grace and courage as “the one positive thing of the night.”

Otherwise, however, the evening seems to have been a disaster. Although only students were officially invited to attend, many observers noted the catalytic presence of a dozen or so nonstudents wearing black clothing and face masks that mirrored those of the disruptive contingent at a protest at the University of California, Berkeley, several weeks earlier. Given the predictably contentious character of Murray’s widely published writings, tighter security would surely have been appropriate. A plan to extricate the speaker in the event of turmoil was invoked at the 11th hour but foundered immediately when protesters invaded the seemingly secure site; more advance planning and escape routes would have seemed an obvious imperative. In that and several other dimensions, Middlebury’s logistical preparations seemed woefully inadequate.

Among the media accounts of these events, one offers a probing rhetorical question: “What Could Middlebury Have Done to Avoid a Free-Speech Fracas?” Looking back over the long history of controversial campus speakers, at least two alternative options merit some consideration.

A few colleges and universities have reluctantly concluded that a scheduled event posed so grave a threat that cancellation offered the only tenable alternative, with hopes that rescheduling would help. Thus, for example, when former University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill initially posted his essay about “little Eichmanns” while planning several speeches, several colleges felt safety and survival demanded what would otherwise have seemed a cowardly act. On a quite different occasion, the then chancellor of the University of Nebraska at Lincoln was privy to carefully sorted, screened and verified electronic warnings of potential chaos attending a speech by (surprisingly) Bill Ayres, a University of Illinois at Chicago professor who had once been a leader of the Weather Underground, a radical left-wing organization. While cancellation is hardly a welcome choice, it is option that should not always be categorically rejected.

A vivid personal experience suggests another approach. In the spring of 1983, protestors at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where I served as president of the system, shouted down in its opening minutes a long-scheduled speech by former Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver, who by then had traveled a far different political pathway. Then Chancellor Irving Shain and I agreed that if Cleaver was willing to return to Madison in the near future, we would ensure adequate security during his appearance, even if that required a secure sound booth. The cost of such an arrangement, we realized, would not be trivial.

We were delighted when Cleaver agreed to make a return visit under those different conditions. We specifically affirmed for the media that, “in keeping with the University of Wisconsin’s longstanding commitment to free speech, if Cleaver wanted to come back to finish his speech, he could do so.” Regrettably, the turnout for the rescheduled speech was sparse for various reasons, including the academic calendar. But we concluded that our investment was well worth making, despite the cost, in the interest of free expression.

Campuses will continue to invite controversial speakers and face turmoil over it. What other advice is worth considering in order to keep such turmoil to a minimum? First, careful advance planning with regard to sponsorship and other arrangements seems vital. It may well be worth requiring the sponsors -- whether students, faculty or, ideally, both -- to make firm commitments in writing about the specific steps they propose to take to maximize the success of the event, essentially in lieu of a bond or insurance, though without a financial component.

Second, the Middlebury experience seems to warrant far greater security planning than was evident at the rural Vermont campus. That mandate would, for example, include a clearer location of responsibility within the administration and sufficient engagement of the college’s general counsel, the campus or local chief of police, and other senior officials with expertise in scheduling major events.

Third, formal faculty involvement at Middlebury seems to have been limited if not absent. The location of such responsibility should target a Faculty Senate or other governance body, with a smaller executive committee capable of being convened almost momentarily in event of a crisis. An abundance of relevant materials exists for this purpose, and it may well be that Middlebury’s faculty leadership has in fact consulted them in the past.

Finally, we can hardly overlook the responsibility of the student body. There is much still be to learned about how and why the dozen black-clad and masked intruders were able to enter -- as well as why so few of the rank-and-file Middlebury students resisted or were even indifferent as essentially an angry mob turned their backs on the speaker and continue to shout and jeer. A strong elected student government seems indispensable to such a liberal arts college, visible both to the general and social media as well as within the broader community of which the institution is a major component. Middlebury seems to offer a promising academic venue within which to establish a sounder approach as the next crisis looms.

Bio

Robert M. O’Neil is the former president of the University of Virginia and of the University of Wisconsin System, former director of the Ford Foundation’s Difficult Dialogues Initiative, and founder of the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression. He is currently a senior fellow at the Association of Governing Boards of Colleges and Universities.

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