Protesters Disrupt Speakers at Elite Colleges

Published May 8, 2017

Rioters Injure Speaker  

Protesters prevented libertarian writer Charles Murray from speaking at Middlebury in March. The student chapter of the American Enterprise Institute had invited Murray to discuss his 2013 book, Coming Apart, with a left-of-center Middlebury professor, Allison Stanger.

Murray is considered controversial because of his 1994 book The Bell Curve, which he authored with Richard Herrnstein. A lengthy discussion of intelligence and its impact, the book included evidence American whites, Asians, and blacks differ in average measured intelligence. This led the students to call Murray a white supremacist, among other names.

An earlier book by Murray, Losing Ground, helped spur welfare reform during the Clinton administration, by showing the system harmed the poor.

At Middlebury, protesters confronted Murray with signs and chanting. After about 20 minutes, Murray and Stanger were escorted offstage and taken to a studio in a building where their conversation could be livestreamed. Protesters banged on the building’s walls and set off a fire alarm.

After their talk, Murray and Stanger were led to a car, where they were confronted by about 20 people—some masked students, some possibly outsiders—who tried to prevent them from getting in. Stanger was injured to the point where she had to be treated at a hospital.

Professors Protest Free Speech

A week after the Middlebury affair, Laura Kipnis, a professor at Northwestern University’s School of Communication, spoke at “Censorship Awareness Week,” sponsored by Wellesley’s Freedom Project, an on-campus organization fostering intellectual debate. After Kipnis’ appearance, six professors publicly stated she should not have been invited because of her controversial views.

Kipnis is an outspoken feminist who gained notoriety because of an article in Chronicle Review in 2015 titled, “Sexual Paranoia Strikes Academe.” In it, Kipnis ridiculed Northwestern’s new rules on sexual activity on campus, including a ban on romance and dating between professors and undergraduates.

That article mentioned a specific case of a professor accused of “unwelcome and inappropriate sexual advances” by a student. Kipnis did not name the parties, but two Northwestern students demanded an investigation of Kipnis for sexual harassment, based on the article. Kipnis was cleared of the charge

Avoiding Arguments—by Force

In their March 20 e-mail, the six Wellesley professors wrote speakers such as Kipnis “impose on the liberty of students, staff, and faculty.”

“We are especially concerned with the impact of speakers’ presentations on Wellesley students, who often feel the injury most acutely and invest time and energy in rebutting the speakers’ arguments,” the professors said. “Students object in order to affirm their humanity.”

Support for Kipnis came from many quarters, including the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a national group that supports free speech. Alex Morey and Samantha Harris,  staff members at FIRE, wrote the e-mail is “remarkable in its contempt for free and open dialogue on campus.”

‘An Illiberal Tendency’

Marilynn Willey, a 2014 Wellesley graduate who now serves as alumnae liaison for the Freedom Project, an organization that advocates for free-speech rights on campus, says these protests contradict the principles the protesters profess.

“Claiming the authority to silence others, no matter how just or moral your cause may be, is an illiberal tendency that fundamentally undermines progressive ideals and the ability to change others’ minds or cooperate in the real world,” Willey said.

‘Managed by Cowed Bureaucrats’

John W. Sommer, an emeritus professor at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte and a former board member of the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal, says most colleges are not run by people who value truth.

“The sad truth is that most institutions of higher education are managed by cowed bureaucrats, rather than led by thinkers who possess the knowledge and the nerve to defend freedom of speech with words and actions,” Sommer said. “If the protesters are not reprimanded appropriately by these institutions, it is high time for trustees, regents, and boards of governors to find leadership that will restore a climate of open discussion and the prestige that goes with it.”

In an effort to encourage reconciliation, a conservative professor at Princeton University, Robert P. George, and a socialist professor at Harvard University, Cornel West, issued a joint statement late in March emphasizing the value of free speech. The professors urged those on campus to “seek respectfully to engage with people who challenge our views. And we should oppose efforts to silence those with whom we disagree—especially on college and university campuses.”

Jane S. Shaw ([email protected]) is School Reform News’ higher education editor.